by Boaventura de Sousa Santos *
It is nowadays pretty much consensual in the social sciences that colonialism did not end with the political independence of the European colonies that took place between the beginning of the 19th century and the end of the 20th. What came to an end, though not completely, was a form of colonialism, historical colonialism characterized by territorial occupation by a foreign country. Colonialism continued in many other forms, since political independence (sovereignty) was greatly conditioned by economic and financial dependencies, unequal contracts, privileges granted to companies of the former colonizing powers, expulsion of peasants to make way for mega-development projects, in addition to the continuity of social relations based on the colonial principle of the ethno-racial inferiority of the other, of which internal colonialism and racism are the most obvious expressions.
The inferiorization and demonization of the other through racism is a constant of Western civilization (perhaps of others, too), just as anti-Semitism and anti-Roma people were for centuries, and just as Islamophobia is today. But even historical colonialism has not completely disappeared. The two cases closest to Europe are the Saharawi people, subject to Moroccan colonialism, and the Palestinian people, subject to Israeli colonialism. I focus on the latter because of the extreme form of ethnic cleansing it is taking.
The vast majority of Israelis experience with no qualms the apartheid of the society in which they live. In the months leading up to October 7, there was a great deal of political unrest in Israel over Netanyahu’s proposed judicial reform, which many Israelis saw as a brutal attack on democracy. At stake was “the future of Israel”, an existential decision between a secular, democratic State, on the one hand, and a theocratic, authoritarian state with no separation of powers, on the other. In the midst of such political turmoil, virtually no party, regardless of its political position, made any reference to the Palestinians, the situation in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. And if any of the demonstrators actually did, they were immediately removed.
During the same period, many Palestinians living in Israel, and therefore Israeli citizens, were constantly targeted by criminal gangs who assaulted and robbed them with impunity. At the same time, Palestinians were dying every day in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip and arbitrary acts against them were part of everyday life. None of this was on the political agenda of Israeli democrats fighting against Netanyahu’s fascistic authoritarianism. In other words, the occupation of Palestine was not a political problem; the subjection of the Palestinians was a given, and not even a topic for party programs at election time. This was also the case at the time of colonialism, the historical one, when slaves or the colonized, in general, did not make themselves known through active resistance.
This absence is the key to everything that has been happening, not since October 7, 2023, but since November 9, 1917, when the British Empire promised the Jews a national home in Palestine, where a small minority of Jews already lived. The rights of the vast majority of Arab and Christian Palestinians were recognized, but from the outset they were denied the “universal” principles that the US was proposing at the end of the First World War: the right to self-determination and the right to democracy. Obviously, these rights were being denied throughout the colonial world and, in essence, for the same reasons. If there were self-determination and elections, colonialism would end immediately.
Thirty years later, the situation repeats itself and gets much worse. In the same year that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) was signed, the new universal rights were once again denied to Palestine and the entire colonized world. Even more seriously, that year witnessed the two most momentous attacks (in addition to those that already existed) against these principles. The Apartheid system was institutionalized in South Africa and the State of Israel was created, promising to recognize West Germany as a civilized country (after the Nazi atrocities) if it could conquer as much Palestinian territory as possible.
Thus began the Nakba, the great catastrophe of the Palestinian people, their massive expulsion from the territory they had inhabited for over 2,000 years: 750,000 Palestinians driven from their homes, 530 villages razed to the ground, deserts created where there had once been gardens, thousands killed. This consolidated the colonial character of the State of Israel: to occupy as much territory as possible and empty it as much as possible of “strangers”. And this is how Israel has behaved to this day, not only by disregarding UN resolutions on the two states, but also by declaring itself a Jewish state, where only Jews have full citizenship.
Palestine is therefore one of the remaining situations of historical colonialism. The war being fought is a colonial war on the part of the Israelis and an anti-colonial liberation war on the part of the Palestinians. The Portuguese should understand this better than any other European country, given that only fifty years ago they were living in the same situation. In a war, terrorist acts are committed whenever civilian populations are intentionally targeted, whether they are committed by anti-colonial fighters or by states (the latter being called state terrorism).
This was the case in the Algerian war, the wars in Guinea-Bissau, Angola and Mozambique. Just fifty years ago, in 1973, Amílcar Cabral (until his death) (Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde Islands), Agostinho Neto (Angola), Jonas Savimbi (Angola), Holden Roberto (Angola), and Samora Machel (Mozambique), were terrorists, and were portrayed as such in the Portuguese press. One year later, they were heroes of anti-colonial liberation, and as such celebrated in their countries and in Portugal.
Why are there no liberation heroes in Palestine, only terrorists? Because colonialism continues to subjugate Palestine. The transformation of terrorists into heroes is generally not as rapid as that of Portuguese colonialism. We only have to remember the case of Nelson Mandela who, although apartheid ended in 1994 and he was elected president of the Republic of South Africa on that date, was only removed from the US list of terrorists in… 2008.
If we understand the situation in Palestine as a colonial situation, we can understand why there are double standards when it comes to evaluating acts of war. The global North is made up of the colonizing European countries and their colonies that have been totally dominated by white supremacist settlers (USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). Its historical memory is one of colonialism, territorial occupation and the extermination of anyone who opposes it.
What Israel is doing is what the US did. Rejected Europeans (puritans or criminals) went to occupy territories outside Europe and, once there, carried out ethnic cleansing of those who opposed their occupation. Given this context, it is understandable (but not forgivable) that the global North imagines the State of Israel as acting in self-defense. This is how the global North devastated the native populations. By supporting Israel, the global North is legitimizing its own history.
The relative anachronism of the historical colonialism practiced by Israel makes the abyssal line of making seemingly absurd distinctions over a global, inert magma of rubble and innocent corpses, many of them children, particularly shocking. We have already seen that self-defense is never justified against innocent people, civilian populations, especially children, and even less so when it is exercised as indiscriminate collective punishment in its murderous violence.
None of this prevents the abyssal line from being activated, distinguishing good violence from bad violence, distinguishing the death of those who die from the death of those who are murdered. On this side of the abyssal line, we talk about “us”, while on the other side, we talk about “them”. On one side, the fully human, on the other, the sub-human.
That’s why the young Israelis who were barbarically murdered while attending the Parallel Universe rave didn’t find it at all unusual that they were celebrating “love and harmony” two kilometers from the fence that encloses the world’s largest open-air prison where more than two million people are being held. Even the members of one of the kibbutzim that was attacked didn’t know that the people attacking them were third generation Palestinians who lived in the village that was stolen from their ancestors (one of 530 villages) and destroyed to build that kibbutz.
The abyssal line does not allow us to see two brutalities, two terrorisms, even if the blood spilled is all the same color. This is the structural blindness of history’s victors. For them, it will always be too late to see what is in plain sight. The Palestinians’ only consolation resides in knowing that all colonialisms come to an end. Their tragedy is that the end of colonialism always depends on international alliances, and these have been slow in their case.
The Palestinians are Arabs who have been separated from the Arab world. By accepting the final solution against the Palestinians as a minor colonial blow, the Arab world is cutting into its own flesh. If the tragedy of the Palestinian people is not part of the Arab problem, neither will there be a solution to the many other problems facing the Arab world.
To learn more, read our Israel/Palestine conflict factsheet
Cover photo by Below the Sky/Shutterstock.com
* Boaventura de Sousa Santos is Portuguese professor of Sociology at the School of Economics, University of Coimbra (Portugal), distinguished legal scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, and global legal scholar at the University of Warwick. Co-founder and one of the main leaders of the World Social Forum. Article sent to Other News by the author