Palestine, Settler Colonialism, and the National Question: Part I

Opinion by Colin Mangan

On Tuesday, February 1, Amnesty International published a report titled “Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians: Cruel System of Domination and Crime Against Humanity”—officially joining B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia in condemning Israel’s systematic oppression of Palestinians as a criminal act of apartheid (Amnesty 2022). Under the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, apartheid is a crime against humanity.

Superficially, the report appears to be a progressive development in fostering international recognition of the systematic oppression of Palestinians. However, it fails to condemn the Israeli occupation itself. In fact, within hours of the report, Amnesty International released a statement outright refusing to do so. Instead, it emphasized “the Israeli government’s obligations, as the occupying power, under international law” as the framework of their analysis (Amnesty 2022). In other words, Amnesty International has accepted the indefinite occupation of Palestine and the oppression of the Palestinian people. 

On page 38 of the report, Amnesty explicitly rejects applying the concept of the right to self-determination to the question of Palestine, while at the same time “[engaging] with the reality of the existence of the State of Israel” (qtd. Within Our Lifetime 2022), effectively recognizing the ‘right to self-determination’ for Israelis while refusing to extend that same ‘right’ to Palestinians. Although Israel and its supporters have vehemently rejected the report’s findings, Amnesty has legitimized Israel’s occupying project by limiting its inquiry to the strictly legal framework in which apartheid is understood by international law. This has provided a framework in which the inequalities between Israelis and Palestinians may be perpetuated.

Therefore, our analysis must go further; we must analyze the ends that apartheid serves. In the context of settler colonialism, apartheid is merely the rational-legal framework that one ethnic group, or rather the colonizing class, uses as a means of “[institutionalizing a] regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime” (qtd. Shakir 2021). We must remember that national oppression never exists in a vacuum; rather, we plan to show that national oppression is a form of class struggle. In the case of Palestine and Israel, the principal contradiction exists not between the internal class antagonisms in Israeli and Palestinian societies but rather between the colonizing power (Israel) and the colonized subject (Palestine).

This article is intended as the first in a two-part series exploring the ‘right to self-determination’ in the context of Palestine. The purpose of this first article is to explain the fundamental concepts of ‘self-determination,’ nationality, statehood, and settler colonialism. An understanding of these concepts in their material and historical context is the prerequisite for any meaningful discussion on the struggle for national liberation in Palestine. In the next installment of this series, we hope to specifically address what Palestinian self-determination requires politically and how it may be realized.

In the context of historic Palestine, the processes of nation-state building and class formation “was deeply bifurcated along ethnonational lines” (Locker-Biletzki 2018). Of course, this is the distinguishing characteristic of settler colonialism. Whereas colonialism in the classical sense of the term aims at the extraction of surplus value from colonies, settler colonialism’s long-term goal is the direct control of land, which requires the dispossession and disenfranchisement of the colonized population. Consequently, settler colonialism results in “the creation of a sovereign settler nation and the construction of a settler consciousness and narrative” (Locker-Biletzki 2018). In Palestine, this resulted in the systematic proletarianization of the Palestinian peasantry. Thus, our analysis of the ‘right of self-determination’ must be based on the “socio-economic development, by [the] material class interests” at play in the struggle for national self-determination (Luxemburg 1909). This is not simply a matter of abstract theorization. Rather, it is a vital question for praxis: what does self-determination look like in practice?

When one speaks of the right of nations to self-determination, we mustn’t fool ourselves. We shouldn’t speak of ‘rights’ as a metaphysic that descends from Heaven to Earth, nor are we here interested in developing a metanormative ethical basis for national ‘rights.’ What we call ‘rights’ are historically constituted rational-legal abstractions used to further the interests of one class over another. Rather, we are here interested in clarifying what self-determination means (or perhaps more accurately what we should take it to mean) and how Palestinian self-determination can be achieved? Before we may speak to what the supposed right to self-determination is and what self-determination looks like politically, it is necessary for us to define the ontological context of ‘self-determination’ and differentiate between who or what self-determination applies to and how self-determination is expressed politically. For us, this requires a brief exposition of two central concepts: nationality and statehood. 

Fundamentally, a nation is “a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture” (qtd. Nimni 1985). These criteria for what constitutes a nation are not exhaustive or exclusive, nor must a group of people possess all of the aforementioned characteristics to be considered a nation. The question as to how nations are or should be expressed politically has long been a question in Marxian discourse, in the debate known as the ‘national question.’ Conversely, the state is not a group of individuals, nor would it be correct to assume that the state is simply the political expression of a nation. The state may be defined by its two functions: the monopoly on the use of legitimate violence and the administration of a juridico-political structure. 

While ‘nations’ have existed throughout history, nationalism (which is the assumption of and advocacy for the socio-political congruence between the nation and the state) is a product of modernity and corresponds with definite periods of class formation. We cannot here go into the historical development of the modern nation-state as such because no such thing exists. Since the formation of nation-states is a historical process, subject to different material and conditions, the developmental experiences of nation-states follow from those conditions. In the course of modernity, “the nation has formed within the boundaries of the state, and those who lived outside those boundaries did not belong to the nation” (Finkelstein 1987). We must remember that neither nationality nor statehood ever stands above class power. Rather, the emergence of modern nationalism corresponds with a definite period of class formation, and the modern state and its apparatuses always work to maintain the interests of the ruling power base.

Given these premises—our understanding of nationality, statehood, and the intersection between them—we may make several observations. Since we understand the chief characteristics of nationality as the historical unity of a group of people through culture and politico-economic life, it follows that for a nation to ‘determine’ itself in these matters, it must have some degree of socio-political autonomy. This obviously prompts the question of who truly represents a nation. But such a question is outside the scope of our discussion at the moment. Suffice to say that in terms of praxis, we can identify two main principles to which any political solution to a given national question must adhere: allowing for the cultural, socio-economic, and political development of a given nation; and ensuring said nation is free from coercion and chauvinism. It follows from these propositions that the self-determination of nations requires ensuring the full equality of all nationalities in every respect.

That being said, the ‘self-determination’ of nations is absolutely not synonymous with the establishment of statehood along ethnic lines (especially since ‘nations’ are not necessarily based on ethnic heritage). Such proposals which ensure the socio-political domination of one group in a particular territory violate the very principle of self-determination. Furthermore, we must reject the reactionary proposition that any nation-state has a ‘right to exist.’ All nation-states, without exception, come into being through violence, and their political legitimacy is merely a rational-legal abstraction produced through their historically constituted processes. Particularly within the context of settler colonialism, the demand that the colonized group (the Palestinians) recognize the political legitimacy of Israel’s ethnonational regime is nothing more than a bad-faith demand calling for Palestinians to “legitimize their own dispossession” (Hill and Plitnick 2021). Such is the logic of elimination.

The State of Israel has indeed imposed a regime of apartheid and persecution upon the Palestinian population, and this system of apartheid serves to maintain a demographic majority and system of the ethnic supremacy of settlers in the land between the river and the sea (Shakir 2021; B’Tselem 2021). The regime serves to ensure that Palestinians within Israel remain second-class citizens; Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank continue living under indefinite occupation and colonization; Gaza continues suffocating under a primeval siege; and to prevent seven million Palestinian refugees around the world from returning to the homes that were taken from them (Ghanem 2016; Amnesty 2017; B’Tselem 2017; AFSC 2021). Settler colonialism and ethnic nationalism run counter to any possibility for national liberation. Therefore, for Palestinians to be free, settler colonialism, apartheid, and the ethnic nationalism which underlies both must be rejected and dismantled. 

Colin Mangan is a junior sociology and philosophy major, and is currently enrolled in the philosophy 4+1 program, on track to graduate in Spring 2023 with a BA and an MA. He is currently the host of Straight Talk on WHRW Binghamton, on Thursdays at 5:30. His wide array of interests include the study of capitalism as a world-ecology, and he is also a passionate student of Marxist, Leninist, and anti-imperialist theory. After his master’s degree, Colin aspires to pursue a PhD in sociology, focused around historical capitalism and the world-ecology conversation. Colin also has a dual Irish citizenship.


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