On May 9, 2002, Tony Judt, professor of history at New York University, began an essay on Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation with a quote from Raymond Aron’s book on the 1954-1962 Algerian War of Independence from French colonial rule. [1] France, Aron argued, could not impose its administration on the Algerians indefinitely nor was it willing to integrate them into French society. Until they left Algeria, Aron argued, the French were harming themselves more than the Algerians.

Judt points to similarities between French-occupied Algeria and Israeli-occupied Palestine. Israel cannot or will not assimilate the Palestinians. Nor can the Palestinians be “expunged from Greater Israel,” because “transfer” of Palestinians to Jordan would backfire upon Israel. From these premises, Judt predicts that the Palestinians will eventually have a state of their own, and that Israeli settlers in the Occupied Territories will return to Israel. There will be neither a right of return for Palestinian refugees nor a right for Jewish citizens of other countries to immigrate to Israel. Jerusalem will become the capital of both Israel and Palestine, and the two governments will find it in their interest to cooper ate. Hamas and other “terrorist networks” will become political parties. De Gaulle, Judt observes, pulled France out of Algeria. Why can’t the Israelis realize the inevitable and do the same?

In a similar article published two days earlier, Andrew Mack, director of the Human Security Centre at the University of British Columbia, also compares the Palestinian and the Algerian struggles. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Mack reported, was reading Alistair Horne’s magisterial account of the Algerian conflagration, A Savage War of Peace. Mack asks if Israel might not have reached the same point as France, when the political, social and economic price of continuing its colonial project became too high to justify. He sadly concludes, “Israel’s tragedy is that Ariel Sharon is no Charles de Gaulle.” [2]

Observers and participants have been comparing the French-Algerian and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts for decades in hopes of finding lessons within. Most obviously this is because Europeans intensively settled in only two regions of the Arab world, Algeria and Palestine, and because in both regions, the indigenous peoples mounted long and bloody resistance movements against overwhelming odds. While there are crucial differences between the two cases, there are also significant parallels.

Algeria’s War of Independence

Marshal Thomas-Robert Bugeaud, governor-general of Algeria, proclaimed to the French National Assembly in 1840: “Wherever (in Algeria) there is fresh water and fertile land, there one must locate colons, without concerning oneself to whom these lands belong.”3 Decades of resistance and brutal repression followed, as the indigenous Muslims were gradually pushed off their most fertile land. During World War I, indigenous Muslims served in the French army and as a reward, about 20,000 officers received French citizenship providing they renounced their status as Muslims. In the 1920s and 1930s nationalist Algerians began calling for independence and to quell the unrest, the 1936 Blum- Violette bill offered French citizenship to another 30,000- 50,000 Muslims (out of six million) who had served in the war or who were from the educated elite.

The pieds noirs, as the French settlers were called, thundered, “We will never tolerate that in even the smallest commune an Arab might be mayor” and the bill died in parliament. [4] In 1947, after the Sétif uprising, settlers successfully opposed a French proposal for an elected Algerian assembly, on the grounds that opening the door to a Muslim majority would threaten “national security.” [5] The settlers could not even imagine that Algerians could have equal rights with them.

France’s progressively sweetened offers of citizenship and civil rights to Algerians came too little, too late. Algerians began what became their war of independence in 1954. By 1956, the two sides were locked in a vicious battle with assassinations, terrorist attacks, and collective punishment the order of the day. During the years of war, hundreds of thousands of Algerians perished in battle, in internment camps and prisons, and in isolated rural areas where the infrastructure was nearly destroyed. After the French authorities guillotined two members of the National Liberation Front (FLN), the Algiers unit of the FLN exacted revenge with assaults on civilian male Europeans of fighting age. When French police blew up an FLN safe house in the old city, they also destroyed neighboring houses, killing dozens of men, women and children. Algerian militants began placing bombs in places frequented by French civilians. The French military sent in reinforcements.

The widespread torture used by French paratroopers polarized French public opinion and internationalized the conflict. French intellectuals argued that torture was destroying the soul of France. John F. Kennedy, then a junior senator, launched his career by making the Algerian War his special cause. Upon being elected president in 1960, Kennedy vowed to cut military aid to France if the war continued. Demoralized and destabilized, France eventually decided to withdraw, despite having won a military victory in the cities and settled rural areas. When it became clear that France would pull out, the Organisation Armée Secret (OAS) —  made up of pieds noirs — launched a series of random terrorist attacks on Algerians. One explained, “You have to remember the Arab mentality — to impress the Arabs, you’ve got to make a solemn performance of killing a man.” [6] Within a few months, the OAS reportedly had killed three times as many people in the Algiers area as the FLN had killed during the entire war. [7] In 1962, Algeria won its independence. Its war of resistance became a model for other anti-colonial movements and was celebrated in Gillo Pontecorvo’s famous 1967 film, La Battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers).

Resistance on Film

Pontecorvo meant viewers to admire the courageous young men and women who placed bombs in airline offices and student hangouts. The violence of FLN militants is portrayed as part of a just anti-colonial resistance movement. When an Algerian partisan, pursued by the police, crashes his car into a crowd of pieds noirs, killing himself and several passersby, audiences do not recoil in horror. The Battle of Algiers depicts the resistance movement moving inexorably toward its logical conclusion: Algerian independence. At film’s end, the people spontaneously separate rival Algerian forces, shouting, “Seven years, that’s enough.” They are ready to forget the past and make a new history for themselves.

During the Algerian war of independence, Franz Fanon developed a much-misunderstood theory of violent resistance. A non-violent man himself, Fanon thought that the French would never end their colonial rule without violent resistance. Violence was sometimes necessary in the face of an occupying power’s intransigence; in these cases violence would unify and strengthen the colonized and cleanse them of their feelings of inferiority. But Fanon did not regard violence as more than a tactic when all other means of resistance failed. [8] The latest spate of articles comparing the Algerian and Palestinian resistance movements seems predicated on the assumption that, with Sharon in power, more and more observers will apply Fanon’s theory to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. Will the world conclude that Palestinian violent resistance was the only way to force Israelis out of the Occupied Territories, given their refusal to leave? Will Pontecorvo or another internationally known filmmaker someday make a similarly successful film celebrating the Palestinian resistance?

The Algerian Analogy

If we ask how a weak and disorganized resistance prevailed over one of the most powerful countries in the world, we have also to consider the political and economic instability of post-war France, the role of French intellectuals in opposing the use of torture and other means of repression, and the role of the US — which feared Soviet influence over the FLN and coveted Algeria’s oil and natural gas.

The Algerian resistance was fought during the Cold War, with much of the world, including the US, lending at least nominal support to the Algerians. World War II had greatly weakened both France and Britain. Today’s conflict is situated in the war on (Islamist) terrorism. Israel, like India and China, has managed to portray its suppression of an indigenous (Muslim) people’s nationalist struggle as part of the war on terrorism, at least to the US government, if not to international public opinion. The Algerian revolution —  which became a beacon of hope for the Third World – coincided with the Suez War, the Hungarian resistance, the Cuban revolution, the Vietnam War, the African independence movements, Sputnik, and the civil rights and student movements. The Palestinians have the support of much of the world and, for a time, had the limited support of the Soviet Union. Israel has lost the support of much of the world, but has seen its superpower sponsor grow in power and commitment.

Israelis on the right have long echoed the pieds noirs in refusing to contemplate living with a large Palestinian minority, in rejecting the legitimacy of Palestinian nationalism, and in averring that the only language Arabs understand is force. Like the Algerians, many Palestinians have come to the conclusion that if they do not use violence, the world will ignore their plight and acquiesce as Israelis settle the remainder of their land. In The Battle of Algiers, captured FLN leader Larbi Ben M’Hidi remarks to his French interrogators who have asked him about his terrorist activities, “Give us your bombs and you can have our women’s baskets.” Palestinians often comment that suicide attacks are a weapon of the weak — they are no match for Israeli tanks, Apache helicopters and F-16s. If they cease attacks on civilians, Palestinians ask, will the Israelis evacuate their territory? The resistance strategy pursued by militant Palestinian groups is based on the theory that, after the Algerian example, violence on both sides will internationalize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and force the US and Israel to realize that the occupation cannot continue.

Particularly during Israel’s major offensives in the West Bank and Gaza in 2002, and the intensified suicide attacks of the spring, the violence has indeed seemed to galvanize world opinion. Britain’s chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, recently stated that 35 years of military occupation and decades of conflict have led Israel to adopt a stance “incompatible” with the deepest ideals of Judaism, and that the current conflict with the Palestinians is “corrupting” Israeli culture. Sacks recoiled at recent reports of smiling Israeli servicemen posing for a photograph with the corpse of a slain Palestinian. “There is no question that this kind of prolonged conflict, together with the absence of hope, generates hatreds and insensitivities that in the long run are corrupting to a culture.”  [9] He did not say if he meant Israeli or Palestinian culture or both.

A petition published by Israeli academics, with the support of colleagues abroad, in the liberal Israeli daily Ha’aretz condemned Israel’s oppression of the civilian population in the Occupied Territories and called upon the international community “to compel Israel to abide by the UN Charter and international law, and to dismantle the illegal settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.” The petitioners further called upon the US “to employ all means at its disposal, including suspension of aid, to ensure that Israel ceases its destructive military operations, extrajudicial killings and abuses of human rights.” [10]

Palestinian academics and intellectuals have also weighed in against the violence. Fifty-five prominent Palestinian intellectuals and leaders recently published a full-page statement in al-Quds, a leading Palestinian daily newspaper, condemning terrorist attacks on civilians in Israel. In sending Palestinian youths to carry out these attacks, the petitioners said, Palestinian militant groups were only deepening the hatred between the two peoples, causing international condemnation and Israeli repression. The petition did not condemn attacks on soldiers and settlers in the Occupied Territories. [11] By analogy, Algerian intellectuals and leaders would have had to condemn attacks on French civilians in France rather than in Algeria — an issue that did not come up. Muslim leaders have been divided. Some say the attacks are effective and legitimate, while others say that Palestinians should attack military targets only — not innocent civilians.

As Tony Judt pointed out in his essay, the Israelis argue that religion, history and the Holocaust buttress their claim to the land. The Palestinians reply that they too have religious and historical claims, and that they have the nakba —  their catastrophic displacement in 1948 — to remember. Israelis often contend that while the French settlers could simply return to France, the Israelis have no other state to return to. But following the Palestinian recognition of Israel in 1988 and the decision to work for a two-state solution, the Algerian comparison became more apt. The Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, like the pieds noirs in Algeria, do have a place of retreat: pre-1967 Israel.

The Israelis further argue that the Palestinians will by their numbers overwhelm them. The French had similar concerns in Algeria. Raymond Aron estimated that “within 25 years, an integrated Algeria 18 million strong would swamp a metropolitan France of 48 million, politically if not numerically.” [12] Yet many Muslim Algerians were willing to be part of France, to become citizens of France, provided that full political, social and economic rights were extended to them. Perhaps the pieds noirs and Muslims might not have found life so bad after all in an integrated Algeria. Currently, about 52 percent of the population inhabiting Israel, the West Bank and Gaza is Jewish and about 48 percent Palestinian Muslim, Christian and Druze with smaller groups of Syrian Druze and others. Israelis worry that with the higher Palestinian birthrate, they will be in the minority in a decade. Many speak of transfer of Palestinians out of the occupied territories.

Proponents of “transfer” sit in the Israeli cabinet, and the Bush administration appears willing to let the current confrontation play itself out, without curtailing Israeli activity, no matter how distasteful or illegal under international law. As a Palestinian colleague about to return to Ramallah remarked, “We might as well leave our suitcases by the door.” As Judt argues, expunging the Palestinians would surely backfire on Israel. The pieds noirs and their supporters had no means to transfer the Muslim population out of Algeria (though the settlers sometimes spoke of each one killing nine Algerians). But the pieds noirs’ intransigence and violence backfired, and in the end they lost all.

Another Way Forward

Today Algeria is suffering terribly for the humiliation and violence of the colonial era, the war of independence, and the years of misrule that followed. France has yet to come to terms with its violent war or to living with its disadvantaged Muslim minority. Palestinians too have suffered from the legacy of colonial rule, years of ethnic and racial discrimination, economic up- rooting, political dislocation and cultural disorientation. A nominally independent Palestine may well mean authoritarian rule, corruption, lack of tolerance for dissent and Islamic extremism. Will Palestinian women suffer the fate of Algerian women who, after their participation in the war, found themselves alienated from the power structure and legally disadvantaged? The likelihood is great. In the meantime, terror and counter-terror will afflict Israelis and Palestinians alike. Yet there are other scenarios and other paths of reconciliation.

Judt believes that Palestinians would prefer living in an independent state to living in prosperity under Israeli hegemony. While it may be true that prosperity under Israeli hegemony is unsatisfactory, there is little likelihood that a repressive, non-contiguous Palestinian mini-state dependent on and with borders controlled by Israel would give Palestinians much sense of freedom and independence. There is much merit in the suggestion that Israelis and Palestinians learn to live together, with full citizenship rights, and not under Israeli hegemony but in a pluralistic political system. For years, Israelis have insisted that living with a substantial Palestinian minority or even majority within Israel’s borders would mean “committing suicide” for Israel, but few have asked exactly why that would be so. A vibrant state that harnesses the energies and talents of both peoples would be a far richer and more exciting place to live and visit and would be well-suited to our increasingly pluralistic world. In any case, there already is a kind of pluralism, based to date on apartheid- like arrangements, but with many civil rights groups hard at work to rectify the situation. Even if Palestine gets some kind of limited Palestinian state, Palestinians and Israelis are far too intertwined to separate.

Palestinians who attend makeshift underground schools and university classes, who despite all odds manage to maintain facilities of civil society like clinics and hospitals and cultural centers, and Israelis who participate in the many human rights organizations and who support the Palestinians often at great danger to themselves are the way of the future. Why not consider new political arrangements similar to that of South Africa or perhaps the European Union? Israelis could continue to vote for their leaders, Palestinians for theirs, but with freedom for all to work, study and live throughout Israel-Palestine. The new lines of demarcation would array the decent people of both sides versus the extremists of both sides, and the new system of political organization would be based on international law and democratic rule. The Israeli government intends to build Jewish-Arab communities in the Galilee as attractions for “coexistence tourists.” [13] Why not build them for real? If the French government, the pieds noirs and the Algerians had given the idea a chance, Algeria and France might be happier places today.

In September 2002, the renowned Israeli pianist Daniel Barenboim defied the Israeli military curfew on Ramallah. Despite an Israel Defense Forces statement that his presence in the Palestinian town was unauthorized and illegal, he went to the Quaker school to play before a standing room-only audience of Palestinian children. After Barenboim finished Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, students stood to applaud, shouted and whistled their approval. Barenboim told the audience that he decided he had to do what he thought was right. He was not a politician, but he could play music, and perhaps he and his audience could find a way to break down barriers. After the performance, the pianist invited students to come up and play, and three girls came forward. One of them, a gifted student, said she was unable to get copies of scores and her school was unable to offer the exams she needed to advance. “[The Israelis] are trying in every way to erase our existence as a nation,” she said. [14] Barenboim demonstrated another way forward, a way around national exclusivity and endless violence.

Sharon presumably has been reading A Savage War of Peace to learn from the French-Algerian conflict how to avert any possibility of Palestinian independence. Palestinians have studied the conflict to learn how a weak colonized people managed to prevail over a much stronger occupying power. Judt, Mack and others invoke the conflict to argue for international intervention and a twostate solution. Most aptly, however, the French-Algerian conflict and its consequences teach us that Palestinians and Israelis would do well to end the violence, look elsewhere for paradigms and find new ways to live together.


[1] Tony Judt, “The Road to Nowhere,” New York Review of Books, May 9, 2002, quoting Raymond Aron, L’Algérie et la République (Paris, 1958).

[2] Andrew Mack, “Sharon’s Algerian Shadow,” Globe and Mail, May 7, 2002.

[3] Alistair Horne, A Savage War of Peace (New York: Penguin, 1987), p. 30.

[4] Horne, p. 37.

[5] Horne, p. 70.

[6] Horne, p. 530.

[7] Robert Malley, The Call from Algeria: Third Worldism, Revolution and the Turn to Islam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), p. 134.

[8] Malley, p. 105.

[9] Quoted on BBC News (World Edition), October 27, 2002.

[10] Ha’aretz, September 6, 2002.

[11] New York Times, July 3, 2002.

[12] Quoted in Horne, p. 306.

[13] Rhoda Ann Kanaaneh, Birthing the Nation: Strategies of Palestinian Women in Israel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), pp. 53-54.

[14] Los Angeles Times, September 11, 2002.

How to cite this article:

Nancy Gallagher "Learning Lessons from the Algerian War of Independece," Middle East Report 225 (Winter 2002).

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