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Acts and Omissions: Framing Settler Colonialism in Palestine Studies

[Participants in an Idle No More solidarity action in Los Angeles in December 2013. (WNV/©Paulo Freire Lopez)] [Participants in an Idle No More solidarity action in Los Angeles in December 2013. (WNV/©Paulo Freire Lopez)]

Columbus was free to look for a language

he couldn't find here,

to look for gold in the skulls of our ancestors.

He took his fill from the flesh of our living

and our dead.

So why is he bent on carrying out his deadly war

even from the grave?

(Mahmoud Darwish)


Over the past several years, there has been renewed interest in the use of the settler colonial analytic to study the ongoing occupation of Palestine. While the Oslo accords are continuously pronounced dead, their impact on Palestinian life lingers, fragmenting the Palestinian people, land and economy. Understanding Israel as a settler colonial state is one means of opposing this fragmentation. It helps us to move beyond the Oslo narrative of conflict resolution and dialogue between two equal sides to a serious analysis of the Zionist project in Palestine. That project is rooted in dispossession, and maintained through a sophisticated matrix of apartheid policies against Palestinians everywhere, not just in the territories occupied in 1967. 

At the same time, “settler colonial studies” has grown and consolidated during this time, with the proliferation of newly published volumes, blogs, and conferences on the theme, and indeed, a Settler Colonial Studies journal. While settler colonialism is obviously not a new analytical framework, its crystallisation as an academic field has emerged somewhat recently in Western academe. To be clear, we are not concerned here with the long-standing and inter-disciplinary inquiries into the history, anthropology, politics or legal studies of settler colonialism in general. Nor is this meant to be an overview of the entirety of the academic field of settler colonial studies. Rather, in this short article, based on our organizing experiences and research of settler colonialism in multiple contexts, our aim is to think through the ways in which the settler colonial framework has been taken up in Palestine Studies more recently. We aim to reflect on some of the political challenges that the term poses, for those engaging in anti-colonial movements and solidarity struggles with Indigenous communities and Palestinians, highlighting the contradictions of using the settler colonial analytic in the legal realm and pointing to shortcomings of using the settler-colonial framework too narrowly. Relatedly, we consider some of the worrying omissions from the emerging academic discourse on settler colonialism that exacerbate these political challenges.

Constituting a field, and its margins?

At the American Studies Association Conference in Autumn 2015, a panel took stock of settler colonialism as an emerging field of academic study.[1] Panelists and audience members raised many pertinent issues, including the distinction between settler colonialism as an analytic and as a political discourse. Panelists and audience members spoke of the ways in which as an analytic, settler colonialism is being constructed into a new legible field of study within Western academe and described how the constitution of a field in this sense is at the same moment a boundary drawing exercise. The results, inevitably, are exclusions. What is identified as “settler colonial” scholarship and what is left out? Several participants commented about the politics of producing knowledge in this emergent field. A politics of citation is developing that reinscribes different forms of gender-race privilege. It often marginalizes scholars who have been writing about the effects of settler colonialism for decades, but perhaps not using the analytic of settler colonialism to describe the colonization and occupation of their land. One can glimpse a similar form of intellectual amnesia in the contemporary resurgence of work on “intersectionality.” Such writing often omits reference to the decades of feminist scholarship that addressed the same themes using different conceptual tools. At issue are not the specific authors that are often cited in more recent scholarship on settler-colonialism within Palestine Studies (for example, Patrick Wolfe or Lorenzo Veracini), rather it is the loss of the rich scholarship by Indigenous scholars which does not fit neatly into scholarly boundaries. 

In the context of using the settler colonial paradigm to analyze and understand the occupation of Palestine, these concerns have a particular resonance. In some instances, recent discussions of Israel as a settler colony tend to ignore the rich historical scholarship on the colonization of Palestine and reference only the most recent accounts. Indeed, early Zionists from the late nineteenth century onwards were explicit about characterizing their endeavors in Palestine as settler colonial in form and substance. The strength of using a settler-colonial framework in Palestine Studies, is precisely its ability to historicize the colonization of Palestine as a process that began long before the 1948 Nakba. Such historicization can account for and build upon the earlier scholarship of, for example, Maxime Rodinson (1973)Gershon Shafir (1989)Nira Yuval-Davis and Daiva Stasiulis (1995), Nahla Abdo (2011), and the body of Palestinian anti-colonial writings that have not necessarily used the settler colonial analytic, but in substance have created the foundation for contemporary research on land appropriation (Naseer Aruri (1985), Raja Shehadeh (1988), Walid Khalidi (1992) George Bisharat (1994); border controls and surveillance, political economy and displacement (Yusif A. Sayigh (1986), (Elia Zureik (2001), (Leila Farsakh (2005), (Rosemary Sayigh (2007), (Nadia Abu El Haj (2001)), among others.

The editors of the special issue Past is Present: Settler Colonialism in Palestine assert that the settler colonial paradigm has largely fallen into disuse in Palestine studies in the wake of the Oslo accords. This both reflects and exacerbates a tendency towards a “piecemeal approach to the establishment of some kind of sovereignty under the structure of the Israeli settler colonial regime.” In turn, they set out an optimistic agenda that centers on the promise of a revivified engagement with the settler colonial analytic for Palestine studies, politically and intellectually (Salamanca, Qato, Rabie and Samour, 2012). To their credit they point in the introduction to the long history of scholarship that analyzed Israel as a settler colonial project. We share their view that the settler colonial analytic is an essential lens to understand the myriad forms of dispossession experienced by Palestinians from the late nineteenth century.

However, despite these efforts, several of the Palestine focused academic conferences and discussions we have attended over the past five years in the United Kingdom and Palestine, have reinforced certain myths about the realities of settler colonialism in Canada, Australia, the United States and elsewhere, establishing a temporal distinction that posits settler colonialism in Canada, for example, as something that happened to First Nations, and continues to happen in Palestine. Thereby presenting Israel as the exceptional and “unfinished” settler colonial project. That somehow their “past” is Palestine’s “present.”

We argue that a “comparative” approach must attend to the political-economic and juridical formations that subtend colonization as a process and benefit from the nuanced scholarship on the realities of settler colonialism in Canada, the United States, Australia, and for that matter, Palestine by Indigenous scholar-activists.

Taking up the settler colonial analytic in a ‘comparative’ perspective: academic practice and political praxis 

The clearest scholarship on Israel’s status as a settler colony, when placed in a comparative perspective, should draw on detailed analysis of the history and ongoing colonization of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Informed scholarship can thus challenge the colonial trope of the “dead Indian” or the notion that First Nations were for the most part eliminated, along with, presumably, their cultural practices, legal systems, languages, and forms of self-governance.

In the important special issue referred to above, the one article by an Indigenous scholar-activist, Waziyatawin, presents a detailed analysis of the techniques of dispossession that both Israel and the United States utilize. It accounts for the commonalities and distinctions in forms of anti-colonial resistance both the Dakota and Palestinians posed, and takes account of the primary differences between these two settler societies. Some examples of these commonalities include Israeli settlers’ appropriation of the discourse of indigeneity and the fact that the United States accomplished its military subjugation of Indigenous people by the end of the nineteenth century, and therefore, no longer perceives Indigenous communities as a security threat. While the inclusion of her insightful analysis is essential to the production of knowledge of different settler colonial contexts, it would have been important for other authors in the volume to engage with and refer to her scholarship in the way they do with some of the other contributions in the volume. Our speculations and concerns about the intellectual marginalization of Indigenous women and women of color within emerging comparative settler colonial studies in relation to Palestine is borne out both by the absence of engagement with her analysis and the crude data on the journal website that reflects the relative attention paid to each contribution. This resonates with one academic at the ASA panel referred to above. She lamented that her graduate students tend to cite an extremely limited number of white male scholars, emerging as the main canon to reference, when utilizing the settler colonial analytic in their work. This is not (solely) an issue of recognition, but of the nature and substance of the scholarship being produced in this field of study. And it has parallels in the attention accorded to Israeli scholars in discussions of Palestine. 

Beyond delegations to Palestine which have generated very important discussions among academic-activists over the last few years, political practices that create meaningful forms of solidarity often go unexplored in academic settings. But developing a settler colonial analytic ought not to be merely an academic comparative exercise. The misunderstanding of current realities and struggles across settler colonial contexts and the internalization of the discourse of the “defeated Indian” hinders solidarity between Palestinians and other Indigenous communities.  As the above quote from Mahmoud Darwish highlights, Columbus “is carrying out his deadly war even from the grave.” Settler colonial projects function precisely by erasing the struggles of Indigenous  peoples, by pronouncing their defeat as they are continuing to resist colonialism. Some Palestine scholars continue to insist on the exceptionalism of Israel as the only “unfinished” settler colonial project, and some activists proclaim Palestine the “last colonial occupation.” However, Indigenous communities in other settler colonial contexts continue to assert their rights in myriad ways, and continue to be subject to the violent and brutal mechanisms of settler colonialism, including struggling for sovereignty over their lands.

In Canada, Palestinian and Palestine solidarity activists tried to build solidarity with Indigenous communities and activists. On 28 February 2006, the Six Nations of the Grand River community engaged in a land reclamation near Caledonia, Ontario. The Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid (CAIA), an umbrella organization of Palestine solidarity groups based in Toronto and other Palestine solidarity organizations from across Ontario, supported the Six Nations of the Grand River. CAIA raised funds for the reclamation, cooked meals for those on the blockade, organized support delegations to the site, and engaged their contacts in the trade union movement for support. Within the first week, and at the request of the community, a Palestinian flag was flying at the reclamation site. During various Israeli Apartheid Week events, organizers invited Indigenous speakers to speak on their struggles. Palestinian delegations visiting Canada on speaking tours went to the reclamation site and met with Indigenous activists. They had open discussions about the Apartheid Wall in Palestine, the similarities of land encroachment mechanisms, the role of the prison system in both places and importantly the impact of cultural oppression on children in Indigenous communities and in Palestine. This organizing was an intentional attempt to go beyond the mainstream focus on “big actions” by Indigenous communities, to foster an understanding of the daily resistance practices within communities that include creative elements of cultural preservation. 

It was not always simple or easy to work jointly. Palestinian activists had to contend with their presence in Canada as settlers inserted into a specific racialized settler colonial hierarchy; yet intent on forging solidarity with Indigenous struggles. At times there were accusations of tokenism, for example, when Mohawk flags were displayed by organizers of Israeli Apartheid Week events. As with all attempts at joint work, activists engaged in a process and tried to learn from their mistakes. It was through this practice, however, that activists developed an understanding of how Canadian capitalism continues to thrive on land theft and bureaucratic measures to deny Indigenous rights. Indeed, federal legislation that intensified the ability of extractive industries to exploit Indigenous lands and rendered Indigenous reserve land more fungible, helped spark the Idle No More movement in December 2012. It is important to emphasize that these are not just a few isolated examples. The last several decades have witnessed numerous instances of Indigenous direct action and resistance. They include the Oka Crisis, the Barriere Lake blockades, Tar Sands protests, and the continued struggle for justice in relation to the missing and murdered Aboriginal  women. Rather than being a vanquished, “pacified” population, First Nations have often been at the forefront of radical activism across Canada.

There was hesitation on the part of Palestinian community organizations (some funded by the Canadian state) to openly support Indigenous land reclamations for fear of government reprisal. This fear was not unfounded. The Canadian state often targeted Palestinian community organizations by slashing their funding and through police intimidation of leading activists. In practice, joint organizing and public support was not a given – activists who fought for it cultivated this form of joint struggle. They had witnessed how the settler colonial project is perpetuated by segregating Indigenous communities and marginalized migrant communities from one another. It is crucial we counter this segregation by rejecting the idea that Indigenous struggles are a thing of the past, by seriously studying multiple settler colonial contexts and forging solidarity with First Nations and Indigenous communities.  It is Indigenous and women of color activists who are patiently and persistently doing this work.

Between the language of indigeneity and nativity? The politics of using the settler colonial analytic in the legal realm

The language of indigeneity, as explored above, has important political currency in creating meaningful solidarity movements. The recent deployment of indigeneity in the legal realm raises a host of political challenges for the “comparative settler colonial” studies approach. At a recent presentation in London, Adalah lawyer Suhad Bishara spoke cogently and critically of attempts to use the Indigenous rights paradigm as the basis for Bedouin land claims in the Naqab. She pointed out that the legal definition of Indigenous people (as established in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) and the concept of Aboriginal  title (as established in caselaw such as Mabo v Queensland (No.2) [1992] HCA 23), might ultimately reinforce a fragmentation of Palestinian political identity.

The claim for the legal recognition of Indigenous rights may not be appropriate for Palestinians in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem or elsewhere.

Other settler jurisdictions have acknowledged Indigenous rights to land in the form of Aboriginal title (in Canada and Australia, and in the post-colonial context India, and in the post-apartheid context, South Africa).[2] It may thus be tempting to set Israel apart from these examples since that is not the case there. In recent adjudication, the Israeli Supreme Court refused to acknowledge any Bedouin ownership interests over their land, or for that matter, the fact that the claimants have a long historical and contemporary presence on the land that at a minimum warrants their consideration. While it is true in a prima facie sense, that settler colonial states such Canada and Australia have recognized Indigenous rights to land and resources whereas Israeli courts have refused any such acknowledgments, the conclusion that Israel is exceptional in its steadfast denial of Palestinian land rights ignores the cunning of recognition evident in this growing jurisprudence of aboriginal rights. It has developed on the basis of denying First Nations’ sovereignty and reaffirming Crown (colonial) sovereignty. In the Australian context, this amounts to recognizing the “radical underlying title” of the Crown. The “jurisprudence of regret” that characterized the Australian High Court’s decision in Mabo has developed into a “regrettable jurisprudence” as Alex Reilly argues, with the political potential of native title increasingly limited by subsequent judgments. It took many decades of litigation and political struggle in Canada before advocates achieved an actual declaration of Aboriginal title. Consider that only in 2014, was the Tsilhqot’in First Nation in British Columbia recognized as holding Aboriginal  title to a portion of their traditional territory While not diminishing this important political and legal victory, it should be noted that the Canadian Supreme Court recognized that titled based on forms of customary land use within the world of the somewhat suspect anthropological category of the ‘semi-nomad’. That is to say, even when recognizing forms of land use that exceed the boundaries of Anglo-Canadian concepts of property, it takes place on the basis of a western anthropological discourse of nomadism.

Perhaps the category of the “native” as Fanon, Césaire, and other anti-colonial writers critically deployed, avoids the strictures and weight of the juridical language of indigeneity. It could be that using the dichotomy of the colonizer/colonized is more closely attuned to histories of political solidarity between the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), the National Iberation Front – Algeria (FLN) and and the African National Congress (ANC). Yet perhaps the similarities in colonial techniques of dispossession between Australia, Canada, and Israel/Palestine render the language of indigeneity potentially useful as a political language in which to articulate resistance. Patricia Monture-Angus, a renowned Indigenous scholar and activist, preferred to use the name of the Nation she belonged to, the Mohawk First Nation, to describe herself. She believed that the terms “native,” “Aboriginal ” and “Indigenous” were all colonial impositions. In any case, Bishara seemed to be rejecting the use of the language of indigeneity, more than anything else, on the same political basis that Monture-Angus, and some Bedouin, and some First Nations in Canada, have rejected the need for colonial recognition of their rights to their land. It is their land and the recognition of a settler legal and political system of their “Indigenous” title and rights has no bearing on this fact.

Settler Colonialism and Racial Capitalism

The forging of a new academic field of settler colonial studies risks potentially creating unnecessary binaries between studies of colonialism and settler-colonialism. It is clear that techniques of colonial dispossession traveled throughout networks of trade and leisure established during and throughout the British Empire. Such tools include the surveillance and criminalization of colonized populations, land appropriation, resource extraction, the perversion or indeed, attempted erasure, of native legal systems, and control over the mobility and political citizenship of colonized populations. English colonial administrators and freelance entrepreneurs traveled, during the nineteenth century, between the Indian subcontinent, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the Caribbean, the United States, the African continent, and of course the United Kingdom. They imported and exported the legal and political infrastructures required for colonial modes of expropriation. With the advent of the Mandate system, Palestine became another scene of exchange and implementation of European colonial modes of governance tested elsewhere. While many scholars have revealed the formative influence of European models of nationalism and colonial ideology on early Zionist movements (Raz-Krakotzkin 2007; Lloyd 2012), the detailed work of excavating the way in which the political and legal techniques of dispossession travelled between different colonial sites remains underexplored. (Although see Lowe, 2014 an Saldaña-Portillo 2016 for  exemplary exceptions to this claim). 

Another binary inherent to the settler colonial analytic is that between the colonizer and colonized. While adopting a settler colonial framework is critical to analyzing Israel’s modus operandi as a colonial power, there is a need to contextualize Israel’s settler colonial project within the particular class and racial differences inside Israel and amongst Palestinians. Ella Shohat’s critical work on the racial hierarchy within Israel’s settler society is a strong example that highlights the historical marginalization of the Mizrahim, Jews of Arab origin. Racialized immigrants occupy both the position of settler in relation to Indigenous communities and the subaltern in relation to the dominant place of the white European settler. Some scholars in North America, and particularly in Hawai’i have grasped how the racialization of particular immigrant communities in settler states complicates the settler colonial framework. 

On the other hand, a settler colonial framework must also contend with the emerging class differences in Palestinian society exacerbated by the impact of the Oslo Accords.  This is especially relevant when contending with the question of how Palestinians can challenge the logic of the Oslo process while the Palestinian Authority, adhering to a fundamental neoliberal agenda (Hanieh 2013), remains intact. The Palestinian Authority continues to formulate Palestinian liberation in terms of truncated statehood on small sections of Palestinian land and celebrates symbolic acts such as raising the Palestinian flag at the United Nations while prospects of Palestinian sovereignty over land continue to diminish daily. Sadly, the PA’s focus continues to be building a neoliberal state apparatus as a way to “convince” Israel and international donors that Palestinians are able to run their affairs.  For all intents and purposes, Israel has succeeded in outsourcing its military occupation to a segment of Palestinians - this is evident in the relatively large budgets of the security forces of the PA and the continued security coordination with Israel. In our view, such differences within both the settler society and the colonized need to be brought out and fully incorporated into the settler colonial analytical framework. 

Racially inscribed dispossession and the capitalist modes of accumulation that subtend expropriative practices have developed in spatially and temporally differentiated ways in the colonies, as elaborated by scores of post-colonial theorists. In other words, capitalist development in the colonies has not mirrored the transition from feudal economies to capitalist ones in Europe. The terms “postcolonial capitalism” and “racial capitalism” both denote ways of understanding capitalist forms of dispossession that profit from, and reinforce class hierarchies, patriarchal formations, and racist ideologies lodged in colonial imaginaries that persist into the present.  These terms do not neatly fit into a settler-colonial framework and yet are critical to understanding the political-economic, juridical and social complexities across various sites of inquiry. Forcing them into a single analytical category risks losing this richness and undermining forms of political solidarity across colonized spaces.

Darwish’s masterful poem, “The Red Indian’s Penultimate Speech to the White Man” begins with an epigram from the Duwamish Chief Seattle.  The dispossession of native land that Columbus’ ill-fated voyage inaugurated, binds together the fates of Native Americans and Palestinians, who resist colonial dominance over land, time, history, memory, and place. As Chief Seattle asserts, “there is no Death here, there is only the change of worlds.” We in turn are looking for our own counter-narration, a language to explain the ongoing violence of dispossession in multiple contexts. We are reminded of the words of Mike Krebs and Dana Olwan:

We want to build solidarity without reproducing and enacting the same colonial logics and asymmetric relationships of power on which settler colonialisms hinge. We believe that our futures are connected and that we are especially powerful when we enact solidarity by words and actions. To expect solidarity, we must be willing to give it, share it, and maintain it. To do otherwise is to risk producing solidarity on the very colonial terms that our movements seek to challenge and undo.

[1] The panel, held at the American Studies Association Conference, was titled “The Settler Colonialism Analytic: A Critical Reappraisal” and the panellists included Maria Josefina Saldaña-Portillo, Alyosha Goldstein, Shona L. Jackson, and Jodi Byrd as chair. For further analysis see “Colonial Agnosia” Special Issue of Theory and Event, eds. Alyosha Goldstein, Juliana Hu Pegues and  Manu Vimalassery, forthcoming 2016.

[2] See Nimer Sultany, “The Legal Structures of Subordination: The Palestinian Minority and Israeli Law” in N. Rouhana and S. S. Huneidi (eds.) Israel and Its Palestinian Citizens: Ethnic Privilege and Equal Citizenship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2016). 

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