Israel, Palestine: Settler Colonialism and Self-determination

By Brian Durrans – London

The seventh annual conference of the very active SOAS Palestine Society attracted some 300 people over the weekend of 5-6 March 2011 (SOAS is the School of Oriental and African Studies in Bloomsbury and the event was hosted by its London Middle East Institute). These conferences have become something of an institution, bringing together every year the current crop of activists, interested members of the public and academics (faculty staff, researchers, students) to explore aspects of Palestine. Those aspects considered in the past have included: the life and work of Edward Said; Palestine and international law; the economy of Palestine and the Occupation; the Nakba and Palestinian resistance; and (last year) the Left in Palestine. This year’s topic was Past is Present: Settler Colonialism in Palestine. It was the first of these conferences I have attended. As in previous years, speakers came from far afield: in this case, from Australia, USA, Canada, Israel, the West Bank, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and the UK.

What follows is a personal and selective view of the presentations and discussions where I was present. I didn’t attend every session, but the whole event was a rich mix of information and ideas and a signal service to the Palestinian cause. This article has benefited from the advice of several activist friends who saw an earlier draft, but responsibility for the final version is mine alone.  

‘Settler Colonialism’

The theme of ‘settler colonialism’ was explained in the keynote speech – ‘Not Another Racism: Zionism, a Logic of Elimination’ – by Patrick Wolfe (La Trobe University, Victoria, Australia). In a recent article (1), former ANC (and currently BDS) activist Ronnie Kasrils points out that South Africa was conceptualised from 1962 as an example of ‘colonialism of a special type’, a formulation which assisted the development of the anti-apartheid struggle there and around the world.  Applied to Israel, the concept of ‘settler colonialism’ is similarly helpful: first, because it denies the ‘exceptionalism’ claimed for Israel by its apologists; and second, because it offers instructive comparisons from the historical record of successful anti-colonial struggles, and therefore grounds for optimism in developing a strategy of national self-determination. Asked how the ‘colonial’ paradigm might be of more immediate help, one speaker suggested that if academics referred not to (the illegal) ‘settlements’ but to ‘colonies’, this could filter through into media discourse and help people understand that such ‘facts on the ground’ (as Zionists like to call them) are in fact open to amendment, since it is widely appreciated that colonised peoples have successfully transformed the colonies of others into nation-states of their own. More pertinently, Patrick Wolfe’s reference to the Jewish National Fund as an integral part of the eliminationist paradigm also pointed to an important campaigning opportunity within the framework of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, given that its charitable status in the UK (and in over fifty other countries) means that taxpayers help support it.

Exploitation and/or Elimination of the Colonised

Similar though they are in some respects, Patrick Wolfe made clear there is one very significant difference between South African and Israeli settler colonialisms: Israel is ideologically eliminationist.  Later speakers elaborated historically on parallel examples of settler colonialist projects in which, like apartheid South Africa, the objective was to exploit the colonised population economically or, like apartheid Israel, to eliminate it.

Israel is plainly a European colony bent on the elimination of Palestinians, yet it still manages to exploit them economically in the meantime. Shir Hever from the Alternative Information Center (Israel) gave an excellent summary of the subtle and systematic ways in which Palestinian workers are exploited by Israeli employers and by the State, notwithstanding Israel’s basic intention of eliminating rather than exploiting Palestinians and thus becoming dependent on them. He explained in chilling detail how the pay of those Palestinians working in Israel is outrageously controlled and reduced by the Department of Payments such that the Israeli State and the Histradut union extract, respectively, National Insurance contributions and union dues without the workers themselves deriving any benefit from such payments. He calculates that in such payments alone, the debt owed to Palestinians amounts to £1.2bn.  In contrast, the pay earned by Palestinian workers in the colonies is unregulated and unrecorded; occupied Palestine is a captive market for Israeli goods; and much Western Aid to Palestinians perversely finds its way into the Israeli economy. At the same time, that economy bears the enormous but ultimately unsustainable cost of Palestinian resistance itself.

Continuities in the eliminationist rhetoric of Zionist discourse were vividly illustrated in the presentation on ‘The erasure of the native’. Prolific author and tireless campaigner Ilan Pappe (University of Exeter) located this ideology at everyday level by showing how the extreme racist attitudes of the early settlers are echoed today in a particular neighbourhood of Haifa. Racism thrives where problems can be pinned on a scapegoat rather on their true causes but is harder to overcome if the scapegoat accepts victimhood. Palestinians refuse the role which eliminationist settler colonialism reserves for them. Given the State’s eliminationist policy, Israeli Palestinians and those in the Occupied Territories resist simply by staying put, and those in the diaspora refuse to barter their right to return. Standing firm inspires support locally, regionally and internationally. Trying to implement the ideology or intention of elimination thus confronts the Zionist state with insoluble practical difficulties.

Voluntarism and Leadership

The conference was inspired by the current upsurge of popular opposition to autocratic Arab regimes. Several speakers were optimistic both for the countries concerned and for the effect all this would have in Palestine itself. One, who teaches at the American University in Cairo, got spontaneous applause for saying that a slogan in the streets is ‘Next Year, Jerusalem’; and an Israeli Palestinian from the University of Haifa dramatised the possibilities by pretending to deliver news that Col. Gaddafi and other beleaguered leaders had just fled to Saudi Arabia – which drew delighted applause until the audience realised that this was just a piece of theatre!

There was very little analysis, however, of how these movements have taken the forms they have, and how they are likely to develop. Several speakers referred in passing to Israel’s imperialist sponsors, but only Omar Barghouti, standing in for the PFLP’s Rabah Muhanna who was refused a visa to leave Gaza to deliver the keynote address on the Sunday morning, made the significant point that Israel has lost its imperialist raison d’être by failing to prevent revolts in Arab countries (though since this political process is not yet complete, it is probably premature to write off Israel just yet as a useful ally of one or more imperial powers). Despite limited scope for debate about current developments in the Arab world, there were many thoughtful comments and insights which only whetted the appetite for wider, deeper analysis of the implications. As several participants remarked, a whole conference in the near future devoted to this topic alone would be a good idea even if (in view of the rapid turn of events) a challenge to organise and keep current.

As for Palestinians themselves, there was very little discussion of Hamas, and only a little dissention, diffidently expressed, when speakers disparaged the Palestinian Authority and the leaderships of Fatah and the PLO in the light of the ‘Palestine Papers’ revelations. Two or three speakers argued that a ‘reclaimed’ Palestine Liberation Organisation, elected by and thus able to speak for all Palestinians, is necessary to advance self-determination in what seem to many the most favourable circumstances in a generation. No-one asked, however, what would happen if the outcome were a seriously split vote. Much work is currently being done to create unity in popular grass-roots activity but this has yet to find political expression in a united leadership for Palestinians as a whole, which could open the way to a decisive outcome in free and comprehensive elections. One problem for the conference itself in raising or discussing such matters is how (un)representative it was of the larger constituency of Palestinians to which it referred. 

Given a determination to remain upbeat, there was no consideration of how Israel/Palestine might be affected by regional economic vulnerability to turbulent markets, a worsening environmental scenario, how current interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan / Pakistan might work out, nor of the scope for imperialist powers to retrieve or reconfigure their influence over their former client-states. Even though such discussion would have meant a slight departure from the conference agenda, its failure to materialise was surprising given how likely such factors are to constrain the emergence of democratic formations from which Palestinians might seek inspiration or more concrete assistance.  Events are moving faster in some places than in others: whilst the conference preceded both the worsening situation in Libya that gave NATO its chance at intervention, and the use of Saudi forces to deal with unrest in Bahrain, progress towards independent democracy in Egypt has slowed. But even if the initial euphoria has abated, the region-wide upsurge of discontent has shattered the myth of despotic omnipotence, which can only boost the prospects for a just solution in Palestine/Israel.

The ‘One State’ Solution

If the value of the ‘settler colonialism’ concept was one point of consensus, another was that neither the ‘two state’ nor the ‘bilateral state’ solution for Israel/Palestine can henceforth be taken seriously. It was argued without dissent that the only solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict is a single, united, secular and democratic state guaranteeing equal rights to all its citizens. Leading BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) advocate Omar Barghouti presented the case for the one state solution with admirable clarity.  Achieving the ‘ethical decolonisation’ necessary in order to realise this objective will require the persuasive power of effective popular resistance. This will consist of a co-ordinated 3-part struggle: from the Palestinians themselves, and in solidarity with them from the new Arabism and from the rest of international civil society. It will be non-violent in form and will be targeted rather than indiscriminate.

Even though it was patently clear throughout the weekend that for many of the speakers and participants academic and political positions were very closely aligned, it was Barghouti’s contribution above all others that bridged the divide between academic discussion and practical action with the potential to catalyse a real mass movement in Britain and elsewhere. That was the spirit in which he referred to the achievement of the forerunner of the Palestinian BDS campaign in helping bring about the end of South African apartheid. This argument is persuasively set forth, with a wealth of appropriate documentation, in Omar Barghouti’s new book, BDS: Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights (Chicago, Haymarket Books, 2011).


In contrast with Barghouti’s clear and inspiring keynote speech that opened the second day of the conference, the last scheduled session that closed it was, from an activist’s point of view, a little less compelling. This was a reminder that the conference was, after all, for both activists and academics. Bridging those constituencies is never easy, and evidently the challenge of stretching beyond both to quieter or less well-informed participants was more difficult still. Even so, the organisers deserve every credit for trying.

As well as thoughtful and resourceful presentations from Australian academic Lorenzo Veracini on ‘colonial and settler colonial phenomena’, and from postgraduate historian Mezna Qato on current activism around Palestinian and cognate causes in the US, we heard from ‘women’s rights, anti-racist and anti-imperialist campaigner’ Selma James, the founder in the UK of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network. Instead of drawing attention to the need for strategic priorities in conducting any broad-based struggle, she took the world-wide anti-(South African) apartheid movement to task for its national rather than class perspective, asserting, into the bargain,  that developing solidarity with the South African people somehow diverted attention from racism within the UK itself. She also claimed that during its leadership of the South African liberation struggle the ANC stifled criticism of Israel’s role in backing South African apartheid. At the risk of being diverted by a negative agenda, these criticisms need addressing if the movement against Israeli apartheid is to draw the lessons it needs from the defeat of its South African predecessor – a reasonable premise of the conference’s focus on settler colonialism.

Shared Goal of Anti-apartheid Movements in South Africa and Israel/Palestine

South African apartheid was formally ended only seventeen years ago with democratic elections in 1994; but seventeen years of turbulent globalisation provide ample opportunity and motive for mythologizing a past which some find inconvenient. That the South African struggle should be narrowed to a kind of class war was rejected over many years of argument as more and more activists in South Africa itself came to realise it would have prolonged the apartheid system indefinitely. It would also have denied Nelson Mandela the key role he played in that struggle and the inspiration he has been able to offer both then and since. As for the idea that campaigning against the world’s largest racist state would not weaken racism everywhere, however much still remained to be done, the idea hardly bears scrutiny, just as defeating Zionism will be another nail in the coffin of racism anywhere, however many other nails still await the hammer.  Of course there’s always more to be done, but if there is no room for complacency in the face of such challenges, neither is there any for defeatism. Finally, in line with the maxim that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, the notion that the ANC didn’t appreciate that Israel was a major supporter of South African apartheid, and as such was an enemy of the South African people, sounds like a malicious as well as an uncorroborated allegation. As an anti-apartheid activist myself, I recall, to the contrary, many instances when this issue was openly discussed and debated with the encouragement of the ANC. 

Through the whole conference the need for a united leadership to advance the interests of Palestinians was repeated again and again by speakers and from the floor. The leadership which the ANC provided for the South African people, even if hardly flawless, did actually achieve its goal of destroying the apartheid system. Not only that, but by responding with its own initiatives to the ANC’s call for boycott and sanctions against the apartheid regime, the anti-apartheid solidarity movement contributed to that success by encouraging a massive shift of opinion and behaviour across British society.

Any national liberation movement facing a desperate and powerful colonial or settler colonial adversary will need to set its priorities, focus its resources, take sometimes difficult decisions, whether armed struggle is part of the equation (as it was in South Africa) or not (as in the developing strategy for Palestine). Palestinians and their allies in the international solidarity movement know perfectly well from the vicious divide and rule tactics of the Zionist state (and its allies) how criticism and division can become hostages to fortune. There is no short-cut to learning those lessons, but other people’s experience can be a good teacher alongside one’s own. The ending of South African apartheid was a monument to international anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggle on a mass scale, and whatever the defects in how it was achieved, or in the state of South Africa today, the ANC and its allies deserve respect for their historic achievement. (The deeper lessons to be drawn from a study of such defects would touch on challenging issues like the spatial integration of corporate capital and shifting inter-imperialist relations rather than simply a paranoid and pre-determined critique of political leaderships.) Selma James is not alone, of course, in denigrating the ANC. The imperialists and the Zionists have being doing the same thing all along. If Nelson Mandela was hardly a member of the working class, for Mrs Thatcher he was not so high-born not to be called a ‘terrorist’. 

Oh yes – how’s this for shooting oneself in the foot in the matter of winning potential allies for the liberation struggle? – Selma James also categorically equated Muslim ‘fundamentalists’ with Nazis in denying the autonomy of women. This is the kind of rhetoric one expects from the English Defence League or the US far right, not where the Palestinian struggle and others in the Middle East are being taken seriously. It is sadly a measure of how much the movement still has to learn that such opinions elicited (as I learned later, having had to leave before the questions) warm applause rather than a robust challenge.

A key point of the conference was that we are looking in Palestine at a movement of national self-determination. No amount of ‘workerist’ rhetoric can change this. In settler colonialist South Africa the working class was too small a fraction of the population to be able to achieve national self-determination unless as part of a wider alliance, yet in that alliance it played a disproportionately major role. It is sometimes forgotten, too, that the disintegration of the Socialist bloc was a decisive factor in apartheid’s negotiated end-game, when, having forced the concession that apartheid must be ended, the ANC chose (or was obliged) to settle on less favourable terms than some thought achievable, though undoubtedly – at least in the short term, or so far – minimising the loss of life which trying to achieve a more favourable outcome by prolonging the struggle would have almost certainly  involved. The subsequent history of post-apartheid South Africa, with the majority population so far denied the full economic advantages which political self-determination was supposed to deliver, can be traced back to that moment. They may have helped rid themselves of settler colonialism but the struggle is plainly not yet over for the working people of South Africa.

Does this mean the South African liberation struggle was not or should not have been of a national character? Absolutely not, for national self-determination was the essential first requirement in South Africa, as it is today for Palestine – the cause around which the broadest unity can be won for maximum benefit at minimum cost in human lives. The strategy articulated in books and conferences, and as ‘facts on the ground’ in the form of ceaseless non-violent popular challenge to the Israeli Occupation since 1967, and to the deeper injustice to Palestinians since 1948, is one in which we all have a part to play.

– Brian Durrans contributed this article to


(1) ‘Israel and Apartheid: abundant similarities’, The Socialist Correspondent, no. 11, Spring 2011 – <>; this is an edited version of a paper “Israel: ‘Jewish Democracy’ or a unique colonial state?” presented at another conference last year: ‘Locating ethnic states in a cosmopolitan world – the case of Israel’ [12-14 April 2010], Afro-Middle East Centre (AMEC), Pretoria, South Africa, 12 April 2010.

(2) This ‘unfinished business’ is not surprisingly also manifested today in differences between South Africans towards the Zionist state. Although many ANC activists spoke out on this issue during the liberation struggle itself, and some stalwarts of that struggle are now active in the solidarity movement with Palestine (Ronnie Kasrils among the most prominent), reports of collusion with Israel in some quarters of South Africa (e.g., See here) suggests there is more to be done even in a country that overcame its own form of apartheid which at the time Israel itself helped sustain.

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