Lessons from the Past? France, Algeria and the One-State Reality

Time marches on, and events that were defining moments for my generation are, at best, familiar to today’s students only through school text books or grainy YouTube footage. Fifty-one years have now passed since Israel conquered the remaining areas of former British Mandated Palestine in a defensive war, sparking in return, the rise of a fighting Palestinian national movement and eventually returning the Arab-Israeli conflict to its core issue. This September 13th marks the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo agreement on the White House lawn, an agreement designed to lead to a two-state solution and thus resolve the century-old conflict.  Of course, that outcome was not achieved, and a one-state reality between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea seems ever more irreversible. This reality in the West Bank territory occupied by Israel in 1967 is one of hierarchy and domination in all spheres of life – legally, militarily, economically, and regarding land and natural resources, with Israeli Jewish settlers (c. 400,00, plus c. 200,000 within eastern Jerusalem) possessing full citizenship and protection, while the lives of 2.5 million Palestinian Arabs (including c. 400,000 within eastern Jerusalem), remain severely circumscribed and precarious.

Politicians and intellectuals from both ends of the Israeli political spectrum are now proposing any number of ideas for establishing a legal basis for this one-state reality.  From the left come well-worn alternative notions such as a single democratic state for everyone, to various forms of inter-communal power sharing.  From the ascendant right come a mish-mash of overlapping ideas: offering full citizenship to West Bank Palestinian Arabs on an individual basis and according to certain criteria; limited autonomy in territorial non-contiguous areas while abolishing the Palestinian Authority that currently administers the area’s main cities (3% of the total territory); formal annexation of Area ‘C” (approximately 60% of the territory); establishing specific “emirates” in each main Palestinian city, led by the city’s prominent clans; and active encouragement of wholesale Palestinian emigration, by whatever means necessary. (Ha’aretz, weekly magazine, August 17). The Knesset’s recent passage of the Nation-State law has provided additional wind to the sails of right-wing one-state advocates, reinforcing the “Jewish” part of Israel’s nature at the expense of its “democratic” one, and further blurring the distinction between Israel’s non-Jewish citizens and the 2.5 million persons across the Green Line who are under various forms of Israeli direct and indirect occupation by the Israeli military.

So where are things headed?  Obviously, no one can predict the future, which is contingent on an untold number of factors. Nonetheless, in trying to understand the various components of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its possible future course, Mark Twain’s alleged adage, that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme”, may be of use.

The Case of French Algeria

France ruled Algeria for 132 years, from 1830-1962.   The initial motivation for the occupation of the Ottoman Regency of Algiers in 1830 was a mixture of old-style imperial ambitions, retribution for an insult to French honor, and a domestic political crisis. The chaos and lack of planning for the day after France’s 3-week war of conquest was obvious, and a parliamentary inquest in 1834 excoriated the destructive and murderous behavior of French troops.  Nonetheless, the voices calling for withdrawal were dismissed:  over the next 40 years, French forces brutally pummeled the native society into submission, and extended France’s control deep into the interior.

Unlike other overseas colonies established by European powers, Algeria was directly incorporated into the French state, in 1848.  Integral to this decision was large-scale settlement:  backed by French financial interests, European settlers from across the southern Mediterranean (primarily Spain, southern France, Malta, and Italy) streamed into the territory.  By 1871, their numbers had grown to 100,000; over the next 90 years, they would grow ten-fold, mostly by natural increase.  Moreover, they and their supporters in Paris constituted a powerful lobby that would continuously block proposals to give Algeria’s Muslim natives more of a stake in Algérie Française. Instead, what evolved was a multi-tiered judicial, political and economic framework designed to preserve European privilege, a system very similar to the present system in the West Bank designed to achieve just the same for the Israeli settlers.  The best agricultural lands were reserved for large-scale commercial development (particularly, viticulture), and modern European quarters with European infrastructure sprouted in Algeria’s cities.

Ideologically, France’s actions were shaped by two contrasting, and at times clashing impulses, mirroring the culture wars of the country as a whole:

the country’s universalist “civilizing mission”,  in which native society would be “unveiled” and “penetrated” (the sexual connotation is overt, and unavoidable), and ultimately “enlightened”; and

a particularist French mission underpinned by the need to compete with other European powers, and by the notion of restoring North Africa to its alleged pre-Islamic greatness under European (Roman) and Christian (Byzantine) rule.

In both approaches, those natives deemed worthy would gradually be brought into France’s cultural-linguistic orbit in some form of subordinate association, with the rest being expected to fend for themselves or fade into the desert.

The impact of France’s conquest and colonization on the territory’s ethnically heterogeneous and tribally organized Muslim natives was profound and traumatic. Their numbers were reduced by war, drought and disease from 3 million at the time of the French conquest to 2.3 million in 1870, their religious and commercial elites and institutions were largely destroyed, traditional communal, tribal-based agriculture and animal husbandry was irreparably impaired, and much of the population was reduced to seeking sustenance as unskilled laborers either on European commercial agricultural estates or in the booming European urban quarters.  Educationally, the French authorities’ meager investment in schools for Muslim children reinforced European superiority.  At the same time, as French subjects, Algeria’s Muslims were required to fight in the French military in both World Wars, suffering tens of thousands of fatalities.

In 1930, France celebrated the 100th anniversary of the conquest of Algiers in grand style, including reenactments of the landing of the French navy and parades in Crusader dress.  The vast majority of France’s 41 million people could no more imagine the severance of Algeria from France than if it was Provence, Bretagne, or Savoy and Nice (the latter two were annexed to France in 1860, 12 years after Algeria had been).   This would remain the case right up until the late 1950s. But the triumphalism of 1930 was short lived. A new generation of Algerian Muslims had emerged out of the wreckage and restructuring of France’s “civilizing” project, and began to mobilize to challenge the status quo, from a variety of directions.  Out of the one hundred thousand North African (mostly Algerian) workers in French factories in the mid-1920s came the “North African Star”, led by the charismatic Messali Hadj, which promoted a militant mix of workers’ rights and ever growing Algerian Muslim nationalism.  A thin, but significant strata of “evolués” – French-speaking, primarily secular educated Algerian Muslims, forcefully articulated demands that France provide true equality to Algeria’s Muslims, in line with the ideals of the French Revolution. And Arabic-speaking reformist Muslim clerics articulated a historical counter-narrative rejecting France’s claim that it was bringing “civilization” to a disparate group of ignorant people with no history, and that Algeria was an Arab-Muslim Algerian nation which could not, and should not, be French.

France’s crushing defeat by Nazi Germany in May-June 1940 seriously damaged France’s previous image of invincibility among many Algerians. Still, thousands fought and died with Free French forces in the subsequent re-conquest of Europe by the Allies, and the war ended with Algerian nationalists more determined than ever to press their claims. But post-war French governments were determined to hold on to their colonial possessions, and the security forces responded to protest marches and periodic outbursts of violence against French settlers with massive, indiscriminate killings of their own.  By 1954, the fractious Algerian nationalist movement appeared to have lost all steam, thanks to bitter internal conflicts, successful repressive measures and an outwardly apathetic population (now numbering more than 10 million persons) just trying to get by.  Hence, when an unknown group, the Front de Libération National, announced the beginning of an armed struggle for the country’s independence with a series of small attacks on isolated French police posts, few took notice.

The ensuing eight-year conflict was slow in developing, but eventually took on frightful proportions.  Massacres, terror attacks and torture by both sides became routine, with the FLN targeting not only Europeans but also Muslim opponents, some of whom sided with France. 450,00 French troops, some of them fresh from France’s defeat in Indochina but many of them reservists and conscripts, were poured into the country to quell the uprising.  At one point, millions of Algerians in the countryside were uprooted and sequestered.  By the spring of 1957, France had “won” the Battle of Algiers, and the FLN seemed to some to be a spent force, with its leaders either killed, imprisoned or in exile. But amidst persistent reports of the employment of torture by French forces and the growing momentum of decolonization around the world, the consensus in France over maintaining French rule in Algeria was broken, and the issue now bitterly divided the country and paralyzed the political system.

Charles De Gaulle was called to power in 1958 to solve the problem, inaugurating the 5th Republic. Algeria’s European population was momentarily buoyed by De Gaulle public proclamation to them in Algiers – “I understand you” (“je vous est compris”).  But he quickly concluded that restoring the status quo ante was politically untenable, both domestically and internationally, and that maintaining French sovereignty in Algeria would pose a long-term demographic threat to France itself.  As such, a variety of options began to be explored, from making Algeria’s internal institutions more genuinely representative, to co-sovereignty, federation, and eventually, full separation and independence. All of these were considered to be nothing less than treasonous by European settlers and some members of the military.  During the next three years, De Gaulle would survive multiple assassination attempts, and an abortive coup d’état by rebellious generals.

The end game in 1961-62 was both bloody and tragic. Ultra-nationalist French military and paramilitary groups engaged in a last-ditch scorched earth campaign of terror against Algerian Muslims.  Terrified, the 900,000 French Algerian civilians fled their homes in panic, crossing the Mediterranean to “return” to a country where most had never lived in.   They bore the bitterness and pain of a lost world, but elicited little sympathy from the rest of the populace eager to turn the page. Most of the Muslims who supported France were left to a bitter fate – uncounted thousands would be executed as traitors by the revenge-seeking FLN, its civilian supporters and those eager to erase the stigma of their past association with France.  Overall, an estimated 250-300,000 Muslims, approximately half of them civilians, and 28,000 French soldiers and civilians lost their lives during the eight years of war.[i]  The legacy of that war, and of the entire French colonial encounter with Muslim Algeria, continues to shape, and even haunt both countries, 56 years later.

One must be extremely cautious about applying the ‘lessons’ of that encounter to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  To paraphrase Tolstoy, each unhappy reality is unhappy in its own unique way. Indeed, the differences between the Algerian and Israeli-Palestinian cases are considerable. This was not always understood by Palestinian and Arab nationalists and their supporters in the West. They viewed the victory of the FLN over France (five years before the June 1967 War) as a model of emulation and source of inspiration. Reaching back into history, Arab nationalists and Islamists have often comforted themselves by emphasizing the ultimate defeat by Muslim armies of the medieval Crusader kingdoms, particularly the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which lasted nearly 200 years.  What they failed to understand was that the Zionist movement was, for its followers, a movement for self-determination for the Jewish people, one that ultimately won the allegiance of the bulk of world Jewry and acquired international legitimacy, and that Israeli Jewish society had coalesced into a cohesive and dynamic entity willing and able to defend itself.

Similarly, during both the first (1987-91) and second Palestinian intifadas (2000-2003), Palestinians badly underestimated the staying power of Israel’s Jewish settlers in the West Bank, and the commitment of successive Israeli governments to maintain the upper hand on the ground. In addition, the never-ending conflict has driven Israeli Jewish public opinion to the right, making it easier for Israeli settlers, whether ideologically or materially inclined, to ensure the preservation and expansion of the settlement enterprise.  And unlike the vast mountainous terrain of Algeria’s interior which provided an ideal theater of operations for determined FLN guerrillas, the tiny dimensions of the West Bank precluded the possibility of a classic guerrilla campaign.

But more than a few things associated with the French Algerian and Israeli-Palestinian cases, and particularly the post-1967 West Bank realities, do indeed “rhyme”:

the ethno-national-religious nature of both conflicts which, in the age of nationalism and self-determination, render the utter suppression of one group by another a pipe dream;

large-scale settlement movements, necessitating the creation of parallel, but manifestly hierarchal and discriminatory systems of authority;

the brutalizing effect of continued violence on both sides, leading them to further dehumanize their foes;

the particular difficulty of avowedly democratic states to maintain their adherence to norms of governance while seeking to govern an unwilling and hostile population;

the dangers of internal fissures, and even violent fractures and civil strife within both protagonists to the continuing conflict; and,

the inability to isolate the conflict from outside forces and developments, both regional and global.

France’s colonial enterprise in Algeria was characterized from the outset by extreme violence and domination, and eventually French Algeria disappeared in a brutal and tragic finale, despite the fact that it had been in existence for more than a century.  Israel itself, now 70 years old, is not going anywhere.  And for the moment, the final stage Israeli-Palestinian agreement envisaged by the Oslo accords that would lead to the redrawing of boundaries and the evacuation of at least a portion or the settlements, returning their inhabitants to pre-1967 Israel, just a few kilometers away from their existing homes, appears to be a dead letter. But those who believe Israel can, and even should maintain and encourage the further deepening of a one-state, highly stratified and discriminatory reality between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan should consider the fate of Algérie Française, and of those who paid such a terrible price along the way.  Israel has already paid a bitter price, including the assassination of a prime minister, the deaths and injuries of thousands, and the corrosion of legal and civic norms that are no less essential to maintaining Israel’s long-term security than a robust military.

For those that remain confident that the differences in the two cases outweigh the similarities, and that Israel can continue to thrive while maintaining both a thriving liberal democracy and booming economy within the pre-1967 boundaries and a multi-tiered oppressive and discriminatory regime beyond them, perhaps they should consider two additional points:

  1. the religious dimension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – always of a different order of magnitude than the Algerian colonial case – has become even more salient since 1967, and the deepening of the one-state reality guarantees that Jerusalem’s holy sites will be in the cross-hairs of religious fanatics and über nationalists from both camps;
  2. the fate of Lebanon’s Maronite Christian community: in 1920, its leaders successfully lobbied their French allies to expand the boundaries of their traditional mountain bailiwick to create Greater Lebanon, an act which ultimately rendered them a permanent and beleaguered minority.

[i] Martin Evans, Algeria: France’s Undeclared War (Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 336-38.




About the Author
Associate Professor, Dept. of History of the Middle East and Africa, and Senior Research Fellow, the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies,Tel Aviv University; Associate Scholar, Foreign Policy Research Institute, Philadelphia, PA
Related Topics
Related Posts