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Israel's Colonial Project in Palestine: Brutal Pursuit

Israel’s Colonial Project in Palestine: Brutal Pursuit by Elia Zureik, Routledge, 2016, 278pp. 

Elia Zureik is a Palestinian academic who lived in Israel until emigrating in pursuit of higher educational opportunities. He earned his doctorate from Essex University; is fluent in Arabic, Hebrew, and English; and serves as the head of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Doha Institute for Graduate Studies and Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. Dr. Zureik has written numerous books and articles on Palestinian identity, Israeli-Palestinian relations, surveillance, and privacy in the information age. A running theme throughout much of his work, including this book, is exploring the various ways in which Israel exercises control over Palestinians, both its citizens as well as those in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). 

The first chapter overviews methodological and substantive progress made in the study of Palestine and situates this topic within an array of more general fields of study including nationalism, state building, ethnic conflict, globalization, and colonialism. Chapter two argues that Zionism is best understood as a settler-colonialism project: an effort to permanently settle and control a territory, usually by displacing the indigenous population—as happened in America, Canada, and Australia. In the Zionist case, ethnic cleansing during the Nakba (“catastrophe,” which is how Palestinians view the creation of the state of Israel in 1948) was devastating but incomplete. Since then, Israel has used various techniques to dispossess Palestinians of land and natural resources and severely curtail their political and economic rights. Like all colonial projects, Zionism uses the language of morality and security to justify its expansionist goals and aggressive tactics. The author details the many ways in which Zionists have used language, especially the “language of securitization,” to dehumanize Palestinians and deny them their basic human rights. Zureik explores some nuanced differences among competing Zionist visions but insists that in practice Zionism has consistently sought to effect “population management and territorial control so as to ensure perpetual Jewish dominance in historical Palestine” (p. 89). 

Chapter 3 explores how Israel uses surveillance techniques to control Palestinians, including the practice of issuing identity cards. These cards allow Palestinians to “enjoy” the restricted movement Israel affords them in the occupied territories, but losing one’s card can lead to incarceration, loss of residency rights, or even expulsion. Israel also sets up checkpoints that not only restrict where and when Palestinians can travel, but rob them of their time: countless hours are spent waiting to pass roadblocks, often to no avail. Indeed, Zureik insists that Israeli colonization racializes time and space: “ ‘Palestinian space shrinks, time slows, and mobility is constrained,’ whereas the Israeli occupiers have ‘freedom of movement and expansion through space and control of time’ ” (p. 115). According to one study, Israel uses a hundred different types of permits to control Palestinian activity. Israel also tries to discipline Palestinian memory by, among other things, discouraging the public commemoration of the Nakba. It also preys on the despair of its subjugated population to recruit collaborators, tearing at the very fabric of Palestinian society and undermining the Palestinian nationalist movement. Zureik darkly notes that the success of Israel’s flourishing security and defense industry is based in part on the ability of Israeli firms to “perfect” their “products” on Palestinians. Whether selling drones, training services for fighting urban warfare, or surveillance and data-collection technologies, Israeli companies have a readymade laboratory in the OPT to test their products. 

Chapter four discusses Israeli “biopolitics” (population management and demography). Here Zureik argues that Zionist pioneers were deeply influenced by German eugenics philosophy (which insists some races are superior to others) and that Zionists have always viewed the Arab population of Palestine as inferior and as an existential threat. Much Zionist discourse, past and present, portrays the large and rapidly growing Palestinian population as a “demographic time bomb” that must be neutralized. Currently, there are as many Jews as non-Jews in the land Israel controls between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Israeli Jews fear becoming a minority in their ancient homeland again, and this fear has inspired numerous calls for Palestinian transfers, the mechanics of which have taken different forms in practice (ethnic cleansing during the Nakba and occupation policies intended to harass Palestinians into emigrating) and in proposal (for example, the proposal to trade Arab villages in Israel proper in exchange for Israel settlements in the West Bank as part of a two-state solution). Zureik details other elements of Israel’s biopolitical strategy to contain the high Arab birthrate and notes wryly that Israeli attitudes and exclusionary policies toward Palestinians “have hampered the decline in [the Palestinian] birthrate that was universally postulated by demographers” (p. 160). 

Most of chapter five focuses on how Israel calibrates the suffering it imposes on Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank in the name of security, from the level of lethality it uses to the amount of food, electricity, and water it allows into the OPT. Zureik spends some time here discussing Israel’s long-practiced policies of collective punishment and disproportionate retaliation, which are widely understood to be affronts to international law, the tenets of Just War theory, and basic human rights. He suggests that while Israel insists its actions are driven solely by security concerns, that its military is the most moral in the world and takes special care to minimize collateral damage, and that “it sees itself as righteous and forced to act the way it does,” Israel is actually practicing a form of state terrorism and regularly commits war crimes (p. 177). Chapter six analyzes how Palestinians use information and communications technologies to resist Israeli oppression (using social media to organize protests and spread information, using small cameras to document Israeli police and military brutality), and how Israel tries to limit Palestinian access to such technologies and uses its superior mastery of the digital medium to surveil Palestinians. 

Zureik’s concluding chapter begins by suggesting that the prospects for a two-state solution are dead and that Israel’s settler-colonial policies are leading inexorably to a one-state solution of some sort. The chapter ends by asking “is there a relationship between prolonging the ongoing ethnic and regional conflicts in the Middle East and the unresolved Palestine question?” (p. 212). He argues the Middle East would have been much better off if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had been resolved in the twentieth century via a two-state solution because Palestinian self-determination would have provided “young people in the Middle East with an outlet for their blocked aspirations under the status quo. It is their experience of oppression that accounts for the desperation we see in the Middle East, particularly Palestine” (p. 214). While there is little doubt the Middle East today would be a better place if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had been resolved decades ago, it is not obvious to this reader how Iraqis, Syrians, Egyptians, and Yemenis, for example, would have experienced Palestinian statehood as an outlet for their blocked aspirations. It is unfortunate that Zureik does not offer a more convincing defense against the tired claim that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not important to regional security. Then again, his intended audience probably does not need much convincing on this point; the book was clearly written for academics familiar with the subject matter. As such, it oftentimes reads like a literature review and references concepts and theorists that the lay reader will not easily understand or immediately recognize. Still, the basic thesis of the book is fairly straightforward—Israel is best understood as a deeply racist settler-colonial state that relies on an extensive array of surveillance techniques to keep Palestinians in check—and major points are neatly summarized in the conclusion of each chapter. Israel’s Colonial Project in Palestine will surely offend the sensibilities of many readers, but it is a serious work of scholarship from an accomplished academic and should not be dismissed offhand as just another anti-Israel diatribe. Zureik’s book, which is the culmination of decades of research and writing on the topics covered within, should be of interest not only to scholars of Israeli-Palestinian relations but also to those who study colonialism, nationalism, population control, and government surveillance. 


Robert C. DiPrizio 

Air Command and Staff College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

 
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