By Charlie Kimber
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2896

The crisis of Israeli settler colonialism

This analysis of settler colonialism looks at whether Israel fits the usual definition and how Palestinian resistance has thwarted some Zionist aims
Issue 2896
Pro-Palestine activists protest amid a crisis in Israeli settler colonialism

Many Palestinians are still holding onto the keys to their homes from where they were forced out (Picture: Alisdare Hickson)

Theodor Herzl, one of the founding fathers of Zionism, wrote, “If I wish to substitute a new building for an old one, I must demolish before I construct.” That sums up the eliminationist logic—destroying all or nearly all of a territory’s people—which is often seen as integral to settler colonialism. It’s what distinguishes it from other types of colonial regimes such as the British in India.

The British seizure of India brought horrors. But it did not involve an attempt to transfer a big block of people from the ­imperialist heartland to establish a new colonial society on conquered lands stripped of the Indigenous population. In contrast, settler colonial formations transfer people in large numbers to take over Indigenous land permanently.

Certainly most of the pioneers of Zionism believed that the formation of Israel meant driving out the Palestinians, not simply ruling over them as a subject population. David Ben-Gurion, who became the first prime minister of Israel, wrote in 1937 to his son, “We must expel Arabs and take their place. If we are compelled to use force—not in order to dispossess the Arabs of the Negev or Transjordan, but in order to guarantee our right to settle there—our force will enable us to do so.”

Such a mission was inevitably murderous. Palestinians would not leave unless they feared for their lives. That was why the 1948 Nakba had mass violence and death at its core. Writer Patrick Wolfe explained this was “the logic of the elimination of the native”.

And the physical extinction came with ideological erasure. Dispossession was founded on the fundamental myth that Palestine was “a land without people for a people without land”. Attributed to Israel Zangwill in 1901, this phrase still forms a key part of Zionist ideology.

The intention to obliterate Palestinians was the product of a long debate inside Zionism. Some of its leading figures, such as Baron Edmond de Rothschild, hoped for a state where relatively small numbers of Jewish landowners exploited a majority of Palestinian Arab labourers. Israel, in this model, would be like South Africa or Algeria.

The strongest opposition came from the Zionist workers’ movement. Its leaders argued that Arab labour would undermine the Jewish worker. Any Jewish capitalist who employed them was betraying the Zionist cause. And, as South Africa was showing from early in the twentieth century, exploited colonial people could also be a potential source of powerful destabilisation of the economy and the state.

If they had a serious role in production they could strike and cause trouble. So, according to the Labour Zionism tendency in the ­movement, there had to be a separate Jewish-only economy, created on “cleared” land and without competition from Arabs.

The General Organisation of Hebrew Workers in the Land of Israel (Histadrut) “trade union”, founded in 1920, played a crucial role in this project. It drove Arabs out of most sectors. The Histadrut’s founding congress committed it to “a society of Jewish labour” in a Jewish state.

David Hacohen, who ­followed Ben-Gurion as a leader of the main Zionist “left” party, said, “I had to fight my friends on the issue of Jewish socialism. I had to defend the fact that I would not accept Arabs in my trade union, prevent Arab workers from getting jobs, pour kerosene on the Arab tomatoes, praise to the skies the Jewish National Fund that bought land from absentee landlords and to throw the peasants off the land.”

This set up a worker-boss struggle, but not the usual one. Instead it was over the division of colonial spoils and ­therefore based on the loot—and the theft from and expulsion of Palestinians—continuing. These Labour Zionists set up the Kibbutzim, self-organising farms to act as military camps in areas seized from Arabs.

The Histadrut also controlled the armed Zionist militia, the Haganah, which defended the expropriators. The militia went on to play the central part in the ethnic cleansing of much of Palestine in 1947 and 1948 as Zionists pushed out up to one million Palestinians.

Israel is distinct from Algeria. In Algeria, the Algerian resistance could fight against the French settlers and force them to retreat back to ­mainland Europe. The Palestinians are unable to do the exact same for Israeli settlers, as these settlers are not overseas agents who came to the colonies on duty.

But settler colonialism isn’t a one-sided process, nor is it a single event. Indigenous people rebel, even if not immediately. Their refusal to be excluded and jettisoned and their courage in the face of jails, bombs and starvation has undermined the settler-colonial project.

This isn’t what Zionists had bargained for. Their attitude is well reflected by a quote often attributed to Ben-Gurion, although he doesn’t seem to have said it—“the old will die and the young will forget”. But the descendants of Palestinian refugees have never forgotten about their right to return.

And a large Palestinian minority of about 160,000— equivalent to 13 percent of the population in 1949—survived within the new Israeli state. Israeli expansionism extended this problem. Annexation, with the agreement of King Abdullah I of Jordan, of several Arab villages in 1949 added more Palestinians to the Israeli state. Then came the 1967 war. Of about one million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel’s violence displaced 280,000 to 350,000 from their homes. The other 700,000 remained.

Far from eliminating Palestinians, Israel was absorbing them, but without granting them any rights. This was a terrifying dilemma as the sought-after victories brought more of the supposedly non‑existent people into inevitable conflict with the state. One “solution” was to launch more schemes of conquest such as the settler invasions of the West Bank.

But the waves of cruelty and displacement have not broken resistance. Another way out was to recruit collaborators from the oppressed populations to exclude the Palestinians politically if not physically. But this hasn’t worked.

Today the Palestinian Authority, petty administrator of the West Bank so long as it does what the Israelis demand, is discredited and reviled. Every attempt by Israel to leap free from the consequences of its crimes rebounds as a further reason for the elimination of the apartheid state. The Palestinian-American historian Rashid Khalidi writes, “With the replacement of Palestine by Israel and the expulsion of most of its Arab population in 1948, it appeared that the Zionist dream had become a reality.

“Ethnic cleansing had produced a massive ­demographic transformation, and the land of all those ‘absent’ Arabs could be appropriated. The Zionists’ hope and expectation was that the refugees would simply disappear, and that even the memory that this had been an Arab-majority country for more than a millennium could be effaced. As Golda Meir put it, ‘There were no such thing as Palestinians. They did not exist’.”

But, Khalidi wrote in 2018, “Taking the long view, it is clear that for all the power of the Israeli military and its lethal security service and the aggressive potency of Israeli ­nationalism, this is in many ways a failed colonial-settler project. The population of the entire country from the river to the sea, unified by decades of occupation and colonisation since 1967, is today at least half Palestinian, and that proportion is growing. The natives are still there, and they are restless.”

The Israeli genocide in Gaza is a return to eliminationism. But again resistance has broken Binyamin Netanyahu’s dreams of a swift victory that, temporarily, holds down the people of Gaza and the West Bank. The Palestinians have refused to experience Nakba II, they have risen up against the attempt to remove them to Egypt or Jordan in the way their grandparents were.

Israel has murdered tens of thousands of people and threatens to kill many more. But its vile project has sowed the seeds of future resistance. It has placed the Palestinians alongside the hundreds of millions across the world who see them as heroic representatives of the struggles of the poor and oppressed.

The inherent fragility of the foundations of settler colonialism creates new opportunities for resistance movements. Recognising the foundations of Israel in settler-colonialism, even if it has not delivered its aim, underlines that there is no liberation through piecemeal reform, still less “two states”. Israel was conceived and created on the basis of one state and will seek to remain that whatever the cost.

The imperialists and liberals may peddle their illusion of two states. But the experience in Gaza now has confirmed that the issue is not just the symptoms of 75 years of the Israeli state and more than a century of the colonial-Zionist alliance. The real problem is the cause—imperialism and capitalism.

Further reading
  • Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native by Patrick Wolfe
  • Settler colonialism, Indigenous sovereignty and resisting the ghost(s) of history by Rana Barakat
  • A bloody history of settler colonialism by Charlie Kimber
  • Settler Colonialism: An Introduction by Sai Englert £16.99
  • Buy your books at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to or visit the shop at 1 Bloomsbury St, London WC1B 3QE

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance