The decolonisation of Palestine

Zionism constitutes a unique colonisation process, argues Moshé Machover - which means that the route to Palestinian freedom must be equally unique

This is the third and final article in a short series, leading up to a discussion of a socialist position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its eventual resolution.

The first article outlined some of the debates on colonialism and the national question in the Second International.1 The second article sketched the position taken on these issues by the nascent international communist movement in the early 1920s (and, later on, following the split in the communist movement, by Trotskyism, which adhered to the Leninist tradition, and by Stalinised ‘official’ communism, which claimed to adhere to that tradition).2

Those two articles were intended to provide a historical backdrop: a critical overview of the way the colonial and national questions were addressed by our movement, revolutionary Marxism, during the ‘long’ 20th century. Following that detour, the present article will discuss the thorny problem created by the Zionist colonisation of Palestine. For the sake of logical coherence, I will need to recapitulate points and arguments I have made elsewhere.

Exceptional territory

Every case of colonisation has some unique attributes, but the exceptional features of the Zionist colonisation of Palestine are fundamental and structural. They therefore preclude facile application of generic formulas in analysing the resulting conflict and in proposing its resolution.

An obvious exceptional feature of this colonisation project is its anachronism - its extreme lateness in colonial history. This is particularly striking if we compare it to other cases of the same general type: exclusionary colonisations (‘work colonies’, ‘settler colonialism’), in which the indigenous people were largely excluded from the settlers’ political economy, while direct production - actual labour - was performed by settlers.3 Thus for the present chronological comparison we may ignore as irrelevant the scramble for Africa - from the Berlin conference (1884-85) to the outbreak of World War I - which established exploitative colonies, based on indigenous labour-power. Zionist colonisation was then in its very early stage, and got into gear only after the war, but other exclusionary colonisations were history, or well on their way to the history books.

Kautsky, the leading Marxist theoretician of the Second International, argued in 1907 that exclusionary colonisation (establishing ‘work colonies’) was possible for Europeans “only in temperate climates … in very thinly populated regions, in which a very primitive mode of production predominates - perhaps hunting, which requires immense territories to support a single individual”. This excludes “heavily populated territories with developed production”, where the settlers would “stumble upon private property in land, ground rent, state and military structures, which they had sought to escape”. But, he observed, all territories satisfying these conditions “are already occupied, and in fact have become independent states, formally in many cases”. From this he concluded that this type of colonisation was a thing of the past.4

What is remarkable about this piece of reasoning is not so much that it has been refuted by the case of Palestine - which, temperate climate apart, satisfied none of the conditions regarded by Kautsky as necessary for establishing a ‘work colony’. Rather, the really striking fact is that the colonisation of Palestine is the only exception to the rule. In fact, Kautsky’s reasoning was basically sound, and the Zionist project provides a unique counter-example to it because it chose, for mainly ideological reasons, a territory that was indeed atypical and not ideally suited to exclusionary colonisation.5

The mode of production in Palestine at the beginning of the 20th century was certainly far from “primitive”. It was a mainly agricultural country on the threshold of modernity, whose indigenous rural population consisted mostly of peasants, some of whom were independent owners and others tenants of big - in many cases absentee - landlords. Communal and private property in land were well established, the former by custom and the latter by the Ottoman Land Code of 1858 - one of the tanzimat (reforms) enacted by the Ottoman empire in the middle of the 19th century.6 The country was fairly densely populated: in 1914 the density of the Arab population in what was to become British Mandate Palestine - excluding the Naqab (Negev) desert, inhabited by nomadic and semi-nomadic Bedouin, which was not regarded as suitable for colonisation, and indeed was not colonised until the middle of the 20th century - was approximately 48 persons per square kilometre.7 (For comparison, this is similar to the 2014 population density of Belarus and Iran.8) Moreover, urbanisation was fairly advanced: in 1914 about 31.6% of the indigenous (Palestinian Arab) population was urban.9 All this was a very far cry from the economic, social and juridical conditions in territories where ‘classical’ exclusionary colonisation had taken place in earlier centuries, such as North America and Australia.

An arguably even more important exceptional feature of early 20th-century Palestine is that - uniquely among all lands subjected to exclusionary colonisation - its indigenous population was not only ethnically and linguistically pretty homogeneous, but was itself an integral part of a much larger, long established cultural-linguistic group: the Arabs of the Mashreq (Arab east) region, who were at that time forging a common national identity.10 Moreover, in a natural response to Zionist colonisation and to the creation by the imperialist powers of Palestine as a separate country,11 a local-national Palestinian identity gained strength. This did not displace wider all-Arab national identity, but was superimposed upon it. Conversely, the colonisation of Palestine provided a focus for all-Arab national identity in the entire region.12

Finally, whereas in most ‘classical’ exclusionary colonies the indigenous population lacked immunity to ‘old world’ pathogens and was decimated by contagious diseases carried by the settlers, the Palestinian Arabs were spared this particular disaster.

All these circumstances made the indigenous Palestinian people much more resistant to pulverisation - which had been the general rule in ‘classical’ exclusionary colonisation.

Exceptional project

If material, demographic and social conditions in Palestine were exceptional, political circumstances as well as the immigration regime were no less so.

In the ‘classical’ pattern of exclusionary colonisation, a European power, having invaded and taken possession of a territory, would encourage its own nationals to settle there under its military and political protection. These first settlers would be joined by many others from the mother country as well as from other European countries, and within a relatively short time the indigenous people would not only be dispossessed, but the survivors (if any) numerically overwhelmed and reduced to small, fragmented minorities.

In Palestine things proceeded quite differently. The settlers were not nationals of a mother country in possession of the coveted land; so from the very start the Zionist movement was seeking a surrogate mother - an imperial power that would dominate the region and promote the Zionist project in exchange for services rendered: forming “part of the rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilisation against barbarism”, as the movement’s founder put it.13

Before World War I, Palestine was an integral part of the Ottoman province of Damascus (Greater Syria). It was administered by a bureaucracy under a central government that, following the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, was attempting, without much success, to modernise the decaying empire and turn it into a constitutional monarchy. The Ottoman authorities had no interest in promoting the incipient Zionist colonisation, but were too weak to prevent it.

Following the war, things looked up for the colonising project. Palestine was carved out of Greater Syria as a separate country, expressly for Zionist colonisation, with Britain as its foster-mother country: the preamble to the League of Nations mandate, appointing Britain as the mandatory power, quoted the Balfour Declaration verbatim.14 The British mandate authorities took seriously their promise to promote and protect Zionist colonisation, but they soon discovered that giving free rein to Jewish immigration and particularly to land acquisition - purchasing land from (mostly absentee) landowners and evicting their tenants - caused unrest among the Arab majority. They therefore found it necessary to impose some restrictions on these activities.

At first these were half-hearted and ineffectual.15 But, following the Palestinian Arab uprising of 1936-39,16 the British government tried to impose more rigorous restrictions. These are outlined in the 1939 white paper, which also exposes a fundamental rift between the Zionist movement and its foster-mother country. While the former aimed at turning Palestine into a sovereign Jewish nation state, the latter’s government now disavowed any such intention:

His Majesty’s government believe that the framers of the mandate in which the Balfour Declaration was embodied could not have intended that Palestine should be converted into a Jewish state against the will of the Arab population of the country.17

This led to an armed conflict - interrupted at the outbreak of World War II, but renewed immediately after it ended - in which Zionist underground paramilitary organisations used terrorist tactics against the British authorities. By 1947, Britain, exhausted by the war and unable to impose the restrictions of the 1939 while paper, abandoned attempts to operate the Palestine mandate.

At that point the Zionist settlers were far from constituting a majority in Palestine, let alone numerically overwhelming its indigenous people: the former numbered no more than 630,000 and the latter over 1,300,000. It took a major ethnic cleansing during the 1947-49 war and a wave of Jewish immigration to reduce the Arab population of the 78% of the area of Palestine that became Israel to a minority18: by 1949 the number of Jews in Israel was 1,173,000, while only 159,100 Palestinian Arabs escaped the ethnic cleansing.19

But, now that the Zionist colonisation project succeeded in reducing the indigenous Palestinian people to a mere 12% of the population of the newly created state of Israel, and this state was free to legislate in matters of immigration and citizenship, the inherent self-limitation of Zionist policy gradually became apparent. Unlike the ‘classical’ exclusionary colonies, which made use of a huge reservoir of European immigrant settlers, Israel only welcomed immigration of Jews and their very close non-Jewish relatives (if any). Over the years it has transpired that there are simply not enough admissible immigrants to keep the indigenous population at a ‘comfortable’ low percentage. Despite a big wave of Jewish immigration (from Europe and the Muslim world) during 1948-51,20 and a second one (from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia) in the early 1990s,21 this immigration has not compensated for the natural increase of the Palestinian Arab community within Israel. The proportion of this community in Israel’s total population actually rose from 12% in 1949 to 21% in 2014.22

However, the territory of Israel within the 1949 armistice borders - known as the ‘Green Line’ - fell short of Zionist ambitions, which extended to the whole of Palestine. This had been stated categorically in 1937 by David Ben-Gurion, and quoted approvingly 36 years later in a speech by his disciple, minister of defence Moshe Dayan:

Among ourselves [the Zionists] there can be no debate about the integrity of the land of Israel [ie, Palestine], and about our ties and right to the whole of the land ...

When a Zionist speaks about the integrity of the land, this can only mean colonisation [hityashvut] by the Jews of the land in its entirety.

That is to say, from the viewpoint of Zionism the real touchstone is not confined to [the question as to] whom this or that segment of the land belongs to politically, nor even to the abstract belief in the integrity of the land. Rather, the aim and touchstone of Zionism is the actual implementation of colonisation by the Jews of all areas of the land of Israel.23

Seizing the opportunity created by the 1967 crisis and the apparent - though far from real - danger of being attacked by Egypt,24 Israel occupied the remaining parts of Palestine. Despite diplomatic prevarication, it soon became evident, as Dayan made clear in his 1973 speech, that Israel had no intention of letting go of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It has not formally annexed these territories - except for east Jerusalem and a sizable area around it - so as not to extend right of residence, let alone citizenship, to ‘too many’ Arabs. (Israel did annex the Syrian Golan Heights, but only after ethnically cleansing some 100,000 Arabs, leaving behind only members of the Druze religion, whom Israel does not regard as Arabs.) By now Israeli colonisation has metastasised into the West Bank so as to forestall the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state ‘alongside Israel’, as envisaged by the mirage of the ‘two-state solution’.

But the demographic problem posed for the Zionist project was greatly exacerbated by the outcome of the 1967 June war. At the time of writing (June 2016), there is a near parity between the two peoples under Israeli rule: the Hebrew settlers and the indigenous Palestinian Arabs. The figures given by Wikipedia, which are a few years out of date, are approximately 6.1 million for the former and 5.2 million for the latter.25 Given the higher rate of natural increase of the Palestinian Arab population, it is likely to overtake the Hebrew population in the not too distant future.

No precedent

In view of its multiple anomalies, the conflict created by Zionist colonisation defies appeal to precedent: there is simply is none that can usefully be invoked as to its evolution and eventual resolution.

On the one hand, the processes that led to the great wave of decolonisation in the second half of the 20th century are inapplicable in the present case. All those countries that were decolonised had been exploitative colonies - the settlers were a small minority and their political economy depended decisively on the labour-power of the indigenous people, who therefore constituted an indispensible and potentially powerful internal force. Except in South Africa, the settlers relied on the direct military protection of their mother countries and, when these old imperialist powers were no longer able to provide this protection, the liberation struggle of the indigenous people became irresistible. South Africa’s decolonisation took longest because its settlers had their own independent state with a massive armed force. But even there, when the end of the cold war made it less important for global imperialism and following its military defeat in Angola, the settlers had to give up their exclusive hold on political power.

In none of these countries did the anti-colonial struggle lead to a socialist revolution placing the working class in political power; so the majority remained exploited following decolonisation. Nevertheless, the working class and other exploited strata made some political, social and economic gains. In other words, these social forces had an objective interest in decolonisation, although it achieved only so-called bourgeois democratic gains.

None of these objective and subjective conditions holds for Zionist colonisation and its Israeli state. Its political economy is fundamentally different from that of the exploitative colonies. And - as I have argued in detail in a previous article26 - a crucial consequence of this difference is that there does not exist a social force that could lead a so-called bourgeois democratic decolonisation of Palestine. That would require de-Zionisation, overthrow of the Zionist regime; and the only social force potentially able to achieve this are the Israeli masses, primarily the working class. But the Hebrew majority of this class has nothing to gain from a political revolution that would exchange its present position as an exploited class of a privileged nation for a position of a still exploited class without national privileges.

On the other hand, if we turn to the ‘classical’ exclusionary colonies, it would be rash to seek in them a precedent for the case of Israel - despite the basic similarity of their political economies. None of those colonies has been decolonised; in all of them the colonial conflict was resolved decisively in favour of the settlers. But, as I have argued above, the case of Zionist colonisation has many important exceptional features that may well prevent the general rule from applying in this special case. The eventual fate of the Palestinian Arabs need not be similar to that of the indigenous peoples of North America or Australia. In order to inflict such a fate on them, Israel would have to perpetrate renewed ethnic cleansing on a massive scale. While plans for such a major crime do exist, implementing it would require suitable regional and international conditions, which may not materialise; robust mobilisation of world public opinion may also help to frustrate these designs.27

A socialist route

Whereas ‘bourgeois democratic’ decolonisation of Palestine - overthrowing the Zionist regime, but retaining capitalism - is not on the cards, there is a possible socialist route to decolonisation/de-Zionisation. I have argued for it in several articles,28 and it is essentially the one outlined long ago by Matzpen.29 The scenario it envisages is that of a socialist transformation, which cannot possibly be confined to the Palestine/Israel box, but must encompass the entire region, the Arab east (Mashreq), and form a socialist regional federation. The Israeli working class may be induced to join, and help in overthrowing the Zionist regime, if invited to act on a class basis and give up its national privileges in exchange for partnership in a regional ruling working class.

Obviously, this scenario is by no means certain, just possible - a project of long duration. And it will require several contributory processes.

The foremost major prerequisite is a resurgence of the Arab revolution. The Arab spring of 2011 ended in defeat, reaction and multiple disasters. But it was a preview of what is possible and an indication of what is needed. The problems and conflicts that had engendered it have not been resolved, and will no doubt reassert themselves. Significantly, the events of the Arab spring displayed the underlying unity of the region and the instinctive inter-country solidarity of the popular masses and working classes.

Remarkably, in the social protests, unprecedented in scale, that erupted in Israel in the summer of 2011, there was a strong regional echo. While discussion of the occupation of Palestinian territories was ruled out of order as ‘too divisive’, there were warm popular expressions of solidarity with the mass movements in the surrounding Arab countries, primarily Egypt. Perhaps this is a sign for the future: the road of class solidarity from Tel-Aviv to Nablus may take a detour via Cairo.

A second process that is needed is the strengthening of the component of all-Arab identity among the Palestinians. All Arab peoples combine an all-Arab identity, being part of the Arab nation, with their local identities as Egyptians, Iraqis, Palestinians, etc. In the Palestinians’ case, the all-Arab component, which was once strong (especially on the left), has been eclipsed following the defeat of secular Arab nationalism. But the Palestinians cannot liberate themselves in isolation, by their own struggle alone. Decolonisation, which can only be achieved by a regional revolution, will require a reassertion of the all-Arab component in their identity - without, of course, giving up the specific Palestinian component.

On the Israel side, a major requirement is rejection of Zionist ideology. This ideology includes as a major component the claim that Israel is the national homeland of an alleged worldwide ‘Jewish nation’ and is used as justification for Zionist colonisation past, present and future. In rejecting Zionism and giving up their privileged position as colonisers, the Israeli masses must rediscover their true objective identity as a new, locally born Hebrew nation. This identity had developed and manifested itself until the early 1950s, but was deliberately suppressed by Zionist indoctrination.30

Finally, the realisation of this scenario requires the formation, well in advance, of an organisational framework, which brings together - on a non-sectarian, democratic basis - all revolutionary socialists of the region. The central task of this organisation must be to prepare the minds and hearts of working people and their allies for the formidable tasks ahead - including the decolonisation of Palestine, overthrow of the Zionist regime and the Arab regimes, and the formation of a regional socialist federation, with the working classes in the driving seat.


1. ‘Colonialism and the natives’ Weekly Worker December 17 2015.

2. ‘New context, new focus’ Weekly Worker February 4 2016.

3. ‘Work colonies’ is Kautsky’s term; ‘settler colonies’ is the term favoured by academic post-colonial studies. For a discussion of the typology and associated terminology, see ‘Colonialism and the natives’ op cit.

4. K Kautsky Socialism and colonial policy (1907) - English translation: www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1907/colonial/index.htm. This is quoted and discussed more fully in ‘Colonialism and the natives’ op cit.

5. Other territories had been considered for Jewish colonisation. On the proto-Zionist Argentina project, sponsored by Baron Maurice de Hirsch, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maurice_de_Hirsch. In 1903, Theodor Herzl, the founding leader of political Zionism, favoured the so-called Uganda Scheme, suggested to him by British colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain. This envisaged Jewish colonisation in Uasin Gishu (Gwas Ngishu) in the Mau Highland of present-day Kenya. This scheme was adopted provisionally by the sixth Zionist congress (Basel, 1903), against vehement opposition, mainly from the Russian delegates. Herzl died the following year, and the scheme was eventually dropped. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uganda_Scheme; www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Zionism/Uganda.html; AL Rovner In the shadow of Zion: promised lands before Israel New York 2014.

6. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ottoman_Land_Code_of_1858.

7. The land area of Mandate Palestine was about 26,200 km,2 of which the Naqab took up at least 12,000 km.2 The total population in 1914 was about 797,000, of whom about 738,000 were Arabs (and 59,000 Jews). Subtracting the number of Bedouin - some 55,000 - from the Arab population, we have 683,000; dividing this number by 14,200 (the land area excluding the Naqab), we get 48. For the land area of Mandate Palestine see the land ownership table in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandatory_Palestine. For the total population data see J McCarthy The population of Palestine: population history and statistics of the late Ottoman period and the Mandate New York 1990. For the area of the Naqab and estimate of its Bedouin population, see M Nasasra et al (eds) The Naqab Bedouin and colonialism: new perspectives London 2014.

8. World Bank data: see http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EN.POP.DNST.

9. J McCarthy op cit.

10. New Zealand was a partial exception among ‘classical’ exclusionary colonies, in that its indigenous Maori population was ethnically and linguistically homogeneous. But it was small and isolated, not an organic part of a larger cultural-linguistic group. At the onset of European colonisation it was divided into several tribes, not an incipient single nation.

11. What became British Mandate Palestine was made up of what had been under the Ottoman empire two districts in the province of Syria and a separate district of Jerusalem.

12. On the formation of modern secular Arab national identity and the role played in it by Palestine, see A Dawisha Arab nationalism in the twentieth century Princeton 2003.

13. T Herzl Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), 1896; English translation: www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Zionism/herzl2.html.

14. See http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/palmanda.asp.

15. These are critically discussed by Albert Montefiore Hyamson, a Zionist Jew who served as chief immigration officer in the British Mandate of Palestine from 1921 to 1934, and who tried to balance his Zionist commitments and his duty as colonial administrator. See his book Palestine under the Mandate (London 1950). Extract quoted in M Machover and M Offenberg, ‘Zionism and its scarecrows’, www.matzpen.org/english/1978-10-10/zionism-and-its-scarecrows-moshe-machover-and-mario-offenberg.

16. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1936%E2%80%9339_Arab_revolt_in_Palestine#Response.

17. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Paper_of_1939.

18. I Pappe The ethnic cleansing of Palestine London 2006.

19. http://israelipalestinian.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=000636.

20. Some of this immigration was coerced or stampeded. For coercive measures applied by Zionist emissaries to Jewish displaced persons in Europe in the immediate post-war period, see Y Grodzinsky In the shadow of the holocaust: the struggle between Jews and Zionists in the aftermath of World War II Monroe 2004. For Zionist manipulations that forced the Jews of Iraq to immigrate to Israel, see A Shiblak The lure of Zion: case of the Iraqi Jews London 2005.

21. For year-by-year numbers of immigrants to Israel see www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Immigration/Immigration_to_Israel.html.

22. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Israel.

23. Quoted by M Dayan Ha’aretz February 18 1973.

24. See, for example, M Cohn, ‘Netanyahu’s false narrative of self-defense’ Counterpunch March 4 2015: www.counterpunch.org/2015/03/04/netanyahus-false-narrative-of-self-defense. Israeli chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin put it bluntly: “I do not believe that Nasser wanted war. The two divisions which he sent into Sinai on May 14 would not have been enough to unleash an offensive against Israel. He knew it and we knew it” (Le Monde February 28 1968).

25. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Israel; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_the_Palestinian_territories.

26. ‘Belling the cat’ Weekly Worker December 12 2013.

27. For more on these plans, see my article, ‘Netanyahu’s war wish’ Weekly Worker February 9 2012.

28. Most recently in ‘Belling the cat’ op cit.

29. ‘The Palestine problem and the Israeli-Arab dispute’ - statement by the Israeli Socialist Organisation (Matzpen), May 18 1967. Reproduced in M Machover Israelis and Palestinians: conflict and resolution Chicago 2012, p13. Also www.matzpen.org/english/1967-05-18/the-palestine-problem-and-the-israeli-arab-dispute.

30. For a detailed discussion, see my article, ‘Hebrew versus Jewish identity’ Weekly Worker May 16 2013.