June 18, 2024

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What Does “Decolonization” Mean in the Context of Gaza? | On the Media

12 min read
What Does “Decolonization” Mean in the Context of Gaza? | On the Media

Micah Loewinger: This is On the Media. I’m Micah Loewinger.

Brooke Gladstone: I’m Brooke Gladstone. Here’s President Biden on Thursday night.

Joe Biden: To the leadership of Israel, I say this. Humanitarian assistance cannot be a secondary consideration or a bargaining chip. Protecting and saving innocent lives has to be a priority. As we look to the future, the only real solution to the situation is a two-state solution over time. [applause]

Brooke Gladstone: Since October 7th, many have been grasping for ways to explain or even describe an intractable crisis in Palestine spanning generations. To that end, three words are being deployed over and over again, colonialism, decolonization, and liberation.

Speaker 14: They were pushing for a free independent Palestine. They are pushing for decolonization, land back, et cetera.

Speaker 15: Decolonization, free Palestine, that equals the slaughter of Jews.

Iyad el-Baghdadi: I felt that there’s a lot of these words flying around, and there are many people who are not using them in a way that furthered the debates or even informed people.

Brooke Gladstone: Iyad el-Baghdadi’s forebears left what is now Tel Aviv in 1948. Today, he’s a Palestinian human rights activist, a writer, and co-author of The Middle East Crisis Factory. In November, he wrote a thread on Twitter X, clarifying what terms like colonialism and decolonization really mean and why muddling them can be risky.

Iyad el-Baghdadi: To colonize means we just established a colony. If we go to Mars, for example, and we establish a base over there, we can say it’s a Mars colony. Colonialism, on the other hand, to colonialize, is really an exercise in hegemony. It’s a mode of domination. This is where a society might have existed for its own sake, but through the deployment of immense power, immense hegemony, you can turn it into something that doesn’t exist for its own sake.

Brooke Gladstone: Colonialism, he says, comes in two flavors. First, the extractive kind.

Iyad el-Baghdadi: In extractive colonialism, the objective is to extract wealth away. You need a labor class, you need people to work the fields, you need people to work the plantations, you need them subjugated but you don’t need them dead.

Brooke Gladstone: Then the second, settler colonialism, where the colonizer wants the land without the people, and that el-Baghdadi says describes what happened in Palestine.

Iyad el-Baghdadi: In settler colonialism, the colonizer here wants the land for expansion for a new settlement, displacing the natives. The tools of hegemony over here are much more brutal because we don’t need those people to be there.

Brooke Gladstone: The word that’s most muddled, and he says dangerously so is decolonization. It’s too often confused with another term, anti-colonial.

Iyad el-Baghdadi: Not every anti-colonial movement is decolonial. Anti-colonial simply mean opposed to the presence of colonialism. Anti-colonial movements themselves can fall into the same patterns of the colonizers. They can start to have a worldview which is built upon these colonial concepts. Decolonization, on the other hand, the way that I approach it, is that it’s not really about removing people, it’s about removing supremacy.

There’s no longer colonizer and colonized, there’s simply equal citizens in one state. This, of course, does not erase the inequities of the past, but this is the only light that can lead us towards the future.

Brooke Gladstone: You argue that there are two main models of settler colonialism, and understanding the nuances of these models is key to reckoning with Palestine. There’s the Algeria model and the South African model. They both been applied to Palestine.

Iyad el-Baghdadi: Algeria was colonized by the French for a period of around 134 years. The model followed by the Algeria independence movement was mainly a military approach, make the colony unlivable until they leave. Algeria managed to accomplish that eventually in I believe 1962. In the South Africa model, the colonial situation was resolved by creating a democracy that included both the previously colonized and the previous colonizer  in a democracy.

One person, one vote, everybody has the same citizenship, the same rights. Whether you pick the Algeria model or the South African model, the kind of movement that you build is going to be very different. 21 years ago in a 2003 interview Ehud Olmert who at the time was Sharon’s Deputy Prime Minister, actually referenced the Algeria model and the South African model in reference to Israeli plans to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza.

This is literally what he said. “More and more Palestinians are uninterested in a negotiated two-state solution because they want to change the essence of the conflict from an Algerian paradigm to a South African one, from a struggle against occupation in their parlance to a struggle for one man, one vote. That is of course, a much cleaner struggle, a much more popular struggle, and ultimately a much more powerful one. For us, it would mean the end of the Jewish state.”

Brooke Gladstone: He’s saying basically that there cannot be a two-state solution?

Iyad el-Baghdadi: Because it was perceived that Palestinian statehood would be a lethal threat to the Jewishness of the state. This was where the current impasse, where we have a status quo, where it’s neither Algeria nor South Africa, but both, the pre-October 7th reality was not something that Israel stumbled into, but an accomplishment of two generations of Israeli politicians. It was a conscious choice.

October, 2004, senior advisor to Ariel Sharon, it says the significance of the disengagement plan, which is pulling out from Gaza, is to freeze the peace process. When you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders, and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda.

Brooke Gladstone: What would be the result of pursuing the Algeria model in Palestine? Because a big part of the Palestinian movement doesn’t acknowledge Israel’s right to exist.

Iyad el-Baghdadi: They don’t. Algerians were fighting around the same time that Palestinians were fighting, but Algerians won. Many Palestinians got this impression that yes, we have to do the same thing that they did. My position, of course, the position of many others is that French-Algeria is not Israel. There are many, many reasons.

Brooke Gladstone: For one thing, the French had a place to go. They could go back to France.

Iyad el-Baghdadi: Yes. Meanwhile, Israelis have nowhere to go. Also, at the height of French colonialism in Algeria, I don’t think the French non-natives exceeded 20% of the population. They were always a minority. In the case of Israel/Palestine, it’s half and half. Israel was founded by Holocaust survivors. They were escaping a millennium of European antisemitism. This changes the psychological dynamic.

These are two peoples locked into a cycle of trauma, traumatizing each other, but also traumatized. We can’t lose our humanity when we actually approach this conflict.

Brooke Gladstone: As far as the pro-Palestinian movement that still thinks about Algeria, just make Israel unlivable and they’ll all leave. You say it’s a dead end.

Iyad el-Baghdadi: I’m saying that it’s not desirable. The objective is not simply to defeat Israel, it’s not simply to liberate Palestine. It is also to give us a country that we can live in. A country that is liberated into a pile of rubble, into a whirlpool of pain, into pools of blood, that is not a livable country. The mistaken idea that in the conception of many Palestinians, but also pro-Palestinians, this is still the Israel of 1948.

This is still an Israel which is basically mostly European, white settlers, Jewish people coming basically from Europe. This is not the case now, this is not today’s Israel. More than 60% of Israelis today have at least full or partial Middle Eastern heritage. Basically descended from Middle Eastern Jews. The whole idea that this is still a white settler colony, it’s not true anymore.

Brooke Gladstone: You wrote that decolonization doesn’t mean removing people, it means removing domination, and that’s why South Africa is a helpful model.

Iyad el-Baghdadi: Because it is rooted in values such as equality, coexistence, humanity, integration. On the other hand, there is a demographic reality here. It’s true that even in South Africa, the white population were also a minority, the fact that we are talking about a demographic reality where we have roughly 50% Palestinians, 50% Jewish people, the premise of equality here is far more applicable.

We have to think in intergenerational terms because really I see a lot of Palestinians, but also Israelis now asking the questions like, how can we live with these people after what they have done? There’s two ways that I respond to this. The first is tough luck, you’re going to live with these people, and the question is how? There are babies who are going to be born tomorrow between the river and the sea, some Jewish, some Palestinian.

We have to ask ourselves, what do we want for them 20 years of 30 years from now? Do we still want them to be doing what we’re doing right now? We would’ve failed them? We would’ve failed our own children.

Brooke Gladstone: Many people discuss Palestinian liberation as a clean reversal of 1948, The Nakba. Edward Said, the late prominent Palestinian American scholar, warned that obsession with the past will doom a movement.

Iyad el-Baghdadi: Yes. I think this difficulty of imagining the future is itself an impact of trauma. The Nakba being an ongoing trauma, it started, but it never ended. When you don’t mourn the past, it remains in your present and it blocks your vision of the future. Time only goes forward. We cannot undo the past. We have to be informed by the past, inspired by the past, and maybe sometimes the past is a cautionary tale, but in the end, time only moves forward and liberation itself has to only move forward.

Brooke Gladstone: You have observed that people who have been systematically excluded end up as nihilists or architects. You were a stateless refugee until last summer.

Iyad el-Baghdadi: Yes. Me being a stateless refugee my entire life has given me this innate, almost automatic radicalism. I’m 46 years old. I was a stateless refugee until last summer. My family left Jaffa in 1948. It was my great-grandfather, my grandfather, and my father who was a toddler at the time.

Brooke Gladstone: Jaffa which is now Tel Aviv.

Iyad el-Baghdadi: Exactly. This was four generations of statelessness. What that does to you is that you know that there is nothing worth preserving for you in the current world order, but then there’s a very important distinction here in how we speak about this. We can either say, it cannot be reformed, it must be destroyed, or we can say it cannot be reformed, we have to build a replacement. The first I would say is nihilistic. Well, I just want to destroy it.

Changing the world, this kind of decolonial vision is a task for entrepreneurs, for architects, not for nihilists. We have to have the imagination to build that mass movement premised upon equality, premised upon solidarity, and premised upon humanity. People are starting to think that there is no future in which a Jewish person and a Palestinian person can live together in peace in one country, but this is exactly why we have to double down on it.

I don’t think I’m the one who’s dysfunctional for thinking that democracy and humanity is the only thing that can win. I really think that anybody who thinks that anything else can fix this is the one who’s dysfunctional.

Brooke Gladstone: What do you think a viable movement for a Palestinian liberation would look like?

Iyad el-Baghdadi: Look, this is not only going to be about liberating Palestinians. Ultimately, this is also about liberating Jewish Israelis. It’s really about humanizing both the colonizer and the colonized. Maybe I’m not the right person to speak about this, but when I speak to my Jewish Israeli friends, they say that they are not free because they’re living in this entity, which is always scared. If you have to kill that many people in order to feel safe, that means you’re never going to feel safe.

Colonialism is not only brutal to the colonized, but also to the soul of the colonizer. This decolonial movement should be led by the colonized, but this movement has to center both peoples, building a future for both peoples. This is not going to be something that we’re going to fix in 10 years or 15 years. I’m thinking 20 years and above. You ask me a question like is the Algeria model possible or not?

Even if we acknowledge that it’s possible, it’s going to require rivers of blood, a lot of destruction. As a Palestinian, I want a country that my children and grandchildren can live in with full dignity, with freedom, not a country without Jews.

Brooke Gladstone: If you listen to the rhetoric of some of the members of the current Israeli government and the leadership of Hamas, there are a lot of similarities. Neither of them would really cotton to the South Africa model.

Iyad el-Baghdadi: This is true. There is a paradigm of partition and segregation and domination that’s premised upon this idea of ethnic nationalism. There’s another paradigm here, I don’t want to talk about the one state solution, but the paradigm here. The paradigm is an integration paradigm. It’s about equality, it’s about integration, it’s about coexistence.

My premise is that this paradigm is the only thing that can move forward. The path in front of us from here, from post-October 7th is the state of sustained crisis, and actual zeroes on where anything the Israelis get, they’re going to get by taking it away from Palestinians or taking away Palestinians, and anything that Palestinians can get, they’re going to have to get it by taking it away from Israelis. The strategic nihilist is only a reflection of something much deeper, which is the cycle of trauma that we’re locked into. Current politicians, current movements, et cetera, who are locked into this old way of thinking, all they’re going to give us is more of the same. More bloodshed, more conflict, more violence, more war. Palestinians, their backs are to the wall. They’re being starved. They’re being bombed. They feel like the only thing they could do is fight back.

We live in a two state solution world. We live in a world in which we have for 75 years we decided that the solution over here is partition and domination. We have two paths. One path is completely blocked. The other path is intergenerational and it’s very steep, and it’s going to take a lot of work, but at least it can get us there. The history of the Jewish people is very long, very well documented history and a very proud history.

The state of Israel, this phase of history which is marked by ethno-nationalism, is only one chapter. I want Jewish people to thrive in the Middle East, in their native region, for a very long time. Maybe the prerequisite for that is to give up on this idea of ethno-nationalism, and to embrace each other’s brothers and sisters without questions of who belongs and who doesn’t belong.

Brooke Gladstone: Up until this summer, you were stateless?

Iyad el-Baghdadi: Yes.

Brooke Gladstone: What happened?

Iyad el-Baghdadi: Well, I was granted Norwegian citizenship last summer. I remember that moment of time, and I had to actually go to a government office to give up my refugee’s travel document. I don’t think a little tiny booklet has ever felt this heavy in my hand. It felt to me that I’m not gaining a new identity or a new citizenship, but giving up an identity. It almost felt like a betrayal of my ancestors who never made it, and many Palestinians who never made it.

I remember waking up the next morning somewhere in Norway is beautiful, and I live very central in Oslo, and walked up to the terrace in my apartment, looked out in all directions, and I got this sense of immense love, a physical feeling of love all over my body. I was able to say to myself for the first time, “This is my country and these are my people, and together, from this place of safety and prosperity and privilege, we’re going to do everything that we can to heal our world.”

Brooke Gladstone: Iyad, thank you very much.

Iyad el-Baghdadi: Thank you, Brooke.

Brooke Gladstone: Iyad el-Baghdadi is a human rights activist, writer and author of the book The Middle East Crisis Factory: Tyranny, Resilience and Resistance.

Micah Loewinger: Coming up after two years of war in Ukraine, a close up view of 20 excruciating Days in Mariupol.

Brooke Gladstone: This is On the Media.

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