One hundred years ago, on 11 December 1917, the British army occupied Jerusalem. As General Allenby’s troops marched through Bab al-Khalil, launching a century of settler colonialism across Palestine, prime minister David Lloyd George heralded the city’s capture as “a Christmas present for the British people”.
In a few months’ time, we mark another such anniversary: 70 years since the Palestinian Nakba of 1948, the catastrophic destruction of the Palestinian polity; the violent dispossession of most of its people with their forced conversion into disenfranchised refugees; the colonial occupation, annexation and control of their land; and the imposition of martial law over those who managed to remain.
The current US president’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel bookends a century of such events: from the Balfour declaration in November 1917 to the partition plan of 1947; from the Nakba of 1948 to the Naksa of 1967, with its annexation of Jerusalem, the occupation of the rest of Palestine, further mass expulsions of Palestinians including from East and West Jerusalem, and the invaders’ razing of entire ancient neighbourhoods in the city.
Donald Trump’s declaration could easily be read as one more outrage in his growing collection of chaotic and destructive policies, this one perhaps designed to distract from his more prosaic, personal problems with the law. It is viewed as the act of a volatile superpower haplessly endorsing illegal military conquest and consolidating the “acquisition of territory by force” (a practice prohibited and rejected by the UN and the basic tenets of international law). And it is seen alongside a long list of domestic and international blunders.
However, this analysis obscures what happens each day in occupied Palestine, and hides what will surely happen next – unless governments, parliaments, institutions, unions and, most of all, citizens take measures to actively resist it.
Leaders across the world appear incapable of naming what is taking place in Palestine, so their received wisdom on the cause and nature of the conflict, along with the “consensus solutions” they offer, prove futile. This century of events instead should be understood as a continuum, forming part of an active process that hasn’t yet stopped or achieved its ends. Palestinians understand it: we feel it in a thousand ways every day. How does this structure appear to those who endure it day in, day out?
Patrick Wolfe, the late scholar, traced the history of settler colonial projects across continents, showing us that events in Palestine over the last 100 years are an intensification of (rather than a departure from) settler colonialism. He also established its two-sided nature, defining the phenomenon – from the Incas and Mayans to the native peoples of Africa, America, and the Middle East – as holding negative and positive dimensions. Negatively, settler colonialism strives for the dissolution of native societies; positively, it erects a new colonial society on the expropriated land: “Colonisers come to stay: invasion is a structure not an event.”
After the British marched into Jerusalem in 1917 and declared martial law, they turned Palestine into an Occupied Enemy Territory Administration (OETA). Declaring martial law over the city, Allenby promised: “Every sacred building, monument, holy spot, shrine, traditional site, endowment, pious bequest, or customary place of prayer of whatsoever form of the three religions will be maintained and protected.” But what did he say of its people? Allenby divided the country into four districts: Jerusalem, Jaffa, Majdal and Beersheba, each under a military governor, and the accelerated process of settler colonialism began.
At the time of the military takeover, Palestine was 90% Christian and Muslim, with 7-10% Palestinian Arab Jews and recent European settlers. By the time the British army left Palestine on 14 May 1948, the expulsion and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people was already under way. During their 30 years’ rule, the British army and police engineered a radical change to the population through the mass introduction of European settlers, against the express wishes of the indigenous population. They also suppressed Palestine’s Great Revolt of 1936-39, destroying any possibility of resistance to what lay ahead.
Once any individual episode is understood as part of a continuing structure of settler colonialism, the hitherto invisible daily evictions of Palestinians from their homes assume their devastating significance.
Invisible too has been the force driving the expansion of illegal settlements on Palestinian land. Without a framing of settler colonialism, the notion of the founder of Zionism, Theodore Herzegovina, of “spiriting away” the native Arabs “gradually and circumspectly”, makes little sense. In Jerusalem this is how gradual ethnic cleansing is being practised today.
The new US policy on Jerusalem is not about occupation and annexation; the supremacy of one religion over another so “balance” must be restored; the two-state solution or the failures of the Oslo agreement; or the location of an embassy, or division of Jerusalem.
Nor is it even about the soap opera-level conspiracy the Palestinian people have been abandoned to: where the son-in-law of the US president, who has actively funded the rightwing settlement movement in Israel, has been granted absolute power to fabricate a “peace process” with a crown prince who has just locked up his relatives.
In this dystopic vision, the village of Abu Dis outside Jerusalem is proposed as the capital of a future fragmented Palestinian “state” – one never created, given that (along with all US-led peace processes), its eventual appearance is entirely dependent on Israel’s permission. This is named, in “peace process” language, as any solution to be agreed “by the parties themselves”, via “a negotiated settlement by the two sides”.
With colonialism always comes anti-colonial resistance. Against the active project to disappear the indigenous people, take their land, dispossess and disperse them so they cannot reunite to resist, the goals of the Palestinian people are those of all colonised peoples throughout history. Very simply, they are to unify for the struggle to liberate their land and return to it, and to restore their inalienable human rights taken by force – principles enshrined in centuries of international treaties, charters, and resolutions, and in natural justice.
The US has been blocking Palestinian attempts to achieve this national unity for years, vetoing Palestinian parties in taking their legitimate role in sharing representation. Palestinians’ democratic right to determine their path ahead would allow our young generation – scattered far and wide, from refugee camps to the prisons inside Palestine – to take up their place in the national struggle for freedom. The US assists the coloniser and ties our hands.
Former European colonial powers, including Britain, now claim they are aware of their colonial legacy, and condemn centuries of enslavement and the savage exploitation of Africa and Asia. So European leaders should first name the relentless process they installed in our country, and stand with us so that we can unite to defeat it.
Karma Nabulsi is fellow in politics at St Edmund Hall, and teaches at Oxford University