The left cannot be tied down to the possible solutions established by the major international powers as the only realistic alternatives. Imagining and demanding the decolonization of Palestine means acting to decolonize all the colonial states in the world, from Brazil to Australia, including the USA and Chile.
The State of Israel as a colonial reality
The State of Israel is the result of a process of settler colonialism, meaning colonialism in which the settlers came from other countries and never left. It is a state built to secure privileges for the settler population through the destruction of the native Palestinian nation and the constant expropriation of Palestinian land and labor. The result of this colonial process has been apartheid, a solution that allows Israeli elites to balance three central objectives: 1) control over the entire territory of historic Palestine conquered by force in the wars of 1948-49 and 1967; 2) the maintenance of the Jewish demographic majority within the formal state of Israel ensured through the ethnic cleansing of the 1948 Nakba that expelled thousands of Palestinians and the denial of citizenship to the millions of Palestinians under military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 1967; and 3) the exercise of a simulacrum of democracy for its Jewish citizens. The same colonial structure also allows the annexation of Syrian territory, the Golan Heights, and practices of discrimination against Bedouin peoples in the Negev.
Apartheid, however, is not an invention of the current Israeli government; it is the result of a process of expulsion and territorial annexation that dates back to before the declaration of the Israeli state. From the beginning of the 20th century, the Zionist movement in Palestine sought to build a political community and a settler economy separate from the native one, in order to lay the foundations for what would become an ethno-racial state with a Jewish majority. This is the principle of hafrada, a Hebrew term meaning separation, which has constituted state policies of segregation between Jews and Palestinians.
The discussion that reduces responsibility for the massacre in Gaza to the current government masks all the massacres committed against Palestinians throughout history, such as Deir Yassin in 1948, and the colonial project itself. It wasn’t Benjamin Netanyahu or the Israeli far right who founded the colonial project and apartheid, but the Israeli left. For example, the kibbutzim, well-known proto-socialist farming communities, have been central to advancing the Zionist-Israeli colonial frontier throughout history and have always been exclusively Jewish communities. There are kibbutzim that even today have the right to veto non-Jewish inhabitants (mainly Palestinians). So Israel doesn”t just have a colonial government, but a social structure made up of decades of incessant colonialism.
However, even when the 75th anniversary of the State of Israel is recognized as a colonial reality, only a minority has the courage to question how this action was only made possible by the legitimacy lent to a state that declared itself in 1948 after the expulsion of Palestinians. This was possible because the international community, through the UN (in that context dominated by colonial nations), decided that it had the right to split a territory in two parts to the detriment of the native Palestinian population. The result was a change in the political configuration and coexistence of the inhabitants, thus legitimizing Israel’s colonial ambitions. The legitimacy given by the international community in 1947-1948 allowed Israel to establish itself with institutions, foreign support, and infrastructure that were completely unequal to the Palestinians who were forcibly displaced around the world. Demands for the recognition of a Palestinian state have never received equal support. The current reality is of an unquestionable State of Israel, while the “State of Palestine” exists only on paper.
The limits of state solutions to decolonization
The normalization of Israel’s colonial state prevents us from seeing how Israeli political disputes can change how governments produce policies for the Jewish-Israeli population, but maintains the subjugation of Palestinians. This same normalization proposes that alternative paths pass through the acceptance of Israel, creating a paradox, since the colonial state does not decolonize itself. It is impossible for an ethnic-nationalist, militarized state with a history of colonial expansion to accept a territorial partition of the map. The Oslo process of 1993-1995, which was intended to implement a gradual transition to two states, resulted in more legitimacy for Israel to control and colonize Gaza and the West Bank.
Affirmation of Israel’s right to exist corroborates a narrative that confuses the Zionist project with freedom for Jews in the region. Questioning Israel’s legitimacy is automatically read as an attack on basic Jewish rights or, even worse, insinuates that the end of Israel’s colonial state would necessarily mean the expulsion of Jews in the region.
Faced with the above debate, it’s common to hear: “are you then advocating a one-state solution?” State solutionism has only two registers: a one-state solution or a two-state solution, as if a new territorial cut-out and a few rules would offer the recipe for success that would put an end to 75 years of colonization. It seems absurd that such simplistic logic is so widely accepted, but the reality is that it has completely captured the debate even from the progressive camp. Instead of discussing methods of decolonization, such as the restitution of expropriated Palestinian land, exploited Palestinian labor and imprisoned Palestinian lives, we are forced to discuss imperfect state models. What is even more curious is the fact that it is not only Zionists who affirm the unrestricted right of the State of Israel to exist. Many of those who advocate a “two-state solution” are now unable to imagine the self-determination of the Jewish people without the ties of the colonial state; ironically, this imaginary makes the two-state solution itself unfeasible. To affirm Jewish self-determination only through the Israeli state is exactly how Zionists envision it, leading to the one-state format that already exists: an apartheid regime and the consolidation of a catastrophic expulsion, that of the Palestinians.
This means that the international community is approaching the problem from the wrong end of the argument. It’s not enough to recognize that the two-state solution legitimizes the expulsion of Palestinians from what are now Israeli cities. Nor that, in practice, a two-state map no longer exists, due to the growing Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
We need to explore ways of decolonization. And this process not only involves the Palestinians, but also the Israelis. Israel must be decolonized materially and subjectively to enable coexistence with the Palestinians, no longer based on the colonizer-colonized relationship. As Fanon claims, decolonization involves the destruction of colonial society in order to re-found it. And this destruction no longer means expulsion and displacement, nor the construction of one, two or three states, but the re-founding of the social bases for peaceful and just reconciliation between Palestinians and Jews.
The role of the international community in decolonizing Palestine
Our aim here is to point to the limits of the international community’s “solutionist” postures and to claim the importance of Israel’s denormalization in international relations in order to decolonize Palestine. This means reversing the broad normalization of Israel’s relations in recent years with Arab states in the region, such as the United Arab Emirates, with whom the Israelis already have deep military cooperation relations.
Recently, two Latin American governments have taken distinct and high-profile approaches to the conflict that deserve attention: the government of Gustavo Petro in Colombia and the government of Lula da Silva in Brazil. Both have shown solidarity with Israelis whose relatives have been murdered or kidnapped by Hamas, as well as moving in concern for Gaza, calling for a ceasefire and humanitarian support. In Brazil’s case, the presidency of the UN Security Council has given a certain prominence to its diplomacy, both in its efforts to repatriate nationals and in the drafting of the resolution that was notoriously vetoed by the US, Israel’s biggest ally. In its positions, the Brazilian government claims to recognize Israel and Palestine, advocating a two-state solution—although it is not clear, in any international pronouncement by the governments that make this claim, what exactly they mean by two states. But what is clear is that the normalization of the colonial state of Israel is not questioned, even if it means the normalization of Palestinian expulsion and ethnic cleansing.
In light of this, the Palestinian National Committee for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) in Brazil has asked President Lula to consider revoking the cooperation agreements between Brazil and Israel that were signed during Bolsonaro’s administration and approved by the Chamber of Deputies this month. One of the agreements is in public security and normalizes a Brazilian military relationship with Israel in the midst of the bombings of Gaza. This means that, if Lula is really serious about his proposal for a ceasefire at the UN, he should start by breaking cooperation ties with the Israelis responsible for the destruction and death in Gaza in recent weeks.
In the Colombian case, Petro has expressed great concern about the imbalance of power between the Palestinians and the State of Israel, pointing out the need for international solidarity—not only through diplomatic means—and to contextualize what is happening today within Israel’s colonial history. His statements created discomfort with Israel, to the point that it was suggested that Petro might expel the Israeli ambassador. It was the closest a government in Latin America has come to questioning Israel’s institutional normality since Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez expelled the Israeli ambassador in 2009. Although diplomatic ties continue between Colombia and Israel at the moment, Petro has decided to open a Colombian embassy in Ramallah. The decision comes from a place of confrontation with Israel’s colonial narrative. The Colombian president seeks to connect the violence in his territory with the historic Israeli intervention in Colombia and treats Palestine as a paradigm of catastrophe that deserves our attention due to the global risk of conflict and collapse in the face of the climate crisis. However, Petro’s action demonstrates that it is still easier for international actors critical of Israel to invest in improving their relationship with the fragile Palestinian Authority than to actually disrupt their relationship with the State of Israel.
We urgently need to allow an understanding of the Palestinian past to influence the international community’s policies towards Israel. There is little use in acknowledging the decades of oppression if the state actor is legitimized at the same time.
It is no coincidence that the pressure for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions has some momentum in the first two areas, but the topic of sanctions remains far from the diplomatic framework of the states. It was precisely this process, led by the South African BDS movement, that broke the international community’s relations and served as external pressure for the end of apartheid in South Africa.
But even not when states denounce the ongoing genocide of Palestinians in Gaza, sanctions are in play. The Arab countries that maintain relations with Israel have not even recalled their ambassador as a tougher signal. In order to sanction, the other states would have to denormalize their relationship with Israel. While this tool is easily employed by imperialism in the face of military and economic wars, there is a lack of effort by progressive governments to explore how, via sanctions or not, they could denormalize relations with Israel. So far, Ione Belarra, the Spanish Minister for Social Rights, has been one of the few institutional voices to publicly advocate breaking diplomatic relations and applying sanctions against Israel, including an arms embargo. This denormalization in itself would not mean questioning the legitimacy of the colonial state, but it would certainly send a more effective message than UN resolutions that mean little or nothing to a state that quietly violates articles of the Fourth Geneva Convention and embarks on international war crimes.
Diplomatic action toward Israel cannot assume that the colonial state will comply with agreements, however well-written and negotiated they may be in the UN Security Council. Israel daily violates dozens of Security Council resolutions, such as Resolution 452 (July 20, 1979), which demands that Israel immediately stop building settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem, or Resolution 1435 (September 24, 2002), which demands that Israel stop its military activities, including the destruction of civilian infrastructure, in Ramallah. The international community knows that even when the US does not exercise its veto power in Israel’s favor, the Israeli state ignores the approved resolutions; yet, other states insist on the same failed paths that empower such non-compliance with demands. The announcement of genocide in Gaza should sound the alarm about the need to denormalize relations with Israel in order to rebalance diplomatic forces.
The left cannot be tied down to the possible solutions established by the major international powers as the only realistic alternatives. Imagining and demanding the decolonization of Palestine means acting to decolonize all the colonial states in the world, from Brazil to Australia, including the US and Chile. It is a particular struggle that expresses the liberation of oppressed peoples all over the world. Decolonizing Brazil means contributing to the decolonization of Palestine and vice versa.
Radical futures involve equally radical modes of action.
Bruno Huberman is a professor of International Relations at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo, Brazil. He is the author of The Palestinians and East Jerusalem: Under Neoliberal Settler Colonialism, to be published by IB Tauris.
Sabrina Fernandes is a Brazilian sociologist and political economist working on just transitions. She is the Head of Research at the Alameda Institute.