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New Texts Out Now: Past Is Present: Settler Colonialism in Palestine

[Cover of [Cover of "Past Is Present: Settler Colonialism in Palestine," special issue of "settler colonial studies."]

Omar Jabary Salamanca, Mezna Qato, Kareem Rabie, and Sobhi Samour, editors. Past Is Present: Settler Colonialism in Palestine. Special Issue of Settler Colonial Studies 2.1 (2012).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you put together this special issue?

Editors (E): This open-access (and therefore freely accessible) special issue emerges out of a conference we organized in early March 2011, convened by the SOAS Palestine Society. The impetus for the conference came from two main directions. First, we all work on one aspect of Palestine or another, and each of us has grown distressed by the tendency to treat Palestine as a series of temporal and spatial set pieces. Second, we were perplexed by the ongoing application of ever-newer theoretical approaches that seek to understand the constantly shifting situation on the ground: we feel that, taken together, these discrete approaches tend to undermine holistic, structural analysis. The framework of comparative settler colonialism offers important insights and interventions that, while not all new, provide productive scaffolding for thinking about Palestine. Comparative settler colonialism rejects the exceptionalism that is ascribed to Zionism and Israel, and to Palestine and Palestinians, and it opens the situation to comparison with other contemporary and historical settler colonial cases. It is, for us, a paradigm that is coherent and elastic, and it helps to illuminate characteristics and tendencies that are too often treated in isolation. 

J: What particular topics, questions, and literatures does this issue address?

Editors (E): We wanted to encourage the further integration of settler colonial studies into Palestine studies, and we felt the best way to do that would be to show how settler colonial analysis contributes to our understanding of Zionism and the Palestinian experience. It was tough, because this is, by and large, a neglected mode of analysis, and few people in Palestine studies speak or write in these terms in any analytical way; on the other hand, Zionism, Israel, and Palestine are central to comparative settler colonialism. So we decided to curate a set of articles that steps into the fray and helps to bridge that gap, some more tentatively than others.

For example, the articles by Ilan Pappé and David Lloyd both, in different ways, explore the consequences of settler colonial analysis, offering meditations on what is at stake. Zachary Lockman's essay engages Gershon Shafir’s Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 1882-1914, one of the seminal texts using a settler colonial framework within Palestine studies, and presents an alternative historical narrative of the evolution of the Zionist labor movement, highlighting the coercive power employed by the British colonial state in Palestine against Palestinian Arabs. Shir Hever focuses on the tension between economic exploitation and exclusion that is inherent in Zionist thought and practice, and Magid Shihade describes the social impact of settler colonial practices on Palestinians in Israel. Mansour Nasasra provides a contemporary narrative of the Naqab, highlighting challenges Palestinians have launched against Zionist land grabs and dispossession. We end with pieces by Patrick Wolfe, who asserts that Zionism is not an exceptional case of settler colonialism, but rather an accelerated one; and Waziyatawin, whose essay ruminates on lessons the Palestinian experience could offer other indigenous communities struggling against settler colonialism in North America.

J: Who do you hope will read this special issue, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

E: The settler colonial paradigm was, for many decades, the abiding analytical framework through which Palestinians understood their struggle. Nearly all scholarship, both within the movement and outside it, was predicated on the idea that the struggle in Palestine was against Zionist settler colonialism. We try to highlight the importance of the settler colonial analysis by offering two key examples of how Palestinians have historically utilized it. The first is a pamphlet written for the British public by George Mansour, a labor organizer during the Great Revolt of 1936-1939 against British colonial rule and Zionist encroachment. The second is Fayez Sayegh’s powerful 1965 essay, "Zionist Colonialism in Palestine." The astute and precise analysis contained in these classics of Palestinian scholarship is just as relevant today as it was at that time. In order to encourage conversation between scholars in comparative settler colonial studies and scholars in the Arab world, we have also included an Arabic translation of Patrick Wolfe’s crucial essay, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.”

What we hope this special issue does is retrieve settler colonial analysis, build on it, and move it forward. So this special issue is primarily geared to scholars in Palestine studies, and we think that this approach could have a significant impact on how scholarship on Palestine develops, and on what priorities and agenda it sets. We are saying, look, here is a framework that has been around for a long time, why not take a second look, and let’s think about why it was discarded, what that means, and what it still has to offer. We also think settler colonial analysis could lead to positive developments for strategic thinking within the movement, and we offer the issue as a way to open up a broader conversation about decolonization—what does that take, what is its relationship to the solutionist discourse, how do you reform our national movement, and what kinds of solidarities and alignments does a settler colonial approach imply and offer?  

Excerpt from Past Is Present: Settler Colonialism in Palestine

From the Editor’s Introduction

Despite the endurance of Israeli settler colonialism, settler colonial analysis has largely fallen into disuse in Palestine studies. As a framework, settler colonialism once served as a primary ideological and political touchstone for the Palestinian national movement, and informed the intellectual work of many committed activists and revolutionary scholars, whether Palestinians, Israelis, or allies.

Today, research tends to focus on Palestine as an exceptional case constituted in local contexts, in particular the West Bank. But these problems are far from simply the result of shifts in academic knowledge and practice: the Palestinian liberation movement has seen a series of ruptures and changes in emphasis, and in many ways scholarly production accurately mirrors the dynamics of incoherent contemporary Palestinian politics. Recent Palestinian political history has been a long march away from a liberation agenda and towards a piecemeal approach to the establishment of some kind of sovereignty under the structure of the Israeli settler colonial regime. In this environment, it is not surprising that even scholarship written in solidarity with Palestinians tends to shy away from structural questions. Much of the contemporary literature tends to take on micro-political issues or Israeli administrative practices within a given context and prodigiously overwork them. But when did Palestinians ever find themselves in a “post-colonial” condition? When did the ongoing struggle over land and for return become a “postconflict” situation? When did Israel become a “post-Zionist” society? When did indigenous Palestinians in the Galilee (for example) become an “ethnic minority”? And when did the establishment of the Palestinian Authority and the consequent fortification of Palestinian reserves become “state-building”?

Moreover, the trend towards studying the occupation often internalizes it as an ontological category distinct from the larger structures of Israeli settler colonialism. The occupation imposes boundaries on space and time; and categories, discourses, and materialities that are embedded in colonial power relations are operationalized in this literature. The Green Line, the border between Israel and the Palestinian reserves, is one example of this phenomenon: it has become a powerful symbolic and material signifier that enforces, and takes for granted, the fragmentation of the Palestinian polity. With few exceptions, it is a line that is rarely crossed in scholarly accounts of Palestine—in either direction. Different Palestinian populations have come to be represented as isolated, analytically separate, pieces of an impossible puzzle. In addition, the focus on the second stage of colonization, the 1967 occupation, emphasizes settlement by Israelis in the West Bank and absolves previous generations of Zionists and Israel itself of settler colonialism.

“For natives,” as Patrick Wolfe puts it, “the issue is that, at the hands of the settlers, they face [physical and symbolic] elimination.” Given such a threat, the central question for committed scholarship and liberatory movements should be how to develop a praxis that brings back decolonization and liberation as the imperative goal. The advantage of advancing settler colonialism as a relevant interpretative framework for the study of Zionism is not only that it can offer conceptual and political possibilities for how we read Palestine today, but that it also dismantles deep-seeded analyses and assumptions sustaining claims of exceptionalism. It brings Israel into comparison with cases such as South Africa, Rhodesia and French-Algeria, and earlier settler colonial formations such as the United States, Canada or Australia, rather than the contemporary European democracies to which Israel seeks comparison. For Palestine, it means the reiteration of the fact that Palestinians are an indigenous people, and an alignment of Palestine scholarship with indigenous and native studies.

In this context, John Collins notes, the challenge

is to bring all the relevant tools of critically engaged scholarship […] in order to pursue two related objectives: to understand the complex set of structures and processes […] that have combined to produce the intolerable reality evident today; and to think creatively about how this understanding might enable individuals to transform that reality.

Otherwise, settler colonialism remains a descriptive category that does not move beyond sentiment and into strategy. While activists, both in Palestine and outside it, continue to push back against Zionist encroachment, intensify the demand for equal rights, and build a boycott, divestment and sanctions movement aimed at shaming and delegitimizing Israel internationally, the creative offerings of the settler colonial studies paradigm remain underutilized. This lack of rigorous engagement has consequences for movement building. The historic response to settler colonialism has been the struggle for decolonization; in the absence of a settler colonial analysis, Palestinian strategies have tended to target accommodate settler colonial outcomes rather than aiming to decolonize the structure itself.

Equally important, the analysis enabled by the settler colonial paradigm offers a powerful political tool to reorient and recreate genuine bi-directional solidarity alliances and political fraternity. As attested by the cover of this issue, a declaration of solidarity for Palestinians in their struggle against Zionist aggression by the Organization of Solidarity for the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America (OSPAAAL), this convergence is not new. The settler colonial perspective offers the possibility of a new in-gathering of movements, harnessing each other’s strengths for an active, mutual, and principled Palestinian alignment with the Arab struggle for self-determination, and indigenous struggles in North America, Latin America, Oceania, and elsewhere. Such an alignment would expand the tools available to Palestinians and their solidarity movement, and reconnect the struggle to its own history of anti-colonial internationalism. At its core, this internationalist approach asserts that the Palestinian struggle against Zionist settler colonialism can only be won when it is embedded within, and empowered by, broader struggles—all anti-imperial, all anti-racist, and all struggling to make another world possible.

[Excerpted from Past Is Present: Settler Colonialism in Palestine, by permission of the editors. © 2012 by Settler Colonial Studies. To read the full issue online, click here.]

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