As in Australia, so in Palestine: the colonial logic of striking at terror

To the citizens of Gaza:

The IDF is striking Hamas weapons stores hidden inside civilian buildings in Gaza.

Although Hamas wants to put you in harm’s way, we urge you to stay away from Hamas’ weapons sites and get to safety.

Our goal is only to strike terror.

Israel Defence Forces on Twitter, 12 May 2021


In colonial Australia, the white settlers spoke constantly about defending themselves against terror. Right from the start, Governor Arthur Phillip bemoaned what he called the ‘state of petty warfare and endless uncertainty’ in which the colonists lived. In December 1790, after a convict was speared in the chest, Phillip proclaimed he would ‘deter the natives from such practices in future’ and ordered soldiers to ‘search for the men who wounded the convict in so dangerous a manner … and to make a severe example of that tribe.’

In Western Australia, Lieutenant-Governor James Stirling faced resistance from the Pinjarup people. After one violent encounter, Stirling wrote back to London warning ‘that their success in this species of warfare … might tempt other tribes, to pursue the same course, and eventually combine together for the extermination of the whites’. On that basis, he urged the authorities to end the conflict with ‘such acts of decisive severity as will appal them as a people.’

Again and again, we find the colonists describing themselves as victims and presenting their massacres as defensive measures.

Today, no-one believes them. We don’t nod along when Lachlan Macquarie talks about the necessity of striking ‘terror among the surviving tribes [to] deter them from the further commission of … outrages and barbarities’. We don’t accept a narrative of conflict beginning when an Indigenous person mysteriously throws a spear. We don’t agree that European punitive expeditions brought ‘peace’ by subduing local tribes.

Nor, for that matter, do we declare the hostilities too complex to understand, a mysterious ‘cycle of violence’ only attributable to immutable, ancient hatreds. We recognise at once what was happening as a colonial settlement displaced traditional owners, with the profound and systemic brutality of dispossession forcing Indigenous people to either fight back or die.

That’s why Australians, in particular, have no excuses for not extending their solidarity to Palestinians. The situation in Palestine should not be difficult for Australian progressives to grasp. It should, rather, be immediately familiar: a manifestation of the same settler colonialism unleashed on this continent. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warns that Palestinians ‘have paid and will pay a heavy price’, he sounds like Stirling. When defence minister Benny Gantz rejects ‘moral preaching’ and says ‘all options are on the table’ in a campaign to ‘achieve complete quiet’, he echoes Phillip or any number of other Australian colonists.

No doubt many Israelis genuinely believe themselves assailed by irrational terrorists, mindlessly disrupting the peace with wanton violence. Australian settlers thought that, too. But they were wrong.

‘More than seven decades ago,’ says Peter Beinart from Jewish Currents, ‘Palestinians were expelled to create a Jewish state. Now they are being expelled to make Jerusalem a Jewish city.’

In Israel, as in Australia, colonisation is the context without which nothing else makes sense. The Israeli state depends on the dispossession of Palestinians, and so, by its nature, will constantly create and recreate violence, just as the Australian settler state did.

The two societies are not, of course, identical. By the mid-nineteenth century, the colonists in Australia substantially outnumbered the Indigenous population. Israel, however, retains a substantial Palestinian population, with birth rates in the West Bank and the Occupied Territories expected to deliver an Arab majority in the not too distant future.

That’s why Israel so closely resembles South Africa. In that country, the settlers could only maintain their regime by an ongoing policy of state-sanctioned discrimination against Indigenous people. Israel also enforces apartheid, as both the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch have recently confirmed. As was the case in South Africa, this is hard-baked into the Israeli system.

To give merely the most obvious example, the ‘Law of Return’ means anyone with Jewish ancestry anywhere in the world can apply for and receive Israeli citizenship and residency. Palestinian refugees driven from the country in 1948, however, can never return – precisely because the state defines itself by an ethnic identity.  

Again, Aboriginal Australians know something about this. Overt apartheid existed in this country for most of the twentieth century, with Indigenous people subjected to regulations and constraints not imposed on anyone else. If we celebrate, as a major democratic milestone, the Freedom Rides that challenged segregation in rural Australia, why shouldn’t we support the breakdown of similar systems elsewhere?

All the old colonial settler states defined themselves against the population they dispossessed. Israel retains that identity, with the contradictory claim to be both ‘Jewish’ (that is, belonging to the colonisers) and ‘democratic’ (that is, representing its entire citizenry, irrespective of their ethnicity). If you would object if the Australian state declared itself openly to be ‘Christian’ rather than ‘Aboriginal’, you should recognise the justice of the Palestinian cause.

You should also understand why any resolution to the conflict cannot lie with the creation of more ethnically-defined nations. The two-state solution so beloved by liberals also rests on a familiar colonial settler argument: the notion that different ‘races’ are so incompatible that they must be forensically quarantined from each other. In Australia, too, the authorities tried to preserve the ‘purity’ of their society by herding Indigenous people into reservations and isolated islands, with predictably ghastly results.

The era of ethnic cleansing is – or should be – over. If you support democracy and multiculturalism in this country, you should support it in Palestine. In South Africa, the apartheid regime gave way, after decades of struggle, to a nation in which everyone, regardless of their ethnicity, enjoyed (at least in theory) the same formal rights. That’s the alternative to violence in Palestine, too: the creation of single, democratic state for all.

Achieving that won’t be easy – the fight for racial justice remains, quite obviously, a work in progress in Australia – but the goal should be clear enough. If you believe in equality and democracy in Australia, there’s no excuse for endorsing ethno-chauvinism elsewhere.  

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

More by Jeff Sparrow ›

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  1. I am appalled that without proper historical content you have arrived at such a poor understanding of the dispossessed here. To try and hang the aggression of Hamas on the Israeli people who are trying to live in peace with their Arab brothers is unconscionable. This was why the message was sent to those people so they would not be targeted in Israeli self defence measures. They have a right to defend themselves. It was sent to protect the Arab communities who are innocent. To somehow conjoin early Australian colonial settlement to the current conflict in the middle east is completely with out any real understanding of the true situation. Everyone has an opinion on this conflict but opinions aren’t facts.

    1. Genocide apologist.

      “They have a right to defend themselves.”

      Well do Palestinians. These pogroms where far right mobs look for people of different faith and smash their shop windows reminds of one particular historical epoch. Im sure you know about it.

  2. This article is crap. In the case of Australia, the Aborigines were the original landowners. In the case of Israel, Jews were the original landowners before the Romans and others kicked them out. The author is misreprenting history.

    1. So if a person from suburbs of Rome came to someone’s house in London and bulldoze it because it was their land 20000 years ago, that would also be okay?

      What a silly argument.

  3. The Israeli state sanctioned violence against Palestinians is appalling. Need look no further than the recent provocations in Jerusalem for current war.

  4. Captures the heat of the moment with the call for an end to violence and a single-state solution. Misses with the comparison to settler colonisation in Australia and the ethnic identity of Israel. As a commentator above pointed out, it is unclear how Palestinians are indigenous to the land Israel now marks as it own. And, arabs can still vote in Israel. It isn’t enough to cover the issue of whether Israel is a Jewish state with one paragraph. Still, a great call to arms for any Australian sitting on the sidelines.

  5. ‘If you support democracy and multiculturalism in this country, you should support it in Palestine.’

    Probably need to ditch capitalism too to get any sort of equity here and elsewhere.

  6. Thank you for Jeff Sparrow. this excellent article. Unfortunately even now some deny First Peoples history.
    You would think that the uneven carnage in Palestine. might convince. Unfortunately propaganda seems easier to absorb than reasoned and compassionate analysis.

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