While there are rich literatures that deal with the two most well-known instances of settler colonialism in the region, French Algeria and Israel and Palestine, these cases have been surprisingly peripheral to the field of settler colonial studies as well as to broader definitions of settler colonialism and understandings of how its legacies shape politics and social life today.
The establishment of settler colonies dates to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when Europeans displaced Indigenous people in a host of locations including (but not limited to) the United States, Canada and Algeria. European powers legitimated the seizure of these lands through their liberal regimes of property ownership and racial hierarchies. They claimed that their own capacities for cultivation and improvement, rather than Indigenous histories of land use, granted the right of ownership. Moreover, in places like Algeria and Israel, the “ethnonational imperatives” of creating European outposts in the Middle East and North Africa trumped the classic structures of capitalist rationality.
Settler colonialism became a framework for studying specific examples of colonization in the 1990s when scholars looked to the past to understand how specific forms of domination continued to influence contemporary politics, notably the neoliberal multiculturalism that reproduced the erasure of Indigenous groups. This analytical paradigm thus emphasizes an enduring institutional tendency to supplant the Indigenous population rather than focusing on the initial violence of conquest (giving rise to historian Patrick Wolfe’s now famous phrase that settler colonialism is a “structure and not an event”). For many scholars, the colonial fantasy of “cleansing” the body politic of the Indigenous population means that settler colonies were (and are) fundamentally different from other instances of imperial domination since the underlying rationale was the replacement (rather than exploitation) of Indigenous inhabitants.
And yet, as Lorenzo Verancini notes in the opening essay of this issue, even the examples of Algeria and Palestine have been largely marginalized in the field of a settler colonial studies that has focused primarily on Anglophone colonies in North America, Australia and South Africa. Perhaps the uniqueness of the two primary Middle East and North Africa examples makes them difficult cases for comparison. With Algeria, the departure of millions of settlers and their return to France after Algerian independence in 1962 certainly sets it apart from other settler-colonial societies. In Israel and Palestine, there are complex and ongoing contestations about who can claim Indigeneity: How can a settler also be Indigenous? Additionally, there are the more technical (and tedious) debates around Israel’s lack of a metropole that have served, strategically, to hive it off from comparisons. Beyond Algeria and Palestine, the region has experienced other instances of settler colonialism, and these less studied examples, too, have much to say about the broader field.
We recognize from the outset that settler colonialism is an inherently messy thing to pin down. It is both a process and a concept. There is no pure application or perfect example. In practice, settler colonialism often operates in conjunction with other processes that can effectively mask it, such as nationalism, Indigeneity and sovereignty, to name a few. This issue of Middle East Report seeks to pull apart some of those entanglements.
In developing this issue, we identified two goals. First, in expanding the geographic scope of scholarly analysis, we hoped to go beyond Algeria and Palestine to explore other, lesser-known sites of settler colonialism in the region, both past and present. Ali Abdullatif Ahmida, in an interview with Jacob Mundy, sheds light on the forgotten history of Italian settler colonialism in interwar Libya, with its explicit aims of removal and genocide. Victoria Verguilla shows how, beginning in the 1990s, the fishing industries of the Western Sahara shaped the informal settlement of Moroccans in key port cities. As this population grew in the early 2000s, the Moroccan state intervened with housing policies that helped to formalize these settlements as a way of strengthening its hold on the territory.
In addition to Verguilla, other authors underscore the importance of coming to grips with the everyday, often material, structures and practices that undergird settler colonialism. Muriam Haleh Davis explores links between citrus production in Algeria, Palestine and California as a way to reveal the often-overlooked transnational dimensions of settler economies and the racial capitalism they produce. Moving to the present, Daniel Monterescu and Ariel Handel investigate how both Israeli and Palestinian vintners work to rehabilitate indigenous grape varieties to buttress their historic claims to Israeli-occupied land.
Our second goal was to explore the contested meanings and understandings of decolonization in different contexts. As Olivia Harrison shows, the recent appropriation of the term “decolonization” by the nativist right in France has its origins in colonial Algeria. Harrison’s characterization of France as a “settler postcolony” highlights the way that the history and memory of France’s settler past continue to animate its politics, culture and society. Of course, there is nothing “post” about settler colonialism in Palestine and Israel. Since the end of the Oslo process and the second Intifada, the Israeli government has further formalized its policies of Jewish supremacy throughout historic Palestine. Under these circumstances, the form that decolonization might, or should, take remains uncertain. Leila Farsakh takes up this question and considers whether the pursuit of statehood in and of itself may restrict Palestinians’ political imagination and may push for ends that are not ultimately emancipatory. Similarly, Areej Sabbagh-Khoury insists on the importance of employing the settler-colonial lens to see through erroneous claims that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about ethnicity, religion or nationalism. Both authors also point to decolonization as a critical framework for peace: What political and social processes will allow Palestinians and Israeli Jews together to dismantle the structures of domination that perpetuate Palestinian dispossession and disenfranchisement?
There is one other significant challenge to studying and analyzing settler colonialism in the Middle East and North Africa: temporality. Settler colonialism in the Middle East has a long past, continues to shape the present and is likely to continue into the future. As early as 1415, Ceuta and Melilla on the Moroccan Mediterranean coast were occupied and settled by the Portuguese. They became Spanish settler colonies in the sixteenth century and have remained Spanish enclaves since, despite Moroccan demands for return. The settler population of French Algeria may have left after independence, but their memory remains a potent force on both sides of the Mediterranean. And in Palestine, settler colonialism continues, expands and transforms. Much of this issue deals with current entanglements, but contestations over the past remain ever present.[The editors of issue #302, “Settler Colonialism’s Enduring Entanglements,” are Mona Atia, Graham Cornwell and Muriam Haleh Davis with Guest Editor Shira Robinson.]