No Olive Branch: (De)Colonising Food Systems in Occupied Palestine

Fé Versteeg

HUM309: Postcolonial Theory

Word Count: 3298


This paper analyses the attacks on Palestinian food systems within the framework of (post)colonial discourse, to evidence the claim that the Zionist project is at its core a settler colonial project–a claim which has become prevalent in both academic and popular discourse. It contends that as settler colonialism involves the “elimination of the native”, destroying the means for subsistence necessarily becomes a means towards completing a colonial project. Indeed, Palestinian food systems have been widely targeted by historical and contemporary agents of the Zionist project. Further, it argues that food production is in settler colonialism not only weaponized because of its material significance to indigenous communities, but also for its symbolic significance: the transformation of food landscapes allows colonisers to reset the “national clock” and forge indigeneity on colonised lands. In the case of Palestine, this manifests itself in the uprooting of olive trees and the plantation of pine trees by the Israeli government, independent Zionist settlers and the Jewish National Fund, which has transformed Palestinian land into a European-looking landscape. Finally, using Cabral’s definition of culture, the paper argues food production can also be a site of anticolonial resistance, which is reflected in both the continued plantation of olive trees and the reestablishment of “food sovereignty” in occupied Palestinian territories.
            In The Wretched of the Earth (1963), Frantz Fanon writes that “for a colonized people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and above all dignity” (p. 9). Fanon’s emphasis on the spiritual dignity that material land provides for a people seems especially pertinent in light of Israel’s acute destruction and dispossession of Palestinian territories within the last century. Whilst his statement arguably refers to the value of land for a colonised people, this may not invalidate the pertinence of Fanon’s statement: in both popular and academic discourse, the Zionist project that established Israel and motivates the illegal occupation of Palestinian territories has been argued to be a contemporary example of settler colonialism (Salamanca et al., 2021, p. 1). As McClintock argues, “there may be nothing ‘post’ about colonialism” for the Palestinian inhabitants of Israeli occupied territories (McClintock, 1992, p. 87).

            Whilst Fanon’s emphasis here lies on the dignity that land yields, one must not negate his mention of “bread” as another important yield of the land. In fact, in The Wretched of The Earth, Fanon defines the yield of food as a crucial link between land and the life, as food allows life to persist on the land that supplies it (Clare, 2013, p. 69). As settler colonial projects seek to establish new life on land, and as Fanon identifies food as a crucial connection between life and land, it inspires the questions: what role exactly does the material and cultural value of food play in colonialism, and by extension, what role does food continue to play in the Palestine-Israel situation?

            I argue that the Zionist project’s status as a settler colonial project can be evidenced by its actions in the domain of food production: rather than being the product of “conflict” in the region, I argue that the project’s historical and continued destruction of indigenous food systems is an active means towards the “elimination of the native” that Wolfe (2006) finds is essential to settler colonial projects. Additionally, the transformation of food environments in the region by agents of the Zionist project, including the Israeli government and independent Zionist settlers, also parallels a transformation by European settlers in North America. This transformation operates not only to erase indigenous Palestinians populations, but also to transform the land and symbolically “reset the clock” on this land, a phenomenon which can be illustrated through the uprooting of olive trees and the planting of pine trees in the region. Following an application of Cabral’s congruently “agronomic” definition of culture and its potential for anticolonial resistance to food production, I then briefly discuss the decolonizing potential in “food sovereignty”. This decolonization is already underway in Palestine, in the form of grassroots food sovereignty projects, including the Union of Agricultural Workers Committee (UAWC).

A Brief History of Palestine and Israel

            In the early 20th century, indigenous Palestinians began to witness an increasing settlement of Zionist Jewish groups to their lands. These groups stemmed from an organized Zionist movement created in Jewish communities in Europe, who sought to transform Palestinian land into a Jewish homeland (Manna’, 2013, p. 89). Whilst simultaneously involved in a struggle against Zionist newcomers and mandated British rule, Palestinians believed they could eventually claim ownership of the land they inhabited (Manna’, 2013, p. 90). However, the British remained, whilst international support for the Zionist project grew after the horrors of the Holocaust (Manna’, 2013, p. 90). This support materialized in the form of the United Nations partition plan of 1947, which would end British rule but divide Palestine into Palestinian territory and a Jewish state, the latter now known as Israel (Manna’, 2013, p. 90).

            In essence, the Zionist project sought “a land without a people for a people without a land” (Abu Awwad, p. 541). Commonly used in the early Zionist movement, this phrase also encapsulates the problematics of their project: the land that the Zionists claimed was in fact not without people, thus the establishment of Israel meant a violent uprooting of the Palestinian people that inhabited the land it claimed (Abu Awwad, p. 541). The elaborate means toward this “uprooting” have been extensively documented, both in early Palestinian recordings and a large body of contemporary research (Salamanca et al., 2012, p. 1). These documentations include that of Al-Nakba, commemorated yearly by Palestinians. Translating to “the catastrophe”, Al-Nakba tends to refer to the period of destruction and erasure that shortly followed Israel’s establishment in 1948, during which four to six hundred Palestinian villages were demolished and roughly half of Palestine’s indigenous population was forced to flee their land (Bardi, 2016, p. 169). However, whilst Al-Nakba is often framed as a distinct event, a “precondition for the creation of Israel or the outcome of early Zionist ambition”, it continues to manifest itself in the subjugation of the Palestinian people today (Salamanca et al., 2012, p. 2). This subjugation is especially acute in the Palestinian territories which Israel has occupied since 1967, including the Gaza Strip and West Bank, and thus lying beyond the internationally agreed to “Green Line” or border of Israel (Manna’, 2013, p. 87).

The Zionist Project as “Settler Colonialism”

            The Zionist project, which established Israel and which motivates the continued illegal occupation of Palestinian territories by the Israeli state and independent settlers, has often been defined as an example of “settler colonialism” (Salamanca et al., 2012, p. 1). In its most basic definition, settler colonialism involves the establishment of colonies for the purpose of permanent settlement on a territory (Young, 2001, p. 17). Certainly, the Zionist project involved such a settlement in pursuit of a Jewish state and society. However, such a definition of settler colonialism glosses over the populations native to this territory, who Wolfe (2006) argues must necessarily be eliminated to allow access to territory and make way for new populations in settler colonialism (p. 387). Wolfe’s (2006) notion of settler colonialism as a project that essentially involves “the elimination of the native” applies to both the theory and praxis of the Zionist project (p. 387). In the domain of theory, Zionism’s founding father Theodor Herzl wrote in his allegorical manifesto “If I wish to substitute a new building for an old one, I must demolish before I construct” (Wolfe, 2006, p. 388). This observation was painfully put into practice in the decades that followed: from the events of Al-Nakba to the Deir-Yassin massacre, Palestinians throughout the twentieth century faced what Pappé (2006) argues can only be described as an “ethnic cleansing” of the land rather than a war (p. iii).

            As is the case in other settler colonial projects, the struggle to control the largest amount of land has been and continues to be at the heart of Zionism today (Salamanca et al., 2012, p. 1). This struggle shape contemporary Israeli state policies against Palestinian populations inside Israel and in the occupied territories, which are comprised of an array of “military, legal and economic tactics” to remove as many Palestinians as possible from the land they inhabit (Salamanca et al., 2012, p. 1). Additionally, the tactics of erasure of indigenous people necessary to “cleanse” the land for settler colonialism do not only involve physical removal, but further include the erasure of cultural aspects of indigenous life. Wolfe (2006) names the replacement of place-names as an example of cultural erasure as it operates in settler colonialism, a phenomenon also reflected in the Hebraization of Palestinian place-names since the early twentieth century (p. 388). This physical and cultural notion of erasure has also been used by Salaita (2016) in his book Inter/Nationalism: Decolonizing Native America and Palestine to compare the present situation of Palestinians to the indigenous people of Native America–subjected in the context of a more widely agreed upon example of settler colonialism– with the purpose of drawing attention to the global nature of (neo)colonial political, cultural and economic practices and to call for international solidarity.

The Destruction of Food Systems as a Means for (Palestinian) Erasure

            Complementary to Wolfe’s (2006) notion of settler colonialism as requiring an “elimination of the native”, Fanon writes in The Wretched of the Earth (1963) that mere survival on colonised land is an act of resistance (Clare, 2013, p. 69). By extension, he argues, the production of food is necessarily a site of combat: “every date grown is a victory…” Fanon writes, “the sole obsession is the need to fill that ever-shrinking stomach, however little it demands” (p. 232, as cited by Clare, 2013, p. 69). What logically follows then, is a mission for the colonizer to either control or destroy the means for subsistence of the colonized: a mission that agents of the Zionist project have evidently embarked on, arguably reifying its status as a settler colonial project. From the establishment of the state of Israel to the present, Zionist agents have actively curtailed Palestinian food production both in its efforts to seize and expand what originally constituted Israel in 1948 (Abu Awwad, 2016, p. 543). Whilst at the turn of the twentieth century Palestine had a predominantly agrarian economy marked by a traditional subsistence production, Israel’s establishment and Al-Nakba in 1948 led to the loss of ownership of and expulsion of farmers from over three quarters of Palestine’s arable land, forcing many to flee and resulting in food insecurity for those who stayed (Abu Awwad, 2016, p. 542). In the remaining territories, now occupied by Israel, a combination of land grabbing, destruction of farming communities and the expulsion of peasants, deliberate water deprivation and the restrictions on the movement of produce in and out of the territories have brought about an agrarian crisis for Palestine, resulting in extreme levels of food insecurity and poverty in these regions (Salzmann, 2018, p. 18). For example, where in occupied Gaza agriculture once acted as an economic safety net for employment, a combination of regular Israeli raids and “access restricted zones” have led to widespread unemployment, where 70% of farmers currently live below the poverty line, in addition to resulting in food insecurity and malnutrition in the region at large (Zurayk et al., 2012, p. 9). Evidently, food production has been a target in the Zionist projects’ struggle for establishing and expanding land, arguably as it undermines the means of subsistence for Palestinian population, necessitating their migration or resulting in outright starvation.