Jenin and Sharpeville: systemic colonial violence in apartheid Israel and South Africa

Juan Cole

Informed Comment  /  July 6, 2023

Ann Arbor – The relationship of the Jewish-dominated Israeli state to the Muslim and Christian Palestinians of the occupied Palestinian West Bank and the Gaza Strip has been characterized in many ways. Israeli sources depict the Palestinians as irrationally violent, as inveterate “terrorists,” and characterize Israeli military operations in these territories as counter-terrorism. This is the frame almost universally adopted by European and American “news” broadcasts about the violence. Indeed, to listen to most of these reports, the Palestinians are besieging the Israelis rather than the other way around, and the Israeli actions are defensive or a matter of “clashes” between “two sides.”

Such vague, equivocating and context-free reporting on violent incidents is always a sign that we are in the presence of propaganda.

In order to understand such incidents as the recent Israeli army attack on Jenin, we must understand the history and the circumstances. We need a framework for understanding. The framework is colonialism and apartheid.

The Palestinian West Bank is under international law an occupied territory. But the legal framework for occupations was devised for finite wars, not for situations that perdure for decades. The West Bank is actually an Israeli colony. Israel controls the land, water and airspace. It is gradually usurping the land and settling its own citizens on it, as Afrikaners did in South Africa. It is keeping the Palestinian population stateless and without basic human rights.

Population transfer is common under colonial conditions. The people of the Jenin refugee camp were expelled from their homes in what is now Israel in 1948, and the Israelis expropriated their farms, homes and other property, leaving them penniless. They were forbidden ever to return home and were offered, to say the least, no reparations for their losses.

In Apartheid South Africa, as well, people were moved about at will. A township called Topville in the 1940s was perceived to have become too densely populated and to suffer from associated illnesses such as pneumonia. A new settlement was therefore built at Sharpeville, to which 10,000 residents were forcibly transferred, creating resentments.

We’ve all seen the old movies about Nazi Germany where the military officer accosts civilians and demands their papers (“Ihre Papiere!”). Apartheid South Africa put in a pass system such that Blacks had to have papers in order to move around. In 1960 the major Black organizations decided to hold anti-pass demonstrations. In Sharpeville, some 5,000 protesters from the township destroyed their passes and marched to the police station to turn themselves in. What began as a peaceful demonstration gradually, however, became confrontational, as people crowded in on 300 armed policemen. Reinforcements were brought in with military-style troop carriers. Military aircraft were scrambled to fly low over the crowd in hopes of forcing it back.

One of the policemen may have accidentally been knocked over, and then the crowd surged forward so people could see what had happened. Some people in the crowd, who were not armed, began throwing stones at the police.

The police became spooked and opened live fire into the crowd, killing 69 persons. Those policemen were not actually policemen in the sense of providing protection to a local community. They were colonial control agents. They collectively punished Sharpeville.

The pass system remained in place, by brute force, for over two decades more. More people were moved around, or had new administrative units created around them, making them stateless. There were further massacres. Apartheid, population control, resistance and state violence were systemic. The cycle was baked into racial segregation and minority rule. State violence and segregation provoked resistance and then was justified by that resistance.

The Israeli attack on Jenin had all the hallmarks of a colonial policing operation. The colonial state has no buy-in from the colonized and has limited resources for dealing with them. The Israelis have a few spies inside the Jenin refugee camp, where 11,000 people live, but they don’t control it. When some young men established the Lion’s Den resistance movement in the camp and went out to attack Israeli squatters on Palestinian land in nearby West Bank outposts, the Israeli army was sent in. By the way, they did not launch attacks inside Israel, only on the West Bank, so the Israeli operation was not self-defense, it was policing on behalf of settler colonialists.

Israeli security forces acted lawlessly, because the soldiers would have racked up heavy casualties actually targeting only the Lion’s Den fighters, as they are bound to under the Geneva Conventions (which also do allow for movements of national resistance). The Israeli forces had to fire indiscriminately, to terrorize the whole camp, in order to get at the Lion’s Den even a little bit. They even called in fighter jets to bombard a dense civilian refugee camp, to bomb the people they had made refugees and in whose homes they now live.

The Israelis destroyed the paved road out of the camp as part of their dismantling of “infrastructure” and destroyed water pipelines and electricity lines, leaving the camp dwellers without the basic necessities. This was, again, collective punishment. The French did these things in Algeria, the Dutch in Java, the Belgians in the Congo. It is systemic colonial violence, which typically makes no distinction among combatants and noncombatants in the subject population. All the indigenes are dangerous by virtue of their ontology.

In part, the Israeli security forces hoped that this frontal assault would terrorize the camp’s other inhabitants into curbing the Lion’s Den. In part, they hoped they could kill key personnel in the Lion’s Den leadership so that the organization would collapse. Their inability ever to destroy the Palestinian resistance has never given the Israeli leadership pause, since continued resistance can be labeled terrorism and then used to justify systemic colonial violence and Apartheid.

The Israeli forces lost one man in the battle and killed 8 resistance fighters. They also killed 4 other Palestinians and wounded dozens of innocent non-combatants, producing more resistance fighters from among their children and relatives.

Systemic colonial violence is a well-oiled perpetual motion machine, able to produce and reproduce itself endlessly.

In history, resistance has sometimes grown so large in response to colonial repression and systems of humiliation and segregation that the state gives up. That happened in French Algeria in 1962. Sometimes, however, resistance faces too strong a state and the indigenous population is ethnically cleansed or genocided.

The United States is the primary external supporter of Israeli systemic colonial violence. Without the US veto at the UN, the rest of the world would have imposed painful economic sanctions on Israel that would have led it to withdraw from the Palestinian territories seized in 1967. Without US weaponry and easy access to US technology, the Israelis would not be able to maintain their panopticon over Palestinian lives.

President Eisenhower strongly pressured DeGaulle to get out of Algeria, which is one reason he did so.

If the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza are ultimately ethnically cleansed, the action will be taken by the violent, colonial Israeli state, but the real responsibility will lie in Washington, D.C.

Juan Cole is the founder and chief editor of Informed Comment; he is Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History at the University of Michigan; he is author of, among others, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace amid the Clash of Empires and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam