The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project

Settler Colonialisms and Deadly Violence: Algeria and Israel/Palestine

French Paratroopers Torturing Algerian FLN Member, “Battle of Algiers”

Joel Beinin, Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Professor of Middle East History, Emeritus, Stanford University

Revised from talks delivered at UC Law SF and The Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley

The riveting artistic power of “The Battle of Algiers” rendered Algeria the best-known instance of settler colonialism and armed struggle for decolonization and national independence. The black and white newsreel style of the film and its compelling music uncompromisingly impress on the viewer both the structural and the kinetic violence of the French settler colonial regime and the urban terror unleashed by the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) in 1956-57.

A popular reading sees “The Battle of Algiers” simply as a justification of anticolonial armed struggle. In a key scene, after the French have captured Larbi Ben M’hidi, commander of the Algiers sector and the leading intellectual among the “historic nine” founders of the FLN, the French paratroop commander Col. Mathieu (a composite character based on several French officers) brings him to a press conference. A journalist stereotypically asks Ben M’hidi how he can justify planting bombs in public places using women’s shopping baskets. Ben M’hidi replies, “Give us your tanks and planes and you can have our women’s baskets.” Mathieu is impressed by Ben M’hidi’s intellect and dedication, fears his argument may undermine France’s position, and abruptly ends the press conference.

Off camera, paratroop intelligence officers extrajudicially murder Ben M’hidi and hang him to make it appear like a suicide. Gen. Paul Aussaresses, one of the chief French counterterrorism and intelligence officers (i.e., torturers) during the Battle of Algiers, acknowledged in 2001 that he and another man were the killers. [1] 

The interpretation of the film simply as a justification of anti-colonial armed struggle is often fortified by a reading of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth emphasizing the first chapter’s excoriating inventory of the pervasive violence of colonialism and its view of “violence as a kind of therapy for the oppressed.”[2] Fanon was the leading exponent of Algeria’s armed struggle for independence to Western audiences. His eloquent denunciation of European colonial violence was widely embraced by leftist militants and intellectuals of the 1960s era.

Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a preface to the book while the French army persisted in the last stages of its dirty war to thwart Algerian independence. Sartre seconded Fanon’s indictment of hundreds of years of European colonialism, “Let us look at ourselves, if we can bear to, and see what is becoming of us. First, we must face that unexpected revelation, the strip tease of our humanism.”[3]


The French colonial regime rejected all appeals to peacefully renegotiate the status of Algerian Muslims. They harshly repressed Muslims led by the Algerian Peoples Party who celebrated VE Day on May 8, 1945 and simultaneously demanded Algerian independence at Sétif and Guelma in the Constantine Department. In the following weeks French military forces killed an estimated 8,000 to 20,000 Algerian Muslims (the “official” figure endorsed by the FLN is 45,000) in an attempt to suppress the nationalist movement. The commander of the Constantine region, General Duval, reported to Paris, “I have given you peace for ten years, but you must not delude yourselves. All must be changed in Algeria. Serious reforms must be made.[4]

In 1936, after receiving a French education in Algeria, Ahmed Ben Bella voluntarily enlisted in the French army. After his honorable discharge, Ben Bella played soccer for Olympique de Marseille, scoring a goal in its 1939-40 run for the French Cup. He turned down an offer of a professional position on the team to re-enlist and defend France against the Nazi invasion and then fought with the Free French in Italy. For his bravery in combat, Ben Bella was promoted to the rank of sergeant – Algerians could not be commissioned officers. Charles de Gaulle personally awarded him the “Médaille militaire,” the highest decoration of the Free French forces. Ben Bella hoped that fighting to defend liberty, equality, and fraternity would convince France to apply those ideals to Algerian Muslims. A combination of colonial “knowledge” of Algeria, racialized arrogance, self-interest, and the political power of the settler, or colon, lobby blocked major changes in French policy.

Gen. Duval would not have been surprised by the subsequent fierce anticolonial violence. And he would have understood why Ben Bella concluded, “The horrors of the Constantine area in May 1945 persuaded me of the only path: Algeria for the Algerians.”[5] Ben Bella subsequently became one of the “historic nine” founders of the FLN and the first president of independent Algeria.


Larbi Ben M’hidi deferred to organizational discipline and loyalty and perhaps also succumbed to a desire for a spectacular action to reignite the struggle in a moment of decline. But he had misgivings about the FLN randomly targeting colons. In one notorious such attack, the Philippeville massacre of August 20, 1955, FLN-led crowds cruelly murdered dozens of colons at several locales in the Constantine Department. The French army vengefully retaliated by killing 12,000 Algerians. The Philippeville massacre and its repercussions bear an uncanny resemblance to Hamas’s October 7, 2023, attack on Israel, albeit the toll of fatalities on both sides in Algeria was far fewer.

In response, the FLN escalated its attacks on civilian colons. The orders were to spare women, children, and the aged.[6] But this is impossible in this kind of warfare.

At the August 1956 Soummam Valley Conference where FLN leaders set the strategy for Battle of Algiers, Ben M’hidi criticized “uselessly bloody operations,” like the Philippeville massacre because they undermined international public support for the FLN.[7] Ben M’hidi believed it was important to project Algeria’s struggle for independence as a liberatory project that opened a horizon towards a better world than France’s settler colonial regime which primarily oppressed Algerian Muslims, but also trapped their French oppressors in an inhumane position.

In a scene in “The Battle of Algiers,” Ben M’hidi instructs Ali La Pointe, the juvenile delinquent turned hero of the armed struggle, in the politics of the Algerian revolution: “Wars cannot be won with terror attacks. Neither wars, nor revolutions. Terrorism is useful for starting a process, but afterwards the whole population has to act.” 

That was why the FLN organized a non-violent general strike designed to influence the UN debate on Algeria that opened on January 28, 1957, which is portrayed at length in the film. The strike succeeded tactically. But it failed strategically. The international community did not compel France to recognize the Algerian people’s right to self-determination.

Another scene starkly exposes the moral cost of the FLN’s strategy in the Battle of Algiers. Just before Zohra Drif blows up the Milk Bar Café on Sept. 30, 1956, the camera focuses on a child of 4 or 5 licking an ice cream cone. He dies in the explosion. We know that he couldn’t be considered responsible for the crimes of French colonialism. The 13,000 or more children Israel has killed in Gaza according to UNICEF (as of mid-March) also can’t be considered responsible for anything Hamas has done.[8]

Towards the end of the film Djafar, the leader of the cell who are the protagonists of the film, surrenders so that the French will not blow up the residence where he is hiding. The paratroopers then discover and blow up the house where the four remaining members of the cell who refuse to surrender, are concealed.

Djafar is played by the film’s producer, Saadi Yacef from whose memoir, Souvenirs de la Bataille d’Alger, the film is adapted. Germaine Tillion, a renowned anthropologist, and a World War II résistante who worked for the French government in Algeria while opposing its torture and pauperization of Algerians, met Yacef in July 1957, two months before he was captured.[9]

“We are neither criminals nor assassins,” Yacef told Tillion. “You are assassins,” she replied. “Then his eyes filled with tears and he said…Yes, Madame Tillion, we are assassins…It’s the only way in which we can express ourselves.”

Yacef then admitted that he cried when he discovered that one of his victims was a colon “football friend.” He told Tillion, “I’ve had enough. There won’t be any further attack against the civil population of Algiers” if the French agreed to cease guillotining Algerian patriots.

The French refused the deal. Instead, France prevailed in the Battle of Algiers by relying on institutionalized torture and counterinsurgency tactics that became the model for every subsequent failed imperial war from Vietnam to Iraq.

Algeria did not win independence in July 1962 because the FLN militarily defeated France. By the early 1960s, the French army had bottled up the Algerian armed forces in Tunisia and Morocco beyond the borders of the country. The FLN won because they altered public opinion. That was certainly in part due to the cost the armed struggle exacted on France. But many French people became disgusted by the inhumanity required to sustain the colonial regime. As Ben M’hidi told Ali La Pointe, victory ultimately depended on the political realm.

Fanon wrote his analysis of colonial violence several years after the denouement of the Battle of Algiers and its spectacular acts of terror. Fanon, like Ben M’hidi, did not demur from terrorism. But he too was aware of its price. The less often cited last chapter of The Wretched of the Earth consists of Fanon’s psychiatric case studies demonstrating the long-term psychic, social, and political cost of deadly colonial and anticolonial violence for both colonizers and colonized. Fanon’s clinical observations support a more ambivalent reading of “The Battle of Algiers.”

Fanon did not live to see Algerian independence or to witness the immense levels of violence it entailed that he might have explained based on his clinical work. After the action of “The Battle of Algiers” concludes, internecine struggles among FLN factions intensified, claiming some 16,000 lives, including the assassination of Abane Ramadane, the chief strategist of The Battle of Algiers. During the struggle for independence the FLN killed 27,000 French soldiers and 6,000 settlers; French forces executed or killed about 250,000 Algerian civilians and guerrillas (the “official” Algerian number is 1.5 million). During the first summer of Algeria’s independence the FLN killed some 70,000 Algerians they deemed collaborators. A million refugees, including most of the Jewish community, departed for France. In the 1990s, a civil war between Islamists and secularists whose roots were in the internecine struggles during the war for independence took some 100,000 Algerian lives.


Just as Sartre endorsed Fanon’s understanding of anti-colonial violence as a response to colonial violence, after the October 7, 2023 Hamas-led terrorist attack on the communities of Israel’s Gaza envelope, elements of the global left, notably on elite university campuses and among proponents of identity politics, reached for The Wretched of the Earth, to find authority for Hamas’s actions.[10] Others have, albeit not always in good faith, cataloged the amalgam of justification and celebration that were offered. So 

I’ll limit myself to two examples.

Associate Professor of African American History at Cornell Russell Rickford spoke at a demonstration at Cornell  and embraced Hamas’s terrorism because it allowed Palestinians “to breathe for the first time in years. It was exhilarating. It was energizing. And if they weren’t exhilarated by this challenge to the monopoly of violence, by this shifting of the balance of power, then they would not be human.”[11]

According to the Gaza Ministry of Health, Israel has killed over 33,000 and wounded over 75,000 Palestinians since October 7, 2023; over 7,000 more are estimated to be dead under the rubble (as of early April 2024). No one in Gaza is breathing easily; no one is exhilarated. Anyone who understood the basic dynamics of Israeli politics and society could have predicted what President Joe Biden belatedly acknowledged was an “over the top” Israeli retaliation against the Gaza Strip.[12]

Zareena Grewal, Associate Professor of American Studies at Yale, posted on X that Israel was a “murderous, genocidal settler state and Palestinians have every right to resist through armed struggle.” Responding to another post on X condemning Hamas’s targeting of civilians she wrote: “Settlers are not civilians. This is not hard.”[13]

Rickford subsequently recanted his statement. Grewal did not. Like many who failed to understand October 7 and its consequences and made facile statements supporting Hamas, they have no expertise in Middle East or Israeli politics, history or culture. They understood the events primarily through the lens of the African American experience. Hamas equals Nat Turner, as a Jewish twenty something told me at a demonstration in Portland.

Radicals and leftists were not the only ones who failed to understand October 7 and its consequences. For months President Biden repeated against all evidence that Israel would be conducting its war against Hamas in accord with international law and minimizing the loss of civilian life. Liberal Zionists of all stripes supported and attended the November 14 war rally in Washington DC imagining, supported by no evidence, that their presence might moderate Israel’s military response. Liberal Zionists and President Biden failed to understand the import of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s quoting the biblical injunction to “Remember what Amalek did to you” and 18,000 other statements of genocidal intent by Israeli military and political leaders, journalists, and citizens collected by the New York Times.[14]

Rickford, Grewal, and others like them believe that they are standing in solidarity with the Palestinian people. Gillo Pontecorvo, the director of “The Battle of Algiers,” certainly supported Algerian independence. But his film is an artistic masterpiece and not a work of propaganda because it presents a contradiction it does not resolve. It depicts flamboyantly brutal acts of terror as the historical consequence of relentless colonial oppression while fully acknowledging terror’s cost, including to those who believed it would liberate them.

This reading of the film is consistent with the argument of Albert Memmi in The Colonizer and the Colonized, for which Sartre also wrote an introduction. Memmi’s book preceded Fanon’s by several years and contains a concurring analysis of the violence of colonialism. Memmi, a Tunisian Jewish leftist, wrote, the leftist colonist who refuses colonialism is faced with the choice “not between good and evil, but between evil and uneasiness.”[15] Despite Grewal’s misplaced self-assurance, this is actually very hard.


Memmi and Fanon wrote based on their experiences of Tunisia and Algeria respectively. Although neither of them used the term, today these sites are widely understood and written about as instances of settler-colonialism, denoting a specific variety of colonialism. Fayez Sayegh also did not use the term in his 1965 book, Zionist Colonialism in Palestine. He describes the Zionist project as a “settler community” and Israel as “settler state.” Sayegh’s book is a common starting point for a literature review and genealogy of comprehending Palestine/Israel as a settler-colonial formation.

We know that an academic debate has elicited elite anxieties when it is singled out for abuse in the pages of The Wall Street Journal. Some may remember with a combination of amusement and anxiety the Journal’s crusade against the restructuring of Stanford University’s “Western Culture” curriculum in the 1980s then required of all first-year undergraduates (It’s been revised several times since, but this is unlikely to be responsible for the decline in norms of public discourse since then).

In response to Hamas’s terrorism on October 7, 2023, Wall Street Journal editor Adam Kirsch proclaimed that “settler colonialism,” which he defined as “a political theory about Israel—and the US,” is a “moral derangement,” that justifies violence and rests on “the permanent division of the world into innocent people and guilty people.” The subhead of the article instructs readers that the term “helps explain why” some campus radicals and leftist groups “excused Hamas’s massacre.”[16]

Three months later Jennifer Schuessler penned a New York Times opinion essay purporting to explain “What Is ‘Settler Colonialism’?”[17] She quoted Kirsch’s gibe about “moral derangement” towards the top of the piece. Perhaps Schuessler thought this provided preemptive immunity for her subsequent far less hostile exposition than Kirsch’s. Whatever its purpose, this tells us something about how the mandarins of corporate media validate each and by legitimating even preposterous views, delimit the boundaries of acceptable discourse.

While a middlebrow magazine article can’t be comprehensive, Schuessler’s omissions in an essay centering Israel/Palestine are symptomatic. She fails to mention Fayez Sayegh or Gershon Shafir.

Shafir was one of the first Israeli scholars to categorize the Zionist project as a variety “of European overseas expansion…from the sixteenth through the early twentieth centuries.”[18] His 1989 book, Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 1882-1914 also does not use the precise words “settler colonialism,” though like Sayegh, his classification of varieties of colonialism, which builds on the analyses of the historians esteemed historians D.K. Fieldhouse and George Fredrickson, deploys similar words. 

Shafir designates the era of the 1st wave of Zionist immigration (the 1st ‘aliyah,1882-1903) as an inhibited “pure settlement drive” which reconciled itself to becoming a “plantation type colony” and the 2nd wave of immigration (the 2nd ‘aliyah,1904-1914) as a renewed “pure settlement drive” comparable to Rhodesia or Algeria which ultimately developed into a “separatist method of pure settlement.”[19] He locates Israel “within the general phenomenon of settlement societies” pointing to comparisons with elements of the histories of Virginia, California, Australia, South Africa, Algeria, Tunisia, Prussia and others while arguing for significant variation of specific instances within the same category.[20]

While Shafir instructs us that settler colonialism is not a moral category, Wall Street Journal editor Kirsch, prefers the common vice of moralizing based on so-called lessons of history indulged in by the full cast of characters in the public square from scholars to charlatans.

One scholarly effort inspired by Shafir’s work was a Mellon Foundation Sawyer Seminar on “Comparative Settler Colonialism in North America, South Africa, and Israel/Palestine” that gathered historians and literary scholars at Stanford University from 2002 to 2004. No one at the Stanford Sawyer Seminar argued that the history of the Zionist project replicated exactly the histories of South Africa or North America or French Algeria or any other instance of settler colonialism.

Among the guest speakers at the Stanford Sawyer Seminar was Patrick Wolfe. Schuessler mentions Wolfe seventeen paragraphs into her New York Times essay. Because his pithy observation that “invasion is a structure not an event” became a building block of the emergent field of settler colonial studies, he deserves to have been mentioned earlier.[21] Wolfe’s theorization offers a mode of understanding the long-term historical sociology of settler societies.

Building on the concept of invasion as a structure, Wolfe and some of his followers have argued that the logic of settler societies is eliminationist. In my view, this is overly schematic. The genocidal impulse of settlers in North America and Australia did not prevail in South Africa or Algeria, where Black African and Muslim Algerian workers, despite being brutalized in myriad ways, could not be eliminated because they were essential to the settler economy. Political economy and geographic analysis can illuminate important differential historical outcomes in settler colonies.

Wolfe’s dictum provided the title for a conference convened by the Center for Near Eastern Studies at UCLA in October 2009, “Invasion is a Structure not an Event: Settler Colonialism Past and Present.”[22] Wolfe and Shafir both attended the conference along with others who gave papers on US Indian policy, the theory of Terra Nullius, and colonial Algeria. Four conference papers argued that the Zionist project in Palestine could usefully be compared to other instances of settler colonialism. As at the Stanford seminar, no one at the UCLA conference argued that the history of the Zionist project replicated exactly the histories of other instances of settler colonialism.

Traditionalist historians of Zionism like Anita Shapira or David Vital never embraced the term settler-colonialism. But when it began to emerge as a respectable scholarly analysis of the Zionist project and the history of Palestine/Israel over two decades ago, it did not inspire moral panic. Why not?

One reason is that in the Anglo-American academy the term was first used primarily by leftist Israelis and American Jews using Hebrew sources, like those at the UCLA conference. The typical Israeli/American Jewish mode of analysis was to hold a mirror up to the Zionist project by deconstructing the conceptual world of Zionist ideologues, which is an embarrassment in the post-colonial era, and critically examining canonical Zionist practices and institutions like “Hebrew labor” and the kibbutz.

The generation of Palestinian-American and Arab-American scholars likely to use the term settler colonialism with respect to Israel/Palestine today hadn’t yet come of age. Their emblematic webzine, Jadaliyya, came online in September 2010. The flagship scholarly journal of the field, Settler Colonial Studies, launched in 2011. Electronic Intifada debuted in 2001, but it didn’t regularly refer to Israel as a settler colony until the mid-2010s. Hamas’s actions on October 7, 2023 are what created a moral panic among rightwing ideologues and addled the minds of some leftwing academics and militants.

Settler colonialism is a fruitful heuristic category, not a template that explains everything we need to know about a place, that highlights several aspects of societies like Algeria and Palestine/Israel. First, it denotes a dynamic drive towards territorial expansion, expressed in motifs like manifest destiny in the USA, Drang nach Osten in medieval and 19th century Germany, the Great Trek of the South African Boers, the incorporation of northern Algeria into three departments of metropolitan France in 1848, and eretz yisrael ha-shlemah or the greater land of Israel.

As Shafir points out, the Zionist right wing always preferred territorial maximalism and concomitantly a large Arab population alongside the Jewish yishuv (which might be translated as settlement colony). Revisionists led by Vladimir Jabotinsky and then Menachem Begin asserted that the Land of Israel included the East Bank of the Jordan. Bourgeois Zionists rejected the labor Zionist slogan of Jewish labor. Rather than an exclusively Jewish economy, they sought to earn higher profits by employing cheaper and often more experienced Arab workers, especially in the citrus and quarrying sectors.

In contrast, most labor Zionists ultimately understood that maintaining high wages for Jewish workers and a more thoroughly Jewish economy and society required reduced territorial ambitions and ultimately the partition of the country. Exceptionally, the Le-Achdut Ha-Avodah (Unity of Labor) current of labor Zionism, which is significant because it was the leading force in the pre-state elite Palmach militia, believed that the Land of Israel extended from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea and very reluctantly acceded to the partition of Palestine.

While territorial maximalism was a current in Zionist political thought since the interwar period, it was revitalized and gained political momentum after Israel’s victory in the June 1967 War. In July 1967 an amalgam of rightwing Revisionists (supporters of Begin’s Herut Party), labor Zionists (members of Le-Achdut Ha-Avodah and others), military-security types, previously politically unaligned prominent literary and cultural figures (Shmuel Yosef Agnon and Naomi Shemer) as well as poets long identified with the Mapai trend of labor Zionism (Natan Alterman and Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi), and Orthodox followers of Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook combined to establish the Movement for a Greater Israel. Kook’s followers understood the establishment of the State of Israel as a reincarnation of the Davidic Kingdom and interpreted Israel’s victory in the 1967 War as the first stage of Messianic redemption.

The first victories of the Movement for Greater Israel were Israel’s de factoannexation of Arab East Jerusalem on June 28, 1967, and the establishment of Jewish settlements in Gush Etzion in 1967, Kiryat Arba in 1968, the northern West Bank in 1975, and central Hebron in 1979. The first four of these victories were achieved under labor Zionist governments. The fifth victory and the de jure annexation of East Jerusalem on July 30, 1980, were accomplished by rightwing governments led by the Likud.

Tensions between the secular and religious elements of the Movement for a Greater Israel led to its demise and the establishment of the more durable Orthodox, right-wing settler movement, Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) in 1974. Few secular territorial maximalists became Messianists. However, the Messianist-led annexationist current has been ascendant in Israeli politics and has marginalized most forms of opposition for over two decades. The settler colonial drive to territorial expansion, a sociological rather than an ideological explanation, suggests why those who embraced apparently clashing ideologies, as in the Movement for a Greater Israel, could concur on settlement expansion with a view to annexing part or all of the West Bank and more problematically, the Gaza Strip.

Second, settler-colonialism explains the process by which settlers come to see themselves as belonging to the land. They form a new society which is distinct from, even if connected to, the country or countries from where they came. A majority of the 19th century Europeans who settled in Algeria were not ethnically French, but Italians, Maltese, and Spaniards. However, all Europeans received French citizenship and became French speakers, as did most local Jews. Ultimately all Algerians with French citizenship came to see themselves as a distinctive community rooted in the soil of Algeria.

Jews who immigrated to Palestine and Israel, although many of the pioneers were militant secularists, drew on the long history of religious attachment to Eretz Yisrael. However, the cultural slogans of the Palestinian yishuv and the early state of Israel were the negation of exile (shlilat ha-golah), establishing a Hebrew, rather than a Jewish society, and the cultivation of a “new Hebrew man,” a manual laborer and a fighter as opposed to intellectual luftmenschen, traditionalists of the shtetl, or bourgeois German and American assimilationists. Israelis became a distinctive kind of Jew, connected to, but culturally and politically different from centers of Jewish life in the Diaspora, which were not and could never be fully negated because most Jews who had a choice preferred to live there. This helps explain the divergence between the sensibilities of Israeli and US Jews today.

Third, settler colonialism explains why settlers reject the social, cultural, and political assimilation of those who were previously on that territory into the settler society. I’m avoiding the word indigenous, although the French term, indigene, was regularly used in Algeria and Tunisia, because that term has often been abused by moralizers claiming superior rights to others who inhabit a territory. Settlers seek to build a new society, which is captured in place names like New England, New York, New Jersey, New Zealand, New South Wales and also the American New Jerusalem. This creates a dynamic of tension and violence – more or less kinetic depending on circumstances – on the frontier of settlement. Anyone who has visited or is familiar with the Jewish settlement in Hebron will not need further explanation.

A strong reason for understanding the Zionist project as a variety of settler colonialism is that settlement and colonization were terms commonly used by Zionist leaders and ideologues from the inception of the movement in the late 19th century until the post-World War II era of decolonization.

In The Jewish State (1896), the book that launched what became the World Zionist Organization, Theodor Herzl envisioned a future Jewish Palestine as “a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism,” classic European colonial and racialist language. Herzl’s diaries include a letter he drafted (but did not send) to Cecil Rhodes in 1902 asking him to put his stamp of his authority on the Zionist project because “it is something colonial.”[23] The first Zionist Bank was called the Jewish Colonial Trust.

Vladimir Jabotinsky’s 1923 essay “The Iron Wall” is a defining document for the political current that became the core of the Likud Party, which has been the dominant current in Israeli politics for all but a few of the last 47 years. Jabotinsky wrote:[24]

Zionism is a colonization adventure and therefore it stands or falls by the question    of armed force. …

see whether there is one solitary instance of any colonisation being carried on with the consent of the native population. There is no such precedent. The native populations, civilised or uncivilised, have always stubbornly resisted the colonists….

It does not matter at all which phraseology we employ in explaining our colonising aims, Herzl’s or Sir Herbert Samuel’s. … Colonisation can have only one aim, and Palestine Arabs cannot accept this aim.

One of the most frank acknowledgements of Zionism as a settler colonial project, all the more significant because it comes from the heart of the labor Zionist movement that led the establishment of the state of Israel, is Chaim Arlosoroff’s 1927 essay “On the Question of Joint Organization.” Arlosoroff was an academically trained economist and theorist of the modalities of Zionist settlement. Seeking settlement models that the Zionists could replicate, he argued that the only comparable example he could find to the Zionist project was that of white settlers in South Africa. 

In both cases the livelihoods of the settlers were threatened by cheaper African or Arab labor. Therefore, as in South Africa, labor Zionists should not seek to organize Arab workers in their trade union, the Histadrut. Rather, the labor market should be split, and Palestinian Arab workers excluded from the Jewish economy.

Arlosoroff’s conception of Israel/Palestine as a settler project was meant to enable the construction of a majority Jewish society and ultimately a Jewish ethno-state. He and most members of what became Mapai and, after the 1967 War, the Labor Party had little concern for the fate of Palestine’s Arabs who comprised the great majority of the population when Arlosoroff composed his essay in 1927 and until the end of the British Mandate in 1948.

Fast forward three decades…

On April 29, 1956, during the escalation of tensions that preceded the Israeli-French-British attack on Egypt known as the Suez or Sinai War, Palestinians from the Gaza Strip killed Ro’i Rotberg, the security coordinator of Kibbutz Nachal Oz, which was one of the sites attacked by Hamas on October 7, 2023. Israel’s Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan was touring the area that day and delivered the eulogy at his funeral. Dayan’s brief speech became an iconic statement that many Israelis considered to define their existential condition in the 1950s and 1960s.[25]

Let us not cast the blame on the murderers today. Why should we declare their burning hatred for us? For eight years they have been sitting in the refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we have been transforming the lands and the villages, where they and their fathers dwelt, into our estate….

We will make our reckoning with ourselves today; we are a generation that settles the land and without the steel helmet and the cannon’s maw, we will not be able to plant a tree and build a home. Let us not be deterred from seeing the loathing that is inflaming and filling the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Arabs who live around us. Let us not avert our eyes lest our arms weaken. This is the fate of our generation. This is our life’s choice – to be prepared and armed, strong and determined, lest the sword be stricken from our fist and our lives cut down.

Fast forward six decades…

In October 2015, PM Netanyahu told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israel would “need to control all of the territory (between the river and the sea) for the foreseeable future” and added, “I’m asked if we will forever live by the sword — yes.”

In other words, despite all of Israel’s accomplishments in the 6 decades between 1956 and 2015, its existential condition had not changed.

Today there is no clear trajectory towards a political resolution that would change the existential condition of Jews who live between the river and the sea. Neither in Israel nor among Palestinians are there more than marginal political forces that uphold a vision of a life of dignity for both peoples based on equality and justice in any constitutional configuration that can be imagined.

Such a future can only be built on repudiating historical denialism and recognizing and correcting the injuries of the past. Of course, that begins with acknowledging the Nakba. Acknowledging the Nakba does not mean a genocide of the Jewish people of Israel or driving Jews into to sea or even the end of Jewish statehood. It does not mean that every one of the Palestinian refugees will return and displace Jews who may be living on their lands or in their actual homes. It does mean acknowledging that harm has been done and acknowledging the right of Palestinians to return and to restitution and compensation. It may mean the end of the particular form of statist Zionism that has prevailed since the 1940s.

Repudiating historical denialism also means acknowledging Israel’s settler colonial origins. When we recite a land acknowledgment at public events, as is becoming common in the United States, no one thinks of that as a call to commit genocide against the descendants of white settlers or as a demand that they be sent back to wherever their ancestors came from. It is an acknowledgment of a historic wrong. We do not yet have a broadly agreed upon mode of rectifying that wrong. But we will not have a healthy country until we do.

Understanding Israel as a settler-colonial society is not a “moral derangement.” It does not justify violence or imply “the permanent division of the world into innocent people and guilty people.” The term has indeed been used by some who “excused Hamas’s massacre.” In and of itself the term settler colonialism does not explain why they did so. Many who believe the term is appropriate in analyzing the Zionist project and Israeli society are appalled by Hamas’s terrorism and atrocities and believe it cannot liberate anyone.


French denialists succeeded in banning the screening and distribution of “The Battle of Algiers” for five years after its 1966 release. France was Israel’s most important Western ally and principal supplier of arms and nuclear technology from 1954 to 1967. “Battle of Algiers” was banned in Israel until 1975.[26]

Film distributors in the UK and the US understood that most of their viewers were not prepared to face the full extent of the horrors of colonialism. For their audiences’ viewing comfort, they cut some scenes in “The Battle of Algiers” depicting French soldiers torturing Algerians.[27] In 1999 a restored print was made in Italy. The expurgated scenes were included in the versions of the film re-released in the UK, the US, and France in 2003 and 2004.

Henri Alleg, an Algerian Jewish communist and a fervent anti-Zionist, rendered a detailed account of his personal experience of torture in his 1958 book, The Question.[28] After over 60,000 copies had been sold, the French government banned the book. French authorities confiscated copies of the March 6, 1958 edition of L’Express in which Sartre wrote an article about Alleg’s book. But the book was translated into English and several other languages with Sartre’s article as an introduction, By the end of 1958 over 162,000 copies of the book were circulating in France.[29]

In 2002 Gen. Paul Aussaresses was convicted of “complicity in justifying war crimes” and compelled to pay a fine of $6,500, far less than the maximum maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $41,000 fine. Aussaresses was stripped of his military rank and honors and the right to wear his military uniform. The two publishing houses that had issued The Battle of the Casbah / Services spéciaux Algérie 1955-1957 were fined similarly nominal amounts. Although he had confessed to the crime in writing, Aussaresses could not be convicted of actually torturing Algerians because of a 1968 amnesty applied to all participants in the Algerian “peacekeeping operations.”

France did not officially acknowledge that it had fought a colonial war in Algeria until 1999, thirty-seven years after Algerian independence. In 2017, President Emmanuel Macron called France’s colonization of Algeria a “crime against humanity.” In 2018 France acknowledged that torture had been institutionalized and used systematically in Algeria.

Only after France partially and hesitatingly began to acknowledge its colonial history in Algeria, was it possible to imagine a historical reconciliation. However, for reasons too complex to discuss here, this has been partial, vacillating, and highly contested. It is a project for several generations to come. 


[1] Paul Aussaresses, The Battle of the Casbah: Terrorism and Counter-terrorism in Algeria, 1955-1957 (Enigma Books, 2002), 140; Services spéciaux Algérie 1955-1957: Mon témoignage sur la torture (France: Perrin, 2001)

[2] Adam Shatz quoted in Edo Konrad, “Who was Frantz Fanon, the freedom fighter Palestine supporters love to quote?” The Guardian, Mar. 21, 2024,

[3] Jean-Paul Sartre, preface to Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (NY: Grove Press, 1963), 21; Les Damnés de la Terre (Paris: Maspero, 1961).


[5] Martin Evans, Algeria: France’s Undeclared War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 85.

[6] Alistair Horne, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 (NY: NYRB Classics, 2011), 184.

[7] Horne, 144.

[8] Reuters, Mar. 18, 2024,

[9] Horne, 213-16.

[10] For example, and

[11] Cornell Daily Sun, Oct. 16, 2023,

[12] CNN, Feb. 8, 2024.

[13] Quoted in Eli Lake, “Frantz Fanon, Oracle of Decolonization,” The Free Press, Oct. 31, 2023,

[14] Mark Landler, New York Times, Nov. 15, 2023,

[15] Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized (Boston: Beacon Press, 1965), 42-43; Portrait du Colonisé précédé de Portrait du Colonisateur (Paris: Correa, 1957).

[16] Adam Kirsch, “Campus Radicals and Leftist Groups Have Embraced the Idea of ‘Settler Colonialism,’” Wall Street Journal, Oct. 26, 2023,  

[17] Jennifer Schuessler, “What Is Settler Colonialism?” New York Times, Jan. 22, 2024,

18 Gershon Shafir, Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 1882-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 8.

[19] Shafir, 9, 10, 17,19.

[20] Shafir, 11-12.

[21] Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 2006, 8, 4.


[23] Draft letter to Cecil Rhodes, Jan. 11, 1902.


[25] Moshe Dayan, “Eulogy for Roi Rotberg” translated in Mitch Ginsburg, “When Moshe Dayan delivered the defining speech of Zionism,” The Times of Israel, Apr. 28, 2016,



[28] Henri Alleg, La Question (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1958).

[29] “Henri Alleg: the man who revealed war torture,” Sydney Morning Herald, July 26, 2013,





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