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Palestine and Israel: A Case of Incomplete Decolonization

by Robert L. Tignor on May 6, 2002

Daily we search for explanations of the violence in the Middle East. Is it the vaunted clash of civilizations? A centuries-old conflict between Islam and the West? Civilization vs. terror or the modern vs. the archaic?

Our confusion will disappear if we place the conflict within the historical framework of decolonization struggles. Violence has accompanied decolonization whenever the goal of political independence is blocked. Violence has ceased only through outside intervention. At its core the Palestinian-Israeli clash is about political independence and ending colonial status.

The Palestinian struggle is part of a late twentieth-century drive of colonial peoples to become sovereign nation-states. Much of the fury behind the Palestinian opposition to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza arises from the Palestinians’ belief that they are the only colonized people completely frustrated in their wish to live under their own rulers.

Israel is rarely described as a settler state, such as the former colonial Algeria, Kenya, Southern Rhodesia, Angola, Mozambique and apartheid South Africa. Zionists insist on Israel’s historic right to Palestine, but in fact only Europe’s imperial power made Israel’s creation possible. Starting with the Balfour Declaration in 1917, the British promoted the settlement of European Jews in Palestine much as European colonial states encouraged settlers to migrate to Africa.

If we think of Palestine as a settler state similar to the European settler states in Africa, the present horrifying dispute takes on familiar characteristics. The roads to independence in African settler states were bloody, marked in every instance by massacres and inflated propaganda on all sides.

While the European-sponsored settlers in colonial Africa were at first better organized politically than the non-European groups living alongside them, the non-European populations caught up. They insisted on their right to self-determination. In all cases, the goal of statehood that late-developing nationalists embraced required outside intervention.

In four of the territories (Kenya, Algeria, Mozambique and Angola), still formally under European colonial rule when violence began, European settlers fiercely opposed power-sharing. They believed that they faced uncivilized, barbaric adversaries. Ultimately, the French, the British, and the Portuguese tired of defending settler interests and conceded independence to the nationalists.

Southern Rhodesia-Zimbabwe and South Africa followed more tortuous routes to independence for their black majorities. Their political conditions resembled those in occupied Palestine today. Both states required outside intervention to realize the political goals of their disenfranchised black populations. In Southern Rhodesia and South Africa no formal imperial ruler was available to negotiate the transfer of power.

What the rebels did in these two countries was wage guerrilla warfare and appeal to the international community. An international embargo on Southern Rhodesia and international pressure on South Africa, coupled with vigorous internal nationalist movements, eventually brought independence under majority rule to the peoples of both countries.

The lesson from these African struggles for independence is that while nationalists can make life violent, often unbearable, for settler populations, by themselves they cannot succeed. An imperial power, if there is one, must make the critical decisions to curb the ambitions of colonial or external settlers, such as the Israelis, and assist the indigenous population, in this case the Palestinians, to realize statehood. Where the outside power departs, as the British did in Southern Rhodesia and South Africa, and in 1948 when the state of Israel came into being, international pressure on the successor state is vital.

Even with the support that settlers enjoyed from their imperial backers, things did not turn out well for the European settlers in colonial Africa. They lost their bid to monopolize power. Large numbers fled Angola, Mozambique and Algeria. No doubt these outcomes inspire some Palestinians to believe that history favors them and that they will ultimately inherit all of colonial Palestine.

Yet not all the parallels argue for this outcome. In the first place, proposals for partitioning the settler territories in Africa between European and indigenous populations were never seriously discussed. The two-state arrangement has been an option in Palestine from the time that the British established a colony there.

Of greater importance, European settlers in Africa failed to maintain the support of the metropolitan powers. The Algerian colons could not convince the French that Algeria was French. The South African whites were unsuccessful in promoting the ideology that they represented the forces of civilization against African primitivism. In contrast, Israel still enjoys widespread support in Europe and North America. It is seen as a viable, moral and democratic polity. Since the critical factor in anti-colonial nationalist struggles in settler territories is the favor of the great powers, the Palestinians face formidable obstacles.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has reached a critical moment. A partition of this war-wracked land into two states has a chance to succeed. For the first time, the Arab regimes of the area have publicly accepted a two-state formula. Moderate Palestinians and Israelis favor it. The moment has to be seized, with the Americans acting as the essential outside mediating and intervening power, lest the extremists on both sides come to the fore with their visions of a single state, whether Palestinian Arab or Jewish, encompassing the entirety of Palestine-Israel.


Robert L. Tignor is professor of modern African history at Princeton University, the author of "Capitalism and Nationalism at the End of Empire" (1998) and a writer for the History News Service.