In a video clip widely shared on social media platforms in late April 2021, Mona al-Kurd (a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood) is seen confronting Jacob Fauci (an Israeli Jewish settler from Long Island) in the yard of her family home.[1]

Mona al-Kurd speaking with Yaakov Fauci in Sheikh Jarrah, Jerusalem, April 2021 (Screen shot from video posted to Instagram.)

“Yaakov, you know this is not your house?” she said. “Yes,” he replied, “but if I go you don’t go back [either]. So, what’s the problem? Why are you yelling at me? I didn’t do this. I didn’t do this…It’s easy to yell at me but I didn’t do this,” he categorically responded. “You are stealing my house,” al-Kurd continued, to which Fauci countered, “Yes, but if I don’t steal it, someone else is gonna steal it.” In a subsequent interview, Fauci elaborated on why he bore no personal responsibility:

Whatever the situation is, and that’s what I was trying to explain in that viral video, they’re [the al-Kurds] not coming back here…So whether I’m here, whether I’m not here, whether it’s me, whether it’s someone else, whether it’s a monkey, whether it’s a giraffe, they’re not coming back into this house ever. I understand why they’re angry at me, I understand why they dislike me, but I did not do this to them, I am not doing this to them, and as I said, if I leave, I’ll be replaced immediately. And I venture to think that if I leave whoever comes here is not going to be as easy going as I am.[2]

The video of the confrontation between al-Kurd and Fauci likely garnered wide public attention because Fauci, with his thick New York accent, embodies the privileges of a settler so plainly and nonchalantly. He calmly illuminates the complexities of settler colonization: how it is a deeply entrenched political structure and yet the actual work of colonization is carried out by settlers—individuals on the ground. His words also reflect the logic of settler colonial displacement and replacement. Indeed, Fauci was a familiar face to al-Kurd. For over a decade he has been living, without the family’s permission, in a standalone section of their compound located on the other side of the yard from where al-Kurd confronted him.

The interaction between Fauci and al-Kurd, between settler and native, is representative of a wider pattern of settlement and replacement at the local and national levels. In nineteenth-century Palestine, the residents of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood were primarily members of Jerusalem’s Muslim elite, along with some Jewish and Christian families. Most of the families there now, however, trace their origins to Palestinian refugees who were displaced during the Nakba from their previous homes mostly in western Jerusalem and Haifa in what is now Israel and were resettled in the neighborhood by the Jordanian government and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in the 1950s.[3] Five years after Israel’s 1967 occupation of the eastern part of Jerusalem, the Supreme Court tacitly recognized the ownership claims of a group of descendants of earlier Jewish owners of six houses in Sheikh Jarrah when it granted “protected tenant status” to those homes’ Palestinian inhabitants. (Recognition was formalized in 2008 by the Jerusalem District Court.) From 2001, religious Jewish settlers like Fauci began to occupy Palestinian buildings while more legal battles paved the way for them to settle in Palestinian neighborhoods. In 2003, Nahalat Shimon (a company registered in Delaware) purchased the six houses, including the entire al-Kurd home, from the descendants of the pre-1948 Jewish owners. Ever since, Nahalat Shimon has been waging a legal battle to evict the Palestinian families and replace them with Jewish settlers—part of a broader Israeli campaign to alter the demographics of Jerusalem and the West Bank more broadly.

Palestinians and a small cohort of allied Jewish Israelis have protested settlement activity in Sheikh Jarrah for nearly two decades amid this creeping Israeli encroachment. When the threat of dispossession resurfaced in 2021 with additional attempts by settler organizations to evict Palestinians during the month of Ramadan, Palestinians across the world mobilized a popular protest in response (called the May Uprising, Dignity Uprising or Unity Intifada). Despite this resistance, settlement activity continues.

The severe asymmetry in the capacity of Israeli Jews and Palestinians to claim territorial belonging and sovereignty is replicated not only in the urban frontier of Jerusalem, but also across so-called “mixed cities” in Israel, in the Naqab (Negev) region and in Israeli settlement blocs and outposts in the occupied West Bank. These processes of settlement and replacement—ongoing since Zionists arrived in late nineteenth-century Ottoman Palestine—take different shapes and often produce different outcomes but can be analyzed through the setter-colonial paradigm.

The analytical framework of settler colonialism has increasingly been adopted in scholarly and popular media to understand the dynamics between settler colonizers and Indigenous populations. For example, Mona al-Kurd’s brother, the writer and poet Mohammed al-Kurd, stated in a televised CNN interview on May 11, 2021: “[T]his is my second time being dispossessed from my family, should they go ahead and do it to me. It’s scary, but it also has a name. It’s settler colonialism, and it’s apartheid. And it’s a fact that the settler organizations are working together with the state to exploit the law, to dispossess Palestinians.” Two days later, the Palestinian-American legal scholar Noura Erakat joined Christiane Amanpour in a CNN interview and said, “[Palestinians] are an Indigenous people who have been subject to a regime of settler colonization that seeks to remove them from their homes and to replace them with Jewish Zionists.” Scholars and activists interested in the past and future of Palestine and Israel can use the language of settler colonialism productively to undo prevailing misconceptions, such as the belief that the roots of the conflict lie in ethnic, religious or purely national identity. Moreover, scholars and activists can also engage this framework in political strategies of decolonization, for example by showing how undoing the processes of settler colonialism can lead to resolution of the conflict.

 

The Paradigm of Settler Colonialism

 

The settler-colonial paradigm—a somewhat disjointed set of analytic discourses that emerged in the mid-twentieth century—has taken various forms and embraced different political ends over time. Current social scientific and historical scholarship has coalesced around an understanding of settler colonialism as a sequence of events beginning when a group of immigrant settlers makes permanent claims to territory that, generally, is already inhabited by natives. Settlers reconstitute the social order of the colony by introducing new hierarchies and institutions through incursion, appropriation, redistribution, exploitation, extermination, erasure and/or violence. They transform land and society while rejecting Indigenous claims to territory and sovereignty. These changes lead to various outcomes for the native population such as dispossession, displacement, forced labor, ethnic cleansing and genocide. Practices of colonization may become routinized or “baked in” as structures that privilege settler colonizers over the Indigenous in ways that further entrench Indigenous groups as non-sovereign.

Some critics refute the idea that the Zionist movement is akin to a settler colonial movement. They claim that Jews in the diaspora always maintained a religious connection to “Eretz Israel,” that beginning in the 1880s their settlement was merely ethnic return and that no metropole or mother country sponsored Zionism like in other settler-colonial cases. Some Palestinians caution that labeling the Palestinians as an Indigenous group dismisses their national aspirations, as if they are only seeking cultural rights and not national territorial sovereignty. Some scholars also criticize what they see as the outsized emphasis on the settler side of colonization, which further erases the role of the Indigenous population in shaping society and reinforces their subordinated status.

Palestinian and Arab scholars like Fayez Sayegh, George Jabbour, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod and Baha Abu-Laban, Edward Said and Jamil Hilal adopted settler colonialism as a comparative category, some as early as the mid-twentieth century.[4] They likened the practices of mostly European Zionist settlers to those of other European settlers, such as those who came to dominate South Africa or Rhodesia, and highlighted the violence of dispossession and replacement. Even so, Palestinians have not always been in complete consensus about settler colonialism and its comparative perspective. For instance, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat once announced: “They can’t demolish five million Palestinians. They can’t annihilate them. We are not the Red Indians.”[5] Using “Red Indians” as a proxy for Indigenous people wiped out by colonization, Arafat denied the utility of the comparison between Native Americans and Palestinians.

Despite the differences among scholars utilizing the framework of settler colonialism, they emphasize that certain characteristics of the processes of settler colonization are distinct from other forms of colonialism. In the past two decades particularly, there has been a surge in scholarly work employing the settler-colonial paradigm, which can be traced in part to the comparative framework of Australian scholar Patrick Wolfe. Unfortunately, the adoption of knowledge paradigms is inseparable from racialized patterns of legitimacy wherein scholars of marginalized groups are often given less credit and attention for their theoretical and empirical contributions. It is incumbent upon scholars not to efface the earlier comparative thinking on settler colonialism, especially by Palestinians about the violence of Zionist colonization and apartheid (to which numerous Palestinian refugee scholars related decades before such a category took on popular usage). When someone like Mohammed al-Kurd—who knows first-hand what it feels like to have the spaces of his home and community gradually encroached upon—employs the terminology of settler colonialism, he is offering up what sociologists might call a “category of practice,” or a term laced with the meanings of everyday experience.[6] Scholars do not necessarily need to adopt his category as an analytical one. But it does mean that his encounters with violence add to his insights and meaning-making in ways that can allow for a better understanding of the processes produced by such violence.

 

Settler Colonialism and the Zionist-Palestinian Conflict

 

What makes the analytic category of settler colonialism useful when discussing Israel and Palestine? When considering the history of Israel by way of its emergence through a project of vast territorial redistribution and support from imperial powers, it becomes clear how Israel has been shaped by certain hierarchies established before the founding of the Israeli state in 1948. The analytic category of settler colonialism provides a framework for thinking about what happens, how it happens and why it happens without resorting to essentialist and erroneous explanations such as the clash of incommensurate cultures (or religious or ethnic groups), the superiority of Zionist developmentalism or a nationalist conflict between two equal parties. At the same time, the paradigm of settler colonialism encourages an analysis of how discrete events, processes and structures are connected to broader social and political forces. This framework also provides the opportunity to examine the relationships between colonizer and colonized, who take on these roles only in interaction with the other in the context of an enduring frontier zone. Then it becomes possible to analyze the interaction between individual settler-colonial actions, state institutional and military practices, legal norms, imperial support and foreign capital that have shaped and continue to condition the contours of settler colonialism vis-à-vis Indigenous mobilizations of resistance.

The analytic category of settler colonialism provides a framework for thinking about what happens, how it happens and why it happens without resorting to essentialist and erroneous explanations such as the clash of incommensurate cultures (or religious or ethnic groups), the superiority of Zionist developmentalism or a nationalist conflict between two equal parties.

From its inception, the Zionist movement used the terminology of colonization, envisioning permanent settlement and the creation of a settler society as a core goal of collective action. This fact highlights how Zionism came about as a response to, but also as the instantiation of, the major currents of European modernity, including nationalism, ethno-racial categorization, imperialism and colonialism.[7] The Zionist project entailed the relocation of a group of settlers from Europe to a territory already populated by native Palestinians, the accumulation of native land and properties and the marginalization of these natives. Initially, the project was based on land acquisition that was accelerated by the British Empire’s conquest of Palestine in 1917. Land acquisition was a violent process that the largely peasant Palestinian laborers resisted, which in turn sparked further violence. The Zionist project was thus shaped at every moment by the nature of Palestinian resistance, meaning that the process of land colonization and replacement was dialectical and not a one-way dynamic. Up until 1948 the Zionist movement had acquired less than ten percent of the territory of Mandatory Palestine. The violence of the war, along with the establishment of Israeli state sovereignty, was a critical juncture that allowed Zionist institutions to claim more territory, expel the resisting Palestinian population from it and institutionalize domination in the form of a settler state apparatus.[8]

With the establishment of the State of Israel, the new government imposed military rule on the remaining Palestinian population until 1966.[9] This act supported government goals to secure contiguous land presence and to prevent the return of internally displaced persons and refugees. At the same time, the Indigenous Palestinians who remained within the State of Israel were granted citizenship and qualified civic rights, creating an unequal form of settler colonial citizenship amid a period of military rule.[10] Thus, even though it granted citizenship, the state did not recognize the Palestinians as an Indigenous national collective but rather as a remaining obstacle and demographic threat. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights in 1967 accelerated and transformed the settler-colonial process by opening up a new frontier for expansion and settlement, accompanied by a further round of displacement and dispossession. This time the process was conducted under the auspices of the State of Israel, which became akin to a mother or sponsor state promoting settler-colonial expansion.

Colonization—that is, most basically, the seizure of land and property—has continued since 1967 in full force, both beyond the 1949 armistice boundaries (in the Occupied Territories) and within them (in Israel). Today, Jerusalem and the Naqab are primary targets. Violence by numerous national and municipal Israeli state actors and by private individual settlers includes spatial encroachment, dispossession and the continued marginalization of Palestinians. For instance, in January 2022 the Jewish National Fund attempted to plant forests in order to grab land from the Palestinian Bedouins of the Al-Araqib village in the Naqab region of what is now southern Israel. Afforestation has a long history of being used by Zionist and Israeli institutions to permanently nationalize once-Palestinian land and replace Indigenous Palestinians with Israeli citizen-settlers.

Afforestation has a long history of being used by Zionist and Israeli institutions to permanently nationalize once-Palestinian land and replace Indigenous Palestinians with Israeli citizen-settlers.
The Basic Law passed by the Knesset in 2018 called “Israel—the Nation-State of the Jewish People” is a culmination of the entrenchment of colonial political hierarchies that prioritize Jewish Israeli access to rights, space and power.[11] This law is one reaction by the Israeli state to the shifting forms of Palestinian political mobilization and organization that are challenging the identification of Israel as a Jewish state. A prominent example of these challenges is the project of the National Democratic Assembly political party, which advocates decolonizing the state by transforming it into a “state for all of its citizens.”

The settler-colonial paradigm challenges conventional misconceptions that relations between Israelis and Palestinians are conditioned by an exceptional ethno-national conflict. Indeed, the strategies employed by Israeli settlers and governmental agencies to claim land and marginalize or erase those Palestinians on it have been used by settler colonizers in numerous places around the world to achieve similar goals of claiming exclusive rights to space and power. The settler-colonial paradigm offers a long-term, comparative and historical perspective that transcends the narrow focus on the events of 1948 or 1967 and does not limit colonization to the past. By viewing the history of the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine dating back to the 1880s) through the settler-colonial framework, it becomes clear that it was a settler colony that institutionalized the replacement of Indigenous Palestinians by Zionist settlers. The settler-colonial category does not negate the nationalist component of the conflict but rather seeks to explore the ways in which nationalism becomes intertwined in settler-colonial processes.

 

Settler Colonialism and Decolonization

 

The settler-colonial paradigm has never been confined to the scholarly academy, but rather has been enlivened by and itself has animated political thought and activism. As an analytical framework, it can be indispensable to the struggle for liberation from colonial occupation because it provides a language through which to articulate the conditions of structural domination and supremacy as well as the relationship between discrete events and broader processes. For instance, in the case of Sheikh Jarrah and the political protests of May 2021, many Palestinians and supporters employed the language of settler colonialism to both historicize the dispossession of Palestinians from their land and property and to critique how a single state rules over Palestinians who have been fractured into separate populations with differentiated rights. While it is political action that so often influences changes in intellectual paradigms, scholarship can also propel political action. In Palestine and Israel one example of this dynamic is the ways in which Palestinian and some Jewish non-Zionist and anti-Zionist activists are increasingly using the concept of decolonization. In adopting a settler-colonial framework, they suggest (if implicitly) that the way to reverse entrenched processes of violence and inequality is decolonization, or the restoration of Indigenous national self-determination and the transformation of the colonial relationship between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis to a democratic and non-hierarchical one wherein Jewish Israeli supremacy is dismantled.

Decolonization, however, is a fuzzy concept that, like settler colonialism, requires disaggregation and specification. In strategizing the way out of present conditions—which look different for West Bankers, Gazans, Palestinians in Israel, Jerusalemites and refugees in the diaspora—scholars and activists in Palestine and Israel often look to lessons from other cases. One lesson Palestinians should take from the case of South Africa is that political decolonization is not necessarily commensurate with material decolonization. For instance, while the cognitive, or symbolic, significance of the end of Apartheid was crucial for the political liberation of the majority non-white South Africans, their precarious economic conditions resemble those of their parents and grandparents under Apartheid.[12] Furthermore, the bloodshed that took place in Algeria during decolonization serves for many as a cautionary tale, requiring activists to pose an alternative process of decolonization without further displacement or violence. Paying attention to other cases like these and to history when undoing settler-colonial relations means contemplating the challenges and constraints of a decolonization that transforms lived realities in ways that do not perpetuate violence or supremacy. For example, careful decolonization should pay attention to the problems of economic stratification, reconcile both Jewish and Palestinian national claims, prevent the displacement or transfer of populations and rectify the Zionist seizure of property and land.

Careful decolonization should pay attention to the problems of economic stratification, reconcile both Jewish and Palestinian national claims, prevent the displacement or transfer of populations and rectify the Zionist seizure of property and land.

If scholars and activists use the theoretical lens of settler colonialism and decolonization, it is incumbent upon them to fill these concepts with real content. For instance, in the 2000s, Palestinian citizens of Israel organized multiple forums for imagining what a just decolonization that preserves the national claims of both Jews and Palestinians entails practically. This work culminated in “future vision” documents that outline models for a new sociality of decolonized cohabitation, where the supremacy of the colonizer and both political and socio-economic hierarchies are dismantled and redressed. Such efforts are in favor of democratic forms of interaction and governance.[13] These documents are a testament to the power of analytical concepts. By diagnosing the Israeli-Palestinian case as one of settler colonialism and its constitutive production of violence, these efforts of political and intellectual organizing have begun the work not only of theorizing but also of introducing into political discourse a language that can express the radical potential of equal social life. These conversations have continued more recently in forums like Palestine Forum/Multaqa Falastin, the Academia for Equality coalition and the One Democratic State Campaign. Such initiatives indicate that the boundary between scholarship and political practice is, indeed, quite blurred.

The Palestinian dignity uprising in May 2021, complete with a large strike, street protests and other mobilizations, represented a political moment that renewed possibilities for diagnosing settler colonialism and prognosing decolonization. Scholars and activists can take the lessons of decades of domestic and international organizing and scholarly theorizing to envision new forms of political life in Palestine and Israel. While historically unique, the Jewish Question (how can Jews survive in the face of exclusion and eliminatory violence) and the Palestinian Question (how can Palestinians survive in the face of exclusion, violence and erasure) collide through settler colonialism, are intertwined and can only be solved together through decolonization.

 

[Areej Sabbagh-Khoury is assistant professor of sociology and anthropology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.]

 


 

Endnotes

 

[1] Tamer Makalda, “It is not enough that you are an occupier and a thief, and also rude!!!” Socialist Zionism

[2]Inside the Battle for Jerusalem,” VICE News, May 19, 2021.

[3] Joel Beinin, “Mixing, Separation, and Violence in Urban Spaces and the Rural Frontier in Palestine,” The Arab Studies Journal 21/1 (2013).

[4] Fayez Sayegh, Zionist Colonialism in Palestine (Beirut: Research Center, Palestine Liberation Organization, 1965); George Jabbour, Settler Colonialism in Southern Africa and the Middle East (Beirut: Palestine Liberation Organization Research Center, 1970); Ibrahim Abu-Lughod and Baha Abu-Laban, eds., Settler Regimes in Africa and the Arab World: The Illusion of Endurance (Wilmette, IL: Medina University Press International, 1974); Edward Said, “Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims,” Social Text 1 (1979); Jamil Hilal, “Imperialism and Settler Colonialism in West Asia: Israel and the Arab Palestinian Struggle,” Utafiti: Journal of Arts & Social Studies & Social Sciences 1/1 (1976). For a more thorough historical overview see Areej Sabbagh-Khoury, “Tracing Settler Colonialism: Genealogy of a Paradigm of Knowledge Production in Israel,” Politics and Society 50/1 (2022). The category did not take hold among scholars until later in the twentieth century. See Baruch Kimmerling, Zionism and Territory: The Socio-Territorial Dimension of Zionist Politics (Institute of International Studies, University of California, 1983); Gershon Shafir, Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 1882–1914 (Cambridge University Press, 1989).

[5] Scott McLeod, “An Interview with Yasser Arafat,” New York Review of Books (June 1987).

[6] Rogers Brubaker and Frederick Cooper, “Beyond ‘Identity’” Theory and Society 29/1 (2000).

[7] See Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, “Jewish Peoplehood, ‘Jewish Politics,’ and Political Responsibility: Arendt on Zionism and Partitions,” College Literature 38/1 (2011).

[8] Areej Sabbagh-Khoury, Socialist Zionism, Settler Colonial Memory and Practices, and the Palestinian Nakba in the Jezreel Valley (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, forthcoming).

[9] Sabri Jiryis, The Arabs in Israel (Monthly Review Press, 1976).

[10] Nadim Rouhana and Areej Sabbagh-Khoury, “Settler-Colonial Citizenship: Conceptualizing the Relationship between Israel and Its Palestinian Citizens,” Settler Colonial Studies 5/ 3 (2014).

[11] Hassan Jabareen and Suhad Bishara, “The Jewish Nation-State Law,” Journal of Palestine Studies 48/2 (February 2019).

[12] Andy Clarno, Neoliberal Apartheid: Palestine/Israel and South Africa After 1994 (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

[13] Adalah, Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel (Nazareth: National Committee for the Heads of the Arab Local Authorities); The Haifa Declaration by Mada al-Carmel: Arab Center for Applied Social Research (Haifa: May 15, 2007); and Yousef T. Jabareen, An Equal Constitution for All (Haifa: Mossawa–Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens in Israel, 2007).

How to cite this article:

Areej Sabbagh-Khoury "“But if I don’t steal it, someone else is gonna steal it” – Israeli Settler-Colonial Accumulation by Dispossession," Middle East Report 302 ( ).

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