The clarifying lens of historical colonialism

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Ramallah, Palestine — If you want to understand what is happening in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict these days, I suggest you drop the yardstick of current politics and diplomacy and instead view the situation through a longer historical time frame. I suspect that the most accurate analytical paradigm through which to view the current situation is that of historical colonialism and anti-colonial struggle. Seen in this manner, all dimensions of the current war in Israel and Palestine are much more understandable and even logical, however painful and costly they may be.

I have been travelling regularly to Palestine and Israel in recent years and meeting with journalists, academics, and politically engaged people on both sides, and never before have I witnessed such a large diplomatic gap and such intense emotional tension between the two sides. The continuing warfare and the deterioration in Israeli-Palestinian relations have generated a total lack of mutual trust in the other’s intentions. It seems that people on both sides would prefer to fight rather than to negotiate. This makes the immediate prospects for political agreement very slim, despite the diplomatic re-engagement by Washington and stepped-up activities by Russia, the Europeans, Arab states, Turkey, the United Nations and others.

I sincerely hope that the diplomats will succeed in cementing a cease-fire, returning to the positions of pre-September 28, 2000, implementing the Sharm esh-Sheikh confidence-building measures, and moving back towards negotiations for a comprehensive peace accord. But this seems highly unlikely, because the hopes of many in Arab and Israeli society have now been vastly overwhelmed by the changed new realities on the ground during the past eight and a half months.

My impression, from speaking regularly with both Palestinians and Israelis, is that both sides are behaving very much like antagonists in a classic colonial situation: one party (Israel) occupies the other’s land and uses overwhelming military force to maintain its position and ‘protect’ itself and its occupation gains, while the other side (the Palestinians) turns to anti-colonial armed resistance and rebellion to free itself from its occupied and subjugated state.

The polemical political debates we watch every night on global and local television are rather irrelevant; for in their focus on who’s right and who’s wrong in using violence here and there, today and yesterday, they do not admit the central fact of what is happening in Palestine and Israel. There is no logical, political, or moral justification for the kinds of violence that both sides have perpetrated, including killing children and babies, sowing terror in the hearts of entire communities, bombing civilians, applying cruel and oppressive collective punishments, and other dreadful deeds. There is, though, one context in which these deeds are both logical and inevitable: colonialism and anti-colonialism.

The past eight years (since the Oslo process started) have witnessed a historic transformation of the Arab-Israeli conflict from one that was conventionally contested between sovereign states into a Palestinian struggle for liberation from occupation by Israel. The conflict has been reduced to its essential core of Zionists and Palestinian-Arab nationalists contesting ownership of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean coast. Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the United States, and everyone else seems so far away, so irrelevant to the core battle.

Both sides are behaving according to classical colonial conflicts. Israel uses massive military overkill to pacify an occupied, surrounded, and besieged Palestinian population whose lands it continues to confiscate and settle with colonies. The Palestinians respond by attacking Israeli military and civilian targets, and by refusing to negotiate a cease-fire unless the symbols and realities of Israeli colonial domination come to a speedy and total end.

The intense violence and sheer brutality of the manner in which both sides kill each other signalled to us months ago what this war is all about: one of the modern world’s last colonial occupations and anti-colonial liberation struggles. Like most anti-colonial struggles, this is likely to be a protracted battle. Bill Clinton’s timetable of finding a solution in a few months also seems to far away today. But also like most anti-colonial struggles, this one will have to end with a full withdrawal by the colonial occupying power. The sooner we all adjust to this, the sooner we are likely to find a way to resolve this conflict in a manner that is fair to both sides.

Is the conflict still resolvable peacefully? My impression is that it is. I am convinced that majorities of Palestinians and Israelis do accept to live side-by-side in two separate sovereign states. But achieving a negotiated peace accord will be harder and will take much longer, in view of the new reality we live through these days and months.

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