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Nakba at 75: The job of Israeli settler colonialism is never done

To justify their need to steal Palestinian lands and kill Palestinians who resist their colonial theft, the Zionists have adopted traditional European settler-colonial arguments
Intisar Muhana, 97, who was forced to flee al-Masmiyya village, depopulated during the 'Nakba', sits in front of the rubble of her house, recently destroyed by Israeli air strikes on Gaza, on 14 May 2023 (Reuters)

Settler-colonisation is hard work. Stealing the land of natives requires ceaseless effort and stratagems, not to mention the sadistic pleasure the colonists experience when suppressing indigenous resistance with maximum violence.

Since their inception, the Zionist movement and the state of Israel have committed themselves to this long-term strategy, which they continue to follow with fanatical determination. In that, Israel is hardly exceptional in the annals of white settler-colonies but is rather exemplary.

Coinciding with the Jewish settler-colony's 75th anniversary, Jewish colonists were busy last week establishing their newest colony on stolen Palestinian lands near the Palestinian village of Mukhmas on the outskirts of colonised East Jerusalem. Israeli authorities were meanwhile demolishing a Palestinian primary school as part of the ongoing Israeli theft of Palestinian lands slated for Jewish colonisation.

To stem the tide of persistent Palestinian resistance to Jewish colonisation, the Israeli military launched in recent weeks numerous attacks in the West Bank and Gaza, killing dozens of Palestinians, including women and children.

As is obvious, Jewish colonisation in Palestine is never finished - it is always a work in progress. It started in 1882 with the arrival of the earliest Russian and Ukrainian colonists from Odesa and continues today without respite.

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Settler-colonial claims

The theft of Palestinian lands, however, was not achieved without native opposition. As the Jewish colonists began in 1884 to farm the stolen land of one of their first colonies, which they named Petah Tikva, Palestinian peasant resistance confronted them. This intensified further in 1886 when the colonists expanded their farming to more of the stolen land. The peasants attacked the colony and injured several Jewish colonists, one of whom later died.

Under pressure from European consuls who supported European Christian and Jewish colonisation of Palestinian land, 31 Palestinian peasants were arrested by Ottoman authorities. This did not curb Palestinian resistance, as from 1884 and continuing into the 1890s, Palestinian peasant resistance targeted the Jewish colonies, including Gedera, Rehovot, Nes Ziyyona, and Hadera: "There was scarcely a Jewish colony which did not come into conflict at some time with" the native Palestinian peasants.

The first decade of the 20th century witnessed another increase in Jewish colonisation and Palestinian resistance. In April 1909, peasants who lost more land to the European Jewish colonies near Tiberias attacked the colonists. One of the European Jewish colonists, Chaim Dubner, shot dead Radi Saffuri, a Palestinian Christian peasant from the village of Kafr Kanna.

This photo, dated 15 September 1948, shows a Palestinian woman refugee and her child separated from their home by the "green line" following the Nakba, or catastrophe, in 1948 (AFP)

The Muslim and Christian peasants of Kafr Kanna retaliated, killing two of the colonists. Saffuri was perhaps one of the earliest Palestinian victims of the colonists’ murderous terror. The dozens of Palestinians whom Israel mercilessly killed in the last few days are only the latest.

To justify their need to steal Palestinian lands and murder Palestinians who resist their colonial theft, the Zionists have adopted several traditional European settler-colonial arguments over the last century and a half, which continue to have just as much purchase among the parochial and racist mainstream newspapers of the imperial West, as they did when first deployed.

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Israeli propaganda is, in fact, brandished with as much vigour by US and EU imperial officials as it is among the mostly insular and callous mainstream pundits of Western Europe and the US, whose support for colonial ventures has never waned.

Israel's lack of exceptionalism, let alone the absence of originality in its arguments, is noteworthy. Following in the footsteps of French (and later Italian) colonialism of North Africa - which claimed that the French (and Italians) were "returning" to their own Roman imperial territory and that the Arab natives of North Africa were the actual colonists of these European Roman lands - Jewish colonists also claimed indigeneity in Palestine.

Borrowing the antisemitic Christian fabrication of the Jewish myth of origins, the Zionists cast European Jews as the "descendants" of the ancient Palestinian Hebrews who were merely "returning" to their ancient home. The Palestinian natives, they claimed, were in fact the colonists of this ancient "Jewish" land. The tragic irony, however, is that Zionist leaders, including David Ben Gurion, had insisted in a moment of sobriety that it was the indigenous Palestinians who were the descendants of the ancient Hebrews.

Colonial justifications

European anti-Jewish persecution, heightened by the Russian pogroms after 1881 coupled with the French Dreyfus Affair of the mid-1890s, was mobilised as moral justifications for the Zionist colonisation of Palestine and other regions around the world. The infamous Kishinev massacre of 1903, in which 49 Jews were killed, elicited horror and western condemnations, and precipitated the British offer to the Zionists of the Kenyan Highlands (known as the "Uganda Scheme") for Jewish colonisation.

Zionist colonial arguments are akin to those of European pilgrim settlers who justified their 17th-century conquest of North America with claims that due to religion, they had been "hunted and persecuted on every side" in England. The ruling English Protestants of the period had "executed some separatists for sedition, burned half a dozen anti-Trinitarians for heresy, and hanged between 120 and 130 Catholic priests for treason".

While the Pilgrims did not, in fact, flee persecution, as they had moved to the Dutch Republic where they found religious tolerance, neither did European Jews. By the time the antisemitic British evangelical foreign minister issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917, Dreyfus had been officially exonerated in 1906 and French official antisemitism ended to the delight of the anti-Zionist French Jews (whom the Zionists resented). And by the time the British Mandate was established over Palestine in 1922, the Soviets, who were committed to ending all residues of antisemitism, had defeated the Tsarist forces and put a stop to their rampage and mass killings of Jews during the Civil War.

Nakba graphic

Indeed, the triumph of the Russian Revolution "resolved" the "Jewish problem" in the newly established Soviet Union, as even the crusading anti-Soviet German-American Jewish intellectual Hannah Arendt was forced to concede, to the horror of the Zionists: "The Russian Revolution has dealt a blow to the first [Zionist] contention that the Jewish Question can be solved only in Palestine and that antisemitism is only to be eradicated by the building up of Palestine, in other words by the exodus of Jews from their former homelands."

Invoking persecution to justify European colonisation and dispossession of the natives would also be deployed by the Protestant French and Dutch-cum-Afrikaner colonists of South Africa, for whom the British invented the institution of the concentration camps at the turn of the century, and who believed that the Christian God had promised them South Africa.

In 1930, the head of the Zionist Organisation, Chaim Weizmann, repeated yet another common European colonial-settler fabrication that native Africans wanted to "throw" the European colonists "in the sea". Weizmann insisted that the Palestinian demand that the British grant Palestinians equality and democracy amounted to nothing less than the Palestinian "desire" to "drive us into the Mediterranean".

As the Jewish colonists continued to dispossess the Palestinians and throw them off the land, they claimed that it was the Palestinians who wanted to "throw the Jews in the sea".

Racist terror

The rise of the Nazis in the 1930s reintroduced the forces of state-sponsored antisemitism on a grand scale. The persecution, and later, genocidal terror, the Nazis inflicted on European Jews intensified Zionist arguments justifying the necessity of the colonisation of Palestine as the only destination for Jews fleeing persecution. Western sympathy for the persecuted Jews, and eventually, Holocaust survivors, however, did not manifest in opening the doors of western countries to the survivors during or after World War Two.

Indeed, the same western countries that voted against a UN draft resolution calling for the admission of Jewish refugees in 1947 voted to partition Palestine and create a Jewish settler colony to which the survivors would be dispatched, ridding genocidal Europe of them once and for all.

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But if Holocaust survivors were the ultimate victims of European Christian genocidal cruelty, when they left the shores of Europe, they arrived on the shores of Palestine as armed colonists and marauders, subjecting the indigenous Palestinians to the most extreme forms of Zionist colonial cruelty.

During the 1948 War, the survivors constituted one-third of the Zionist army (numbering 22,000) and one-half of its fighting force. They would partake in the slaughter of 13,000 Palestinians in the cruellest of ways as they advanced through the country, stealing and killing everything in sight. 

In light of this, not only do Israel and its western supporters call on the Palestinians not to resist their Jewish oppressors, but Israel also insists that the Palestinians must show solidarity with their Jewish persecutors, short of which Israel would condemn their resistance to Jewish colonisation and ethnic cleansing as antisemitism.

The Zionist war of conquest, which started on 30 November 1947, and did not end until January 1949, is still portrayed in the West as the struggle of a Jewish David against an Arab Goliath. The fact that the Zionist army outnumbered the neighbouring Arab armies, who intervened to stop the Zionist slaughter and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, and was superlatively better equipped, armed, and trained is immaterial to the racist colonial sympathies white Europeans and Americans show for the Jewish colonists of whom Europe had unburdened itself.

The so-called celebrated "democracy" the Jewish settler-colony established in May 1948 has inflicted racist terror on all Palestinians ever since. It took western and Israeli human rights advocates seven decades before they finally recognised that Israel had been a racist apartheid state since its very establishment, rather than a state that had or could become an apartheid state, as many of its western liberal supporters feign concern.

No exception

Ruled since 1948 by Jewish religious law, or Halacha, in many aspects of its daily life, Israel is portrayed in the imperial West as a "secular" country. Having killed more than 100,000 Palestinians and other Arabs since 1948, it is portrayed as a victim of those whose country, lands, and homes it stole.

That Israeli settler-colonialism turns out not to be exceptional at all does not dissuade Israel's western supporters who insist on its exceptionalism

That Israel introduced terrorism into the Middle East, including car bombs and the blowing up of hotels and open markets since the 1930s, plane hijackings since the 1950s, and is the only country in the region to ever deliberately down a civilian aircraft, as it did a Libyan airliner in 1973, is not germane to these portrayals.

That it invaded its four Arab neighbours multiple times without exception and threatened repeatedly to drop its nuclear bombs on them, also does not deter its propagandists from portraying it in the West as a "peace-loving" victim of Arab and Palestinian violence. Here, Israel is portrayed precisely in the same manner as the US, the major aggressor around the world since World War Two, as a peace-loving nation.

That Zionist and Israeli settler-colonialism turn out not to be exceptional at all, but typical of all other European settler-colonialisms in practices and justifications, does not dissuade Israel's western supporters who insist on its exceptionalism.

Some proponents of Palestinian rights think it remarkable that, despite the debunking since the late 1980s by Israeli Jewish historians of all of Israel's founding myths and propaganda, which Palestinians had, of course, already debunked (but as Palestinians are not white, westerners refused to hear them), imperial Europe and the US have increased their support and celebration of Israeli settler-colonialism as embodying the values that all three share.

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But this is not remarkable at all, as the history of European genocides and cruelty towards Africans and Asians, let alone Native Americans and Oceanians, has never dented the European and white American belief that they represent civilisation and that all their non-white victims are the barbarians. The US and the EU are therefore correct in affirming their "shared values" with a predatory Jewish-supremacist Israel.

Consistent with this European colonial tradition, which no amount of historical facts can unsettle, the unelected German president of the European Commission, Ursula Von de Leyen (in line with the limitless love of her native Germany for Israel and hatred of the Palestinians) congratulated Israel on its 75th birthday for making the Palestinian desert "bloom".

Similarly, the "You-don’t-have-to-be-a-Jew-to-be-Zionist" US President Joe Biden celebrated the destruction of the Palestinian people in the Nakba as resulting in the birth of an Israel "based on freedom, justice and peace", and that he and the US recognise "the resilience of Israel’s democracy" today.

At 75, Israel and its colonists remain hard at work, stealing Palestinian land and killing the Palestinian people. But the history of the destruction of Palestine, of the Nakba, and of the birth of Israel is merely another exemplar of the horrific history of Europe and its white settler-colonies. There are no major exceptions to note here, no extenuating circumstances to justify Israel’s colonial crimes, and none should be allowed.

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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