Why we must understand violence in Israel and Palestine as a colonial conflict rather than a religious one
I wrote a piece at the beginning of the school year that promised to be “the first of several in a series in support of Palestinian liberation.” The latter half of 2016, however, had different things in mind. Between the Charlotte uprising, Standing Rock, and the presidential election, my largely personal reflection on last summer’s two-week delegation to Palestine took a back seat. Now, it appears, the occupation of Palestine is back in the news with enough force to come back to it to start 2017.
The Modern Language Association voted last week against adopting the academic boycott of Israeli universities. This came not long after the United States abstained from a UN Security Council resolution condemning illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Trump, who appointed a chief strategist with an anti-Semitic history, has at the same time voiced support for far-right plans to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and loudly denounced the US abstention at the UN. Trump’s policy towards Israel might come across as paradoxical without a proper understanding of the anti-Semitic assumptions of Christian Zionism, perhaps a theme for a future article.
If your social media network, like most people, is not full of Palestinian solidarity activists, your encounter with the struggle for Palestinian liberation in the past week may have been limited to Sunday’s truck attack in Jerusalem. A Palestinian man Qunbar, killed four Israeli soldiers and wounded 17 more. Qunbar’s attack received far more media coverage than the incident one day earlier where Israeli soldiers shot at the car of Asaad Al-Ramlawi, the Palestinian Deputy Minister of Health in the West Bank.
Outside of the headlines, however, I think that I as a writer have an obligation to tell the stories that marginalized people have graciously shared with me. One thing every Palestinian I met (and many Israeli solidarity activists as well) insisted is that this is not a religious conflict. Folks in Aida Refugee Camp, Nabi Saleh, Bethlehem, Yaffa, and Jerusalem were all adamant that theirs was a fight for liberation, land, and rights, and that any Jew or Christian who fought for those principles were welcome among Palestinians freedom fighters.
Whether you think violence is sometimes permissible as a form of resistance, or never acceptable at all, it is crucial that we understand Qunbar’s attack as a political response to occupation, and not as religious zealotry. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already suggested that Qunbar was inspired by ISIS, and as such was a fundamentalist or religious fanatic. This is the narrative he wants us to adopt, as it justifies repression against Palestinians and religious minorities. If religious difference is the source of animosity, then separation and segregation gets an excuse. But Qunbar’s actions cannot be understood outside of the political context of the occupation and the deprivation it directs at Palestinians. The reverse is also true: Israeli retaliation is political, seeking to control, corral, and eliminate an occupied population.
The conflict in Israel and Palestine is hardly a conflict. A conflict entails two sides of equal military capacity; but this “conflict” is a heavily-tilted process of settler-colonialism. Settler-colonialism, according to Patrick Wolfe, necessarily seeks the elimination of the native – in this case, the Palestinian.
The “religious myth” is that Jews and Arabs have hated one another since the dawn of time. This myth, which is demonstrably false, precludes any kind of peace and asks us to take sides based on our identities, not our principles. But I have met Jewish IDF refusers and Christian liberation theologians and Muslim protest leaders in Palestine who reject this notion entirely. When we call the violence that stems from the occupation “an ancient religious conflict,” we obscure the decidedly modern roots of our situation. And if we seek a just and peaceful future that accommodates all, not just a select few, we are required to listen to Palestinians and their allies and discard the language of “religious war.” At best, it’s inaccurate; at worst, it makes excuses for obscene inequalities and the structural violence of settler-colonialism.