The Return to Bare Life:
Settler Colonialism and Community Violence Among 1948 Palestinians
By Noura Salahaldeen
In April and May 2021, Israel’s ethnic cleansing in Sheikh Jarrah escalated, seeking to displace 500 Palestinians on behalf of Jewish settlers in east Jerusalem. At the same time, the Israeli army and police attacked Palestinian worshippers at the Al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan, and armed Israeli settlers, protected by their weapons as well as the police and the army forces, roamed the streets shouting “death to Arabs” as they fired towards people. In response, the Palestinian resistance to these colonial efforts unprecedently unified Palestinians from Gaza to Jerusalem, to the West Bank, as well as the 1948 Palestinians.[i]
This unity was exemplified in the general strike organized by Palestinians across historic Palestine and in the diaspora on May 18. As Gaza endured the wrath of Israel’s colonial war machine, killing 249 Palestinians and displacing 60,000 in less than 2-weeks, Palestinians stood united by staging a ‘strike of dignity’, transcending the colonial divisions imposed on them. In addition to the mass mobilizations across historic Palestine on May 18, “from the river to the sea,” many observers were also caught by surprise by the events of May 11-12 in Lyd (Lod), Haifa, the Negev, Nazareth, Akka (Acre) and across the Galilee. In these cities and villages, Palestinians took to the streets to call for an end to the Israeli colonial escalation in Jerusalem and Gaza. While Israeli and international media alike took the liberty to analyze this moment as one of civil unrest between a Jewish majority and an Arab minority, this article moves away from such analysis.
In this article, I want to examine the broader predicament of community violence and the struggle against it among 1948 Palestinians. I argue that the developments of May 2021 represent not only a moment of liberation and renewed engagement in the Palestinian national struggle by 1948 Palestinians, but rather that their protests were built on earlier organizing prior to May 2021. In February and March 2021, 1948 Palestinians momentarily resituated themselves through a unified struggle against community violence, and came to recognize community violence as a technology of Israeli settler-colonial domination. From these events emerged the understanding that obliterating community violence requires the obliteration of the colonial condition it is embedded in.
The Predicament of Community Violence: How Did We Get Here?
Over the past two decades more than 1,700 of 1948 Palestinians lost their lives to community violence at an increasingly alarming rate. The Catastrophe (or Nakba) of 1948, refers to the mass forcible displacement of 750,000 Palestinians during the creation of the State of Israel. It represents a rupture in Palestinian history, and is a year that is engraved in collective memory. Palestinians have come to understand the violence of the Nakba as an ongoing colonial process. These forms of violence evolve in different ways, reflecting the fragmented contexts of Palestinian society under settler-colonial rule. Palestinians in the West Bank and in Jerusalem live under conditions of martial law, Gazans in a constant state of siege, while the refugees live in a state of quasi-permanent exile. It could be said that Palestinians living in these contexts are reduced to the status of ‘bare life,’ which according to Achille Mbembe (2003) means that they live outside the political apparatus of Israel but are connected to it through its legal and military domination. In the case of the 1948 Palestinians, given their legal citizenship in the State and their status as a so-called minority, we have a more convoluted story.
The case of the 1948 Palestinians, starts with their dispossession during the Nakba. In its immediate aftermath, approximately 156,000 Palestinians found themselves living under the rule of the newly established colonial state. A quarter of them were internal refugees from neighboring villages and cities. As a result of their newfound status as ‘citizens’ of Israel, they were severed from the rest of Palestinian society, fully alienated from preexisting community ties. In Israel’s attempts to establish its sovereignty as a modern democratic state, the 1948 Palestinians were framed as an “Arab-Israeli” minority. Despite Israel’s status as an ethnonational Jewish state, the ultimate expression of sovereignty among modern democratic states is expressed in “the production of general norms by a body (the demos) made up of free and equal men and women. These men and women are posited as full subjects capable of self-understanding, self-consciousness, and self-representation. Politics, therefore, is defined as two fold: a project of autonomy and the achieving of agreement among a collectivity through communication and recognition.” (Mbembe 2003).
Therefore, as the ultimate expression of its unmistakable, uncontestable sovereignty, Israel sought to have ‘Arab’ representation through elections since its inception (while at the same time imposing martial law on these communities during the first decades of its existence). In other words, Israel forcibly included 1948 Palestinians into the modern settler-colonial state, while simultaneously disguising the fact that these same Palestinians were living under martial law, which severely restricted their mobility, and did not allow them to practice any form of political organization outside of established Israeli state structures.[ii]
Once the Israeli state was reassured that the internally displaced Palestinians were no longer able to return to their nearby villages and homes (Masalha 2012), in 1966 Israel lifted martial law and replaced it with a discriminatory version of ‘civil law.’ Colonial domination persisted through the use of different technologies. These include the continued appropriation of lands through an array of unequally applied laws, including the destruction of the al-Araqeeb community in Beersheva in 2010 and the formulation of the Prawer plan in the Kenesset in 2011 (which aimed to displace Bedoin communities in the Naqab/Negev). It also includes other forms of structural racism, such as state and security-controlled education, the fragmentation of the community along religious and ethnic lines, the proletarianization of Palestinians, and the replacement of traditional modes of governing and social organization with the police apparatus.
It is along these lines that we begin to untangle the question of community violence among the 1948 Palestinians, not as a problem of a ‘backward’ minority community (as Palestinians are usually represented in Zionist media and curricula) (Masalha 2012), but rather as a consequence and a technology of colonial domination. In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon (1963) explained native intra-community violence: (1) as a manifestation of the “aggressiveness deposited in the natives’ bones” (since the native is incapable of addressing the colonial roots of their dire condition); and (2) community violence can also be seen as an attempt by the colonial power to increase divisions and violence within the colonized community in order to hinder the emergence of anti-colonial struggles.
1948 Palestinians are a case in point. Only about 15% of the crimes that took place within the 1948 Palestinian community over the last two decades led to criminal charges by the Israeli police and judiciary. Furthermore, given the highly compartmentalized nature of colonial Israel, manifested in the frequent spatial separation of settler and native communities, the spread of (mostly) Israeli weapons obtained on the black market is tolerated by Israeli authorities as long as they are used within Palestinian communities.[iii] Had these weapons been pointed towards anyone but other Palestinians, the Israeli authorities would have immediately intervened, which leads me to the following point.
By tacitly encouraging the spread of intra-community violence among Palestinians, the Israeli state is able to weaponize the image of inherently violent Palestinians in need of protection from their own ‘uncivilized’ state of being, justifying the presence of its over abundant police in these communities. This dynamic echoes the militarized policing of Black inner-city communities in the US. Therefore, by its very nature, community violence for the 1948 Palestinians becomes a signifier of their loss and ongoing dispossession under Israel’s settler colonial regime.
Um al-Fahem: The Great Electoral Return to Bare Life
After years of organizing by the 1948 Palestinian leadership, their elected representatives, and human rights organizations to control rising levels of community violence – including by trying to secure more resources for affected communities and asking the police to better control the flow of arms into Palestinian neighborhoods – they never achieved substantive transformations. On the contrary, the local leadership’s failing efforts and their different campaign promises led to growing dissatisfaction, further revealing the problem of community violence as a structural problem that traditional political representation is unable to resolve. To make matters worse, these efforts have resulted in plans to expand already existing Israeli police units, including in Um al-Fahem (a village in the north with a population of approximately 56,000 Palestinians that is in many ways at the forefront of the fight against community and colonial violence). Nevertheless, these plans are materializing through the expansion of the police department to include specialized units whose presence among the civilian populations is highly questionable, including the Yamam forces, a special unit of the border police, and Lahav 433, an umbrella organization usually referred to as the Israeli FBI that includes intelligence units and the infamous undercoverMesta’arevim force.
In an image reminiscent of the early days of the Arab spring, thousands of protestors from across the 1948 Palestinian community took to the streets of Um al-Fahem for a ‘Day of Rage’ on 5 March 2020. What distinguished this protest was not merely the sheer number of people participated, with 20,000 marching together to shutdown Road 65 (one of the essential roads in the north), but also the overwhelmingly anti-colonial and anti-police slogans of the marchers, coupled with revolutionary chants of freedom for Palestine. The protestors also addressed their frustrations with intracommunity violence. This mix of chants demonstrated the awareness that intracommunity violence is a problem that is linked to the colonial condition, and that the means of confronting it lies in the national liberation struggle.
The March 5 demonstration was organized by al-Harak al-Fahmawi al-Muwahad, the unified Fahmawi mobilization, an umbrella movement that mobilizes the youth of Um al-Fahem from across the different Palestinian parties active in the lands of 1948. What started out as weekly Friday protest in December 2020 in Um al-Fahem, following the unsolved murders of various community leaders, grew and evolved into a mass-mobilization and weekly confrontations with the colonial police after the unsolved murder of 21-year-old Mohammed Ighbariah. Ighbariah was killed on 24 January 2021, as he was heading home after the protest that day. Another incident that fueled community mobilization was the subsequent killing of Ahmad Hijazi on 2 February 2021 by the police in Tamra. To make matters worse, the Ministry of Justice’s Police Investigation Unit, which is responsible for investigating cases of police killings (and often exonerating officers involved), took over the investigation of Hijazi’s murder. Given that this unit was the one responsible for shutting down the investigation into the killings of 1948 Palestinians in 2000 (at the start of the Second Palestinian Intifada), the community is skeptical that those responsible for Hijazi’s murder will be held accountable.
In the midst of heated Israel elections in 2021, different parties trying to win the 1948 Palestinian vote put the problem of community violence at the forefront of their campaigns. In an interesting turn of events, Benjamin Netanyahu, desperately needing to win the elections, even posing as “Abu Yair” to appeal to 1948 Palestinians, proposed a plan to lower the crime rates, and appointed Aharon Franco (the ex-commander of the police force in Jerusalem) as the head executor of this plan. This publicity stunt further enraged the protesting Palestinian youth, who loudly expelled some elected Palestinian representatives that had engaged in negotiations with Zionist parties over the formation of the post-election government, even though they were in exchange for promises to end the issue of community violence.
What we have witnessed on a number of Fridays in the winter and spring of 2021 in Um al-Fahem, was the masses actively separating themselves from the colonial political structures that oppress them, a mass shedding of the political structures enforced upon them as ‘minority’ ‘citizens of Israel,’ and a mass return to their being simply Palestinians characterized by a condition of ‘bare life.’ By affirming their Palestinian identity, not only were they no longer an ‘Israeli-Arab’ minority of 2-million struggling for equal rights, representation and equal citizenship within a settler-colonial state, but rather part of a broader body of around 7-million people directly ruled by Israel and another 8-million refugees/diaspora-Palestinians waiting to return. This shedding and return to bare life, this active separation from the Israeli political apparatus hit precisely at the heart of the Israeli sovereign project, which normalizes the colonization of the Palestinian lands seized in 1948 as an issue settled during the Nakba, and ultimately challenges its status as a sovereign, ‘democratic’ state.
This momentary return to a bare life, recentered the 1948 Palestinian community at the heart of the anti-colonial struggle. It underlined that all Palestinians no matter the context they inhabit, could only be dealt with as a single entity, as the dispossessed native population seeking to realize its collective national rights.
Simply put, whether dispossessed in 1948 or in 1967, Palestinians rearticulated their social relations with the Israeli state as one between a native population and a settler community. By returning to bare life, 1948 Palestinians illustrated that simply the act of existing as Palestinians, rather than as an ‘Arab-Israeli’ minority, poses a threat to Israel’s colonial apparatus, which maintains an ethnonational hierarchy within historic Palestine. More importantly, 1948 Palestinians renewed the hope for true national liberation and freedom, which prevailed in the protests of April and May 2021.
While May 1948 carries with it memories of Al-Nakba, May 2021 holds within it a different message: 7-million Palestinians in the homeland and another 8-million in the diaspora will not accept the settler colonial condition for much longer. The geographies of fragmentation that the colonial sovereign has tried to instill among Palestinians for the last 73 years are rapidly being reestablished as geographies of unity and resistance. 1948 Palestinians will continue to be an integral part of this struggle until the conditions of freedom and justice prevail.
[i] In this article Palestinian ‘citizens’ of Israel will be referred to as the ‘1948 Palestinians,’ which is the self-ascribed identity of the majority of Palestinians living in what is today known as Israel, actively rejecting Israel’s state-imposed categorization of them as ‘Israeli-Arabs.’
[ii] On a sidenote, many Palestinians reported being forced to vote in the Israeli Knesset elections under military orders at the time [oral narrative – community elders from Sakhnin village]
[iii] Former Israeli minister Gilad Ardan stated that 70% of these weapons come from Israeli army bases and markets. Moreover, only in recent years 1948 Palestinians acquiring weapons came to be dealt with as a criminal offence rather than a security offence by the Israeli authorities.