Settler colonialism is not an ‘academic fad’

It is a real political project that has scarred the past and present of Indigenous communities around the world.

Israeli soldiers work on armored military vehicles near the Gaza Strip on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023 [AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg]

Palestine solidarity activists have claimed their space in mainstream politics and demanded the dismantling of the Israeli settler colonial project. But this has raised a very elementary question: “What is settler colonialism?”

Some commentators were quick to dismiss this charge of settler colonialism against Israel as “just another form of anti-Semitism”. Others insinuated that “settler colonialism” is nothing but a trendy academic theory conjured up by left-wing academics and activists.

But settler colonialism isn’t just an academic fad. It’s a real political project that has scarred the past and present of Indigenous communities around the world.

A central feature of this project is that it seeks to erase the Indigenous population to make way for the establishment of a settler society. Ideologically, this erasure is seen as justified and inevitable because, for the settler, the Indigenous don’t have any distinct peoplehood or any historically rooted claim to the land they inhabit. So, when faced with the civilisational, technological and military superiority of the settler state, it is all but expected that the “barbaric” Indigenous society would simply capitulate and “go away”.

We see this in depictions of clashes between westward settlers and indigenous communities in American folklore. They usually end with the demise of the latter. I saw a similar narrative in the apartheid-era Voortrekker Monument, dedicated to Boer frontierism, outside Pretoria. Exhibits there celebrate the white settler as having brought the “light of civilisation” to the untamed southern African hinterlands.

Israel-Palestine is no different. The ideology of erasure was written into the founding myth of the State of Israel – the myth that Israel was built on “a land without a people for a people without a land”. A popular slogan among Zionists, it helped both perpetuate the assumption that the “Holy Land” was virgin territory and characterise Palestinians as not “a people” with a distinct identity, and therefore lacking any legitimate claim to the land.

The father of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, outlined his utopian vision for a modern Jewish State in his novel Altneuland (The Old-New-Land), where he wrote, “If I wish to substitute a new building for an old one, I must demolish before I construct”. Here too, the insinuation was that Palestinians and any sign of their existence on and connection to the land would inevitably be erased by the settler state.

When Israeli geographers drew up their own map of Palestine, they also based their work on the understanding that the Palestinians are “not a people”. They were convinced of their incontrovertible right to the “ancestral land” and remapped Palestine in a way that entirely erased all evidence of Indigenous Palestinian presence.

Following Hamas’s attack on October 7, we have heard Israeli politicians call Palestinians “human animals”. They have also demanded that Palestinians “go away” from Gaza and be settled elsewhere. Evidently, the settler-colonial ideology of erasure is alive and well today.

But settler colonialism is not just an ideological force. This ideology of erasure often motivates efforts to materially upend all pillars of Indigenous life and existence.

We are witnessing this in Gaza today – and not just in terms of the catastrophic loss of human life. The urge to erase is self-evident in the way all institutions, including universities and hospitals, are being targeted. Israel’s war on Gaza seems to be an effort to make it impossible for Palestinians to maintain their existence in the Gaza Strip.

The parallels with the Nakba of 1948 are unmistakable. Oral histories and declassified Israeli government documents have revealed, there was a systematic effort to erase all evidence of Palestinian existence. Israeli military leader and politician Moshe Dayan confirmed as much when he said: “Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you because geography books no longer exist—not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either.” Of course, such a manner of genocidal violence is commonplace in settler-colonial contexts and accounts for a significant portion of the Indigenous population decline in settler states such as Australia and Canada.

Though, the capitulation of Indigenous communities is also a consequence of a process of cultural genocide. This includes the way the church in settler states played an active role in the erasure of Indigenous cultural identity and heritage through the Christianisation of the native population. It also includes the removal of Indigenous children from their families in Canada and Australia. The ostensible purpose was the “protection” of these children. However, in practice, it was a “civilising” mission meant to annihilate the cultural identity of generations of indigenous children.

Palestinians too face a settler project that aims to annihilate their cultural heritage. This includes the deliberate targeting of archaeological sites in the Gaza Strip. Civil society organisations have argued that this is not an “empty gesture”. Rather it is an attempt to strip Palestinians of the “very substance [ie, culture] that forms the backbone of their right to self-determination”. The wholesale appropriation of Palestinian cuisine as Israeli, similarly erases key evidence of distinct Palestinian cultural heritage. And when Israeli forces destroy or steal olive trees, they are not just attacking an important source of income. They are also stealing an important symbol of Palestinian resilience. Just like the olive tree that bears fruit despite growing in harsh conditions, the Palestinian national struggle also persists despite the harsh conditions of the occupation and siege.

In end, it is important to think about settler colonialism as a tool for better understanding what is happening in Gaza and across Palestine today. In part, it tells that what we are witnessing is structural, in that it is the deeply entrenched structures and institutions of a settler-colonial state that justify and rationalise the assorted forms of erasure we are currently witnessing in Gaza. But equally it helps connect Palestine to a global history of settler colonialism – a history that might explain why Indigenous communities from around the world have stood in solidarity with Palestinians, while settler states like the United States, Canada and Australia seem to perpetually waver in their support for Palestinian rights.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.