Intervention – “Gaza as Site and Method: The Settler Colonial City Without Settlers”

Nour Joudah, Department of Geography, UCLA;

[Gaza] … does not compel people to cool contemplation, but rather to explosion and a collision with reality. (Mahmoud Darwish)

Year after year, we are alerted to alarming humanitarian and economic crises in Palestine’s Gaza Strip. In 2012, the UN stated that it would be unlivable by 2020. As 2020 began, not only were there no signs of a better living situation for Palestinians in Gaza, but Israel and the United States unilaterally announced a Middle East peace plan that relegated Palestinians to bystanders in their own political futures (Halbfinger and Kershner 2020; Joudah 2020). As COVID-19 rocked the world in the early spring of this year, occupied Palestinian territory went on lockdown. But the Gaza Strip – a decade plus into a crippling blockade – knew it would face a dire reality if the pandemic took hold there. By mid-April, Israel had supplied Gaza with only five testing kits – enough for around 500 people in a population of almost two million (al-Mughrabi 2020).

Now, capitalizing on a divided Palestinian leadership, global economic crisis, 13 years of actively situating Gaza as a separate issue, and decades of international failure to hold Israel accountable, Netanyahu’s government sees its opening. Beginning 1 July, Israel has announced plans to annex large settlement blocs in the West Bank, hoping to make permanent the illegal confiscations of Palestinian land they have conducted since 1967 (Erakat 2020; Gordon and Malley 2020). Meanwhile, speculation swirls wildly in the region that as the West Bank forever becomes a borderless series of fragmented Bantustans fully enveloped into Israel, Gaza will be left as an afterthought for Egypt to deal with.

Gaza City and the larger Gaza Strip have become colloquially synonymous in most of the world. Even among Palestinians, references to the location can switch in quick succession without much pause. But at 25 miles long and four to five miles wide, the Strip also contains several smaller towns surrounding Gaza City and it houses close to two million Palestinians, over 70 percent of whom are refugees. Prior to 1948, the Gaza District was 38 times its size today, and as the largest district in Mandatory Palestine it consisted of around 90 villages and towns. Almost all of these communities were destroyed by Zionist militias during the Nakba.[1] Most of the refugees in the Gaza Strip today are from these surrounding depopulated villages, and as Gaza City has grown, a once largely rural Palestinian population now resides in or next to one of the world’s most densely populated urban areas.

Cities or urban centers and the processes associated with their growth and development have been a major focus of geographers for decades, with extensive work engaging, expanding, and enriching theory from schools of sociology, economics, and beyond. Though dispossession of native populations is involved in the founding of many of these cities, urban analysis has had limited engagement with this historical process beyond acknowledgements of colonial settlement (Blomley 2004; Hamer 1990; Harris 2004; Schmidt 2018). Recently however, there has been an increase in calls for geographers and those in urban studies to adopt a settler colonial analysis and to not relegate indigenous lives and spaces to the rural (Hugill 2017; ICCG 2015; Porter and Yiftachel 2017). As urban studies begins to heed such calls (Alkhalili 2017; Dorries et al. 2019; Fincher et al. 2019), a more defined and familiar image is developing for the “settler colonial city”. As this image takes shape, it is essential that the cities we center push us to expand not only settler colonial frameworks but also which populations, as geographers, guide our category-making.

Gaza provides a unique opportunity, as both a site and mode of analysis,[2] to not only acknowledge or interrogate indigenous lives in a city, but to examine a fully indigenous urban center. It is a city technically void of settlers, but one controlled, ghettoized, and besieged by a settler colonial state. Such an approach and site ultimately add another layer to developing literature on settler colonial cities: is it settler presence and indigenous elimination or indigenous survival which qualifies the label “settler colonial city”?

The current absence of Israeli settlers, settlements, and checkpoints within the Strip is a fairly recent historical moment (2005),[3] and one which was followed quickly by a crippling and ongoing 13-year land, air, and sea blockade as well as three major Israeli wars. That no Israeli settlers remain in the Gaza Strip today does not disqualify Gaza of its status as a settler colonial city. In fact, the very circumstance of Gaza emphasizes the unique forms that settler colonialism’s logic of elimination can take. Herded and kettled into an increasingly confined area – as Israel’s “buffer zone” expands with every incursion[4] – Palestinians in Gaza are emblematic not just of indigenous survival in a settler city, but of a vibrant indigenous urbanism despite a settler regime that dominates their lives.

In settler colonial theory, settler permanence is often discussed or accepted as a political inevitability; embedded in this assumption is also a deep spatial permanence. This spatial permanence looms and obscures heavily and in two significant ways. First, it discourages settler colonial studies as a field from actively pursuing questions on indigenous-led visions for alternative and decolonial futures.[5] Secondly, it can obscure settler colonial spaces and our identification of them to depend on the presence of settlers and not their systems that govern indigenous lives. In this second manner, spaces like Gaza are further marginalized. The 2005 “disengagement” or settler “evacuation” attempts to place Gaza outside of the settler colonial relationship both with Israel as well as its larger Palestinian context, severing its tied fate to the occupied West Bank and as always, lands occupied in 1948 on which the Israeli state was established.

In the North American context, we most often look to sites like Minneapolis or Vancouver or cities bordering reservations – all valuable and providing significant insight. But imagine for a moment a fully-fledged urban center within “the reservation”. If settler colonialism’s “irreducible element” is territory, as Patrick Wolfe (2006) states, what then do we make of a sprawling metropolis in spite of its confinement? In his 2018 IJURR AAG lecture, AbdouMaliq Simone challenged the audience to think what it could mean – in a moment when the working majority is increasingly at the periphery – to situate urban politics as periphery politics (see Simone 2019). So, in a field such as geography where discussions on gentrification, megacomplexes, and expulsion occupy so much of the work, how would we also incorporate a city like Gaza – a city constantly bracing for war, a city that cannot fathom its biggest urban issue being the creation of a periphery within, when its very existence is peripheral?

In 1973, Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish famously wrote that “in Gaza time is not a neutral element”, that Gaza “equals the history of an entire homeland”. It is a place that exudes uniqueness but does not want to be romanticized. Its resistance is not an institution or business, but a declaration that it deserves to live. In the lyric essay, Darwish describes many things Gaza is and is not, but more than anything he reminds us that “Gaza liberates itself from our attributes and liberates our language from its Gazas at the same time”.[6]

Writing on and through Gaza is itself an intervention. It forces us to ask questions that challenge our assumptions of not only what defines or qualifies a settler colonial city, but also the relationship of indigeneity to the urban. The settler colonial city without settlers, Gaza is confined but not defined by settler presence. Additionally, Gaza as site and method goes beyond placing indigenous lives and spaces in the urban as a result of colonial settlement, but also foregrounds a settler colonial city in which the urban landscape is born of indigenous history. Overwhelmingly, we conceptualize settler colonial cities as not only needing settler presence to qualify but also settler “founding” – albeit understood as dispossessory founding. But for Palestinians, many large and long-existing urban centers were not produced by Israeli colonization, though they are transformed by it. Gaza is not the only example of vibrant indigenous urbanism in Israel-Palestine; studies on Jerusalem, Haifa, Yaffa, Hebron, and other cities continue to grow. However, almost all of these are centered on physical settler presence and encroachment.

The most significant failure of settler colonial projects has been an inability to rid itself of native populations; for Palestine, it is not insignificant that this population continues to reside in indigenous urban centers. What will become of Palestinian cities in the West Bank as a result of the forthcoming annexations? Are we on the precipice of the creation of dozens of Gaza’s in the coming months and years – a besieged Nablus, Jericho, Ramallah, etc.?

What I am advocating for here is not limited to an intellectual exercise, encouraging a conversation to guide unasked or even yet unidentified questions. Writing about and engaging with settler colonies in the present is always (and should be) more than an abstract venture. By centering indigenous spaces, the heterogeneity of indigenous histories, and varying settler colonial manifestations globally, we support innovation not only in our disciplines and subfields; we broaden our capacity to see alternative futures when indigenous communities share their desired future visions – and their concerns for what is to come.


[1] Nakba (“catastrophe”) references the 1948 depopulation and destruction of Mandatory Palestine. For more information, see Pappe (2006).

[2] Palestine as method, and not just site, for critical, racial, and decolonial theories has been argued and advocated for as an incredibly generative move and necessity by scholars like Sherene Seikaly. See, for example, her “Gaza as Archive” (Seikaly 2016).

[3] In 2005, Gaza had 21 Israeli, Jewish-only settlements and 8,000 settlers all along the coast of the Strip. In April 2004, in the midst of the Second Intifada and unable to contain resistance from the Strip, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proposed complete withdrawal from Gaza in exchange for consolidation and control of settlements in the West Bank. This unilateral disengagement in 2005 actually realized Israel’s vision articulated by Peres in 1993, when he told a UNESCO conference that he saw the Gaza Strip progressively evolving into a Palestinian state, while the West Bank becomes an autonomous polity of Palestinians and Israeli settlers whose status and borders would eventually be defined (Erakat and Joudah 2016).

[4] During and following the 2014 war, Israel expanded the buffer zone by 44%. For more information, see Gaza in Context resources (Erakat and Joudah 2016; OCHA oPt 2014).

[5] This fatalism or limitation of settler colonial theory has been pointed out by indigenous studies scholars (Snelgrove et al. 2014), while leading settler colonial studies theorists such as Lorenzo Veracini (2017) have insisted that the subfield should not be seen or utilized on its own but in combination with indigenous studies literature and indigenous movements.

[6] See (see also Darwish 2010).


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