An 1837 watercolor depicts French forces advancing across cliffs and through a breach in the wall of the fortified city of Constantine in Algeria. Artist possibly Jean-Louis Gaspard of the 31st Regiment of Infantry. Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection at the Brown University Library/Library of Congress

Settler colonial studies developed as a distinct field of research to address the particular circumstances of settler societies. Since its advent in the 1990s, this field has only marginally considered the Middle East and North Africa, focusing instead on the Anglophone settler societies of North America and Australasia. And yet, this neglect is unjustified. Settler colonialism targeted countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and these endeavors were crucial to developing a transnational network of settler-colonial ideas and practices. Rather than marginal to the global history of settler colonialism, the Middle East and North Africa were crucial to the long-term evolution of settler colonies around the globe.

More than other forms of colonialism, settler colonialism is characterized by a “logic of elimination.” This form of domination contrasts with exploitative or extractive colonialisms, where the ongoing subordination of colonized populations is a requirement for the viability of colonial domination. In settler colonies, the very presence of an Indigenous population is sometimes targeted through expulsion or physical elimination. Alternately, settler-colonial powers can undermine the resilience of Indigenous political sovereignty and autonomy. If settler-colonial regimes do not display a uniform investment in outright native elimination, it is because settler colonialism and other types of colonialism routinely mix with one another. Conflicting demands for subsumption and elimination can coexist even if they respond to distinct and, to a certain extent, antithetical colonial logics; all colonial regimes are marked by contradiction. Settlers also respond flexibly to conditions on the ground and to Indigenous resistance and agency. Nevertheless, the objective of a non-settler-colonial regime is the ongoing domination of a colonized collective, whereas the aim of a settler-colonial regime is the reproduction of a settler polity in place of an Indigenous one.


The Settler-Colonial Paradigm and its Blind Spots


Indigenous scholars and militants had been concerned with settler colonialism for decades by the time the field first emerged in the 1990s; no one knew this mode of domination better than them. Rather than initiate the conversation about settler-colonial formations, scholars provided a more global analysis. In truth, however, the field’s initial purview was circumscribed. With the exception of Israel-Palestine, settler-colonial studies focused primarily on Anglophone settler societies—Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United States and to some extent South Africa. Researchers compared these Anglophone settler societies productively in terms of their past and present: they looked at the shared legal traditions and histories of Indigenous dispossession, elimination and forced assimilation. They also shed light on the parallel processes of Indigenous “renaissance” that began in the 1970s, a period that witnessed increased Indigenous militancy, political organizing and increased demands for land and language rights, self-determination, sovereignty and constitutional recognition.

From its inception, settler colonial studies also focused extensively on Israel-Palestine. Here, too, there was a pre-existing tradition of comparative analysis of settler colonialism as a distinct mode of domination. Building on earlier popular Palestinian critiques of Zionism that date back to the turn of the twentieth century, Palestinian intellectuals began to denounce Zionism explicitly as a settler-colonial movement starting in the mid-1960s.[1] Around the same time, a small group of anti-Zionist Jewish leftists in Israel, alongside Palestinian citizens, began to echo the same charge. (The fact that their critique emerged toward the end of the war in Algeria—another settler colony—is not coincidental.) The development of a settler-colonial paradigm as a viable lens for interpreting the ongoing conflict in Israel-Palestine began in the 1980s but expanded significantly at the turn of the twenty-first century. This lens has become particularly compelling as an avenue for understanding within a single frame the multiple questions that scholars and activists long treated in isolation: the long history of Zionism as a political movement and the range of political arrangements Palestinians experience, whether as citizens of Israel, denizens of East Jerusalem, occupied subjects in the West Bank and Gaza or refugees in the diaspora. The settler-colonial paradigm has enabled scholars to offer a unifying interpretation of the Zionist movement’s (and later Israel’s) deployment of diverse forms of subjection and political fragmentation across time and space.

From an emphasis on the importance of “Third World” solidarity, many Palestinians began to focus on “Fourth World” Indigenous internationalism—the politics of transnational Indigenous opposition to settler colonialism as a specific mode of domination.
The growing application of the settler-colonial paradigm to Israel-Palestine evolved alongside a shift in how many Palestinians understood their liberation struggle within the broader arena of anti-colonial politics. From an emphasis on the importance of “Third World” solidarity, many Palestinians began to focus on “Fourth World” Indigenous internationalism—the politics of transnational Indigenous opposition to settler colonialism as a specific mode of domination. This political shift brought the United States, with its own legacy as a settler colony, into the frame—not as an imperialist power located abroad and acting locally through an intermediary, but as a polity directly involved in Israel’s settler project.

Israel and supporters of its policies have followed the diffusion of the paradigm in academia and public culture, and in recent years they have responded to it with an updated counter frame. In the 1950s and 1960s, Israeli officials typically disavowed the charge of settler colonialism on the grounds that Zionism had in their reconstructions been an anti-colonial movement and that the violence that had accompanied the state’s birth in 1948 was in fact an anti-colonial war of liberation against the British Empire. But if the charged debate over Israel’s settler-colonial status became relatively more muted in subsequent decades, its recent growing prevalence has spawned the circulation of more pointed claims about Jewish indigeneity to the land. (These assertions remain unconvincing; one cannot proclaim a right to the Promised Land from elsewhere, as the Biblical text and Zionist claims equally do, and at the same time argue that one was always there. Jews may be “returning” to the land but are unable to do so as Indigenes.) These counterclaims often appear alongside arguments about the racial diversity of Jews and their status as “people of color”—a response to the growing linkages between the Movement for Black Lives and Palestinian solidarity activists, as well as to charges that Zionism and the state of Israel are rooted in the principles and practices of white supremacy.


Central Nodes in a Settler-Colonial Network


Aside from Israel-Palestine, scholars in settler colonial studies have tended to overlook settler colonies in the Middle East and North Africa. This relative neglect has left unexplored the region’s crucial contributions to the global diffusion and development of settler colonialism as a historical phenomenon. Scholars have largely ignored how, at least between the 1830s and the 1930s, European settlement in North Africa was seen as a more favorable prospect than establishing colonies further away. (In the early twentieth century, the Zionist leaders who fatefully decided to focus on Palestine rather than pursue potential opportunities in Argentina and Angola, among other places, drew the same conclusions.) In contrast to European settlers elsewhere, those in North Africa were ultimately expelled, and therefore failed to survive as communities. This does not mean that settler colonialism as a distinct mode of domination was never significant there. Indeed, the modern comparative distinction between different modalities of domination that eventually underpinned the field’s emergence was first offered regarding French Algeria between 1830 and 1962. Once again, local analyses prefigured the paradigm. In his book, Vocation de l’Islam, which appeared in 1954, Algerian intellectual Malek Bennabi offered an early definition of settler colonialism as distinct from other forms of colonialism. Bennabi explicitly distinguished conquered, or occupied, countries from “colonized” countries (a distinction that replicated the “colonie d’exploitation”/“colonie de peuplement” opposition that characterized French colonial traditions).[2] The latter would now be understood as settler colonies.

The shape of France’s settler colonization of Algeria was itself the fruit of transnational comparisons. In 1831 parliamentarian and scholar Alexis de Tocqueville visited America and approved of what he understood as a successful model of nonrevolutionary republicanism. He later imagined that Algeria, conquered one year earlier, could become the cradle of a similar republican project. After visiting the French colony in 1841, Tocqueville espoused the necessary role of violence—as well as the need to suspend political liberties—to complete the state’s colonial project. The ensuing years of violent conquest culminated with the defeat of the anti-colonial leader Emir Abdelkader. In the wake of these events, progressive Saint-Simonian principles became central in redefining the French civilizing mission, ushering in a brief period of liberal associationism between colonizer and colonized. This governing approach came to an end in 1870, when the architects of France’s Third Republic pressed for the legal assimilation of Algerian and colonial institutions and deepened inequalities between the European and Indigenous inhabitants.[3] Later, the colony remained a testing ground for the implementation of policies that could be introduced to the metropole.

French republican traditions in the nineteenth and twentieth century extolled the colonization of Algeria as an opportunity for national regeneration and a laboratory for political experimentation.
French republican traditions in the nineteenth and twentieth century extolled the colonization of Algeria as an opportunity for national regeneration and a laboratory for political experimentation. While French settlement was crucial to the political evolution of the metropole, aspiring settler leaders and movements elsewhere studied the events as an example they might follow. In the mid-1840s, educator, writer and future Argentinian president Domingo Faustino Sarmiento visited Algeria as part of a broader tour of Europe. As with the French mission in North Africa, Argentina faced the predicament of dealing with restive Indigenous populations as it sought to welcome peasant immigrant-settlers from a variety of southern European countries rather than from a single “motherland.” Upon his return, Sarmiento expressed his admiration for how the remorseless repression of Indigenous insurgents helped transform peasants into small proprietors. If, as Sarmiento famously noted, “to govern is to populate,” he found what he understood as best practice in Algeria.[4] The settler colonization of Argentina proceeded in ways that departed from what he saw as the Algerian example but was informed, no less, by a transnational network of ideas about colonialism.

Decades later, the Zionist movement in Palestine would also think comparatively about French Algeria. The philanthropists who bankrolled its early agricultural colonies in the late nineteenth century sought to adopt the Algerian model by creating a Jewish planter class that would survive by relying on low-wage Indigenous Arab workers. In the early 1900s, a new generation of European Jewish settlers realized that the conditions that had enabled the French settler minority to sustain itself and flourish under this arrangement were not transferable to Palestine. Without the coercive economic and political power of a metropole, these younger and more militant settlers warned that adopting a “mixed” labor force would spell the end of their movement. This prognosis would give birth to the creation of a separate and closed Jewish economy. Decades later, the Algerian war would re-emerge in Israeli representations as a specter: decolonization.

The governor of Italian Libya, Italo Balbo, welcomes arriving Italian colonists in Tripoli in 1938. Courtesy of State Treasury of Poland, image in the public domain.

Rather than focusing exclusively on the political and economic exigencies of Italy’s colonial settlers, Mussolini’s vision was rooted in broader aims of racial purification and the production of the “New [and White] Fascist Man.”
Algeria was not the only North African colony that became a crucial site of settler-colonial experimentation. In the 1930s, following Italy’s murderous “pacification” efforts in Libya over the previous two decades, Mussolini sought to establish a new type of colony on appropriated Indigenous land. Rather than focusing exclusively on the political and economic exigencies of Italy’s colonial settlers, Mussolini’s vision was rooted in broader aims of racial purification and the production of the “New [and White] Fascist Man.” Libya’s history as a former settler colony of the Roman Empire, and the dream of organizing Italy’s “return” to North Africa, loomed large in his mind. To this end, the government built entire settler villages prior to the arrival of Italian farmers and their families, stocked with furnished homes and institutions of social, cultural and political life that replicated those of the mainland. These preparations would lay the groundwork for Italian settlers to enact a new kind of conquest: they called it the conquest of labor, or “impero del lavoro” (which echoes the Yishuv’s parlance but is probably unrelated).

If Mussolini aimed to showcase Italy’s settler enterprise in Libya, he found a particularly receptive audience in Germany’s Third Reich. Some Nazis were so impressed with Italy’s “achievements” and its emphasis on racial regeneration that they set out to replicate its policies in the areas of central and eastern Europe that fell under their control since the late 1930s—although defeat at the hands of the Soviet Union’s Red Army discontinued their plans.[5]  Significantly, the Italian settler community would be expelled only in the late 1960s, more than two decades after Libya gained its independence. Many believed, somehow, that their settlements could survive the demise of the colonial regimes that had underpinned their establishment and privilege. A young colonel named Muammar al-Qaddafi thought differently.

Zionist and German planners were not alone in their search for models of settlement in the Middle East and North Africa. Further away, Jewish colonization strategies in 1930s Palestine would themselves serve as an example to emulate. In Imperial Japan, bureaucrats and intellectuals endeavored to adapt these strategies in Manchuria, where they sought to settle Japanese communities on lands that were already densely populated by relatively impoverished peasants.[6] (Japanese authorities promoted the settlement of Korea and Taiwan too, but in these cases, their models were respectively British and French.) Like the Italian settlers in Libya and the Pied Noirs of Algeria, who would be “repatriated” in the 1960s, the Japanese settlers would return to the metropole in a protracted and tragic counter-migration after their country’s defeat in World War II.

But if the Pied Noirs had “returned” to a homeland that in many cases they had never seen and to which they lacked ancestral links, the Spaniards whose ancestors had populated the cities of Melilla and Ceuta since the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, respectively, did not.
But if the Pied Noirs had “returned” to a homeland that in many cases they had never seen and to which they lacked ancestral links, the Spaniards whose ancestors had populated the cities of Melilla and Ceuta since the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, respectively, did not. Located on Morocco’s Mediterranean coast, both areas are officially considered an integral part of the Spanish metropole. Unlike the settlements in Algeria, the end of the Spanish Protectorate in Morocco in 1956 did not involve their disestablishment or retrocession. Instead of slating them for decolonization, Spain administratively excised the cities from their surrounding hinterlands. Today, they constitute the only remaining European enclaves in North Africa, surrounded by secure fences and highly militarized from within. All of their Christian and most of their Muslim inhabitants are citizens of the European Union; they dwell in the African continent, but they are not of it. The very existence of these “villas in the jungle”—the legacy of a colonial settlement predicated on the expulsion of colonized populations—underscores the distinction between settler colonialism and other modes of imperial domination.

Though Morocco demands that Spain return Ceuta and Melilla, its stance stands in tension with the Kingdom’s simultaneous view of the disputed Western Sahara territory as a site for its own settlement project. In 1975, following two years of a nationalist uprising against the territory’s nearly century-long occupation by Spain, the Western Sahara became the site of competing sovereignty claims by its Moroccan and Mauritanian neighbors. That year, the International Court of Justice ruled that neither country’s historical ties to the territory lent international legal legitimacy to their contemporary claims. Morocco quickly launched a controversial settlement movement in the Western Sahara, unilaterally annexing it in 1979. The United States only reversed its longstanding refusal to recognize the annexation in 2020. Morocco agreed to join the Abraham Accords in a quid pro quo, which extended formal US recognition of Morocco’s settler-colonial occupation of the Western Sahara in return for Morocco’s normalization of relations with Israel. Morocco understands the Western Sahara as a southern extension of itself, but most of its Indigenous peoples understand it as their occupied homeland. Morocco’s policies represent a new kind of settler colonialism, in which a postcolonial polity undertakes the demographic transformation of another territory through expulsion, exile and the systematic settlement of its own nationals. The logic of elimination prevails.


The Future of Settler Colonialism


Settler colonialism is not only relevant to the history of the Middle East and North Africa but also to the way the region’s future is imagined. Today, Turkey is considering whether to turn the Kurdish-majority northeast Syrian region of Afrin, which it has occupied since 2018, into a new settlement project, albeit with Syrian Arab refugees instead of Turkish nationals. The proposed resettlement of these refugees, which could build on decades of Turkey’s experience of occupying Northern Cyprus, falls within the parameters of settler colonialism as a distinct mode of domination. If carried out, Afrin would become a new and alternative Syria—permanently separated from the rest of the country and supported by a foreign power. As demonstrated by Britain’s imperial sponsorship of the Zionist colonization of Palestine, a state does not need to be settling its own nationals to pursue a settler-colonial project.

Increasingly, countries around the globe demand the sophisticated technologies of containment and control that Israel has developed and “battle tested” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip over the last 30 years.
Still, the future of global settler colonialism emanates from the Middle East in other ways. Palestine remains a global laboratory of settler domination through containment, a repressive practice that pursues the logic of elimination by targeting the links that a specific community maintains with the wider world. Increasingly, countries around the globe demand the sophisticated technologies of containment and control that Israel has developed and “battle tested” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip over the last 30 years. The occupation is increasingly marketable around the world. India, for example, has borrowed from Israeli strategies and purchased some of its technologies for its emerging settlement project in occupied Kashmir. The Pegasus spyware has been acquired and used widely by autocrats in the region and beyond. The United States has also provided an eager market; in 2019 the FBI purchased and tested Pegasus to consider its potentials for domestic use, and a growing body of evidence has pointed to the Israel Defense Force’s contribution to the increased militarization of US policing. In short, we are witnessing the convergence and globalization of technologies of domination and modes of settler-colonial domination. As in the past, the region remains a crucial node in transnational networks of colonialist ideas and repressive practices.


[Lorenzo Veracini is associate professor in history and politics at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne.]





[1] Rana Barakat, “Writing/righting Palestine Studies: Settler Colonialism, Indigenous Sovereignty and Resisting the Ghost(s) of History,” Settler Colonial Studies 8/3 (2018).

[2] Malek Bennabi, Islam in History and Society (Islamabad: Islamic Research Institute, International Islamic University, 1988).

[3] Osama Abi-Mershed, Apostles of Modernity: Saint Simonians and the Civilizing Mission in Algeria (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010).

[4] Ricardo Cicerchia, “Journey to the Centre of the Earth: Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, a Man of Letters in Algeria,” Journal of Latin American Studies 36/4 (2004).

[5] Patrick Bernhard, “Hitler’s Africa in the East: Italian Colonialism as a Model for German Planning in Eastern Europe,” Journal of Contemporary History 51/1 (2016).

[6] John C. De Boer, “Circumventing the Evils of Colonialism: Yanaihara Tadao and Zionist Settler Colonialism in Palestine,” Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 14/3 (2006).


How to cite this article:

Lorenzo Veracini "Settler Colonialism in the Middle East and North Africa: A Protracted History," Middle East Report 302 (Spring 2022).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This