To this historian of empire, the Israeli onslaught on the captive Palestinians of Gaza strikingly recalls the tactics of colonial counterinsurgency, as recent research by Laleh Khalili at SOAS underlines. Attempting to crush nationalist resistance, the British surrounded civilian populations with barbed wire during the Southern African War, 1899-1902. Aiming to destroy Algerian nationalism, the French moved hundreds of thousands of Algerian civilians into ‘centres de regroupement’ in the late 1950s. And the United States’ war against the Vietnamese made substantial use of ‘strategic hamlets’ in the 1960s.
In each instance, a militarily stronger colonial power fought, in the name of ‘civilization’, an armed, nationalist resistance accused of terrorism. In each case, the stronger power sought the total physical encirclement of a largely civilian population in order to sever links between guerrillas and civilians, to cut off the flow of arms, and to control supplies of food, water, and medicine. In each case, scorched earth policies intensified civilian dependency by destroying access to means of subsistence. And although Britain, France and the US did not build the death camps seen in Nazi Germany, their tactics resulted in the deaths of many thousands of civilians, and provoked protests in the metropole. In each case, finally, particular military victories were won, while the larger political war against nationalism was lost.
Israel is not a major imperial power, but it is a settler society adopting the colonial languages of cultural superiority, and based on the expulsion and dispossession of the indigenous Palestinian-Arab population, whose nationalist resistance is often called terrorism. Israel’s genesis owes mightily to British imperial sponsorship after 1917, and its ongoing policies of occupation and settlement are unthinkable without US support, above all since the 1960s.
Israel’s constant aim has been to destroy Palestinian nationalism. During 1991-2001, the Israelis attempted to negotiate the Palestinians into disconnected, de-militarized, self-governing enclaves with Israeli-controlled water, airspace, borders, security, and foreign policy. During this period the Israelis accelerated settlement and land confiscation, and offered only token gestures on Jerusalem and the Palestinian right of return. After 1993 this was called the Oslo Process. The attempt did not succeed because it failed to offer the Palestinians the national rights they craved.
Since Israel walked away from the Taba negotiations in January 2001, the occupying power has resorted to unilateralism, cooptation, and force. In Gaza, the Hamas government has no intention of giving up Palestinian national rights, and the Israelis know this. For this reason, Gaza now resembles an open-air prison: physically encircled in order to crush armed resistance, stop the flow of arms, and control the flow of food, water and medicine to civilians. Expulsion and property seizure, particularly in 1948-9 and 1967, and the de-development of Gaza under occupation, and the bombing of factories, schools, and so on, have intensified the dependency of the civilian population. Recently we have witnessed the deaths and injuries of thousands of civilians in Gaza at the hands of Israeli military, along with significant protest, drawing strength from media coverage of the carnage. As in the colonial examples, Israeli policies continue to fail in their primary objective (destroying Palestinian nationalism). Nonetheless, Israeli public opinion lurches further to the right, voting in large numbers for politicians who think imprisonment too good for Palestinians.
While even humanitarian gestures on behalf of Palestinians are controversial (at least at the BBC and Sky), and while even universities find it impossible to state publicly their support for the Palestinian right to education, or to condemn the siege and destruction of Palestinian universities and schools, it is, nonetheless, more than ever important to underline that the fundamental problem is not humanitarian, but political. Without a two- or one-state solution, or, without more than tokenism on Jerusalem and refugees, an end to settlements, occupation, enclave politics, and the deadly open-air prison of Gaza, there will be no just, comprehensive and lasting peace. This means enduring instability in the region and beyond.
Given the failures of diplomacy, it should be no surprise that since the early 2000s, the campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, modelled on the transnational movement which helped to bring down Apartheid in South Africa, has been gathering strength. Its central message is clear: there can be no business-as-usual with Israel until it respects Palestinian national rights. Whether the present campaign will be as successful as its model remains to be seen. But it would be hasty to dismiss the power of institutional disruption in regards to a relatively small country such as Israel, undertaken by those who Israel considers to be its ‘natural partners’ in the West, open to anyone having any dealings with Israeli institutions, businesses and products, involving a non-violent effort to expose the political and moral bankruptcy of the Israeli position, and fundamentally correct in its support for Palestinian national rights.