Israel is a settler colony, annexing native land is what it does

A Palestinian man stands in front of Israeli forces during a protest against Israeli settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank (Raneen Sawafta - Reuters)

Mark Muhannad Ayyash

Al-Jazeera  /  July 7, 2020

Since its early days of colonising Palestine, the Zionist movement has always aimed to establish a Greater Israel.

The international rejection of Israel’s plan to formally annex even more Palestinian land is based on two arguments: the annexation is a violation of international law and it defeats the prospects of a two-state solution.

The world view of this international consensus underscores as problematic the lack of a reciprocal dialogue between the sides, their inability to compromise and the unilateral actions that inhibit peace efforts. At the same time, it foregrounds conventional peace-building processes that emphasise mutual recognition as well as economic and security cooperation.

There is basically a belief in the international community that universal international laws and norms can facilitate a just outcome to the conflict with two independent states living side by side.

This world view is operating in a diplomatic space that has lost all connection to the realities that ordinary Palestinians face. The Palestinian losses are much more serious than is conventionally suggested in the “save the two-state solution before it is too late” type of thinking.

It is already a very late hour for the prospects of Palestinian freedom and sovereignty. A different lens must, therefore, be adopted, which first and foremost underscores the logic that underlies the Israeli state – settler-colonialism.

A settler colony 

Academics have debated for decades whether Israel constitutes a settler colony, and following the arguments of leading scholars such as Joseph Massad, Rashid Khalidi, Noura Erakat, Ilan Pappe, Hamid Dabashi and Robert Wolfe (among others), the answer is convincing: Israel is the product of a national settler-colonial project.

So, what makes a settler colony a settler colony? The answer to this question cannot be reduced to specific characteristics but must instead be sought in a general principle. Simply put: all settler colonies constitute a continuous process of land annexation, whereby native inhabitants are removed and settlers from elsewhere are brought to occupy the land.

To be sure, all modern nation-states have annexed land in certain respects, but the settler-colonial state’s distinguishing feature is that it does not come into being and cannot continue to exist without claiming sovereignty over land that is forcefully taken from its native inhabitants. In short, the settler colony can only claim its sovereignty through the eradication and erasure of native sovereignty.

The methods of annexation certainly vary, but this variety should not detract us from naming and highlighting their underlying logic: the expulsion of native people from their lands. This is the core problem of the Palestinian-Israeli struggle. And nowhere is this logic more visible than in the expansion of settlements on occupied Palestinian lands.

Settlements and the Israeli state 

Not all, but the majority of arguments that emphasise international law and the peace process are based on the dubious assumption that Israel is interested in seeing a Palestinian state established along the 1967 borders. But Israeli policies have clearly shown that is not their goal or aspiration.

The list is long but among those policies are the long-held policy of annexing East Jerusalem; the building of the apartheid wall; the siege on Gaza, separating Palestinian land into non-contiguous units; the constant imprisonment of Palestinians under the charge of being political; the occupation and the checkpoints that make life impossible for ordinary Palestinians, hence encouraging their emigration; the de-development of the Palestinian economy; the policy of home demolitions; the discriminatory policies against Palestinian citizens of Israel that deny them the ability to purchase and lease land; and the non-ending stream of Israeli government permits to build more settlements and expand existing ones.

It is important to take a moment and reflect on the last point. For decades, settler movements and the settlers have been expelling and replacing native Palestinians from more and more Palestinian lands. In much of what passes as intellectual diplomatic discourse in North America and Western Europe, these settlers are presented as divorced from the Israeli state and even painted as a burden on the Israeli state.

This occurs even when Israeli policy is directly tied to the expansion of settlements. In 2016, for example, then-Secretary of State John Kerry claimed, “Let’s be clear. Settlement expansion has nothing to do with Israel’s security. Many settlements actually increase the security burden on the Israeli defence forces and leaders of the settler movement are motivated by ideological imperatives that entirely ignore legitimate Palestinian aspirations.”

And when he was not divorcing the ideology of the settlement leaders from the ideology of the state, Kerry made sure to present the settlements as a side issue, and not the core of the problem: “Let me emphasise, this is not to say that the settlements are the whole or even the primary cause of this conflict, of course they are not. Nor can you say that if the settlements were suddenly removed, you’d have peace without a broader agreement. You would not.”

Versions of this discourse are repeated ad nauseam in the diplomatic arena, all of which misses (purposely or not) the crucial point that these settlers are not ideologically opposed to the state, but are rather a mirror for the foundation of the Israeli state revealed in its naked form.

The main difference is that these settlers act without the sophisticated rhetoric that hides and conceals the violence of the settler colony. They do not hide their intention to remove Palestinians and expand the state that is to come, the state of Greater Israel.

Since the early 20th century, the Zionist movement has longed for the creation of a Greater Israel, but it has been savvy enough to hide and conceal its intentions, especially in the international arena.

As Benny Morris put it in his famous book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, “[Zionist leader David] Ben-Gurion, a pragmatist, from 1937 on, was willing (at least outwardly) to accept partition and the establishment of a Jewish state in only part of the country. In effect, he remained committed to a vision of Jewish sovereignty over all of Palestine as the ultimate goal of Zionism, to be attained by stages.”

The current relation between the state and the settlers is, thus, not one of opposition or nuisance, but one between a force that expands (the settlers) and a force that makes possible but hides the violence of the expansion (the state). And at the opportune moment, provided in this case through the Trump administration’s unwavering support for Israel, the state becomes one with the settlers out in the open and officially expands.

The annexation plan is nothing more than the state’s turn to claim sovereignty over what the settlers have already annexed. And they are able to annex precisely because the state makes that possible through its occupation of Palestinian land.

And this cycle will not stop. The settlers will continue to expand and annex with the aid of the state, until such time that the state can officially announce the reality of their fusion with the settlers, taking even more land.

As far as the Israelis are concerned, time is on their side, and they can patiently proceed stage by stage.

Empty words 

The latest round of international reactions will predictably change nothing for the Palestinian people. International law will flag the violation against its rules, words of “condemnation” will fill the air, analysts and commentators will discuss the “strength” of these words in comparison to past statements, and Palestinian land will continue to be stolen.

Palestinian lives will continue to be threatened with death, injury, debilitation, occupation, oppression and expulsion while the world watches and pronounces empty words.

These words do not carry any consequence that can give them meaning, depth, and force. They are part of the diplomatic routine, which gives the feeling that something is being done, that the world is watching closely and that the world is concerned for Palestine.

This chimera of an act ends up sustaining the status quo and ensures that nothing consequential is ever undertaken. The very emptiness of these words thus becomes another weapon that enables annexation.

Many ordinary Palestinians have understood this situation for some time: the cavalry is not coming – not from the Arab world, not from the UN and not from international law. And in their absence, those international institutions and states show themselves as part of the problem, not the solution.

Israeli settler colonialism will not rest until the majority of the Palestinians are removed and expelled, and all of the Palestinian lands are under Israeli sovereignty, just as Ben-Gurion envisioned.

Israel cannot tolerate the idea of Palestinian sovereignty, let alone its implementation because the erasure of Palestinian sovereignty is part and parcel of the underlying logic of the settler colony. As a result, regardless of how much land Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ally, Defence Minister Benny Gantz actually annex this year, this episode will be neither the first nor will it be the last.

The settler colony, secured in its power after the founding violence, often plays a long game. But despite the scantest of hopes of ever gaining their freedom and sovereignty, the Palestinians will continue to stand, more or less, alone in their long and historic resistance.

Mark Muhannad Ayyash is Associate Professor of Sociology at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada