Before they were evicted from their homes and forcibly removed from their communities by the Israeli government in 2005, Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip warned that their removal would only make things worse. They warned that the front line of violence between Israelis and Palestinians would move closer to those Israelis who lived inside the Green Line. They claimed their presence provided a buffer. They said God promised this Land to the Jewish people and that they should not abandon it. They said Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip, unlike many other places inside Israel, did not involve the destruction of Palestinian communities or the displacement of Palestinians. Israeli Jews living in Gaza predicted that life would become more dangerous for other Israelis if the government pulled out.
Indeed, that is exactly what has happened. In the southern part of Israel, previously quiet communities have found themselves at the forefront of violent conflict since the 2005 disengagement when Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, removing its soldiers and citizens. Palestinian attacks on Israeli citizens, once aimed at the settlements in Gaza, have since turned to the communities inside the internationally recognized borders of Israel. Now, missiles are fired from Gaza into the southern towns of the Israeli periphery. While it might seem strange, this has also had some benefits for those communities. In support of those who live on the front lines, the government has reduced taxes in those towns. The train ride from some peripheral areas is now provided free of charge. People began purchasing inexpensive real estate and were able to easily commute to their jobs in center of the country. Towns like Sederot became targets of missile fire, but also began to prosper in ways they had not before. More recently, Palestinian missile fire has increased in number and in range, disrupting life for Israelis throughout the country.
The settlers might not have made public predictions about the lives of Palestinians in Gaza, but surely their situation has become markedly worse since the 2005 disengagement. So far, there have been three major military campaigns and intermittent exchanges of fire resulting in the deaths of thousands of Palestinians. The number of casualties and deaths, and the destruction of property has only increased for Gazans since the Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territory. This might seem strange, but it was probably entirely predictable.
Such might have been the prediction of James Ron (2003), for example, who compares state violence in Israel and Serbia. When a minority is contained within a nation-state, he explains, they may be subject to extensive policing, as has been the case for Palestinians in the West Bank, which he describes as similar to a “ghetto”, or what we might think of as a reservation, or a camp. The ghetto, he says, implies subordination and incorporation, and ghettos are policed but not destroyed.
But state violence increases when those considered outsiders or enemies of the nation are separated and on the “frontier” of the state. In the American West, for example, when the frontier was open and indigenous populations were unincorporated into the United States, they were targeted for dispossession and massacre. And, he explains, when Western powers recognized Bosnian independence in 1992, that helped transform Bosnia into a frontier, setting the stage for ethnic cleansing.
We might ask ourselves if the disengagement set up Gaza as such a frontier. If so, we might have anticipated the extreme violence that has since ensued. Then we are also left to wonder if the settlers were right. What if dismantling Jewish settlements is more dangerous for Palestinians than for Israelis?
Many of those who support the rights of Palestinians have been calling for an end to Israeli settlement and for dismantling existing settlements in Israeli Occupied Territories, in preparation for the establishment of two states for two peoples, side by side.
But what is gained if the ethno-national foundation of the nation-state necessarily leads to containment or removal of those who are not considered members of the nation? This was Hannah Arendt’s warning about the danger inherent in the nation-state formation that makes life precarious for those who are not considered part of the national group that has sovereignty. As Judith Butler (2010) so eloquently explains: “The category of the stateless is reproduced not simply by the nation-state but by a certain operation of power that seeks to forcibly align nation with state, one that takes the hyphen, as it were, as a chain” (pg.12).
If the danger lies in that hyphen as chain, then removing Jewish settlers, like demolishing Palestinian homes, is also part of a larger process of separation, a power that seeks to forcibly align a people with a territory. That separation might seem liberating; a stage on the way to independence. But partition does not necessarily lead to peace. In the case of Gaza, removing Israeli citizens might just have made it possible for increased violence. If it is true that war is only politics by other means, or politics only war, then we have to think further. The political terrain of Israel has changed. If, prior to the 2005 disengagement, there was a vibrant Left Wing opposed to settlement in the Occupied Territories, those voices have faded.
The political terrain has changed, but the foundations of the seemingly intractable conflict in Israel/Palestine have not. Those foundations lie in the normative episteme of nations and states that form the basis for international relations and liberal peacemaking. If Israel/Palestine is a struggle between two national groups for one piece of territory, then fighting for that hyphen as chain will continue and the violence, death and destruction will only increase. If Israel/Palestine is a settler colonial polity, then the forces of separation required for two states should be understood as part of a foundational structure that requires elimination of the natives (Wolfe 1999). It matters little if one believes that Jews have a right to sovereignty in their homeland or if one believes the Palestinian struggle for liberation is justified. If liberation relies on the ethnic purification of territory there can be no winners.
These comments first appeared on the Oxford University Press author’s website: http://blog.oup.com/2014/10/gaza-war-settlers-israel-palestine
Arendt, H. 2003 (1948). “The Perplexities of the Rights of Man, from The Origins of Totalitarianism,” in The Portable Hannah Arendt. Edited by P. Baehr, pp. 31-45. New York: Penguin.
Butler, J., and G. C. Spivak. 2010. Who Sings the Nation-State? London, New York, Calcutta: Seagull
Ron, J. 2003. Frontiers and Ghettos: State Violence in Serbia and Israel. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Wolfe, P. 1999. Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology: The Politics and Poetics of an Ethnographic Event. Writing Past Colonialism. London: Cassell.