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Bantustan resistance: Palestinian workers’ resistance in the age of neoliberal settler colonialism

By Ihab Maharmeh | OMC 2024

Image by hosny salah from Pixabay.

This paper delves into the dispossession of Palestinians and their resistance within the context of settler colonialism, with a focus on Palestinian workers in the Israeli economy. It seeks to critically assess the mechanisms of their dispossession and explore the avenues for their resistance. At the core of settler colonialism is the "logic of elimination," as Patrick Wolfe (2006) argues, aimed at eradicating the indigenous population to supplant it with settlers. This paper contends that Israeli settler colonialism in Palestine, particularly post-1990s, has not only perpetuated this logic but also intertwined it with apartheid and neoliberal ideologies, thus redefining their interrelations. The establishment of an apartheid state by Israeli settlers, this paper argues, extends beyond mere segregation between Palestinians and Israelis; it aims to comprehensively dispossess Palestinians of their land, people, and labour. Neoliberal policies intricately link with this dispossession, creating a confluence that exacerbates colonial violence. 

More concretely, the paper discusses two arguments. First, this paper examines how neoliberalism, in conjunction with colonial strategies, amplifies the scope and intensity of this dispossession and violence. Neoliberal settler colonialism enhances security dominion over the Palestinian workforce and their living spaces, aiming to consolidate colonial economic gains and suppress potential resistance. This paper does not only focus on Palestinian workers in Israel and the settlements, but it also includes Palestinian workers in Palestinian projects that benefit the Israeli economy within the West Bank, whether through subcontracting or direct contracting via the Palestinian Authority. The analysis extends to the employment dynamics of Palestinian workers, scrutinising the roles of work permits, middlemen, brokers, and the legal-administrative apparatus that governs worker employment in the West Bank. This investigation challenges the conventional theoretical separation between the political and economic spheres, proposing that Israel’s neoliberal restructuring, alongside its settler-colonial agenda, has crafted subtle yet pervasive forms of elimination and erasure of Palestinian workers. Accordingly, this paper rejects the elaborate distinction between settler colonial experiences and builds on a set of scholarships that argue that European settler colonies were using multiple, differentiated, and overlapping methods in dealing with indigenous peoples, their lands, and their labour, avoiding falling into the trap of favouring a specific settler-colonial strategy or establishing analytical breaks between different colonial and settler colonial projects. 

Secondly, the paper investigates the resistance against the twin forces of settler colonialism and neoliberalism. It contends that resistance extends beyond conventional social movement frameworks, manifesting in diverse and unorthodox forms of political activism. Insights from interviews underscore the significance of everyday resistance strategies employed by Palestinians, which mainstream discourse often overlooks. These acts include naming, knowing, intention, crossing, solidarity, boycott, ridicule, vandalism, gossip, and a return to self. Grounded in the lived experiences and cultural practices of Palestinians, these resistance forms challenge the dominant colonial and neoliberal narratives and strategies. Contrary to mainstream settler colonial literature, which often depicts settler colonies as impervious to regime change and suggests that indigenous people's best defence is to “stay at home”, this paper argues that Palestinian workers actively resist both settler colonialism and neoliberalism. 

In conclusion, this paper provides a nuanced understanding of the dispossession and resistance of Palestinian workers within the Israeli economy. It argues that the interplay between settler colonialism and neoliberalism not only intensifies the exploitation and control of Palestinian labour but also necessitates a reevaluation of the nature and forms of resistance. Through an in-depth analysis of the socio-political and economic contexts, this study aims to enrich the broader discourse on settler colonialism, neoliberalism, and indigenous resistance, offering new insights into the resistance of Palestinian workers in the era of neoliberal settler colonialism. The resistance of the workers illustrates the diversity and multiplicity of resistance paths, ranging from collective to individual and from spontaneous to organised. This diversity reveals seemingly contradictory paths of resistance. Some patterns operate within the constraints imposed by the settler regime, while others lean towards rebellion against these conditions. Between these extremes lie overlapping paths of resistance, with some building upon others and some in competition. There are also paths that reject any intersection with other forms of resistance. Thus, it is challenging to posit a single comprehensive theory of resistance in this context; resistance manifests diversely, with each group within its own bantustan responding in its own unique way.

Ihab Maharmeh is a researcher at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies and a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Politics at the School of Law, Politics, and Sociology at the University of Sussex. He previously worked at Birzeit University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in public administration and a master's degree in international studies from the Ibrahim Abu-Lughod Institute, as well as a second master's degree in public policy and international cooperation from the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. He is a policy analyst at the Palestinian Policy Network and an associate member at the Sussex Centre for Human Rights Research. Maharmeh has published several research papers in peer-reviewed journals on topics such as settler colonialism, forced displacement, political economy, public policy, and governance. His latest publication is a paper titled “Technocracy in Palestine,” in Farazmand, A. (ed.) Global Encyclopedia of Public Administration, Public Policy, and Governance (Cham: Springer, 2024).


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