Israeli settlers and soldiers Israeli settlers and soldiers. Photo: ISM Palestine / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

In the latest in our Nakba75: the roots of Israeli apartheid series, Thomas Gibbs explains the description of Israel as a ‘settler colonial state’

Since its inception, Israel has used its own population as a tool in the colonisation of Palestine. This continues today, with Israelis being transferred to ‘settlements’ on illegally occupied territory and used as justification for the indefinite military presence across the West Bank.

Bit by bit, settlers are displacing indigenous Palestinians, taking their land and creating a growing network of Jewish-only communities and infrastructure. ‘Settler colonialism’ is distinct from colonialism more generally in that it acts to replace (through violent expulsion) the existing population of a region.

During the capitalist era, imperial expansion has co-existed alongside a variety of forms of societal and political domination. For example, the British domination of India saw a relatively small number of colonialists, with the full support of the British army, maintain their rule by incorporating a range of local rulers into the British Raj. It was a system built around the concept of ‘divide and rule’, playing different power bases, religions and local cultures off against each other and, in the process, maintaining British rule. It was a system that allowed wealth and resources to be pumped out of the sub-continent, for the benefit of the British Empire.

In South Africa, a different political settlement took place. From the 1800s onwards, the country evolved into what might be termed a ‘plantation settlement’, where indentured and slave labour was used by the settlers who constituted a local ruling elite. But from the late nineteenth century, this developed into a system where black and white labour existed alongside each other, but in a strict caste system that would become codified as ‘apartheid’. By 1910, white labour had won the right to exclusive access to ‘skilled positions’. By 1948, black workers were forced into Bantustans and stripped of civil rights.

In other cases, colonial settlement was built on the violent expulsion of existing indigenous populations. When Britain began exercising sovereignty over Australia, it did so on the understanding that the land was not owned: this was based on the concept of terra nullius. In the public imagination and in the eyes of the law, the continent was empty. As Australia was colonised, the indigenous population was harassed, dispossessed, murdered and chased from the land. Similarly in Canada, New Zealand and the US, the colonial settlement of the land meant the violent eradication of the indigenous peoples.

Colonial-settler societies carry with them a logic of elimination. The purpose of colonial settlement is to displace the indigenous society, to build ‘something new’ and to eliminate, through eradication, ethnic cleansing, or assimilation, the indigenous population. This logic of elimination shapes Israeli policy towards the Palestinians and the Zionist dreams of a Greater Israel.

‘A land without a people’

Similar to the British claim that Australia was terra nullius is the Zionist tagline that Palestine was ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’, a claim suggesting that the land (present-day Israel) owes its bountifulness to the new settlers. But prior to the creation of the state of Israel, Palestine was a fertile and bountiful country of oranges, olives and all manner of agricultural products. In Haifa, Akka and Yaffa it had vibrant ports and developing industry.

As Yasser Arafat said in his speech to the United Nations in 1974: ‘It pains our people greatly to witness the propagation of the myth that its homeland was a desert until it was made to bloom by the toil of foreign settlers, that it was a land without a people.’ And yet these supposedly non-existent people had to be forcibly removed in an act that David Ben-Gurion identified as ‘compulsory transfer’, and which Palestinians came to know as the Nakba (disaster).

The Nakba saw the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, forced from their homes and their land. Well-armed and well-trained Jewish forces injured, murdered, raped, and terrorised Palestinian communities, leading to 750,000 fleeing to become refugees. Seventy-five years later they, their children and their grandchildren remain excluded from their homes, land and territory, banned even from entry into ‘Israel’.

Conquest of labour

Whereas many forms of imperial domination extract the value of labour from exploited indigenous populations, the settler-colonial model prioritises the labour force of the settlers. Long before the establishment of the Israeli state, Jewish industries in Palestine did not employ non-Jewish labour. Palestinian revolutionary socialist, Tony Cliff was born into a Zionist family in Palestine. In 1982, he described some of his experience of the Zionist movement in Palestine:

‘When the Zionists came to Palestine, they continued to emphasise their separateness. Zionists took over Arab land, often evicting the occupiers. And the Zionists systematically discriminated against the thousands of Arab unemployed. … The Zionists organised their own trade union, the Histadrut, which raised two political funds. One was called “the defence of Hebrew Labour”, the other “the defence of Hebrew products”. These funds were used to organise pickets to prevent Arabs working in Jewish enterprises and to stop Arab produce coming into Jewish markets’ (Tony Cliff, The Roots of Israel’s Violence, 1982).

Settler colonialism in Palestine is not a past event, but is an ongoing process. Palestinians are still being displaced, their homes still demolished, and their culture still denied. It’s not 75 years since the Nakba, it’s 75 years of the Nakba.

The Nakba75: the Roots of Israeli Apartheid series:
  1. Downward spiral: Settlers and state violence
  2. Palestine and the carve-up of the Middle East
  3. The origins of Zionism and the Balfour Declaration
  4. Palestinian resistance to Mandate rule
  5. What is settler colonialism?
  6. Al-Nakba: The ethnic cleansing of Palestine
  7. Israel: Watchdog for US imperialism
  8. Palestine: the key to freedom in the Middle East rests with the Arab working class
  9. Palestine and international solidarity

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