Palestine, Settler Colonialism, and the National Question: Part II – Historical Backgrounds

Opinion by Colin Mangan

Editor’s note: This is the second installment of “Palestine, Settler Colonialism, and the National Question,” an opinion series by Colin Mangan.

In light of our previous exploration of settler colonialism as both the root cause and framework for analysis of the Palestine-Israel conflict, we must now examine the historical development of the settler colonial enterprise in Palestine in order to illustrate how the continued existence of the Israeli settler colonial project makes Palestinian self-determination historically, politically, and empirically impossible.

As Ilan Pappé notes, “the tale of Palestine from the beginning until today is a simple story of colonialism and dispossession, yet the world treats it as a multifaceted and complex story—hard to understand and even harder to solve” (Chomsky and Pappé 2015). Admittedly, the political history of the conflict is complicated (at least subjectively), owing largely to the maladies of uneven development and the historic role of great powers in shaping the political terrain of the region. But the principle contradiction between the colonizing class and the colonized people remains the same. The degree of imbalance of power is such that the term ‘conflict’ cannot adequately describe the course of events. But for the sake of familiarity, we will use the term ‘conflict’ hence forward.

The impetus of the conflict lay in the development of 19th-century bourgeois nationalism. As previously discussed, modern nationalism “reflects the will of the bourgeoisie to create the national bases for production” and develops according to the material conditions facing a given nation. According to Belgian-Jewish writer Abram Leon (1946), Zionism, in this vein, “appeared as a reaction of [a subsection of] the Jew­ish petty bourgeoisie…hard hit by the mounting anti-Semitic wave” amidst the destruction of feudalism in Eastern Europe and capitalist decay in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. From the outset, Zionism was conceived as an exclusionary ideology with the goal of colonizing historic Palestine and establishing ethno-national sovereignty over the territory (Pappé 2017; Khalidi 2020). Zionist leaders were very much conscious of the colonial nature of the project, as well as the native Arabs’ ambivalence to it, exemplified by Theodor Herzl’s respective correspondences with the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes and the then-Mayor of Jerusalem Yousef al-Khalidi. Herzl had already entertained the idea of expelling the native population as early as four years before his letter to al-Khalidi. As Benny Morris notes, particularly after 1936, all mainstream Zionist leaders supported expulsion as a means of achieving a demographic majority (Morris 1999).

At the time, the region of historic Palestine was a subject of the Ottoman Empire. The majority of the population was employed in the agricultural sector with foreign landlords owning vast swaths of land, and commercial activity was concentrated in the cities. Although imperfect, historic Palestine under Ottoman rule was a generally pluralistic society, with Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike living side by side. As historic Palestine at this time was a late feudal society, modern nationalism, although not totally absent, had not yet fully developed. At the time, socio-political identification was largely defined “in terms of family, religious affiliation, and city or village of origin” with localized feelings of patriotism and the use of the denonym ‘Palestinian’ appearing as early as 1898 (Khalidi 2020; Foster 2016). 

The development of modern Palestinian nationalism was primarily caused by the regional development of capitalism, the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, and the subsequent demarcation of modern nation-state borders by European powers, a process accelerated by Zionist colonization. That being said “it is a serious mistake to suggest that Palestinian identity emerged mainly as a response to Zionism” (Khalidi 1997). The emergence of this nationalism corresponded to definite popular demands for state sovereignty, i.e. national self-determination as opposed to being subjects to British imperialism or settler colonialism (Finkelstein 2005). It must be said that although Palestinian nationalism arguably developed somewhat later than Zionism, the comparative development of this national consciousness does not change the principle class antagonism at play here, nor should it be used to delegitimize Palestinian identity and corresponding demands for self-determination.

The problem facing the Zionist movement was that it possessed neither the demographic majority nor the resources to establish control over Palestine. However, the movement would soon find its then most valuable benefactor in the form of the British Empire. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the League of Nations put historic Palestine under the control of Great Britain, who subsequently worked to further the interests of the Zionist movement by establishing exclusive, political, and national privelages to them in seven of the Mandate’s twenty-eight articles. Under Article 4 of the British Mandate for Palestine, the Jewish Agency for Palestine was given “quasi-governmental status…with wide-ranging powers in economic and social spheres” (Khalidi 2017). Coupled with British training of Zionist military brigades, the Zionist movement was able to lay the foundations for a centralized state apparatus.

The development of Palestinian political structures faced several undo challenges, the first of which was the material development of the region itself. As stated in our previous article, the political and economic bifurcation of the land among ethno-national lines institutionalized the contradiction of uneven development. Politically, power remained concentrated within the hands of a few noble families, such as the al-Khalidi and al-Husayni clans. Moreover, “the Palestinians had not developed effective Arab allies or the apparatus of a modern state,” thus leaving Palestinians internationally isolated (Khalidi 2020). The establishment of the Arab Higher Committee (AHC) in 1936 was the first major attempt on part of the ruling political families to establish a centralized political apparatus.

With the post-World War II global realignment, the British sought to wash their hands of the matter in Palestine, and the task of solving the national question in Palestine was given to the United Nations. It’s important to remember that the end of the British Mandate did not negate Israel’s importance as a vital asset to Western imperialism, but rather affirmed it, as evidenced by the role of Western powers in supporting Israel’s conquests in 1956 and 1967.

 The Ad Hoc Committee on the Palestine Question was assembled and two camps emerged. The minority camp, backed by the AHC called for an international court to address the Palestine question, namely whether or not it was legitimate to impose partition on a population which was decidedly against such proposals which would legitimize their colonization. Furthermore, this committee endorsed a proposal to establish one federal state in historic Palestine, with equal rights for all, including the European Zionist settlers presently living in the region. Both the U.N. and the Zionist leadership dismissed the subcommitte’s recommendations, and instead backed the subcommittee recommending partition, which enjoyed an electoral majority within the U.N. General Assembly. 

By 1947, settlers constituted only 33% of the population of historic Palestine, and lacked any sort of demographic majority in any territory of Mandatory Palestine, save for what is today Northern Tel-Aviv. The disparity between settler colonial aspirations and the demographic realities of Palestine at that time are best illustrated by a September 1947 U.N. report; in the territories set aside for a Jewish state (comprised of 55% of historic Palestine), Palestinian Arabs would have comprised of 45% of the population, or even a narrow majority since the report excluded the Arab Bedouins living in the borders of the proposed state (Finkelstein 2005). 

The U.N. proposal for partition was never actually implemented on the ground. As Benny Morris suggests, political upheaval in reaction to the partition vote and its consequences (i.e. civil war, the Nakba) was something of an inevitability. After all, the Palestinian leadership hadn’t even been consulted when the U.N. was drawing the prospective borders for the partitioning of the region. As far as Zionist support for partition went, the private writings of David Ben-Gurion make it clear that the Zionist leadership had every intention of territorial conquest in the whole of historic Palestine, with the accompying expulsion of large parts of the Arab population (Ben-Gurion 2013). 

Thus began the Catastrophe, or ‘Nakba’ as it is called by Palestinians. In the immediate aftermath of the partition vote, civil war erupted within the mandate between Zionist paramilitary forces and Palestinian irregulars. With the expiration of the Mandate, the war evolved into one between the State of Israel and the Arab League, which had effectively taken the mantle of political leadership on behalf of the Palestinians. 

During this period, 750,000 Palestinians (about 80% of the Palestinian population living in what became the borders of Israel) were forcefully expelled from their homes, and about 400 villages were depopulated and raized to the ground. This was not simply a consequence of the war, but was rather a highly coordinated campaign carried out with the expressed purpose of laying the groundwork for a demographic majority of settlers in historic Palestine. These plans are perhaps most damningly exemplified in paragraph four of Plan Dalet, a set of guidelines issued by the Haganah leadership in March 1948, which called for “[the] destruction of villages…especially those population centers which are difficult to control continuously…in the event of resistance, the armed force must be destroyed and the population must be expelled outside the borders of the state” (qtd. Pappé 2017). The Nakba was thus the midwife to Israel’s birth; without it, the Jewish state could not have been established. Even today, Israel’s reliance on population expulsion for territorial maximization continues, with Israel currently preparing to demolish the village of Masafer Yatta as of the writing of this article, with as many as 2,400 Palestinians facing imminent displacement (al-Jazeera 2022).

In the years following the 1948 war, Israel passed laws such as the Law of Return and Absentee Property Law in 1950, which prevent Palestinian refugees from returning to their homes and reclaiming the property that was taken from them. Today there are about 7.2 Palestinian refugees, 4.3 million of whom receive humanitarian assistance from the United Nations (al-Awda 2003). 

The occupation of Palestine in its current form began in 1967 when Israel invaded the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights under the knowingly false pretense of an imminent Egyptian invasion. Of course, the actual purpose of the war was territorial maximization, as multiple high-ranking Israeli military and political figures would admit in the years to come. The significance of the 1967 war is not only the solidification of Israeli control over the whole of historic Palestine, but also that Israel’s status as an invaluable imperial protectorate was reaffirmed. 

The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was founded by the Arab League in 1964 in order to establish a viable form of political representation for the Palestinian people. Politically, the PLO was envisioned as an umbrella organization under which Palestinian political parties would operate. The next year, the political party Fatah was founded and has largely retained a monopoly on power within the PLO since then. From its 8th National Congress, the PLO sought “the establishment of ‘a democratic Palestinian state in which all who wish to do so can live in peace with the same rights and obligations’” (DiGeorgio-Lutz 1995). In 1974, both the Arab League and the United Nations recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

From the 1970s to late 1980s, the secular-nationalist PLO remained committed to utilizing armed struggle as means of liberating all of historic Palestine. But particularly in the wake of the First Intifada, divisions started to manifest within the Palestinian political leadership; divisions which Israel worked to exploit. From the 1980s, the Israeli military governorate began funding the Gazan branch of the Brotherhood as a means of factionalizing the Palestinian leadership (Hasan, Sayedahmed 2018). The leadership of the chapter eventually formed a new group, which would emerge as the primary opponents of the Oslo Accords in 1993. Today, this group is known as Hamas.

During this period of Israeli state violence and political factionalization, the PLO changed course, abandoning armed struggle in favor of diplomatic accommodationism. On November 15, 1988, the PLO declared the existence of an independent State of Palestine. A month later, in a pair of back-to-back speeches to the United Nations, Arafat renounced the use of terrorism and acknowledged Israel’s right to exist “in peace and security” (Arafat 1988). Thus, in 1993, the PLO opened a diplomatic backchannel with Israel, marking the beginning of the Washington peace process.

In reality, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was “an instrument of Palestinian surrender, a Palestinian Versailles,” one adopted by an exhausted, but increasingly opportunistic PLO leadership, who felt its support in the Occupied Territories waning (Said 1993; Chomsky 1999). In practice, the Oslo Accords formalized the establishment of a Bantustan program in the West Bank and allowed Israel to “continue the occupation without paying any of the costs” (qtd. Dalloul 2017). Nor did Israel ever intend for the Accords to lead to the creation of a Palestinian state, a sentiment most clearly expressed by former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in his final speech to the Knesset. The inevitable collapse of the peace process was crystallized at Camp David in 2000. The Palestinian leadership consistently sought a solution in line with “the terms of the international consensus, although in practice allowing for major concessions on East Jerusalem and the refugee question” (Finkelstein 2005). Then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak however, unilaterally suspended the talks “allegedly due to the impending Israeli election, which he lost,” with Ariel Sharon becoming Prime Minister of Israel (Finkelstein 2005). To this day, virtually all major Israeli political parties, as well as a plurality of Israeli citizens, remain vehemently opposed to the existence of an independent Palestinian state.

Israel’s failure to abide by the promises for Palestinian self-governance set forth by the Oslo Accords set the breeding ground for the Second Intifada. In the wake of the uprising, Israel stepped up the level of repression in the West Bank, constructing a network of barriers within the pre-1967 borders of the area, ghettoizing and segregating Palestinian communities. Coupled with the continuous expansion of Israeli colonies in the West Bank and Oslo’s formalization of apartheid, Palestinians in the West Bank today are subjected to brutal violence both by Israeli police forces and the settlers those forces protect.

Under the arrangement set forth by the Oslo Accords, Gaza was reaffirmed “as a separate geopolitical entity”, politically detached from the West Bank (Pappé 2017). The violence of the Second Intifada made it clear that an indefinite direct occupation of the territory was untenable, and thus, in 2005, Israel strategically withdrew both its military forces and settlers from the Gaza Strip. In the aftermath of the withdrawal of Israeli settlers from Gaza, Hamas was elected in what was a completely free and fair contest, according to international observers (CRS 2006). But in the immediate aftermath of Hamas’ electoral victory, Israeli and Western powers enacted devastating sanctions against the PNA and engineered a chain of events in which the PNA (controlled by Fatah) and Hamas were set against one another, destroying prospects for cooperation between the two. When Hamas gained control of the Gaza Strip, Israel unilaterally and without provocation imposed a devastating economic blockade by air, land, and sea. Today, roughly two million people, half of them under the age of 18, remain trapped in Gaza unable to leave, without sufficient access to power, water, adequate medical care, or employment, as a result of the Israeli blockade. Since the imposition of the blockade, Israel has conducted periodic massacres (also known as ‘military operations’) against Gaza, usually under manufactured pretext of a security threat from Gaza. In reality, these massacres are “designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population, radically diminish its local economic capacity both to work and to provide for itself, and to force upon it an ever increasing sense of dependency and vulnerability” (United Nations 2009). Such is an apt description for Israel’s successive cullings in Gaza.

Through successive and overlapping modes of dispossession—in the form of ethnic cleansing, population expulsions, apartheid, partition, and colonization—the scale and severity of Israeli violence against the Palestinians have negated any possibility for the coexistence of Palestinian national self-determination alongside the settler colonial project. If what we call rights exist in any meaningful sense, then it is not the right of Israel or any country for that matter, to exist and defend itself against the very population it oppresses. It is the Palestinians who have every right to fight for their freedom by any means necessary. This right to resist—including by armed struggle if necessary—is enshrined in international law, most explicitly under U.N. General Assembly Resolution 37/43 which affirms “the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means” (qtd. Cohen 2017) even if said means appear to be ‘violent’ or even counterintuitive. But the right to resist is not simply a matter of legal abstraction; it is a matter of survival, an assertion of human dignity in the face of the daily humiliation and pain inflicted by occupation. Nor should the supposed violence of resistance ever be used to imply mutual culpability for the suffering Palestinians have been subjected to.For this writer, the difficulty in writing this article was that for every instance of Israeli violence, there is also an even more important story of Palestinian resistance. Israel’s occupation of Palestine is indeed an all-too similar story of settler colonialism, and it’s one that has been complicated by the historic involvement of imperialist powers who have used Israeli occupation and Palestinian resistance to further their own geopolitical interests. Israel remains an invaluable protectorate for capitalist imperial powers (most visibly the United States). Hence, the fate of Palestine is invariably tied to the fate of capitalist imperialism. But in terms of what kind of political settlement is necessary for the national and political emancipation of Palestinians, it is clear upon examining the occupation of Palestine in its historical totality that, so long as the Israeli settler-colonial project continues to exist, Palestinians will never be free. Thus, if we truly understand this conflict as one of settler colonialism, decolonization—through the establishment of one indivisible, secular, and democratic state with a full right of return for Palestinian refugees—must become the framework for resolving it, until all of Palestine is free.

Colin Mangan is a rising senior 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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