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How Israel's genocidal war against Palestinians is a colonial tradition

Palestinian resistance must always be situated within the history of anti-colonial struggle just as Israel’s genocidal war should be recognised as a continuation of this colonial lineage
An Israeli flag planted by Israeli forces flies among debris in northern Gaza following Israeli bombardment on 12 December 2023 (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)
An Israeli flag planted by Israeli forces flies among debris in northern Gaza following Israeli bombardment on 12 December 2023 (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)

The horror that Israel and its western sponsors have felt since the 7 October Hamas retaliatory operation stems from their racist contempt for the indigenous Palestinians, which led them to believe that Israel could never be successfully attacked militarily.

But this sense of western humiliation that a colonised, “racially inferior” non-European people can resist and defeat their colonisers is not unprecedented in the annals of colonial history.

In the late 19th century, the British suffered a most illustrious colonial defeat at the hands of the Zulu kingdom’s army. During the January 1879 Battle of Isandlwana in southern Africa, the 20,000-strong lightly-armed Zulu army humiliated the British colonial forces, despite their superior weaponry, killing 1,300 (700 of whom were African) out of a total of 1,800 invading soldiers and 400 civilians. The battle left between 1,000 and 3,000 Zulu forces dead.  

Colonial vengeance

The staggering defeat left British pride in tatters and triggered fear in the Benjamin Disraeli government that the Zulu victory would encourage indigenous resistance across the Empire. In July 1879, the British set out to re-invade Zulu land with a much larger force, defeating the Zulus this time. They exacted revenge by sacking their capital, Ulundi, razing it to the ground, and capturing and exiling the Zulu king. In total, 2,500 British troops (including their African recruits) and 10,000 Zulus were killed.

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In southern Africa still, Cecil Rhodes, a British mining magnate, established the British South Africa Company in 1889. The company proceeded from South Africa north to conquer more land and introduce English colonists. In 1890, 180 colonists and 200 company police set out to Mashonaland (in today’s Zimbabwe) from Bechuanaland (in today’s Botswana). That year, Rhodes became the prime minister of the Cape Colony.

The encroachment of the company faced stiff local resistance from the Shona and Ndebele people in 1893 and 1896. In 1893, the savagery of the white colonists was such that they called the massacre of the Ndebele people a “partridge shoot”. During the revolt of 1896, the Shona and Ndebele killed 370 white colonists, which spurred the British to dispatch 800 soldiers to the new settler colony to put down the anti-colonial uprising, dubbed Chimurenga (meaning “liberation” in Shona). In all, 600 whites were killed out of a colonial population of 4,000.

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The white response was even more savage than the 1893 killings. One white colonist “shot herdboys and collected their ears, another cut patches of skin from his victims to make tobacco patches.” The colonists killed Africans indiscriminately, destroyed crops, and dynamited homes. The massacres and the destruction caused widespread famines, while the leaders of the revolt were killed and those who survived were hunted down, tried, and hanged.

Similarly, in 1896, the Italians, who had set up a settler-colony in Eritrea, decided, with British encouragement, to invade Ethiopia to acquire more land, only to be humiliated and defeated by the French-armed Ethiopian army of Emperor Menelik II. Thousands of Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Italian soldiers were killed at the Battle of Adwa.

These colonial precedents are fundamental in considering the vengefulness of western powers when they are humiliated militarily by lesser peoples resisting their conquests

The defeat of a European army by an African army left Italy humiliated before its European peers and seeking revenge, which had to await the arrival of fascist rule. It was Mussolini who avenged the defeat at Adwa when he invaded Ethiopia in 1935. This time, the Italians killed 70,000 Ethiopians and transformed Ethiopia into a settler-colony.

To the north still, the army of Sudanese leader Muhammad Ahmad bin Abdullah, known as al-Mahdi, conquered Khartoum from the British colonisers and defeated their forces in January 1885. Al-Mahdi died in August 1885 of typhus.

In light of their concern over the Italian defeat at Adwa, the British reconquered Sudan in 1896 and took Khartoum in 1898 after killing 12,000 Sudanese with artillery and machine guns, wounding and capturing over 15,000. The British lost 700 people, including Egyptian and Sudanese soldiers who were part of the British forces.

Even in death, native leaders would be subjected to the European colonial practice of decapitation. British conqueror Lord Kitchener ordered the exhumation of al-Mahdi’s body, decapitated it, threw the body in the Nile, and thought of using the skull as an ink pot were it not for instructions that came from Queen Victoria upon hearing of the abomination.

Israeli vengeance

These colonial precedents are fundamental in considering the vengefulness of white western powers when they are humiliated militarily by "lesser peoples" resisting their colonial conquests.

In 1954, after the French suffered a catastrophic defeat at Dien Bien Phu in northern Vietnam, the Americans immediately took up the mantle of the war, killing millions in the next two decades across southeast Asia.

After its 7 October humiliation at the hands of Hamas-led fighters, who continue to score major military victories against invading forces in Gaza, Israel’s vengeance proceeded by waging an all-out genocidal war against Palestinians. This ongoing assault is logistically and financially supported by the European white supremacist countries and the white supremacist US, who are also giving it political and moral cover.

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The European and US press have played an active role in promoting justifications for the Israeli genocide of the Palestinian people through the promotion of racist stories of barbaric and primitive Palestinian violence, a good number of which have already been debunked and retracted. Yet these racist fabrications continue to be parroted by western political leaders as true.  

This western consensus on the necessity of carrying out a genocide against the Palestinian people was accurately summarised by Israel’s President Isaac Herzog who declared that Israel’s Jewish supremacist genocidal war “is not only between Israel and Hamas. It’s a war that is intended, really, truly, to save western civilisation, to save the values of western civilisation.”

He added, in homage to Ronald Reagan’s use of Christian morality in his campaign to bring down the USSR, that Israel’s enemy is nothing less than “an empire of evil”. To explain why such a wide European and US white consensus exists in support of the “annihilation” of Gaza and its people, Herzog argued that “if it weren’t for us, Europe would be next, and the United States follows.”

Such a defence is characteristic of white supremacist European colonial-settlers. In 1965, two months before Rhodesia’s white settlers declared independence, Brigadier Andrew Skeen, Rhodesia’s last high commissioner in London, defended white supremacy and settler-colonialism in Rhodesia by asserting that “an Eastern invasion of the West can be halted and turned back,” and as the fate of Rhodesia “hung in the balance,” this “led up to the moment when Rhodesia assumed the role of champion of western civilisation.”

Not unlike white Christian colonial-settlers who have often invoked racial superiority and the defence of western civilisation to justify their genocidal crimes, Israel also invokes Jewish supremacy and western civilisation to justify its genocidal crimes. However, the Israeli government and its Zionist supporters have one more potent justification, not available to white Christian colonial-settlers, namely the invocation of the Holocaust and the history of antisemitism which, Israel claims, endow it with the moral right to oppress and ethnically cleanse the Palestinian people, a defence unique to the Jewish settler colony.

Israel’s always available and rebarbative defence of its genocidal crimes is its claim that because European Jews had been subjected to a genocide by white European Christians, the Israeli government can therefore inflict, in the name of Jews, whatever atrocities it deems necessary on the Palestinian people - even if it means bulldozing and burying alive dozens of civilians.

Anyone who dares to question this noble Israeli genocide of Palestinians in defence of western civilisation, as the International Criminal Court might do were it to investigate Israeli crimes, would be practising “pure antisemitism”, as Benjamin Netanyahu proclaimed with much hubris.

Colonial legacies

Given Israel’s horrific history of atrocities against Palestinians, especially those in the Gaza concentration camp who have borne its most cruel manifestations for almost two decades, many commentators have come up with various analogies to condemn or explain what transpired on 7 October.

In a recent interview with The New Yorker, the Palestinian-American historian Rashid Khalidi, who served as an advisor to the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in Madrid and Washington in the early 1990s on how to negotiate the Kissingerian so-called “peace process”, condemned the Palestinian resistance: “If a Native American liberation movement came and fired an R.P.G. at my apartment building because I’m living on stolen land, would that be justified?” He asserted: “Of course it wouldn’t be justified…You either accept international humanitarian law or you don’t.”

For the last 140 years, the indigenous Palestinians have been the victims of this ongoing legacy of European settler-colonialism

But Khalidi’s analogy, which drew criticism on X, is mistaken. Had the colonised Palestinian citizens of Israel bombed Israeli Jews who now live on their stolen land, the analogy with Native Americans might have some merit. Even then, however, it would harken back to the racist white settlers’ representation of Native Americans in the US “Declaration of Independence” as “the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions,” as scholar and activist Nick Estes of the Native American organisation Red Nation retorted.  

Proposing a different analogy, the American Jewish historian Norman Finkelstein, whose parents were concentration camp survivors, likened the Palestinian resistance to Jewish inmates breaking out of concentration camps and “bursting the gates”. He added that his own mother had supported the indiscriminate bombing of German civilians in Dresden. Many other analogies abound including the Haitian revolution and Nat Turner’s slave rebellion.

Firas al-Qedra, one of several relatives injured during Israeli bombardment that hit the Palestinian family's home, gets treatment at Nasser hospital in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on December 16, 2023
Firas al-Qedra, injured during Israeli bombardment that hit his family's home, gets treatment at Nasser hospital in Khan oYunis in the southern Gaza Strip on 16 December (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Meanwhile, no one has offered any analogies of the massive support the Israeli public is giving to the annihilation of Palestinians in Gaza. According to the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University’s Peace Index polls taken more than a month after the beginning of the massive Israeli bombing of Gaza which by then had killed thousands, “57.5 percent of Israeli Jews said that they believed the IDF was using too little firepower in Gaza, 36.6 percent said the IDF was using an appropriate amount of firepower, while just 1.8 percent said they believed the IDF was using too much firepower.”

However, rather than deploy real or fictional analogies, Palestinian resistance to Israeli settler colonialism must always be situated within the history of anti-colonial struggle that preceded it. The West’s recent racist rage and Israel’s genocidal war against the captive Palestinian people is a continuation of this colonial lineage.

Ethiopians, Zulus, Sudanese, and Zimbabweans are some of the people who lost tens of thousands to white supremacy and settler-colonialism. Indigenous Algerians, Tunisians, Mozambicans, Angolans, and South Africans, let alone the Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians, have also lost millions in their respective struggles between 1954 and 1994.

For the last 140 years, and more dramatically in the last 75, the indigenous Palestinians have similarly been the victims of this ongoing legacy of European settler-colonialism that is premised on Jewish supremacy and the defence of “western civilisation”.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Joseph Massad is professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, New York. He is the author of many books and academic and journalistic articles. His books include Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan; Desiring Arabs; The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, and most recently Islam in Liberalism. His books and articles have been translated into a dozen languages.
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