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Israel should learn from French mistakes in Algeria

On May 7, 1945, Nazi Germany signed the act of military surrender to the Allies. The next day, people all over the world, including in occupied Algeria, took to the streets to celebrate the end of World War II.

An estimated 134,000 Algerians fought with the Allies and 18,000 of them gave their lives to defeat Germany. And so, on May 8,1945, in Setif, a city east of Algiers, some 5000 “moslems”, as Algerians were called by the colonial power to erase their national identity, marched in celebration. But they also marched clamouring for the end of over a century-long French colonial rule over their country. French police seized banners and eventually opened fire, killing demonstrators. Clashes erupted with 102 French settlers killed.

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In the following fortnight, a blood frenzy overtook French authorities and settlers who massacred some 45,000 Algerians. Rural areas around Setif and the town of Guelma believed to be sympathetic to Algerian nationalists were bombarded by the French air force. Settlers avenged their compatriots by hunting down and lynching “the savages”.

To establish themselves in Algeria and legitimise their presence there, the colonists had dehumanised the indigenous population to the extent of perceiving them as nothing more than vermin.  This allowed French colonists and their occupation army to kill Algerians in their thousands, with little or no moral qualms.

The Setif massacre brought the colonial power another nine years of relative peace but in the end, it only served to harden the Algerian resolve to be free. On November 1, 1954, they embarked on their ultimate war of resistance against French occupation. After eight years of “a savage war of peace” as British historian Alistair Horne put it, Algeria won its independence but at a heavy price: The war claimed the lives of some 1.5 million Algerians; some 20 percent of Algeria’s “Moslems”.

What is happening in Palestine today, predominately in Gaza but also in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, is of course not identical to the events that marked the end of French rule in Algeria. Yet there are many similarities between them, as the modus operandi of most colonial enterprises follows a set pattern.

Colonisers dehumanise indigenous populations to keep them pliant and to justify the use of brutal force against them when they try to resist their subjugation.

They ensure that the colonised are powerless militarily, but often make the mistake of assuming this lack of military prowess also means that they lack the strength and resolve to resist oppression and defeat occupation. When they eventually realise their misjudgment and acknowledge that they cannot sustain their position indefinitely, they intensify their brutality to preserve the status quo for as long as possible. This is what happened in occupied Algeria in the latter years of French rule, and this is what we are witnessing in occupied Palestine today.

When France responded to the killing of 102 settlers by carpet-bombing villages and killing tens of thousands of people, it was hoping to achieve much more than avenging the deaths of its citizens and eliminating “terrorists”. It was using extreme violence to eliminate all native resistance. It wanted to break their will to resist.

Today, Israel is following a similar trajectory. It is now apparent that the goal of Israel’s war on Gaza is not to avenge hundreds of Israeli civilians and military personnel killed on October 7. If vengeance were the primary motive, the killing of over 8,000 Palestinian children and babies and reducing most of the Strip into rubble would have likely been enough for Israel to call it a day.

Killing all “terrorists”, completely annihilating Hamas to ensure the safety of the colony, does not seem to be the primary goal of Israel’s war either. Israel’s leaders undoubtedly know that even if their military could somehow eliminate all “terrorists” in Gaza, it would not be able to eliminate Palestinian aspirations for liberty and resolve to resist the occupation in every way possible. So if the aim is not to avenge the deaths of its citizens, or “eliminate terrorists”, what is Israel trying to achieve?

Israel is executing a multifaceted plan to protect, entrench and expand its colonial enterprise.

It goes something like this: First, break Palestinian will and spirit. Show them that Israel can do as it pleases, with total impunity, and in full view of an impotent world. That no matter how much violence and humiliation they experience, neither fellow Arabs nor the so-called international community would come to the rescue. That not even the sight of premature Palestinian babies suffocating in powerless incubators or the thought of thousands of children wasting away under the rubble could make the Western powers rethink their support of Israel.

Second, once their will is sufficiently weakened, order Palestinians to leave their homes and their land. Order them to move, on foot, towards some vaguely defined “safe zone”. Once the displacement is complete, declare that Hamas is in their midst and bomb the “safe zone” anyway. Repeat the cycle until the entire Strip is destroyed, and all surviving Palestinians are pushed out into the Egyptian Sinai.

Israel will make sure to complete this plan unless, of course, the Western governments, first and foremost the US, have a change of heart and intervene to make the carnage stop.

When France was working through its own bloody plan to maintain its occupation in Algeria, then US President John F Kennedy made one such intervention. He clearly voiced his belief that French rule over Algeria was not sustainable in the long term, condemned colonialism, and openly rooted for Algeria’s independence. In the end, the US’s principled stance on the issue during the Kennedy era played an important role in the success of Algeria’s liberation struggle.

Kennedy was open about his support for Algerian independence even before becoming president.

In July 1957, as a young Senator, he delivered a historic speech criticising the Eisenhower administration’s political and military support for French colonialism and called on the US to support Algerian self-determination.

“The most powerful single force in the world today is neither communism nor capitalism, neither the H-bomb nor the guided missile – it is man’s eternal desire to be free and independent,” he said. “Thus the single most important test of American foreign policy today is how we meet the challenge of imperialism, what we do to further man’s desire to be free.”

He went on to explain how the French insistence to rule over Algeria, against the will of the Algerian people, is harming the US, NATO and the entire global community, and concluded that “[t]he time has come for the United States to face the harsh realities of the situation and to fulfill its responsibilities as the leader of the free world – in the UN, in NATO, in the administration of our aid programs and in the exercise of our diplomacy – in shaping a course toward political independence for Algeria”.

Kennedy knew France was fighting a war it can never win, and wanted the US to be honest with its ally. Today, the history is repeating itself. A leading US ally, Israel, is engaged in a war it cannot win against a people suffering under its occupation. But unlike Kennedy, the current US President Joe Biden is not living up to the occasion.

Rather than telling Israel the hard truth, that it can not extinguish the Palestinian people’s “eternal desire to be free and independent”, President Biden is unconditionally backing the ongoing colonial assault on Palestine.

Indeed, just as France was not “defending itself” when it killed hundreds of thousands of Algerians to stop them from achieving independence, Israel is not “defending itself” against Palestinians living under its occupation. It is waging a modern-day colonial war, trying to claim more land, and seemingly committing genocide in the process. Biden should learn from Kennedy, end its support for Israel’s unwinnable war and war crimes, and remain on the right side of history.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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