On the Front Line: Conflict vs Colonialism in Palestine

On the Front Line: Conflict vs Colonialism in Palestine

Elaine Bradley

What’s in a word? A world of a difference if you are a Palestinian and that word is ‘conflict’. Basic psychology tells us that how a situation is defined and subsequently framed predetermines how we think about it and consequently, the range of responses we assume may be applied.  When it comes to Palestine, viewing the current situation as a conflict in need of resolution brings us one route, while undoing colonisation brings us to another entirely: anticolonial struggle and decolonisation.

According to  Fanon, “in decolonization, there is [therefore] the need of the calling in question of the complete colonial situation.”  Language, narrative, discourse, thought and ideas that constitute frames of understanding must be held up to scrutiny. I maintain that when the violence of colonisation, including structural violence, is met with the right of resistance by the colonised, to eschew the accurate descriptor ‘anticolonial struggle’  in favour of terming the ensuing situation as ‘a conflict’, is to apply a grammar that is values-laden and aligned with a particular hegemonic world-view, one that endorses the acts of the powerful and simultaneously denies justice to the colonised. And yet this is what popular discourse does when it comes to Palestine.

To illustrate, a google search of the words ‘Conflict’ and ‘Palestine’ yields a substantial 48,700,000 results with the first page proffering various titles that include summaries, histories, crash courses, all, without exception, referring to ‘the Israel-Palestine conflict’ in their headlines. One such is an article in The Atlantic entitled ‘Eight Steps to Shrink the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict[i] by Micah Goodman, who is slated as President of Beit Midrash Yisraeli, Ein Prat.  Ein Prat is in the West Bank settlement of Alon, so Goodman is a settler by today’s definitions. The absurdity of Goodman dispensing advice under the circumstances is obscured and enabled both by the endorsement of publication in The Atlantic and the fact that his framing of the situation fits within the prevailing discourse of The Israel-Palestine Conflict.

No matter how settlers like to present their colonisation – in the case of Palestine ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’ and the fulfilment of a biblical promise to the Jewish people by an ancient god – “Territoriality is settler colonialism’s specific, irreducible element.” Why then do we let the coloniser, the wrong-doer, both define the problem and devise the solution? ‘Western hegemony’ goes a long way to answering this question where, to paraphrase Professor David Lloyd, Palestine cannot be contemplated for itself alone, but may only be proposed by permission of Israel and its patrons[ii].

Palestine was given as a gift by one coloniser to another in the Balfour Declaration, with no reference to the indigenous of the land other than referring to them in respect of what they are not – ‘non-Jewish’. In this racist framing, Palestinians became a non-people in an empty land corresponding with what Judith Butler refers to as ‘ungrievable life‘. For how can we grieve life lost when we have not perceived that life in the first instance? With many Palestinians killed and 750,000 displaced from their homeland during the Nakba of 1948, the main story was not of these ungrievable lives, but of the birth of a new state – Israel, whose crimes were rewarded by admittance to the United Nations in 1949. The original injustice has echoed and been amplified through time, but the Palestinians have refused to go quietly, to disappear. For them, to exist is to resist. Israel deals with the ‘existential threat’ of the Palestinians by seeking legitimacy for its own actions and simultaneously delegitimising the Palestinian’s just cause; their resistance; their anti-colonial struggle. [iii]

Returning to the ubiquitous frame of ‘the Israel-Palestine Conflict’, the primacy of Israel is marked within the discourse: Israel has become the point of reference with Palestine linked as if by gravity and orbit – a moon to Israel’s earth. Israel is the subject, Palestine the object. Not only may we not think on Palestine for itself alone, but we may not think of its relationship with Israel outside the framework of ‘conflict’. The epithet ‘intractable’ added to ‘conflict’ completes the conjouring of a complicated situation that lies beyond the realms of the full understanding of ordinary mortals, making simple solutions inconceivable and resolution entrusted to an array of so-called experts in peace and diplomacy.  The ‘Israel-Palestine Conflict’ has become an impenetrable conundrum within this hegemonic frame where alternative interpretations are negated and the voice of those most affected, the Palestinians, marginalised within mainstream discourse.

By putting the emphasis on ‘conflict’ rather than its root cause ‘colonialism,’ we misrepresent the situation, invoking both in language and in thought a symmetrical responsibility: contested claims, contested narratives, contested accounts of events where each party and their claim is accorded a validity and you pick your side. In this system, the more powerful, the more influential inevitably holds sway within the constellation of international power relations and, despite the oft-feigned neutrality of world powers and international institutions, the idea of two competing perspectives and positions is tacitly endorsed and adjudicated, thereby giving credence and sanction to the overall act of colonisation.  Within this framework, the structural violence of colonialism as a precursor to conflict is ignored and an anticolonial struggle becomes skewed, interpellated as terrorism on an international stage. Offered then as solutions are the hackneyed ‘diplomacy’ and ‘peace processes’ that de facto have denied Palestinians the right to self-determination in their own land while supporting Israel’s ongoing colonisation of Palestine right up to the present where Israel stands poised to annex the West Bank.

However, if we accept that Israel is a settler colonial state, then the correct framing of the Palestinian response is not conflict, but anti-colonial struggle.  This opens up a different world of possibilities and shifts not merely the emphasis, but the paradigm.

Considering the situation as an anticolonial struggle on the part of the Palestinians, in line with their long-held ideological and political framework, centres the Palestinians in their own story. The unseen is seen, ungrievable life becomes grievable, the ‘non-Jewish communities’ of Palestine, become a people in their own land. Further, this framing acknowledges the Palestinian right, under international law, to a wide range of interventions including the right of armed resistance to colonisation. To adopt this frame would severely challenge the construct of Palestinian as terrorist and Israel as the victim – an island of democracy in a sea of hostile Arabs -constantly in need of defence against the irrational indigenous aggressor. It would challenge too, the political order, that sees world leaders parroting the mantra of Israel’s right to defend itself in response to each new atrocity against the Palestinian people, with no reference to the antecedents of whatever the latest round of violence being foregrounded.

So to end where I started…what’s in a word? A world of a difference if you are a Palestinian and that word is ‘conflict’.


Elaine Bradley is an Organisational Consultant and activist who has worked extensively in Palestine ­– mostly Gaza – on projects linked to social justice and human rights. She is an independent researcher and a founding member of Academics for Palestine.

Image: David Lisbona