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Number Seven Thousand Five Hundred and Thirty - 14 March 2024
Iran Daily - Number Seven Thousand Five Hundred and Thirty - 14 March 2024 - Page 5

Researcher on Israeli affairs and author of the book on settler colonialism:

Israel is limited by Palestinian, regional resistance

By Ali Amiri

Cultural critic
Sai Englert is a lecturer in political economy of the Middle East at Leiden University, Netherlands, and the author of ‘Settler Colonialism: An Introduction’. His research focuses on the Israeli state and the consequences of neoliberalism, as well as settler colonialism. He has made numerous contributions to various publications such as the New Left Review and Jacobin.
In the following interview, Englert presents the settler colonialism analysis of Israel and references the transparent ambitions of the early Zionists, who shamelessly promoted the colonial project of Israel to Europeans as a solution to the rising anti-Semitism in the continent and as a means to establish European control in the Middle East.
The Zionists have long attempted to portray the Israel-Palestine conflict as something other than what it truly is: a settler colony that must address the issue of “transferring” the indigenous people whose lands have been occupied. However, as long as we remain within this framework, it is clear that true Palestinian liberation can only be achieved once the colonizers are ousted.

IRAN DAILY: When we think about colonial powers, we usually think about great empires like the British, French, or German colonial empires. Israel, on the other hand, is a small state without apparent human resources or imperialistic ambitions, yet, it’s essentially a settler colonial state. How can we explain this?
SAI ENGLERT: Well, I think that’s a good question. It’s true. The Israeli state portrays itself as being a small state surrounded by aggressive states and those enemies, depending on the historical period – the 50s, 60s, and 70s – constructed different Arab states or now the Muslim states, and the practice of resistance and these kinds. I think that’s quite a historical fallacy and we’re just missing the larger picture, which is that the reason Zionism was able to establish itself in Palestine is absolutely because of its alliance with British imperialism and the British Empire. And Zionists are truly clear about this. If you read [Theodor] Herzl, he is very clear that Zionism will need the support of what he calls great powers, and it will represent the interests of the great powers in the region.
In fact, imperial politicians were very clear about this. Ronald Storrs, the British governor of Palestine, described British Zionism as support for what he calls a “little loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism,” and he compares it to Protestant setup in the north of Ireland. Then comes the lateral shift to the United States, which goes on until today. Israel is a very close ally of the United States, and represents what the US Secretary of State in the past has called an “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” which was used to say that it’s an extension of Americans in the region.
So, that would be my response to this part of your question. I think it would be a mistake to think of Zionist project and the Israel state as simply an isolated state. I think it’s always been part of the reason why the Imperial nations, first Britain and then the United States, support it. Because Palestine is situated in an old strategic point in the world economy, next to the Suez Canal. In the 1920s through 1940s it was on the route of the British oil pipeline that was constructed in Kirkuk and went all the way to Haifa. You know, it’s a key strategic region that all those powers want to defend. And I think another reason why the United States and Israel unite the way they do now is that it gives them diplomatic advantages because of their military political interests.
When we think in terms of colonialism, it’s a particular form of colonial rule that is developed by establishing a new population in the land that is conquered. Israel has reached and played that role, as a sort of outpost of the empire in a particularly strategic region in need of control.
You know that the Dutch established posts in Dutch India in order to protect the routes to India. The French started colonizing what is today’s Algeria, because they were trying to control the routes in the Mediterranean; the British established settlements in what is now the Falkland in the south of Argentina, in order to control trade routes in the south of America, etc., etc. etc. I think Israel really represents a classic case of the settler colonies, with the role that other colonies also played across the world.

Do you agree with Richard Anderson Falk that Israel is a “colonialist solution to a European problem?”
Yes, I agree with him, and that’s ironic that until the 1960s or so, the Zionists agreed with him as well. Again, when you look at the early Zionists, they are dreamily transparent and clear about it. They say there is anti-Semitism in Europe, as the nation states are formed throughout the 19th century, and Jewish populations in Europe are increasingly targeted by a new form of anti-Semitism that considers them to be sort of fundamentally foreign to the nation states within which they find themselves. And the Zionist movement emerges as a particular response to that by saying European anti-Semitism will never disappear, and the only way for us to solve it is to also develop a nation state, and we will develop that nation states in the colonial world. They’re very transparent about this. Of course, they are European bourgeois thinkers from the late 19th century, and like all European bourgeois who lived in the late 19th and early 20th century, they see no problem with colonialism. They’re in favor of it. They think that’s an OK way to resolve internal problems in Europe through conquering, occupying, and subjugating the peoples of the world.
So, in that sense, I kind of doubly agree with the quote, since on the one hand, it’s a colonial solution to a European problem because it’s about European control in the Middle East, and it’s a colonial solution to European problem because it’s an attempt by the Zionists to resolve the kind of the contradictory position they find themselves in in Europe, as both they are very much part of Europe – they’re European, of course – and victims of European racism. And in fact, that’s also how the Zionists are going to convince the great powers to support Zionism.
So, if I can sort of sum it up in a way the arguments for the European powers is to say, you want control over Palestine and you don’t want the Jews in Europe, we have a solution to both of those problems. Although at some point, they talk about Argentina, at some point, they talk about Uganda, but they mainly talk about Palestine.
And so one of the things that becomes striking is that many of the colonial policymakers or officials who supported Zionism were rabid anti-Semites. The Balfour Declaration, when the British Empire signs away Palestine to the Zionist movement, carries the name of a British politician called Lord Balfour, a famous anti-Semite. He passed legislation in 1905, the Aliens Act, that attempted to limit Jewish migration into Britain. There are many examples like that. And in fact, we still see them today, when we see the Israeli government cozying up to anti-Semitic governments in Hungary or in Poland.
You know, there’s a logic here that continues, which is to say that the goal of the Zionists was not to challenge anti-Semitism in Europe, but to say, “It’s simply a fact, there is nothing we can do about it, and so we will solve it by becoming a European state in the Middle East.” And Herzl who founded the Zionist organization and writes ‘The Jewish State’, which is really kind of the founding document of the Zionist movement, writes that the Jewish state will be a rampart of European civilization against Asian barbarism. And so there’s already this kind of idea of that by leaving Europe, they will become Europeans – if that makes sense.

Interesting. A few months ago, at the beginning of the recent war, there was a debate around banning the word “decolonization” on Twitter, now known as X. Why is Israel so afraid of this word?
First of all, I should say that I’m not on social media and don’t actually know the particular thing you’re referring to. But I think it’s part of a broader tendency, certainly in the context of Zionism and of the Israeli state, to limit the possibility and ability of the International Solidarity Movement to express itself. And I think we see that in lots of different ways. There are attempts at criminalizing the BDS Movement (the boycott, divestment, and sanction movements), attempts to make it illegal in lots of different places, both in Europe and in North America, there are attempts to make it into law that anti-Zionism is equated with anti-Semitism. And so that it can no longer be about solidarity with the Palestinians, but it can be criminalized as hatred towards Jews.
And, you know, of course the idea of decolonization is not one that is comfortable for people that are committed to a colonial project. I would say, however, and this might seem a little bit contradictory, but it seems to me that all these different repressive tactics are signs of weakness. And I think, in general, this is true. When political movements or regimes have to rely more and more on repression, I think it tells us something about the fact that they find themselves threatened, isolated, etc. I think two or three decades ago, what the Zionists would have said, in Europe, or in North America was “We are the only democracy in the Middle East, we are bringing progress and advancement, and that’s why you should support us.”
In many ways, that’s still part of the narrative, but I think, fundamentally they know that they’ve lost the battle for hearts and minds in the majority of the populations of the world. And so instead of trying to wage an effective argument to convince, they are waging a campaign to repress. And that campaign can be very violent, people can lose their jobs, be slandered, attacked, etc. But fundamentally, I think it points to a weakness on their side, which is they feel that the popular sentiment has shifted away from them, and so they have to police people’s languages, political expression, etc., in these kinds of hyper repressive ways.

Israel tried and keeps trying to fabricate history in a way to legitimize their claim on the Palestinian land. How can we show the world that the land belongs to the indigenous people living on it regardless of their faith or race, and debunk the myth that the Palestinian land belongs to the Jews?
I think what’s interesting about that is, again, it’s striking when you look at, read, and engage with early Zionists and Israeli policymakers. They always had this double language. On the one hand, they would say Palestine is empty, so the early Zionists would say that Zionism was a movement for “people without a land in a land without a people,” and so the idea was that there was nobody in Palestine and so it was a perfect place to settle. And at the same time, they were hyper conscious of the fact that there was a population there, and that they were going to have to find a solution to it. And so the early debates amongst the Zionists are really about what to do with the Palestinians. And so for people who claim that there were no Palestinians, it’s funny how much they spoke about them and debated what to do with them.
And you have two schools of thought here, which, by the way, also drives this point home of colonization and how aware they were that they were colonizers. You have one school of thought that is going to say we should do in Palestine what the French did in North Africa. So, we should colonize in the same way as the French were colonizing in Algeria at the time. And so we should have a minority of landowners who exploit the majority of indigenous workers, i.e. Palestinians, in order to pay them very little and work them very hard so that we can export cheap goods towards Europe.
And against that, another camp would say no, what we have to do is to build an economy that is not dependent on the indigenous population. And they will point, for example, to South Africa, and they will say the problem is that if you build an economy that’s dependent on indigenous labor, that indigenous labor will rebel, fight back, and refuse to submit.
Again, I think in the kind of Zionist sources, whether it’s [David] Ben-Gurion, whether it’s [Haim] Arlosoroff, who was one of the key theoreticians of early Zionism, whether it’s people like [Ze’ev] Jabotinsky, who wrote a famous article called “The Iron Wall”, where he talks about the fact that the only way that the indigenous people will be defeated is if they are militarily defeated and separated through an iron wall from the future state, it’s very interesting that all of them talk extremely candidly about the fact that there are indigenous people and that they will have to be defeated, expelled, etc., in order to develop a state.
From the 1920s onwards, there was very open debate amongst the Zionists about what at the time they called “transfer”, which is a sort of euphemism, the polite way to say expulsion of the Palestinians out of Palestine if the Israeli state is to be built. There’s a wonderful book by a Palestinian historian called Nur Masalha, who traces the uses and theories of transfer amongst the early Zionists, and shows that the Nakba, the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians out of Palestine at the moment of the creation of the Israeli state doesn’t come from nowhere. It comes from decades of political argument, preparation, strategy, etc., that makes the moment of expulsion possible in 1948, and it continues after that.
People have spoken a lot about a formative moment in Zionist historiography, which is in 1956. There was a clash between Palestinian fedayeen from Gaza and the militia in the kibbutz of Nahal Oz – which was attacked again on October 7, so it’s a very long ongoing history – and the head of the militia of Nahal Oz was killed. Moshe Dayan, who’s an important figure in the Israeli army and then in Israeli politics, gave the eulogy for the head of this militia who was killed, and in his eulogy he says that of course the Palestinians hate us, because they have been stuck in refugee camps for the last eight years, looking at us living on the lands of their ancestors. There are many more examples of this. But over and over and over again, in Zionist and Israeli historiography, they are extremely clear about what they’re doing. And I think that’s important because you can’t colonize a place, you can’t ethnically cleanse a place, without doing it on purpose. It just doesn’t come out of thin air.
And I think we’re seeing that for the moment. So, while pro-Israeli speaking points say that the Israelis are just defending themselves, that they’re fighting Hamas and so on, if you listen to what Israeli politicians and policymakers are saying, they’re extremely transparent. They’re saying there are no innocents in Gaza, that there is no difference between fighters and civilians. They say that they are cutting water, energy, etc. Some of them are calling for atomic bombs to be dropped on Gaza, they are talking about recolonizing Gaza, people are drawing up plans, and so on and so on. All of this is being discussed very much in the open. And so I think the smoking gun in a sense is that Israeli policymakers at all different times in the evolution, both of Zionism and of the Israeli state, are extremely clear about what they’re doing, and are very, very transparent in how they discuss it.

Do you see this latest round of Israeli hostilities towards Palestinians as a way to lay the groundwork for dispossessing the Gaza natives?
I think that’s a difficult question to answer. It is very clear that there are sections of the Israeli government who very much want to do that. I think it’s very clear. We’ve seen plans to expel the Palestinians in Gaza into Egypt or just into the sea. Some Israeli politicians are saying that they can take boats and, you know, can go to Europe or the United States, but they won’t stay here. Or there are plans circulating about building artificial islands on which the people of Gaza can be sent.
And of course, what we’re seeing is that there’s a genocide being carried out against people. Tens of thousands have been maimed and killed, millions have been displaced, infrastructure has been destroyed. I think there’s definitely an attempt at making life in Gaza either impossible or at least as difficult as possible. All of that is happening. And I think it is very clear that in a world in which they could do whatever they wanted, that is what Israelis would try to do. And again, it’s a very old line of thought there. People like Yitzhak Rabin, who was the prime minister in the 1990s, famously said he wished he could wake up one day and that Gaza would have disappeared into the sea. Or in 1967, after conquering the whole of Historic Palestine, Levi Eshkol, who was the Prime Minister of Israel at the time, said that perhaps if Israel cut the water supply to Gaza, the Palestinians wouldn’t have a choice and they would just leave.
So you have all these sort of dreams of if the Palestinians could just be gotten rid of. However, the Israelis do not live in a world that is shaped by their deepest desires, but they live in a world in which they have to engage with material limits that are imposed on them, and they’re imposed on them by Palestinian resistance. They’re imposed on them by social movements across the region. You know, the fact that we’re seeing millions of people taking to the streets in Yemen, in Jordan, in Iraq, across the entire region. In Egypt, for the first time since 2013, people took to the streets again to demand that the Egyptian Government doesn’t collaborate with Israel in allowing the expulsion of Gazans, to demand that the ties with Israel are cut. You know, the fact that the Houthis in Yemen are stopping boats and disrupting world trade in an attempt to put pressure on Western governments to stop allowing Israel from acting the way it does, I think all of that points to the limits imposed on Israel.
Also there are massive social movements in the Global North as well, so that the governments that are the most supportive of Israel potentially have to pay the price. For example, I have doubts on the fact that Biden could win the election anyway in the United States, but it could very well be that his support for the genocide in Gaza will cost him his reelection.
The fact that the Israeli military seems to be doing quite badly inside of Gaza, and that the numbers that are starting to come up in terms of wounded and deaths, etc., on their side, seem to be very high, which probably means that their ability to carry this on for a long period of time is limited. All of that, I think, points to the fact that Israel can’t just wish things into existence. And so, actually, I think it’s fairly unlikely that they will be successful. In fact, if you look at the plans that, for example, the Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has drawn up for what would come after, they look very similar to what came before. The only difference is that they don’t name Hamas as being in control of the Gaza Strip. They talk about an unidentified Palestinian body. But apart from that, we’re basically talking about the same thing.
And so I think that in reality, what’s the most likely outcome is the same status quo, but with the Gaza Strip that has just gone through a genocidal assault. And I think what is going to be the real lasting horror of this is the destruction, the loss of life, the loss of infrastructure, the loss of land, the loss of water, etc. It is unimaginable. And so the conditions inside of the Gaza Strip will be much worse than they were. But I think the settlement will be fairly similar to what came before.
In 2005, Israel, led by Ariel Sharon, pulled out the settlers in Gaza unilaterally, and this was often presented by pro-Israeli voices as a sort of a peace offering to the Palestinians. Now, of course, that wasn’t the case. There was no negotiation around this in any kind of way. But it was a strategic decision that Gaza was too difficult to hold. Because there were 8000 settlers controlling 30 percent of the land in Gaza, surrounded I think at the time – my numbers might be wrong – by about 1.5 million Palestinians, and that balance of forces was considered impossible to hold and too difficult to secure. It demanded too many soldiers for too little strategic or economic interest, whereas in the West Bank, there was more land available. There were many more settlers, more growth was possible, etc. And so they made the choice to pull out. And so I think while there is a fanatical settler right in the Israeli government that thinks they can relaunch the settlements in Gaza, that would be extremely difficult to imagine. I might be wrong, but I find it very difficult to imagine because it’s exactly because of that balance of forces, which has gotten much worse by the way. Today, there are 2.3 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. I think it would be a total strategic mistake for the Israelis to do that. They would find themselves in the very situation that they tried to pull themselves out of in 2005.

Now, I want to ask whether the dispossessing of the natives would go on in the West Bank, because as long as we understand this conflict in terms of settler colonialism, there is no other way for Israel, right?
Yes, and I think it’s very clear. I think Israel is being very clear that they’re increasing settlement construction in East Jerusalem, they are increasing it in the West Bank. The levels of violence that we’ve seen in the West Bank are immense. In fact, they were immense even before October 7. This year, before October 7, was the deadliest year for Palestinians since the Second Intifada, specifically in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. So, we’re talking about hundreds of people who have been killed, settler riots in Palestinian towns and villages, military actions in refugee camps. We’ve seen very, very high levels of violence that are all geared at dispossession.
And you’re right. I think it’s one of the strengths of the analysis of settler colonialism, which is to say, there’s not some sort of national conflict. It’s an ongoing process of colonization. And, by the way, it’s not only in the West Bank, it’s also inside of Israel itself. There is a massive process that’s been going on for the last decade, obviously, it’s been going on since 1948, but in the last decade has again accelerated, and that is to displace Palestinians in the Naqab Desert in the south, also known as the Negev, where 70,000, Palestinians are being threatened with dispossession and displacement. There was a plan that was defeated by a social movement at the time, but which has not disappeared. And so there are big ongoing developments, or an ongoing push to achieve really what I think can be understood as the central strategic aim of the Israeli state towards the Palestinians: to concentrate as many Palestinians on as little land as possible – and that happens everywhere. You can see that happening everywhere, including inside of the green line.

As my last question, I want to know that in your opinion, what hope is left for Palestinians at this stage?
I think I very much share the analysis that the Palestinian Left had already developed in the 1950s and 60s, which was to say that it’s impossible to understand Palestine, outside of wider regional relations.
Similar to where we started our discussion today, which was that you can’t understand Zionism and then the Israeli state without understanding wider relations of empire building and of imperialism, as Israel plays a particular role in imposing, defending, and reproducing Western power in the wider region. And so, that it’s impossible to think about the Liberation of Palestine without thinking about a wider regional liberation.
The Palestinian leftist thinker, George Habash, used to say this famous sentence that the road to Jerusalem goes through the capitals of the Arab world. And, you know, without the fall of repressive regimes across the region, and somehow democratization of the region, I think it’s impossible to think about the Liberation of Palestine.
Israel can function the way it does because the regional actors collaborate with it. The Palestinians are the majority of the population in Jordan, and they are an important population in the south of Lebanon, as well as in the south of Syria. The fact that they are controlled by those regimes, that they are stopped from organizing for their return, plays a key role in stabilizing the region and stopping the Liberation of Palestine.
But also I think there’s a strategic question as well: halfway through the 20th century, the United States made a calculation that it was better for them to unite with Israel as a repressive force in the region than to unite with different sections of Arab nationalism. And that calculation obviously can be changed, in a region in which massive social movements, revolutionary movements – like we saw in 2011 – across the region were to take power, for example, and to genuinely start representing the will of their populations. I think you could see the United States and Europe being forced to rethink that strategic decision if they were to start losing control of the region in general. Would it still be worth it to continue supporting Israel in the blind and unconditional way that they do now? And so in many ways, I think the Liberation of Palestine is intimately connected to the wider liberation of the region as a whole.
And Ghassan Kanafani, who was also a very famous Palestinian author and political thinker, used to talk about the enemy trinity, and he used to say there are three enemies: there are the local ruling classes, the local bourgeoisie, there are reactionary regimes in the region, and there is imperialism. And the Palestinians are facing all three of those at the same time, which is obviously bad news. But the good news is that they’re not the only ones. I think the rest of the region is facing them as well. And so if we think about it, at a wider level, I think the situation is less hopeless than if we simply think about the Palestinians, isolated, facing both the Israeli state on the one hand, and its Western backers on the other.

Iran Daily does not recognize the statehood of Israel, and any part of the text that points to the contrary strictly reflects the opinion of the interviewee.

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