Frantz Fanon is a thinker who is worshipped but seldom read. Known for his provocative meditations on political violence, he is frequently dredged up in the argument over the Israel-Palestine conflict, which for many Leftists is the ne plus ultra of settler colonialism in the 21st century. In the aftermath of Hamas’s homicidal assault on civilian communities in Southern Israel, alongside mantras of “decolonisation is not a metaphor”, there was an enthusiasm among some sectors of the Left for what they misconceived as an act of anti-colonial “resistance”.
For instance, Rivkah Brown of Novara Media tweeted (later deleted and apologised for after a backlash): “The struggle for freedom is rarely bloodless and we shouldn’t apologise for it.” The president of Sussex University’s feminist society, Hanin Barghouti, declared the onslaught as “acts of resistance” that should be “celebrated”. The Black Lives Matter chapter of Chicago published an image of a man on a glider (one of the methods Hamas militants used to get into Israel from Gaza) with the caption: “I stand with Palestine.” Similar images could be seen among pro-Palestine protesters in London this weekend.
Such reactions call to mind Fanon’s infamous chapter “On Violence” in his book The Wretched of the Earth, and the descriptions of “collective catharsis” and the “cleansing” effect violence can have on the colonised in their struggle for liberation. “Colonialism is not a thinking machine,” observed Fanon, “it is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence.”
Yet Fanon’s view of violence is more subtle than either his supporters or detractors give him credit for. His basic point was that because colonial rule is inherently violent and can only be maintained through repression, it therefore creates the conditions for violence against it. He certainly wasn’t in favour of gratuitous brutality. True, he believed violence “frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect”. But he warned that violence as an end in itself, disconnected from any wider political and social goal and vision, is a trapdoor:
Applying this to Palestine, Hamas — being a reactionary, exclusivist outfit — has a “post-Israel” vision that will produce an ethnically cleansed theocratic dictatorship, in other words “building up yet another system of exploitation”. More, their pogromist violence against Jewish civilians is not “cathartic”, or restoring Palestinian self-respect, but instead full-on racist sadism.
While one can reasonably analyse Israel as a settler-colonial state and society, albeit a very peculiar one (as Arnon Degani has done), much of the talk of “Zionist settlers” on the Left is purely polemical, identitarian and uber-moralist. “Decolonisation” in this sense quickly becomes a cloak for deranged ethnonationalism, not a vision for a free society.
Further, Palestine in 2023 is not Algeria in 1956, which was Fanon’s main point of reference. Nor can we put Israelis in the same category as the pieds-noirs. The latter had a “mother country” to which they could return; Israelis do not. Demographically, the pieds-noirs were a small minority who ruled over the Algerian majority; in Palestine, Jews and Arabs are roughly of equal number.
There will be no long-fought war of independence resulting in Jews being evicted from a reconquered Palestine. Indeed, if a group were to be driven out it would be the Palestinians, as called for by Israeli politicians, due to the sheer disparity in military power.
The horror show that has occurred in Southern Israel and Gaza is less a reenactment of Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, more Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo. It is not something over which Fanon would have rejoiced.