Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory must be understood as part of the process of settler colonialism

This essay is part of a series commemorating the 50th anniversary of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip

by J. Kēhaulani Kauanui

When does occupation come to an end? When the occupying power withdraws from the occupied territory or is driven out of it.  50 years too long, the Green Line was originally to be a demarcation line on the map while the armistice talks were going on, rather than a permanent border. The green ink used to draw the line itself has moved in practice, that brutal shift from “Israeli-occupied territories” to “Occupied Palestinian Territories.” Under international law Occupation is a form of administration by which an occupying power exercises government authority over occupied territory through military government.

Unlike settler colonialism, international law has a lot to say about Occupation. As the legal team of the International Committee of the Red Cross explains, Article 42 of the 1907 Hague Regulations states that a “territory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army. The occupation extends only to the territory where such authority has been established and can be exercised.” The principles governing occupation are also spelled out in the Fourth Geneva Convention, as well as in certain provisions of Additional Protocol I and customary international humanitarian law. The main rules of the law applicable in case of occupation are numerous, and one can see at an eye’s glance that Israel has violated them – prohibitions on forcible transfers of population from and within the occupied territory, collective punishment, reprisals against protected persons or their property, just to name a few. And there is this rule: “People accused of criminal offences shall be provided with proceedings respecting internationally recognized judicial guarantees (for example, they must be informed of the reason for their arrest, charged with a specific offence and given a fair trial as quickly as possible).” Consider that when reflecting on Israel’s rampant practice of administrative detention of Palestinians in the name of “security reasons.”

Indeed, it is a cruel and unlawful occupation. 50 years too long. Yes, we must demand that Israel end the occupation, but let us not stop there in our critical analysis of this situation. As Samera Esmeir argues, if we insist on a line separating Israel from its practices in the 1967 occupied territories, we end up erasing Israel’s coloniality in a way that also “normalizes it as a healthy biological-political body.”

What often gets lost in the limited focus on ending the occupation is that it is in the service of a broader settler colonial project, which occupation’s demise will not end. That is evident by the presence and expansion of over 200 settlements and the state of Israel’s constant threat of annexing more territory. And, as an apartheid regime, it furthers segregation and structural inequality with hundreds of thousands of settlers enjoying land, natural resources, and privileges denied to Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory must be understood as part of the process of territorial expropriation.

Many scholars and activists have taken up Patrick Wolfe’s theory of settler colonialism. His essay “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native” is often cited as the principal work representing the concept and theory of the settler colonial analytic. His work distinguishes settler colonialism from franchise colonialism, and shows how the logic of settler colonialism is premised on the elimination of indigenous peoples. As Wolfe noted, because settler colonialism “destroys to replace,” it is “inherently eliminatory but not invariably genocidal.” He was careful to point out that settler colonialism is not simply a form of genocide, since there are cases of genocide without settler colonialism, and because “elimination refers to more than the summary liquidation of Indigenous peoples, though it includes that.”  Because settler colonialism is a land-centered project entailing permanent settlement, as Wolfe points out in this same essay, “Settler colonizers come to stay: invasion is a structure not an event.”

Wolfe did not coin the concept of settler colonialism, although through his work, the analytic has gained important traction and visibility. Before the 1967 War, U.S.-based Palestinian academic and civil servant Fayez Sayegh first theorized the concept of the “setter state” of Israel in his 1965 work, Zionist Colonialism in Palestine, published by the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Importantly, the 2005 BDS call from Palestinian civil society addresses more than just the occupation in its three demands of Israel to comply with international law. These included Israel: 1) Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall; 2) Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and 3) Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

One should note that the Palestinian call for academic (and cultural) boycott predates BDS in terms of the call from Palestinian civil society by a year, so obviously this is a focal point of the campaign that was a priority of sorts.  Like all forms of boycott, academic boycott has its limitations, but as a key part of anti-normalization efforts it can have profound implications for challenging settler colonialism. We wanted the AAA vote for academic boycott in 2016, which we narrowly lost, but we must continue to engage important work of anti-normalization: we must reject Jewish supremacist state policies and stop the U.S. financial backing of another rogue state, another settler colonial society.

J. Kēhaulani Kauanui is Professor of American Studies and Anthropology, and the current Chair of the American Studies Department at Wesleyan University. She proudly serves on the advisory board for the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.