As Israel chooses increased self-isolation in response to rightful condemnation from the UN Security Council and John Kerry attempts to resurrect a two-state solution, we must remember that the scope of the Israeli settler colonial project is not limited to its settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Israeli settlements are, in one word, imposing. They assert the will of the Israeli government upon an occupied Palestinian land and its population, commanding control over facts on the ground – the allocation and use of resources, freedom of movement, land ownership. Their geographical placement and architecture contribute to this imposing nature. As I traveled between Beit Sahour, Bethlehem, and Beit Jala during my first trip to Palestine years ago, the settlements of Har Homa and Gilo, which house more than 65,000 illegal settlers, dominated the panorama. High rise apartments built upon the hilltops, the lights shining through unshuttered windows at night made the compounds look foreign and invasive, like spaceships hovering over Palestinian territory.
These settlements are also illegal under international law and, in a move last week that took many by surprise, the United States refused to veto United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, which condemns continued settlement construction. The move was not entirely unprecedented, as previous Democratic and Republican administrations have wielded their power at the UN to condemn Israeli settlements for decades. The abstention was unprecedented for the Obama administration, however, which has consistently shielded Israel from critical UN resolutions over the past eight years.
Predictably, Israel has taken the only route available to a country drowning in the perils of exclusivist ethno-nationalism, a disposition that has been perpetually stoked by Benjamin Netanyahu in his quest to construct and maintain the most far-right government in Israeli history. The path is one of severe self-isolation, creating an absurd parallel universe where Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev asserts that “the Americans...were never our friends” and Netanyahu warns New Zealand’s foreign minister that their support for the resolution amounts to a “declaration of war.”
But Israel has a much larger problem in relation to its international legitimacy, one that the state has, since its founding, obsessively labored to obfuscate. That is, Israel is a settler colonial state, and not just because it builds settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
As the late Patrick Wolfe reminded us, settler colonial invasion is a structure, not an event. Israeli settler colonialism cannot be reduced to Minister of Education Naftali Bennett’s rhetoric about annexing the West Bank or the announcement of a new settlement bloc in East Jerusalem. The genesis of Israeli settler colonial invasion dates back to decades before the first “settlement” – as we commonly conceive of them today – was constructed. The state’s very existence is necessarily accompanied, as all settler projects are, by a legacy of foundational violence. The ethnic cleansing carried out by Zionist forces during the early twentieth century displaced at least 750,000 Palestinians and destroyed more than 400 of their villages. This is to say that, when the latest UN resolution notes that the Security Council wishes to “[reaffirm] the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force,” it is imperative to also recognize the territory acquired through the force leveled by Zionist militias in the lead up to Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948.
Once declared, the primary goal of the settler colonial state is supersession, where the newly imposed settler structure becomes a de facto hegemonic order, replacing that which is indigenous through the elimination of the native. When Israel defends its “right” to build settlements on what is left of Palestinian territory, it expands the explicit face of its settler project while beclouding the deeper settler colonial roots that can be found within “Israel proper.” In other words, as dictated by the mainstream discourse, Tel Aviv is not a settlement because Ma’ale Adumim is. But the two must be seen in a continuum, for as Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion wrote to his son in 1937, “[A] Jewish state on only part of the land is not the end but the beginning...We shall organize an advanced defense force – a superior army which I have no doubt will be one of the best...At that point I am confident that we would not fail in settling in the remaining parts of the country…We must expel [the] Arabs and take their place.”
It is also this settler colonial reality that renders the most commonly prescribed political process for negotiated peace in the region completely impotent. The Peace Process purports to seek the establishment of a Palestinian state while Israeli settler colonialism explicitly denies that possibility. To speak plainly, there is no room for a viable and sovereign Palestinian state within the Zionist – and now Israeli – political imaginary. It cannot exist. The two-state solution is not dead; it was, in fact, never alive. As such, Secretary of State John Kerry’s anachronistic warnings of the potential demise of the two-state solution, such as those he issued again in his speech on Wednesday, amount to little more than an American effort to avoid the eventual blame of history books for the failure of negotiations.
The Oslo Accords offer a perfect glimpse into this dynamic. Considered far and wide as the most hopeful and potentially productive moment in the annals of the Peace Process, the Declaration of Principles have been hailed for decades as an astonishing breakthrough in the Palestinian-Israeli impasse. But what has come of these agreements? For more than two decades since their signing, every final status issue – refugees, Jerusalem, borders, settlements – has been deferred, while security and economic arrangements meant to buttress Israel’s position of strength have remained the center of attention. Life for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip continues under a complete military blockade that has rendered the territory in danger of becoming uninhabitable by 2020. The Israeli settler population in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has nearly tripled. This is all to say that, two decades after the shining moment of the Peace Process, we have never been farther away from the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Yes, international condemnation of the current phase of the Israeli settlement enterprise is important, but a substantial challenge to this reality cannot stop at a UN resolution. The possibility of a political settlement is bleak not because the situation is “complicated” or because of Palestinian intransigence, but precisely because settler colonialism is particularly and staunchly resistant to decolonization efforts. If Kerry and his cohort truly wish to help reach a just peace in historic Palestine, the effort must be toward the comprehensive dismantlement of this system of settler domination. Perpetual calls for segregation within a nationalist framework while ignoring the ills of Israeli settler colonialism will continue to reap exactly what the Peace Process has produced in the past two-and-a-half decades: precisely nothing.