On January 23rd, French President Emmanuel Macron, who showed support for Israel in the past, declared in a press conference that colonization of the Palestinian territories by the Israelis constituted an obstacle to peace between the two parties. Whether the French President is right or wrong, there is much to examine in such a claim. The use of the term “colonization” by President Macron came naturally to his reasoned speech, but it still embodies a deeply-rooted misconception.
In most of the West, the use of the term “colonization” to define the Israeli military or civilian presence in the West Bank has become the diplomatically “correct” manner of addressing the conflict between Israel and Palestinian Arabs. Whether this comes as a result of hostile campaigns against the Jewish State, or whether this is simply pedalled by ill-informed individuals, the idea that Israelis should be considered as foreign colonists in the West Bank has prevailed – much to the delight of Israel’s critics. The reality is, however, that this claim contradicts every element of territorial legitimacy.
As Albert Camus once wrote, “to name things wrongly is to add to the misfortune of the world”. The French philosopher could not be righter. Colonization is a very bold and grave accusation which requires more than just hasty judgements. Let’s start with its definition. According to the Oxford Living Dictionaries, colonization is the action or process of settling among and establishing control over the indigenous people of an area. Therefore, to claim that Israel colonizes the West Bank is to claim that Palestinian Arabs are indigenous to this region, and that Jews are not. Unfortunately for Israel’s detractors, this is simply not factually correct.
The West Bank is a landlocked territory bordered by Jordan to the east and by the 1967 ceasefire line separating it and Israel to the north, west and south. Its name was given during the Jordanian annexation of the territory between 1948 and 1967. However, the region’s ancient and enduring names have been for almost 3,000 thousand years Judea – part of the ancient Kingdom of Judah – and Samaria – part of the Kingdom of Israel.
While one could merely put this down to a matter of semantics, the importance of recalling these names is essential to understanding the complexity inherent to this territory.
Judea and Samaria constitute the birthplace of the Jewish people, its culture, its religion and customs. It is where the Jewish nation that was ultimately scattered across the world both originated and flourished. It was there that King David made Jerusalem the eternal capital of his people, where his son Solomon built the first Temple dedicated to the God of his peers, where the Maccabees fought back against the Seleucid imperialist troops, where Herod the Great, king of Judea, restored the monumental Second Temple of Jerusalem. Lastly, it was in Judea that Jesus (in Hebrew: Yeshua ben Yosef) grew and preached his beliefs to his Jewish peers.
Judea is to Jews what Scandinavia is to Vikings and what New-Zealand is to Maoris. Judea used to be the cradle of Hebrew sovereignty and long history. Yet, one does not need history, nor science, neither archeology to realize such reality. All one needs is the very name Jew which itself derives from Old French “giu” meaning Judean.
In short, claiming that Israel is a colonial entity in the West Bank is akin to claiming that Judeans colonized Judea. For anyone who cares about history or basic facts, this is fraudulent.
Nonetheless, what does this all imply for Palestinian legitimacy in Judea? Are Palestinians not also indigenous to the land? Let’s take a look at the facts. During the first century of our era, the Romans colonized Judea, destroyed the Jewish Temple of Jerusalem, murdered around 1 million Jews and deported the survivors around the globe. However, in an effort to strike an ultimate blow to Jewish culture and history, Roman Emperor Hadrian cynically decided to rename the land Syria Palaestina, in reference to the Biblical foes of the ancient Israelites, the Philistines. The latter were ancient tribes from the Greek archipelago whose hostility towards Jews were exacerbated by the Bible and who have no cultural or ethnic affiliation with modern Arabs.
Logically, following the semantical change initiated by the Romans, the term “Palestinian” started to count as Jews’ various ethnonyms especially during the 19th century when it was used to refer to Jewish migrations to the Holy land. For instance, the Jewish newspaper Jerusalem Post used to be called the Palestine Post.
At the same time, Arabs living in British Mandatory Palestine considered themselves as part of the broader Arab nation rather than as a distinctive people of Palestine. As a matter of fact, in the first half of the 20th century, local Arabs refused to be called Palestinians as they found such appellation degrading given it traditionally referred to Jews. Local Arabs started referring themselves as Palestinians starting from the 1960s when they decided to shrink their Arab nationalist ambitions to Palestine. Yet, despite this change of direction, the latter did not systematically claim the West Bank as part of “Arab Palestine”. As a matter of fact, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation waited for Jordan to officially renounce to the West Bank in 1988 in order to claim it as part of “historic Palestine”. Before that, the only historic Palestine that the PLO sought to “liberate” was Israel without the West Bank.
Whether colonized by Rome, Athens or Damascus, the West Bank has been the object of desire of many foreign empires, much to the despair of Jews. Yet, despite this complex and long history of conquests, Israel’s critics remain keen to revert history and to unequivocally condemn Jews for their presence in Judea.
Such a neurotic climate could not be more exacerbated than among British universities where student unions’ representatives such as Bristol University’s Omar Chowdhurry feel free to ask Jewish students “to be like Israel and cease to exist”. In March, Hamas-promoting KCL Action Palestine physically blocked students from accessing the venue where Colonel Bar-On from the IDF came to give a lecture at King’s College London. At the University of Leeds, the student board felt the need to publicly apologise for allowing Jewish students to celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day.
Regrettably, the list could go on.
The conflict opposing Israel and the Palestinian Arabs remains complex and does certainly not offer any room for rough simplification. No ideology nor cause should involve erasing millennia of history and territorial legitimacy.