A just future demands the decolonization of Palestine – and a democratic state for all

Understanding the 'conflict' as a settler colonial struggle allows us to build a holistic path toward a liberated society for Palestinians and Israelis.

Thousands of Palestinians take part in a Return March in 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
Thousands of Palestinians take part in a Return March in 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

The very title one gives to a phenomenon often determines how it can be understood and what can be done to address it. Since 1948, we have spoken about the “Arab-Israeli conflict,” which is accurate to the degree that it refers to the major wars, diplomatic rivalries, and smaller “dirty wars” between the Arab states and Israel. But this notion of a regional “conflict” conceals the nature of a different kind of struggle, which is a key catalyst of the broader conflicts as well as a political phenomenon of its own.

On one side of this struggle is the colonization of Palestine by the Zionist movement, which ultimately culminated in the state of Israel, the political division of Palestine, a massive refugee crisis, and, since 1967, occupation; and on the other side is Palestinian resistance through both political and military means. Though seen for decades as merely one element of regional power plays, since the First Intifada of 1987 we have come to speak of it more specifically as the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Colonial struggle, however, can hardly be considered a “conflict.” To be sure, it generates conflict between the colonist usurpers and the indigenous population, yet colonialism is a unilateral process. It isn’t two “sides” entering into a violent confrontation over differing interests or agendas, but one powerful actor invading another people’s territory to either exploit it or take it over. There is no symmetry of power or responsibility.

For their part, the natives are the victims who had no reason to fight before the colonial invasion; they are essentially irrelevant to the colonists’ aims. The indigenous may be exploited as forced labor, but they are expendable: other sources of labor, slaves, hired workers, or other colonists can easily replace them.

In settler colonialism, which Zionism represents, the natives are destined to be eliminated either physically or by being displaced and marginalized. It is therefore more accurate to portray a colonial situation as an asymmetric invasion that meets inevitable resistance.

Why does this matter? Semantics may seem trivial, but the words we use determine the way we see things. The conflict paradigm turns an encompassing, pre-existing colonial situation into a mere struggle to “end the occupation.” Indeed, the legal paradigm underlying UN Resolution 242 — the laws of occupation — reduces a settler project to a limited problem of military control over 22 percent of historic Palestine. Whether seeking a two-state solution, a confederation, or a single “Jewish” state over the entire Land of Israel, a “conflict resolution” approach does not address the wider need for decolonization.

A settler colonial perspective restores the original and underlying problem of settlement that began in the late 19th century — one which asserts its claim to the entire country of Palestine. This is not to say that the occupied Palestinian territories are not occupied under international law, but that occupation is a sub-issue that must be addressed in the context of a wider process of decolonization, including the right of Palestinian refugees to return.

Lessons from settler colonialism

Because the conflict paradigm invokes the notion of “sides,” resolutions tend to focus on technical negotiations in which each side, through compromise or surrender, attempts to get the best deal possible in disputes over sovereignty, borders, refugees, resources, and the like. This is not so with colonialism. A people cannot compromise over the taking of their land, their displacement, their loss of freedom, and their way of life. Colonizers may attempt to suppress and pacify the colonized — sometimes successfully — but colonization can never be routinized or accepted by the oppressed, and the thirst for liberation can never be quenched.

Prime Minister David Ben Gurion visits the agricultural settlement of Be’er Ora, north of Eilat, June 13, 1957. (Moshe Pridan/GPO)
Prime Minister David Ben Gurion visits the agricultural settlement of Be’er Ora, north of Eilat, June 13, 1957. (Moshe Pridan/GPO)

In classic colonial situations where an external power takes control of a country to extract valuable resources, decolonization is a straightforward proposition: the colonial power leaves together with whatever agents and population it imported, and political power is transferred to a new government of a postcolonial state governed by the indigenous population.

The decolonization of a settler society is much more complex and difficult. In some scenarios, the settler population leaves and turns the country back over to its native population (albeit often violently), as happened in Algeria, Kenya, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Angola, and Ireland. In other scenarios, the native population is virtually eliminated, which renders decolonization irrelevant, as in Argentina. In most settler colonial situations, however, the settlers stay and become so entrenched that decolonization remains incomplete, as in South Africa, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand/Aotearoa, Ukraine, and post-colonial Latin America.

In Palestine and South Africa, the settlers proved strong enough politically, economically, demographically, and militarily to establish a viable state of their own, but were ultimately unable to eliminate, defeat, or marginalize the indigenous population. South Africa eventually embarked on a process of decolonization, albeit an incomplete one. Israel, in contrast, has steadfastly refused to even entertain the prospect of decolonization.

Part of what makes settler colonialism so resilient, and so hard to end, is the depth of its embeddedness in the colonized land. Settlers come with the intent of not just living in another territory but taking it over — to thoroughly replace the existing society and to supersede it in a normalized settler state. Through myths of entitlement invented to legitimize their seizure of the land, the settlers strive to become the natives — that is, they assert their indigeneity — while rendering the real indigenous people invisible. The latter population are at best quaint, “exotic,” non-threatening pieces of folklore, and at worst security threats that must be contained, controlled, or eliminated. The indigenous are gradually erased from the national narrative and landscape, which are reconfigured to fit the claims of the settler usurpers.

The process of decolonization

What, then, would the decolonization of Palestine entail? Like in most settler situations, the Zionist settlers of what became Israel are now too numerous and embedded in Palestine to dislodge; they will not be leaving. Nonetheless, decolonization must be based on liberation — in this case, of the indigenous Palestinians and the settler Israelis alike.

This process requires specific steps. First, it requires an end to settler entitlement and its hegemony over the land and its resources, over sources of political and economic power, over the national culture and narrative, and the rise of a new, inclusive, and shared polity. Second, it demands the restoration of the indigenous peoples’ sovereignty — their ability to define their own place as equals in the new society, and to carry on a sustainable indigenous life. And third, it portends the integration of the settler population into a society of equals. Once the colonized and colonizers reach a certain parity, then normalization, even reconciliation, becomes possible. And with the assent of the indigenous, the settlers may finally become indigenized.

In order to arrive at post-coloniality — the ultimate end of settler colonialism — the process of decolonization must unfold in tandem with a detailed program of reconstructing the country in an inclusive manner. This program rests on six indispensable requirements, which form the basis of the One Democratic State Campaign (ODSC) program, a one-state project which both authors are active members of:

  1. Replacing ethno-religious nationalism with a constitutional democracy based on common citizenship, thus enabling and fostering the emergence of a shared civil society;
  2. Fully implementing the right of refugees and their descendants to return to their homeland under conditions that facilitate their full re-integration into society;
  3. Offering constitutional guarantees to the country’s national, ethnic, religious, and other communities to protect their right to their collective identities, associations, cultures, and institutions;
  4. Restoration to the expelled, excluded, and oppressed of their rights, properties (actual or through compensation), identities, and social position, followed by reconciliation;
  5. Establishing an inclusive economy offering financial security, sustainability, meaningful employment, and just compensation; and
  6. Acknowledging a connectedness to the Arab world and the international community by creating new regional and global structures of equality and sustainability.
A view of Jerusalem behind the separation wall, Abu Dis, West Bank, February 26, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
A view of Jerusalem behind the separation wall, Abu Dis, West Bank, February 26, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Toward a political program 

So, what is the plan? A great deal of work has already been done to understand the nature of Zionist/Israeli settler colonialism and decolonization, but remains largely confined to the academic realm. This massive academic literature must be “translated” into forms that are accessible and prioritized for political activists, strategists, and the public.

The ODSC program is a first step in that direction, and provides both a conceptual and operational basis for integrating academic analysis into a political program. Other steps in this direction might be to produce a detailed vision document along the lines of the Freedom Charter of the African National Congress (ANC), and to convene a working group to draft a constitution. A detailed plan of action is also required for bringing this new society into being, and for promoting a form of strategic co-resistance that can overcome Israel’s disciplinary power and that enlarges the participation of both Palestinians and critical Israeli partners.

A second step involves adopting a common framing that not only counters Israeli hasbara (state propaganda), but offers an equally compelling alternative logic for political struggle. These should be based on three elements: diagnosing the problem as one of decolonizing a settler colonial state, rather than technically resolving a “conflict” between two symmetrical sides; shifting the discourse away from the focus on Israeli “security” to centering structural colonial relations of dominance and subordination; and overturning the view of Israel as the victim that requires an exclusive “Jewish” state, to the understanding of Israel as the stronger party, architect, and enforcer of an apartheid regime existing over a one-state reality, which must be transformed into a single democracy.

A third step is to formulate the political strategy itself. It must begin with the fact that, like whites in South Africa during the anti-apartheid struggle, the majority of Israeli Jews will never be active partners in a struggle for the decolonization of Palestine. As settler colonials they have no motivation to decolonize, which they view as a form of national suicide. The best we can aim for strategically is to “soften” them through an inclusive plan of decolonization to a point where, as in South Africa, they will not actively resist the necessary transition to post-colonialism.

Taking a leaf out of the ANC’s playbook, this means forging a Palestinian and international civil society alliance in which Israeli Jewish allies play a key role. The goal of such an alliance is to generate broad-based support among the international public — trade unions, churches, intellectuals, academics, students, activists, and the broader public — that will “trickle up” and gradually change unfavorable government policies into support for a single democratic state.

A single state is not utopian

Is this a pipe-dream? It may have been, had any other viable option been kept open. But as it stands, the other option besides apartheid — some form of a two-state solution or a confederation — has been buried under massive settlements that Israel has used to absorb the occupied territories into Israel proper. Israelis must accept the bitter pill of their expansionist ambitions: there can be no Jewish state without apartheid, and apartheid is politically and morally unacceptable, and ultimately unsustainable. By the same token, the Palestinians must accept that their aspirations for a Palestinian state, even a tiny one in the occupied territories, is also gone.

Looking beyond these daunting realities, however, is an achievable vision and a program that is good for both peoples: a single democratic state with a shared civil society, a flourishing economy, security and peace, in which both peoples can find a significant measure of self-determination and expression.

The one state’s moment may not have arrived; but the tectonic plates are shifting. At some point in the not-too-distant future, as the international community casts about for a solution, the one-state alternative will inevitably make the most sense — but only if civil society — Palestinian-led and supported by critical Israelis — works now to make it a genuine political option.

One democratic state. Elegant, simple, just, and doable. It’s a vision worth considering, and a vision worth fighting for.