Israel’s Colonial Predicament

A Novel Framework for Analysing Israeli-Palestinian Relations and Conflict

Master's Thesis, 2006

59 Pages, Grade: Distinction (Very good)





On Colonialism, Occupation and the Algerian War
What is Colonialism?
Distinctions - Why Occupation and Colonialism are not the Same
Grievances, Decolonisation and Violence

The Fundamentals of Israeli Occupation
Characterising Israeli Occupation
Reconsidering the Occupation’s Character
Why does Israel maintain this Relationship?

On Grievances, Violence and an Exit Strategy
Concerning Violence
Saving Colonialism by Modernizing it?
Looking Ahead: Post-Colonialism or Neo-Colonialism?

Conclusion: What's in a word? The Colonialism of the Occupied Territories


Bibliography and References


Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten


The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and notably the civil violence following the outbreak of the first Intifada in 1988, is a complicated and multi-dimensional conflict. In many contexts, it is very hard, if not impossible, to assess the violence between Palestinian and Israeli society today without resorting to a developed theory rather than emotion. However, many scholars and politicians hold the assumption that Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be properly understood with the frameworks, categories and concepts employed to understand other countries and conflicts[1]. We shall endeavour to counter such beliefs and develop exactly that, a framework for analysing Israeli-Palestinian relations and conflict, allowing us to put the conflict into perspective and further develop a structural investigation into the root causes of conflict. We will do this at the example of the Algerian uprising against French colonialism. To develop such a framework, we will draw on classic texts such as the writings of Fanon and Memmi, as well as works by writers such as Bregmann, Barnett and Khader, but also on others, cross-referencing continuously between texts on colonialism, Israel-Palestine, and Algeria.

As the title of this text indicates, the author holds the view that the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories is essentially a colonial one. This is not to say that we should consider the Territories a colony. Algeria was not a colony. What we want to say is that we believe in the existence of a colonial relationship between the two populations, based on the principles of colonialism. If the reader wants to know more about the details of such a relationship, please read Albert Memmi’s classic The Colonizer and the Colonized. We have contended to give a relatively broad description of colonialism and of the relationship between coloniser and colonised, sufficient for our purposes.

Why Algeria? We have chosen French colonialism in Algeria for the structural basis of our framework for a number of reasons. First, because France, like Israel, denied the colonial character of Algeria’s situation; second, because analysts appear to have regularly felt the urge to draw attention to the parallels between the Battle of Algiers and Israel’s reaction to the Palestinian’s uprising, while the evacuation of French settlers from Algeria is being cited in Israel as a precedent for the Israeli disengagement from the Occupied Territories; and third, because of the immense impact the Algerian War had on the conceptual world of resistance movements around the world – including the then-young PLO hoping to repeat the FLN’s tactics of national liberation in Palestine.

The framework for analysing Israeli-Palestinian relations and conflict developed from such considerations would allow us to place the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a comparative environment, having the potential to explain the ongoing violence within an existing framework and draw lessons from the past and make constructive steps forwards.

However, before trying to develop such a framework, we will first have to establish this comparative environment. How could we appraise if Israeli occupation is or is not colonialism without first answering the basic question what is colonialism?

1st part –

On Colonialism, Occupation and the Algerian War

What is Colonialism?

Colonialism is defined as domination and exploitation: broadly speaking, such a political structure is best described as the establishment of a specific socio-political arrangement based on and sustained by the threat or application of force. Generally, such a relationship is established through conquest and submission of other cultures, usually resulting in the partial or complete disintegration of previously existing traditional frameworks of values, social organisations and institutions.

Certainly the principal historical example of colonialism in action has been the European domination over most of Africa over much of the past two centuries. This domination was mastered through individual colonies each featuring different elements of 'theoretically perfect' colonialism, while lacking others. However, not all features are necessary and having only some may be sufficient. Consequently, not all colonialisms are the same, not all colonisers are equal and one solution to one colonial context need not to be valid for all.

This is important, as the underlying structural relationship itself is not established by simple physical conquest and occupation alone, but rather through a developing implicit or explicit contractual relationship between vanquished and victor emerging out of this conquest and occupation. Brief, in a colonial relationship the conquered individuals tacitly agree to obey their new sovereign while the later one does not engage in any responsibilities or promises.

In submitting to the conqueror, individuals institute him as authority with a sufficient threatening power to keep them in awe and acknowledge his rule. A hostile slave-master relationship exists in which the stronger country exploits the weaker one and the weaker country's resources are used to strengthen and enrich the stronger country.

Over time the hostile relationship between conqueror and defeated progressively changes into a more permanent form similar to a master-servant relationship. This change is certainly under no circumstances voluntary, but it cannot be as coercive as that the sovereign's authority would break down once brute force disappears out of sight[2]: the colonised becomes colonised by accepting colonisation and recognising the coloniser. As Memmi emphasizes in Coloniser and Colonised, in order to understand colonialism, we have to recognise this interdependency as both coloniser and colonised are created by colonisation in the first place: “the colonial relationship chained the coloniser and the colonised in a type of relentless dependency, shaping their respective features and dictating their conduct. (...) It does not suffice for the colonised objectively to be a slave, he must recognise himself as such”[3].

This relationship, maintained by pre-emptive suppression of internal dissent once established, largely explains the absence of active resistance on behalf of the colonised – demonstrating equally that any ensuing colonial political and social order inevitably has to be a fundamentally authoritarian one[4].

Distinctions - Why Occupation and Colonialism are not the Same

Of course, any such a political system has much in common with simple belligerent occupation, a condition under which territory is under the effective control of a foreign armed force. The country is occupied by a foreign power whose domination is established and maintained by force rather than consent. It seems colonialism is a product of occupation. Seen from a purely technical point of view, while occupation arises 'naturally' out of conquest, colonialism results under certain circumstances as the 'technically degenerate occupation' from a one-way transfer of rights and obligations[5].

However, discussing such a purely technical point of view does little to help us understand either the essence of colonialism, or the difference between colonialism and occupation: unlike occupants, colonial powers view their colonial territories fundamentally as sovereign voids lacking territorial personality or recognisable legal order, making them legitimate subjects to their submission[6], whereas under occupation such a sovereign void is absent, as the occupied territories' sovereignty is identifiable, and their status is regulated by international agreements and customs such as the Geneva Convention, designed to maintain the status quo:

occupation does not transfer sovereignty. (...) [M]ilitary occupation confers upon the invading force the means of exercising control for the period of occupation. It does not transfer the sovereignty to the occupant, but simply the authority or power to exercise some of the rights of sovereignty. The exercise of these rights results from the established power of the occupant and from the necessity of maintaining law and order, indispensable both to the inhabitants and to the occupying force. It is therefore unlawful for a belligerent occupant to annex occupied territory or to create a new State therein[7] .

Colonialism both denies such a status to colonial territory and implicitly or explicitly declares its control to be permanent and not subject to negotiation.

This opposes the perennial concept of colonialism to occupation, by its very conception merely a temporary phenomenon. Even though we do not know when occupation will eventually end, we do know by definition that it eventually will end, either through assimilation, annexation or with the return of the occupied territory to its sovereign:

an occupied territory is a region that has been taken over by a sovereign power after a military intervention. In most cases the period of occupation is temporary, pending the signing of a peace treaty[8] .

According article 42 of the Geneva Convention

territory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority if the hostile army. The occupation extends to the territory where such authority has been established and can be exercised.

Colonialism does not foresee any such return of sovereignty nor assimilation. As the end of colonialism is for the colonial power not subject to negotiation, its end inevitably has to mean either the gradual assimilation of the colonial settler or his expulsion by force from the colony.

However, as long as colonialism remains the polis’ uncontested political structure, the colonial power tends to cede its colonial entities an outwardly kind and paternalistic yet derivative personality inferior to the 'métropole', rather than to recognise and conceptualise them as distinct national or personal entities. This derivative personality is on the ground based on physical force disguised by a legal outward appearance, according to the principle ‘might makes right’. It thereby accords the coloniser a range of extraordinary rights over the subordinated entities, unheard of within the framework of an occupation.

The colony is in a certain sense a 'possession' or a ‘property’ of the coloniser merely leaving the native population the opportunity (though by no means the right) to pursue its daily life at the colonial administration's discretion. Thereby the colonial administration has at any given time the recurring choice between elimination and assimilation of the 'possession’s' native population. For most colonisers it proves most advantageous neither to completely eliminate nor to assimilate native populations[9] but rather to maintain a fragile balance between coloniser and colonised while expropriating their land and labour[10].

The entire concept of colonialism is largely dependent on the coloniser’s ability to exploit the colonised' labour to exploit the colony's natural resources and to pass the surplus value on to the métropole by acting as a privileged mercantilist market for the métropole's manufactured goods. Thus colonialism is not only - as occupation is - about control, but at least as much about exploitation.

While the idea of widespread extermination, expulsion or assimilation has tangible but limited potential in the first place, the coloniser's incentive not to terminate the colonised drops to near zero once the colonised refuses to act as cheap labour, market or worse, if he decides to rebel against the coloniser.

As long as the colonised remains complacent, policies of population transfers of native populations for the coloniser’s benefit are much more enticing (and much more in his ability) and wider exercised. Within a historical framework, a central principle of this systematic socio-economic exploitation and alienation of native populations often took the form of a reserve policy restricting natives to only the land needed for absolute sustenance, declaring the rest of the country open to settlement[11] and condemning the colonized to perpetual dependency on the colonizer.

Such expropriation of land and labour, as well as native population transfers were widespread until long into the 20th century, reserving the best land for the colonizing minority. An example here could be the expropriation of native farmers and the exploitation of the country's agricultural resources for the benefit of France, notably for viticulturists[12]. Such exploitation plays a vital part in any characterisation of colonialism (as opposed to occupation) since, as Memmi explains, the settler is primarily motivated by social and economic advantages:

If (the settlers’) living standards are high, it is because those of the colonized are low; if he can benefit from plentiful and undemanding labour and servants, it is because the colonized can be exploited at will and are not protected by the laws of the colony; if he can easily obtain administrative positions, it is because they are reserved for him and the colonized are excluded from them; the more freely he breathes, the more the colonized are choked[13] .

“Colonizers are privileged at every step of the way”[14] - life is cheaper and simpler in the colony, 'shortcuts' on the socio-economic ladder as the ones above are possible. The particular colonial personality creates the fundamental basis for the alienation of the colonised from both the land as well as from socio-economic structures, divergent to the set of laws applicable under the Geneva Convention. However, as these advantages are artificially created and sustained and the coloniser is always aware this and of his relative weakness towards the colonised, which he both disdains and fears at the same time.

From this ambiguous relation and the fear of a large and increasingly self-aware native population flows his fear of a 'population explosion' among the colonised[15]: in cases like Algeria the coloniser continuously felt the need to control both the movement and the procreation of his suppressed subjects in an attempt to maintain the dissymmetry of the colonial system[16]. In many colonies this preoccupation was driven so far as to officially institute a 'Minister for Population Control aimed at controlling the growth of the native population[17].

Why this fear of 'uncontrolled' demographic development? First of course because colonialism as a concept requires control – if the colonised 'procreate uncontrolled' this signifies by definition a loss of control for the colonised. Secondly, because the growth of the colonised against the coloniser means an unwanted shift in forces between the two groups, a shift in self-confidence, and, so the coloniser fears, eventually a shift in political realities, making colonial domination increasingly difficult. It does on the contrary not matter how much the settler population grows, as this growth is viewed favourably, offsetting the existing balance as to warrant prolonged control of the coloniser and delegitimising the colonised’ claims to nationhood even further.

We can observe that when it comes to differentiate colonisation and occupation, the latter is a form of domination that simply aims at the control of a foreign territory and its population, while the former goes beyond this and aims at their exploitation for the coloniser’s benefit: while occupation is above all a relatively simple strategic phenomenon, colonialism, as a socio-economic experience, is indefinitely more complex.

Grievances, Decolonisation and Violence

An important reference for colonialism and decolonisation was the Algerian War of Independence, one of the most important colonial wars consisting of guerrilla strikes, marquis fighting, and terrorism against civilians all both sides, the French army, colonists and the FLN.

This conflict reveals important tendencies but also complexities of anti-colonial warfare, while at the same time being a prime example of the grievances caused by colonialism described previously. Algeria had been conquered by France in 1830, and its northern-most parts consequently incorporated into metropolitan France in 1845, in these coastal areas the population was made up of up to thirty percent of French settlers. French rule proved to severely detrimental for Algerian Muslims, who were deprived of most political rights and carried most of the tax burden, while receiving little if anything in return compared to the settler community.

France did on the other hand engage in creating a small and subservient indigenous elite influenced by French culture and political attitudes. This leadership consequently drew much of its strength from Algerians who had fought for France during World War I, which made them increasingly aware of the different standard of living in the French métropole, beside democratic political concepts taken for granted in the métropole, which France refused to apply to them[18].

Demands for administrative reform consequently begun to emerge, essentially peaceful and integrationist at first, drifting gradually towards demands for independence as a result of the Second World War. France in turn refused to cede or answer the structural grievances of the population and reacted with increasing repression[19]. While such 'controlled violence' helped France return Algeria to a sense of normality and claim a military victory, pacification operations nevertheless turned out to be a political defeat as underneath the surface of tranquillity grievances continued to develop, ignored by the French authorities. Thus it is not incidental that the unfolding events caught French authorities, regarding Algeria as a haven of political stability, completely by surprise[20].

What was important in the case of Algeria was that, as we have seen, colonialism’s socio-economic grievances favoured rising self-awareness and political consciousness which under the right circumstances became an important force of anti-colonial struggle: colonialism breeds nationalism. Nationalism in turn, as writers such as Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm have explained in detail, is a constructed ideology[21]. However, even though -or exactly because- nationalism is 'merely' constructed, it constitutes a considerable political force once released. Once the process of decolonisation had gained momentum, even ambitious reforms as those engaged by France during the later 1950s, could not save colonialism. On the contrary, such efforts helped to hasten the demise of colonialism, helping the growth of nationalist groups[22] previously lacking widespread support. From a very basic point of view, this beginning movement towards self-determination ensued a dynamic cycle in which negotiation are taken up, fail and consequently ensue minor disturbances, resulting in suppression by police and military forces, escalating into more violent popular revolts that lead to further negotiation and violence until independence eventually is recognised. After several years of vain petitioning by various Algerian groups for more political rights, the FLN launched 1954 a series of attacks on symbols of French domination throughout Algeria, commencing the war of independence.

Within this process, according to Fanon, violence took the role of an act of self-affirmation: through the grievances initiated by it, colonialism creates the forces of decolonisation by itself through its very existence. It is thus on the long run impossible to halt the forces of decolonisation once unleashed without actually outright abandoning colonialism and either outright annexing the colony or abandoning the colony and withdrawing completely.

However, it is clear that the established colonial administration, including its armed forces, native collaborators, policemen, media networks, officials, is a mighty foe to attack directly, even if the socio-economic grievances against colonialism have progressed to a considerable degree, which in turn favours internal fragmentation: “if (this) suppressed fury fails to find an outlet, it turns in a vacuum and devastates the oppressed creatures themselves. (The oppressed) fight among themselves since they cannot face the real enemy – and you can count on colonial policy to keep up their rivalries”[23]. Pre-independence Algeria did experience a considerable increase in native-native violence and criminal conduct, which only slowly found its way to be channelled in an anti-colonial outlet. However, even if such revolutionary energy is indeed successfully channelled, critics noted how local guerrilla leaders created their own fiefdoms, using units under their command for their own ends such as personal gain.

The longer such a conflict continues, the more the likelihood grows that it degenerates and takes a character of its own, as indeed individuals on both sides become conditioned to increasing violence, regarding it as ‘normal’ and its absence as ‘abnormal’. The French army’s operational principles in its fight against the uprising only aggravated such conditioning and helped defeat itself. Thus while the FLNs campaign was defeated militarily, it nevertheless achieved a political victory by launching a self-sustaining dynamism towards decolonisation. This dynamism went so far as to lead to the fall of the French Republic when it timidly sought to negotiate an end to hostilities, resulting in a military coup in Algiers.

The settler-métropole relationship experienced its own degeneration during this prolonged conflict: settlers started to dictate government policies to the métropole, which often had more to do with their own interest rather than the métropole’s and frequently took the form of fighting terrorism with acts of terrorism. The consequent increasing numbers of necessary forces drawn from the mother country were however clearly identifiable and often ill-adjusted to the Algerian environment and often powerless against the native FLN, often successfully applying hit-and-run tactics according to the classic canons of guerrilla warfare, avoiding the superior French firepower and merging with the population in the countryside once an engagement was broken off.


[1] Bernett. P.12

[2] Jaja, 1998

[3] Memmi, p. 13

[4] Gauthier, p. 114

[5] Gauthier, 1969, pp114-116

[6] Even though such claims are obviously faulty in most, if not all, cases. Particularly in Algeria we had established political, social and economical structures, which were only shattered with the French conquest and occupation of 1830. This nevertheless did not stop those engaged in the process of colonization from believing these claims.

[7] According to the US Army field manual 27-10 "The Law of Land Warfare"

[8] Kretzmer, 2002

[9] Not least due to the usually limited means -or practical interest- to either exterminate or forcibly assimilate the conquered population

[10] In many cases this in turn led to a sharp drop in colonies’ population levels, during the early period of French influence over Algeria saw a considerable drop in Algeria's native population, as it fell from around 4 million in 1830 to only 2.5 million in 1890 [].

[11] Jaja, 1998

[12] It is no incident that this policy in turn reinforced the Algerians' alienation, as Algerian Muslims had no use for the vine grown of the expropriated land, but in turn had no choice of either joining the proletarian class in the cities or to work as labourers on the new French-owned farms.

[13] Memmi, p.8

[14] Memmi, p.12

[15] Of course, the idea that a population could deliberately use fertility as a 'biological weapon' is in itself fundamentally racist, dehumanizing and degrading the population in question.

[16] Guy, 2005

[17] Good, p. 23

[18] Some Algerians also became acquainted with the pan-Arab nationalism growing in the Middle East.

[19] Most infamously, the Setif massacre was an attack on Algerian protesters by colonial French soldiers on May 8, 1945, the same day that Germany surrendered in World War II. With the end of the European war, fifteen thousand protesters took to the streets of Setif, a town in northern Algeria, to press new demands for independence on the colonial government. The Army responded with overwhelming force. When the crowd marched on the French forces after the French forces fired on the largely unarmed crowds with machine guns, killing thousands, followed by artillery and air force attacks. The ultimate death toll remains contentious, with Algeria claiming more than 45,000 dead, while initial French estimates claimed only 1,500 casualties

[20] See also Meredith, p.45

[21] Modernization theorists emphasize that nations are a socially constructed phenomenon, describing them as "imagined communities". Ernest Gellner comments: "Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist".

[22] As opposed to the Gallicized indigenous elites France had hoped for who were derivatively named béni-oui-oui, beni-yes-yes, by their compatriots for their compliance with and their assumed subservience to France

[23] Sartre in Fanon, p.16

Excerpt out of 59 pages


Israel’s Colonial Predicament
A Novel Framework for Analysing Israeli-Palestinian Relations and Conflict
King`s College London  (King's College London)
The Occupied Territories Since 1967
Distinction (Very good)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Israel’s, Colonial, Predicament, Occupied, Territories, Since
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M.A. Florian Heyden (Author), 2006, Israel’s Colonial Predicament, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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