Palestine and the slow burn of anti-colonial resistance

Lorna Finlayson & Clement Mouhot
October 27, 2014

The UK Parliament recently cast a historic vote to officially recognise the state of Palestine. Although the vote is still only symbolic, the MPs at Westminster aren’t alone in their defiance of U.S.-backed Israeli policies in the occupied territories.  More than 60 academics at Cambridge University have signed a statement calling for an immediate end to the Israeli blockade on Gaza and the  “discriminatory and dehumanising treatment of Palestinians”.

Clément Mouhot and Lorna Finlayson, the academics  at King’s College who co-drafted the statement, reflect here on the  enduring crisis in Palestine and respond to critics who say that singling out Israel is  “misguided”, “myopic”, or “immoral”.

The Israel-Palestine situation is not simple, but it is certainly not  a symmetric conflict between equally right or wrong adversaries either.  The situation has a name: colonial occupation. This is something  familiar in France, which only retreated from Algeria and Indochina—and  with much bloodshed—when the people of those countries rose up and  organised an anti-colonial resistance.

Some among Israel’s ruling class would like to claim that  history—either the memory of the Holocaust, or the wars waged in the  past by surrounding Arab countries against Israel—vindicates this  neocolonial occupation. Whatever oppression or injustices a people have  endured, it does not morally justify that people in oppressing another.  The point is all the clearer in a case like that of the Palestinians, in  which the population in question has nothing to do with the oppression  or injustices once suffered by their current oppressors.

Others would like to justify the bullying and oppression of millions  of Palestinian people with reference to the anti-Semitic slogans  attributed to certain factions or organisations like Hamas. This logic  of collective punishment is morally repugnant, a thin veil for an  attitude of genuine contempt for the lives of Palestinians. Those who  make that argument would be rightly horrified by any suggestion that the  outrageous actions and racist discourses of certain extremist Jewish  settlers justify the murders of Israeli citizens.

Israel’s most recent prolonged attack on Gaza, ‘Operation Protective  Edge’, was the third in less than 6 years. The latest spate of bombing  is thought to be the most devastating that the inhabitants of Gaza have ever experienced. 2,139 Palestinians were killed, the vast majority of them civilians, including at least 490 children  (on the Israeli side, 64 soldiers and six civilians lost their lives –  including a four year-old child.) Gaza’s hospitals, schools, mosques,  and factories were systematically bombed. Entire families were wiped out.

Mainstream media attention crescendos when, for a number of days or  weeks, the bombs are falling and hundreds or thousands of people die in a  short period of time. Between these episodes, the media to a large  extent loses interest, and it would be easy for people to assume that  there was nothing much happening. But even in the last few weeks, Israel  has used the end of Operation Protective Edge, and of the international  media scrutiny that went with it, to announce a new wave of illegal  settlements. State and settler violence  against Palestinians is on-going. The blockade of Gaza is calculated to  keep the 1.8 million people contained in the city-sized strip of land on the edge of starvation.  These conditions will inevitably engender resistance, and can only be  maintained by constant violence on the part of the Israeli state—a  violence which periodically spills over into the mass killing of  Palestinian civilians.

With the escalation of this on-going violence, the chorus of  criticism has been rising too: mainstream media coverage, the stance of  politicians, and academic opinion alike have undergone a small but  perceptible shift in recent months, as the images of destruction in Gaza  reverberate around the world. The chorus is answered with a strange and  increasingly desperate-sounding propaganda tune, heard across the U.S.  and much of Europe: these activists targeting Israel are obsessed by  this issue even though there are lots of other atrocities committed,  and people dying horrific deaths every day elsewhere in the world (with  the murders of Christians in Iraq, the war in Ukraine, or simply through  starvation in the poorest countries); therefore these single-minded  activists can only be driven by anti-Semitism.

The argument ascends to a dizzying level of moral irresponsibility:  it admits that the injustices, oppression and murders committed in  Palestine are as bad as other atrocities in the world, holding only that  focusing on this one would be ‘anti-Semitic’. With this reasoning, what  should we say about all the people who have dedicated their lives for  one particular cause, be it fighting segregation in the U.S., fighting  apartheid in South Africa, or fighting for abortion in many countries?  Did those people’s commitment to one particular cause diminish the  righteousness of their fight for that cause? Of course not. It is time  that the situation in Palestine is recognised for what it is: a colonial  occupation, supported by the USA and also by Europe to a large extent,  that is to be condemned and fought just like all other colonial  occupations in the past.

It is not enough simply to condemn each session of bombing as it  happens. Those who care about this issue must work to maintain the  pressure and scrutiny that is needed if we are not to be complicit in  the violence being done to millions of people. This includes trying to  build a more durable awareness of the situation among as many people as  possible. Change is not going to come from academics, but the least we  can do is to speak out in accordance with our consciences when required,  and to try to educate one another and our students. If academics can  make any contribution at all, this can only be a slow burn: the building  and maintenance of a culture of critique which just might, in some way  and at some point, play a role in a struggle that is both broader and  longer. The new academic year seems to us like an opportune time to  start doing that.


All by
Lorna Finlayson & Clement Mouhot