Colonizing Palestine
The Zionist Left and the Making of the Palestinian Nakba
Areej Sabbagh-Khoury



At 5.00 a.m. the night watchman of Mishmar Haemek knocks on the doors: “All those bound for Juara, get up!” . . . We rush to the open square to get going. . . . The convoy begins to move and passes the guard of honor of Shomrim from the Children’s Village who hail us with unfurled flags and happy songs. Another second and Mishmar Haemek has disappeared behind a hill in the turn of the road. We pass Kibbutz Hazorea, turn off the road to the left at Yokneam, and soon pass its last building. The [Arab] villagers of Rehania [al-Rihaniyya] pause in their work on the primitive threshing floors to gaze at this strange expedition and exchange questioning glances. Then some return to their tasks, while others follow with indistinct cries. One, a ferocious-looking individual with mustachios, cries out, half in anger, half in contempt: “Majnouni, majnouni!” (You lunatics!) His meaning was not clear to us. Did he regard every newcomer to this hill of desolation a mad-man, or was he hinting at the dangers which neighbors such as he presented to new settlers, dangers that only idiots could fail to perceive? But the children wave to us and we wave back. (Wilfand 1981, 62–64)

THE IMMIGRANT SETTLERS, MOSTLY OF AMERICAN AND POLISH origins, arrived at Joʾara (image 1) following some road trouble. They erected a fence, laid a road, and prepared a searchlight, “which every evening will send greetings and announce that a beacon of life has been lit in the hills of Efraim [Efrayim / Bilad al-Ruha]” (64). By nightfall the deed was done.

IMAGE 1. “Outlook of Joʾara from afar,” n.d. (likely 1936).
Source: Ein Hashofet Archive photographic collection.

So is the morning of July 5, 1937, reported to have proceeded, when Zionist settlers set out from Kibbutz Mishmar ha-Emek and other nearby kibbutzim to claim the hilltop of Joʾara for a new Jewish colony, to be named Ein Hashofet, on the margins of the fertile Jezreel Valley of northern Palestine. This story encapsulates the dynamics of conquest by Zionist settlers in mid-1930s Palestine, at a moment of imperial violence and settler colonial becoming. Did such events presage the eventual violent displacement and dispossession of about half the Palestinian Arabs from Palestine in 1948, the nakba (catastrophe)? Was this displacement, and those in the preceding years, inevitable?

It was not a given that the Zionist settlers who set out to colonize the Joʾara hilltop, and countless others like them across historical Palestine, would engage in the labor of forceful transformation that culminated in the formation of the Jewish nation-state. They arrived in the wake of historical processes to seek the colonization of Palestine as an answer to the problems wrought by European modernity.

Political Zionism—a polyvalent term—arose as a movement in late nineteenth-century Europe as one among many proposed solutions to the Jewish Question—antisemitic exclusion and violence in Europe.1 Political Zionism consisted of various ideological movements united by the belief that the Jewish Question could be solved only by establishing Jewish national sovereignty outside Europe. Little else was agreed on. In its early stages, the movement was composed mainly of European Jews, and from the 1880s forward, some began settling agricultural colonies in Greater Syria’s Palestine region. Before the fin de siècle there was no certainty that Zionists would push for mass settlement in the Levant, controlled at the time by the Ottoman Empire, or for a state-building project to actualize its goals. Ultimately, the allure of settling in a land that held much religious symbology rendered Palestine (Erets Yisraʾel, for them, or “Land of Israel”) the chosen land for this syncretic movement.

Zionism was one among several reactions to the marginalization and persecution of Jewry (see Brossat and Klingberg 2017). It was never the sole response, and in its early decades was marginal and even unpopular. Like many of the political projects of European modernity, Zionism was formed through antagonisms and contradictions: Jewish national liberation would entail, ultimately, violence against Palestine’s indigenous Arabs. In their early organizing, Zionist settlers became aware of, and adjusted their strategies and goals in response to, the presence of an indigenous population in Palestine. This book begins in the 1930s, at which point many of the Zionist project’s contours had crystalized—spatial segregation, efforts to exclude Palestinian Arabs from the land and labor markets, and collusion between Zionist settlement and the British Empire. It centers the analysis, not as is common, solely on the experiences and ideologies of European Zionist settlers, but on the dynamics of their interactions with the indigenous Palestinians.

It does so through a historical sociology of the colonization practices of three kibbutzim (collectivist settler colonies)—Mishmar ha-Emek, Hazorea, and Ein Hashofet—of Hashomer Hatzair, a socialist-Zionist settlement movement that established dozens of colonies before 1948. I examine their relations with the neighboring Palestinian villages on the margins of the Jezreel Valley / Marj Ibn ʿAmer (Plain of Esdraelon) in the frontier region called Bilad al-Ruha (Arabic for Land of the Winds) or Ramat Menashe (in Hebrew, Menashe Heights) during the years 1936–1956.2 The area in which settlers established these colonies was already populated, mainly by agricultural producers. Bilad al-Ruha witnessed a collision among Zionist settlers, indigenous Palestinians, and British imperialists over resources and complex economic, social, and political interactions.

I trace the shifting settler colonial logics and practices that shaped Zionist incursion into and conquest of indigenous lands, the dialectical nature of colonization, and the ways indigenous agency shaped the outcomes of struggles over land. In so doing, I emphasize the uneven, interactive processes on a frontier of Zionist colonial settlement, the historical contingencies that undergirded colonization, and the transformed social order conjured by kibbutz settlers that now appears naturalized.


Frederick Jackson Turner’s (1893) thesis popularized the understanding of the American frontier as a zone of free land available for settlement. It is a key text in understanding the impetus of a settler colonial society to expand, its supremacist civilizing logics, and its moral claims to progress and developmentalism. Deconstructing the ways ideologies of supremacy subtend and enable displacement, dispossession, and eradication of indigenous peoples requires a critical reading of Turner’s theory of the frontier. “Free land” is so only in the imaginations of settlers who, with greater power, ignore the material rights and desires, indeed the very humanity, of indigenous peoples. There remains a powerful force of denial, not only in the U.S. context about which Turner wrote but also in states established by settler colonialism spanning the globe, of the deleterious consequences of the dispossession of indigenous peoples, their replacement by settler colonists, and the political regimes the colonists established.

Turner’s theory of the frontier offers a useful analytic paradigm for the study of the practices of Zionist settlement—of logics of entitlement to claim space deemed open, to continually expand settlement, and to disregard indigenous will. The Zionist frontier instantiated a particular intertwining of settler colonialism with the reification of nationhood as an institutionalized cultural and political form (Brubaker 1996), which preceded the founding of a Jewish nation-state (Elkins and Pederson 2005). The distinctive nature of the frontier in Palestine reveals the foundations of the eventual Israeli Jewish nation-state in a violent process of encroachment of indigenous lands and their redistribution, accompanied by dispossession and symbolic degradation. In Palestine, it is especially urgent to assess the historical relationship between ideology and practice on the frontier because of its relatively recent (in historical terms) colonization and the trenchant displays of anti-Palestinian violence in the unresolved, asymmetrical conflict.

Palestinian scholars of comparative settler colonialism have long juxtaposed Palestine to other cases in which immigrant settlers set out to permanently settle an inhabited place (e.g., Abu-Lughod and Abu-Laban 1974; Hilal 1976; Jabbour 1970; Sayegh 1965; Said 1979b). Comparison in these works aims, not to equate, but to illuminate convergences and divergences in explaining how and why settler colonization comes about. Baruch Kimmerling (1983, 1–7), among the most prominent of Israeli scholars to juxtapose Israel with other settler cases and to theorize Israel as a settler society, argues that the differences between U.S. and Israeli societies, individualist and collectivist, respectively, resulted from “high frontierity” in the former because of the availability of inexpensive or “free land” and “low frontierity” in the latter because, before 1948, Palestine had a Palestinian majority and land prices were high. Despite the utility of his distinction, Kimmerling’s discussion of frontierity fails to address the violent elimination of the indigenous populations in both cases. He takes for granted the term free land. But these lands became free only after the ethnic cleansing and eventual decimation of indigenous populations in North America and after the displacement of the peasants through aggressive land purchase in Palestine and the expulsion of the majority of the Palestinian population during the 1948 Nakba (Sabbagh-Khoury 2022d).

Indeed, we need not look far for a clearer comparative understanding. Take the words of Zeʾev Jabotinsky, the leader of the right-wing Revisionist Zionists until his death in 1940. In a dispute with the “compromisers” (i.e., leftists), Jabotinsky drew a parallel in 1923 between two settler colonial cases, the United States and Erets Yisraʾel (which is noteworthy because both leftist Zionists of the time and today’s Zionist discourse reject the colonial dimension proffered so transparently here):

Another point which had no effect at all was whether or not there existed a suspicion that the settler wished to remove the inhabitant from his land. The vast areas of the U.S. never contained more than one or two million Indians. The inhabitants fought the white settlers not out of fear that they might be expropriated, but simply because there has never been an indigenous inhabitant anywhere or at any time who has ever accepted the settlement of others in his country. Any native people—it’s all the same whether they are civilized or savage—views their country as their national home, of which they will always be the complete masters. They will not voluntarily allow, not only a new master, but even a new partner. And so it is for the Arabs. Compromisers in our midst attempt to convince us that the Arabs are some kind of fools who can be tricked by a softened formulation of our goals, or a tribe of money grubbers who will abandon their birth right to Palestine for cultural and economic gains. I flatly reject this assessment of the Palestinian Arabs. Culturally they are 500 years behind us, spiritually they do not have our endurance or our strength of will, but this exhausts all of the internal differences. We can talk as much as we want about our good intentions; but they understand as well as we what is not good for them. They look upon Palestine with the same instinctive love and true fervor that any Aztec looked upon his Mexico or any Sioux looked upon his prairie. To think that the Arabs will voluntarily consent to the realization of Zionism in return for the cultural and economic benefits we can bestow on them is infantile. This childish fantasy of our “Arabo-philes” comes from some kind of contempt for the Arab people, of some kind of unfounded view of this race as a rabble ready to be bribed in order to sell out their homeland for a railroad network. (Jabotinsky [1923] 1937)

Despite his supremacist views, Jabotinsky makes a forthright argument about the nature of the colonial frontier that, in its comparison to other cases of colonization, gets at the heart of the matter more explicitly than does Kimmerling’s argument. In fact, he acknowledges the indigeneity of Palestinians. It will be important to keep Jabotinsky’s clarity in mind as we encounter the discourse of the Zionist Left.

Although I frame it differently, I too draw on the theory of the frontier to articulate moments of encounter—unequal social and material relations that ensue on an asymmetrical terrain pitting settler against native, and ways the nature of the frontier shapes social relations of the settler colonial society. The theory of low frontierity is imprecise, emphasizing legal purchase of land—a prominent theme in Zionist historiography that denies violence and dispossession. Instead, I adopt Wolfe’s (2016b, 1) argument that the “frontier is a way of talking about the historical process of territorial invasion—a cumulative depredation through which outsiders recurrently advance on natives in order to take their place.” Such cumulative depredations at the microlevel, as revealed through close examination of colonization processes in the rural frontier, have captured less attention in historical and sociological scholarship than have the study of urban spaces, elites, and the economic, legal, and procedural features of land tenure3 and scholarship focusing primarily on protostate and state practices. For this reason, I am attentive to the constitutive processes of settler accumulation, indigenous dispossession, and resistance in the usually overlooked rural areas where pockets of Zionist presence gradually coalesced into a contiguous sovereignty.

Therefore, I rethink the frontier in two ways. First, through a careful, detailed reconstruction of particular events of encroachment and displacement, I suggest a distinct settler colonial history of land purchase and the legitimation of Zionist sovereignty over territory. Second, I explain this history through a contrapuntal examination of the relations between colonizer and colonized under imperial rule (Said 1993). Doing so helps better historicize both the Palestinians who would ultimately become displaced and the Zionist settlers who would come to establish a settler colonial sociopolitical order in Palestine under British auspices.

Hashomer Hatzair, the movement I consider most closely, professed an ideology of “Zionism, socialism, and the brotherhood/fraternity of peoples” (Zayit 2002; brotherhood/fraternity of peoples was its term for internationalism). At the same time, this movement played a prominent role in the settler colonial project. Its first colony in Palestine was settled around 1919, and four colonies banded together in 1927 to form Ha-Kibbutz Ha-Artzi, the federation of colonies that would oversee the formation of dozens of additional colonies (Margalit 1971, 97; Beinin 1990, 26). Hashomer Hatzair was central to turning large portions of Palestinian land in the frontier into sovereign Jewish territory. In its time, it represented an oppositional position within the labor Zionist movement, because it often defied the values and practices of the dominant Histadrut labor federation and associated political factions. Yet the movement constituted an active settlement force that accomplished a shared Zionist goal—it established the conditions for Jewish national sovereignty in Palestine. Consequently, its members became enmeshed in moral and political dilemmas regarding violent divergences between its ideology and practice. I center this movement because it was among the most significant instantiations of the conquests of land and labor that defined twentieth-century Zionism (Shafir 1993). Kibush ha-karka (conquest of the land) and kibush ha-ʿavoda (conquest of labor), alongside geʿulat ha-karka (redeeming the land), were Zionist organizing principles for asserting control and eventually sovereignty over Palestinian territory and the labor market. (The terminology used to describe the first step of Zionist colonization was ʿaliya ʿal ha-karka [ascent to the land]). The labor settlement movement was the larger framework of labor Zionism, of which Hashomer Hatzair represented the left wing.

Furthermore, methodologically disaggregating Zionism into its constituent submovements illuminates the patterned process of settler colonialism at the microlevel without losing sight of how discrete actions coalesced into the larger project.

The book asks, Through what practices and ideologies did implanting leftist colonies emerge as a viable strategy of land occupation and establishing semisovereignty in the rural frontier of Palestine? How did these colonies come to absorb lands long held by the indigenous Palestinian population? And how did a left-wing socialist movement such as Hashomer Hatzair reconcile the apparent contradiction between its professed revolutionary commitments and its central role in dispossessing natives during the protracted colonization of Palestine before, during, and following the 1948 war?

The Zionist Left has deeply sculpted Jewish Israelis’ self-understandings and promotions of Zionist Jewish history as a liberatory and revolutionary project. The kibbutz colony came to constitute a crucial pillar of settler colonial action. As small, collectivist communities with a high degree of ideological commitment, the kibbutzim provide fertile ground for researching the local implications of colonization, how such practices were enacted and perceived among divided stakeholders, and the debates that constituted an integral part of transforming the sociopolitical order of the frontier.

Still, in considering the role of the rural colonies, it would be a mistake to overemphasize the settlers’ role in establishing the semisovereignty that would culminate in the State of Israel. To do so would be to adopt the fallacy that Zionist action alone was responsible for state making. British imperial rule (1917–1948), as quasi-mother empire, enabled and protected Jewish immigration, Zionist land acquisition, and settlement. The British administration (its bureaucracies, military power, and governance practices), in consultation with the other Great Powers that established the Palestine Mandate after the British conquest of the area during World War I, constituted the foundation on which social (inter)action between Zionists and Palestinians ensued. I build on Lockman’s (1996, 8) “relational paradigm” to explain the asymmetries of settler colonial interaction with indigenous Palestinians not as an inevitability but as an outcome to be understood. At the same time, adopting a relational paradigm risks dislodging such interactions from the broader imperial field of power that conditioned the possibilities of political transformation. So although the chapters that follow center on the implications of material and symbolic processes at the scale of settler-indigenous relations, it is not my intention to isolate these processes from the imperial political structures.

This book hinges on two fulcrums. First is an examination of settlement practices—that is, the material practices of dispossession and expulsion (chapters 1–2) and the way the colonization context shaped relations (chapters 3–4). Second is an examination of enduring settler representations of the practices of the past—that is, active practices of political reconstruction. Whereas the investigation of relations between colonizer and colonized ends with the destruction of all the Palestinian villages examined in this study and the transfer of a considerable part of their lands into the hands of the kibbutzim, my scrutiny of representations and memory in the kibbutzim examines the characteristic patterns of representation of the Palestinian surroundings (chapter 5) and the discussions and deliberations about memory and the past as they appeared in the 1970s and 1980s (chapter 6). Put simply, the book has two purposes: to examine the material practices of dispossession and expulsion and to interpret the subsequent meaning-making practices. I use settler colonial archives to trace one factor among many others in Zionist aggrandizement before, during, and following the Nakba of 1948.


At its outset, Zionism commonly identified itself as a colonial project, albeit one of a special type. Its leaders from across the political spectrum proudly identified with European colonial movements and often looked to European projects for practical inspiration (see, e.g., Reichman and Hasson 1984; Shafir 1999). Describing Zionist settlement actions as colonization was common in the decades before 1948 (Sabbagh-Khoury 2022d). However, Zionist colonization reached its peak just as decolonization began elsewhere (R. Khalidi 2020), rendering the political viability of the project precarious and prompting internal redefinitions and a distancing from the earlier vocabulary. Common refutations of Zionism as a form of colonialism assert that Zionism never intended to exploit local labor and was thus not a colonial movement and that, in the absence of a metropolitan sponsor, Zionism cannot be compared to European colonial movements (see Penslar 2007). Others claim that, given Jewish connections to Erets Yisraʾel and the near continuous presence of Jewry in Palestine even following exile from the homeland, the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century efforts to attain national sovereignty represented return, not colonization.

Like some other settler colonial projects (the United States, South Africa, Algeria), the Zionist movement has always emphasized its exceptionalism, and this is reflected in the production of academic knowledge about its history (classically, Eisenstadt 1967). However, comparison is a vital element of my analysis, not to argue for absolute equation of Zionism or the State of Israel with other settler colonial histories, but to trace patterned ways of doing and thinking and its relationship to other cases termed settler colonial (see Sabbagh-Khoury 2022d).

Using settler colonialism does not refute Jewish religious and historical connections to what they term Erets Yisraʾel. Rather, it is a diagnostic analytic category that describes dynamic encounters between settlers and natives and the processes through which territorial and demographic orders have been transformed to favor Zionist settlers at the expense of indigenous Palestinians, becoming routinized as structures through which settlers are prioritized over the indigenous, often in ways that further entrench denial of indigenous sovereignty. Recent social scientific and historical scholarship has coalesced around an understanding of settler colonialism as a sequence of events wherein immigrant settlers make permanent claims to territory that, generally, is inhabited by a native population (of course, debates abound regarding the mechanisms, logics, and structures of settler colonialism and the utility of the analytic).4 Through incursion, appropriation, redistribution, exploitation, extermination, erasure, and violence, settlers remake the sociopolitical order of the settler colony. The transformation of demography and territory, accompanied by a rejection of indigenous claims to territory and politics, leads to various outcomes: dispossession, displacement, forced labor, ethnic cleansing, or genocide.

Settler colonialism is not a singular theory but an analytic framework that enables the examination of numerous cases (e.g., the United States, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Algeria, South Africa, Rhodesia, Kenya). The main issue at the heart of analyzing settler colonialism, in contrast to administrative or extractive colonialisms, is its focus on practices of permanent settlement and possession of land and the subsequent institutionalization of social hierarchies that take on symbolic and material forms (Sabbagh-Khoury 2022d). For instance, it is dispossession, some believe, that fundamentally structures the relationship between immigrant settlers and the indigenous (see Coulthard 2014a; Nichols 2020).

The work of the anthropologist Patrick Wolfe (1999, 2006, 2008, 2016a, 2016b) has become increasingly popular among scholars who seek to explain—using comparative methods—that settler colonialism across a range of temporalities and geographies is constitutively eliminatory, even when not necessarily genocidal. By this, Wolfe means that agents of settler colonization seek the elimination of natives from desired space, whether through assimilation, displacement, or liquidation. Wolfe’s oft-cited framing of settler colonial incursion as “a structure and not an event” (2006, 388) prompts us to consider how discrete practices and events take on enduring structural forms. Still, settler colonialism is a sequence of events (processes) and can be analyzed at the level of everyday life on the frontier. A structural elimination paradigm can potentially distract us from the contingent contours of colonization. A relational tracing of settlers’ settlement practices and of indigenous resistance—what Kauanui (2016) usefully terms “enduring indigeneity”—directs us to the contingent nature of the process of settler colonization that restores the place of the indigenous to its history. Indeed, a common reticence to settler colonialism as an analytic framework involves the risks of simplistic teleology, of further eliding indigenous agency, and of reinscribing the indigenous as passive objects. Recentering process rather than structure brings back indigenous agency. This book demonstrates that focusing on the settler side of settler colonialism and on process preserves the role of the indigenous as subjects who shape the contours of colonization as long as we attend to the dialectical nature of settler colonization.

The interpretative framework of settler colonialism for analyzing the conflict between Zionists and Palestinians consolidated among Palestinian intellectuals in the 1960s and 1970s, years before this term took hold in international academic discussions.5 Framing the roots of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict, and explaining Zionist Israeli society, in terms of settler colonialism is relatively novel, and still quite marginal, in institutionalized Israeli academic discourse. This is despite the important role of Israeli sociology and critical history in analyzing Zionist settler colonialism in the late twentieth century (e.g., Kimmerling 1983; Ram 1993).6 Slightly before the turn of the century, further (mostly North American–based) scholarship began rethinking the Zionist movement and the history of the conflict in terms of settler colonialism (e.g., Abdo and Yuval-Davis 1995; Elkins and Pedersen 2005; Lockman 1996; Shafir 1989). That Wolfe (2006) incorporated the case of Zionism in his comparative framework of settler colonialism also lent great credence to the analytic paradigm, even if the way subsequent scholarship effaced earlier theorizing by Palestinians highlights the racialized diffusion and production of legitimate knowledge (Sabbagh-Khoury 2022d).

Much of this scholarship compares the practices of European Zionist settlers with those of other European settlers, highlighting the violence of dispossession and replacement. The Zionist project entailed the relocation of immigrant settlers from Europe to a territory populated by natives, the accumulation of native land and resources, and the marginalization of natives. The project was initially based on land acquisition, a process accelerated by Britain’s conquest of Palestine from the Ottomans and its subsequent incorporation of the responsibility to facilitate the founding of a Jewish national home in its 1922 League of Nations Mandate based on the 1917 Balfour Declaration. Land acquisition, however, was a violent process that encountered the resistance of the largely peasant Palestinian farmers. The Zionist project was shaped at every moment by the nature of British concessions and constraints and by Palestinian resistance. Researchers who applied the settler colonial paradigm to the Zionist project marked two main alternatives to a metropolitan sponsor—the worldwide Zionist movement and its philanthropic channels and the British Empire as quasi-political patron. The settler colonial approach challenges conventional perspectives that conceive of the conflict between Zionists and Palestinians as merely one between two national movements, or between two incommensurate cultures or religions, instead foregrounding the interactions between the two sides in the context of a settler colonial frontier (Sabbagh-Khoury 2022d). The two sides were not structurally equal; British imperialism gave a proverbial leg up to Zionist settler colonialism (R. Khalidi 2020).

Zionism shared practices and logics with other settler colonial cases. It developed in a world system in which European domination and superiority—enacted through formal and informal imperialism, international law, and global political economy—was largely a given. But Zionism, like other instances of settler colonialism, was historically particular, even if not altogether exceptional. Zionist settlers encountered a society with more class differentiation and more complex forms of land ownership compared with previous settler colonial projects (Hijazi 2015; Greenstein 1995; Khalaf 1991, 1997). Zionism’s effort to institutionalize a national state came late to the world-historical stage; by 1948, the Global South had begun struggling to decolonize (Ahmad 2006, 301). Zionism is also unique in the simultaneous fusion of its colonial project with nation formation (Elkins and Pederson 2005), the almost immediate indigenous resistance, and both the Palestinians and the Zionists formulating identities as national groups. Settler colonial projects typically included the establishment of modern state powers, land enclosure, and export-oriented commodity production. Palestine had already partially been incorporated into such processes when the Zionist movement launched its settlement project. And last, although Zionist aspirations for a political homeland for the Jews predated the Holocaust, the Nazi genocide of European Jewry was another distinctive feature that affected the contours and perceptions of the settler colonial project in Palestine (Sabbagh-Khoury 2022d). Other cases of settlers who experienced persecution and discrimination exist (e.g., a stream of religious settlers to the United States), but in no other case were the settlers subject to genocide (Wolfe 2016a). Zionism’s solution to the Jewish Question prevailed among world Jewry only after the Holocaust and the response of Western powers to the Jewish refugee problem largely rendered alternative political options nonviable. All these characteristics shaped the settler-native encounters and their ultimate consequences.

Although Kimmerling avoided explicit use of settler colonialism, his work on Zionism and its role in shaping Israeli society centered on the question of settlement, as evidenced in his 1983 monograph Zionism and Territory: The Socio-territorial Dimensions of Zionist Politics and his 2004 book Mehagrim, mityashvim, yelidim (Immigrants, settlers, natives). At the heart of Kimmerling’s (1983) discussion is the land market and its uniqueness in the case of Palestine. He proposed distinguishing three components in land takeover: ownership, presence, and sovereignty. Ownership and presence substituted for sovereignty before the inception of the State of Israel. These distinctions allow him to describe the role that creating facts on the ground played in the absence of national-territorial sovereignty. By means of the 1948 war, the Zionist movement proceeded from actions in the land market (ownership and presence) to political means to achieve sovereignty. Kimmerling’s flexible distinctions are helpful in examining the period before 1948. Still, these distinctions do not correspond to stages but are, rather, interlocking components of the colonization process that can be found in different configurations.

Kimmerling (1983, 21) relies on a definition of sovereignty as the exclusive authority practiced by a state over a delimited territory: “Sovereignty as a concept in international law is conditioned by founding a recognized state.” This definition differs from that often used in sociological literature, which defines sovereignty as the capability of a sovereign agent to enable or inhibit life (Foucault 1997). According to the traditional definition, one can speak of Israel’s sovereignty only after the founding of the state in 1948 and the international recognition of its exclusive authority to control its area on the basis of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181, the Partition Plan. In fact, the British Mandatory authority, the legal sovereign in Palestine from 1922 to 1948, did recognize a form of Zionist sovereignty in some limited spaces. The Zionist movement constituted a “gradated” sovereignty (Stoler 2006, 139). It established communities with a high degree of autonomy alongside institutions that gradually instituted territorial and political continuity. The Mandate recognized the Yishuv (the Jewish colony in Palestine) as a political organization with control over certain resources, institutions, and enforcement capacities. Kimmerling offers a useful analytic triad, which provides a schema for examining settlement practices and state formation, but my analysis diverges from his in considering the role of colonies in instituting semisovereignty. Moreover, whereas the classical sociological theory of the state centers the ways a state is constituted by claims to a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence (Weber 1978, 54), I examine the claims to legitimate violence made by organized settlements that precede a state’s inception.

The rethinking of the concept of sovereignty entails rejecting the myth that 1948, the year of Israel’s creation, or even 1967, is the ground zero for analysis of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict. I consider multiple institutional meanings of sovereignty—such as settler colonial semisovereignty nested within British imperial rule—thereby viewing sovereignty as partial and crosscutting. For example, we can find instantiations of sovereignty in the removal of Palestinian land cultivators—abetted by the British—in line with settlers’ desire for exclusive Jewish employment. Israeli sovereignty was not formed at a single moment in 1948; the 1948 moment created a new legal framework for continued accumulation through dispossession. In this regard, the creation of the Palestinian refugee population was not the result of the heat of battle alone. As important as the 1948 settler colonial war was in contributing to Palestinian dispossession, 1948 is situated amid multiple processes and is but a fulcrum between two eras. This analysis takes 1948 and the momentous transformations that preceded it as “sequences of occurrences that result[ed] in durable transformations of structure” (Sewell 1996, 878). Zionist settler colonialism was constituted by a gradual accumulation of informational, economic, and military capitals; territorial fortifications; and organizational preparedness. This is especially true for the settlement program of erasure and replacement. By 1948, approximately 70 Palestinian villages had been erased from the map (Kanaana 2000), mostly through purchases that enabled the establishment of rural colonies; by 1949, 130 new Jewish settlements had been established (Yahav 2007, 13).

Shafir’s (1989) Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict 1882–1914 analyzed Zionism as a settler colonial project relying on two formative features: conquest of land (kibush ha-karka) and conquest of labor (kibush ha-ʿavoda). Shafir showed that the roots of the conflict lie in practices of territorial and economic control by the Zionist movement on the ground, made possible by the integration of the Middle East into the modern world economy and penetration of European capital into Palestine, mainly through the creation of a land market and a new class of land buyers (see also Owen 1993; Alff 2020). Shafir’s materialist history argues it was not mere ideology that motivated the shift in Zionist settlement strategy to favor racially segmented separation and exclusion but, rather, interactions on the ground between settlers and the indigenous Palestinians, particularly in the context of late-Ottoman land and labor conditions. Shafir’s groundbreaking analysis of the tensions among contending interests within the colonizing group explains the option to favor cooperative settlement over capitalist settlement. Yet his work marginalizes the persisting violence, coercion, and indigenous resistance (Lockman 2012; Sabbagh-Khoury 2022d).

Nahla Abdo’s (1992) pioneering research on race and colonialism and the generative works of Lockman (1996) and Shalev (1992) also addressed the issue of labor. Together with Shafir’s, this scholarship helped shift scholarly attention from purely economic (transactional) and legal analyses of purchase (e.g., Avneri 1982; Adler 1988; Granovsky 1949) to showing how the control of land and labor became inextricable from claims to territorial belonging.

Much of the comparative scholarship on settler colonialism situates its structural imbrication with the rise of global capitalism and liberalism, concurrent with the violence and inequalities of racialized labor exploitation, surplus extraction, and accumulation (we can trace this trend back to Marx 1906, 838–848). Socialism and colonialism, exemplified by Zionism, make for a rarer pairing (although see Memmi’s [2003] “Portrait of the Colonizer”). However, despite the self-professed socialist nature of the kibbutz settlers, we may trace the processual accumulations of landed and political capitals by dispossession of the Zionist Left in terms of privatization. Palestine had already partially undergone a transformation from precapitalist to capitalist in the Ottoman period and then the British Mandate (Owen 1993; Abdo 1991). However, on the rural frontier, where the kibbutzim sought territory, the settlers interacted with the fallahin (largely tenant farmers with usufruct whose status and modes of land tenure are explained in chapter 1) in economically transformative ways.

For instance, some socialist kibbutzim enclosed the remaining commons through their purchase and seizure of Arab mushaʿa (communal) agricultural land. When the majority of fallahin were expelled from their land, often with British assistance, they effectively lost a crucial part of their means of production—noncommodified land. In this way, the kibbutz may have formulated a socialist agricultural political economy within the boundaries of its newly enclosed property, yet the process that created this bounded entity resembled prototypical capitalist primitive accumulation. This socialism had material repercussions—the creation of a labor force, highly organized production, and high levels of investment in capital goods and infrastructure—that enabled the production of marketable goods on previously marginal lands. However, the outcome of this accumulation was not for the benefit of private individuals but for the (exclusively Jewish) collective Yishuv. The Jewish National Fund (Keren kayemet le-yisrael), a key Zionist land-acquisition organization, for instance, did not sell lands it accumulated on the private market, where they could have become available to non-Jews.

In this distinctive mode of Zionist colonization, socialism and colonialism became interwoven. Principles and practices of Hebrew labor and productivization (some inspired by A. D. Gordon’s socialist-Zionist thought) made productive labor the basis for just Jewish sovereignty over Palestine (see, e.g., Gordon 1997). The socialism of the leftist settlers held that land belongs to those who work it. The settlers worked to purchase land (largely through private philanthropic capital) and then to nationalize it, often through coercive and violent means that pushed Palestinians into an uneven labor market. Socialist-Zionist practices, like liberalism, colonization, and slavery, “innovate[d] new means and forms of subjection, administration, and governance” (Lowe 2015, 3). Consequently, Jewish liberation and redemption emerged out of the dispossession and displacement of Palestinians.

Already in the early 1900s, factions among kibbutz settlers were producing the cleavages that would determine access to political rights. The socialist immigrant settlers opposed a capitalist order that pitted producer against exploiter, but they were largely unconcerned with the labor conditions of the Arab peasants, the transformations in production, and the subjugated lifeways their incursions would induce. Kibbutz settlers conceived of their ultimate right of belonging in Palestine, and then to the State of Israel, through a developmentalist logic that resonated with Lockean thought and the British and European imperial perception of Palestine (Wolfe 2016a, 217; Bhandar 2018; Bunton 2020). Such an assumption elides the uneven settler colonial power in a project premised on violence and social closure. In these ways, socialism (as a particular historical formation here, not a universal term) was constitutive of Zionist settler colonialism.

I am not arguing that socialism is a singular ideology that contradicts the practices of these leftist Zionists. Rather, I consider Hashomer Hatzair’s socialism as a “category of practice” (Brubaker 1996, 7) and discuss how its adherents’ participation in and benefiting from the expulsion (and in some cases proletarianization) of their onetime neighbors—the mostly agricultural peasants who held usufruct until Zionist purchase—could be synthesized with their own avowedly revolutionary project of a classless society and freedom from exploitation.

My analytic adoption of settler colonialism stems from the compelling comparative literature discussed here. Yet the understanding of settler colonialism that undergirds my central critical point in this book—comprehensively illuminating the constitutive elements of violence as Palestine became a frontier society—is not meant to be deterministic, predictive, or reductive or a simplistic model complete with a monolithic account of power. Rather, I use settler colonialism as a framework that opens up the possibility of considering the assemblages, contradictions, ambivalences, and contingencies through which the past has been shaped by various competing social and political actors.

My method is a historical political sociology that attempts to delineate how, at every step, events could have gone differently. Examining socialist-Zionist colonies shows the variety of objective possibilities, alongside the entrenchment of relations of asymmetry through processes of attempted territorial and demographic replacement. The Zionist project of displacement of Palestinians developed dialectally through interaction with the indigenous within the framework of the British imperial field. This acknowledgment informs my interpretive sociological capacity to read the settler colonial archive and to locate in its silences, fissures, and open proclamations the contestations through which the outcomes of settler colonization were all but ensured (see also Sabbagh-Khoury 2022c).


Two key features informed the origins of political Zionist movements in Europe: first, social closure led some European Jews to seek out a national-colonial solution to their social exclusion and, especially in the Russian Empire, violent oppression and, second, a national-colonial habitus emerged in Europe and shaped Zionist thinkers and actors. Therefore, Zionist thought and action cannot be understood in purely nationalist terms. Zionism is anchored in the array of historical political options available to its adherents in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: colonialism, imperialism, nationalism, socialism, liberalism, and fascism (Bishara 1996). As Raz-Krakotzkin (2011, 60) writes, “Zionism was not merely a case study, being neither an exemplary instance of a national project nor of colonial conflict. Rather it represented an articulation of all the major categories of modernity.” Nation was tethered to colonialism in this European context, and many Zionists adopted national-colonial views on territorial conquest.

Beginning in the late 1880s, and especially in the 1920s following the Bolshevik victory in Russia and the revolutionary wave that swept Europe after World War I, Jewish youth in Europe were exposed to socialist ideas and attempts to put Marxian theory into practice. This worldview was nurtured in Hashomer Hatzair, a youth movement first organized in 1913 in Galicia, Austria-Hungary, for young adults ages eighteen to twenty and that spread across Europe and North America in the subsequent two decades. This movement, like non-Jewish scouting groups of the time, aimed to unite fervent youth energy and channel it toward political economic change. The movement primarily developed in Galicia and Poland, where Zionist activity proliferated (Margalit 1971). Eastern European Zionists generally belonged to families of high socioeconomic status. Some were assimilated (i.e., they practiced few daily religious traditions), but others were educated in religious schools. In this setting, Yiddish, German, Polish, and Hebrew were common languages, as demonstrated by the vast number of publications the movement produced in all four languages. Like other Zionist organizations, Hashomer Hatzair initially organized against assimilation, engaging in what they termed a national revival. The movement was equally focused on physical and intellectual training. It sought to be the place where young Jews’ world views could be collectively formed, where their consciousnesses could be revived. Members commonly studied great works of literature (Ibsen, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and Spengler), as well as Zionist writings (by theoreticians like Martin Buber, Yosef Haim Brenner, and especially Ber Borochov). Movement members were also well versed in the works of Marx, Engels, Adler, Kautsky, and Lenin (Zayit 1993).

In the 1920s, movement leaders had fully crystallized their socialist-Zionist ideology—especially the principle of self-realization (hagshama atzmit) through migration to Palestine. Then the movement set out its primary goal: to facilitate the settler migration of European Jewry to Palestine to help establish a Jewish labor commonwealth. To do so, European Jewish youth would train for migration and agricultural labor in Europe before migrating to Palestine and joining a garʿin (nucleus). Each nucleus was assigned rural agricultural space on which to establish a collectivist colony, generally on land purchased by the Jewish National Fund or Palestine Land Development Company. Funding sources varied.

At its peak, before World War II, Hashomer Hatzair had over twenty-five thousand members in about three hundred branches worldwide. We cannot know exactly how many of these members settled in Palestine. Still, the movement’s rural settlement of “pioneers” (halutsim), alongside the efforts of some other settlement movements, was an outlier from migratory patterns as a whole, because most European Jews who settled in Palestine before 1948 did so in cities (Alroey 2014). Hashomer Hatzair’s immigrant settlers established dozens of small colonies across Palestine (image 2 depicts those settled between 1927 and 1952). Although members of all the kibbutz movements combined never exceeded 7 percent of the population of the Yishuv, the strategic colonizing labor of Hashomer Hatzair’s network on the rural frontier, alongside that of other settlement movements, constituted the rural territorial base of the Zionist project.

By 1926, with the beginnings of the kibbutz network established in Palestine, movement leaders discussed founding a national kibbutz movement—Ha-Kibbutz Ha-Artzi—as a comprehensive network for communication and support. The founding assembly took place April 1, 1927, in Haifa. Out of this assembly emerged a twofold platform: (1) the founding of the “Hebrew national home in Erets Yisraʾel” on the basis of a productive and self-sustaining economy and (2) social (class) revolution. This was the core of Hashomer Hatzair’s phased theory of progress (Zayit 1993, 271). The two phases were to be mutually conditioned: the social revolution—abolition of class differentiation and exploitation—required completing the construction of a national Jewish homeland, and the fulfillment of Zionism would be possible only through the social revolution.

A central issue was the movement’s view of communism and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). In 1927, Ha-Kibbutz Ha-Artzi both rejected the Socialist and the Communist Internationals and criticized the latter’s attitude toward the Jewish Question and Zionism. Yet it continued to support the Soviet revolution. Critics of the movement claimed that its ideological collectivism, a version of democratic centralism, created totalitarian control and oppressed individual liberty.7 Zayit (1993, 272), however, emphasizes that the principle of ideological collectivism caused the movement to “show much consideration of minority views and to seek a common denominator to differing positions. Hence, constant ideological tension results in the inability to make clear decisions. . . . Ha-Kibbutz Ha-Artzi as a political entity has stood out in its elegant ideological formulations, a tendency towards didactic education on political issues, and the lack of tactical flexibility.”

IMAGE 2. Historical map of the kibbutz colonies settled by the Hashomer Hatzair movement between 1927 and 1952. The map depicts the spread of dozens of colonies across Palestine.
Source: Central Zionist Archives, KRA/1675

In 1946, Hashomer Hatzair and its youth wing joined with the Socialist League, its urban ally, to create Hashomer Hatzair Workers’ Party (Beinin 1990, 26). That year, the movement comprised ten thousand members. About two-thirds belonged to Ha-Kibbutz Ha-Artzi; the rest were members of the Socialist League. During World War II, a leftist faction consolidated within Hashomer Hatzair, led by veteran kibbutz settlers including Yaʿakov Riftin, Elʿazar Peri, Mordechai Oren, and Aharon Cohen. They promoted the Soviet camp. Hashomer Hatzair leaders Meir Yaʿari and Yaʿakov Hazan were not enamored of the leftist faction’s desire to bring the movement closer to the global communist movement; they were ever aware of their kibbutzim depending economically on maintaining good relations with the majority of the labor movement, bourgeois Zionists, and eventually, the State of Israel’s institutions. However, until the mid-1950s, many members of Hashomer Hatzair strongly professed a pro-Soviet orientation.

The distinctive contribution of Hashomer Hatzair to the labor Zionist settlement movement was its commitment to political cooperation of Arabs and Jews (Beinin 1990). In 1940, Ha-Kibbutz Ha-Artzi organized an intensive Arabic language course for the movement’s cadres, aiming to establish an Arab section to nurture relations with progressive elements among the Arab population. Under the leadership of Aharon Cohen, the Arab section became the organizational center of the activity of the United Workers’ Party (Mifleget hapoʾalim hameʾuḥedet; MAPAM) among the Arab population after Israel’s inception.


1. On this, see Lockman 1996, 21–57.

2. Initially, the hilly area was referred to by Jewish settlers as Harei Efrayim, but after realizing the geography did not correspond to the biblical reference, the name was changed to Ramat Menashe. Today it is Ramot Menashe.

3. Much important scholarship discusses land tenure changes through social and legal histories (e.g., Schölch 2006; Owen 1993, 2000; Yazbak 2000; Adler 1988; Abu-Lughod 1971; Al-Hazmawi 1998; Asad 1976; Bunton 1999; Forman and Kedar 2003; Issawi 1966; and Kedar and Yiftachel 2006). Crucial new research on land reforms (privatization and nationalization) and its conditioning of British and Zionist colonization includes the work of Fakher Eldin (2008, 2019), who depicts transformations in Ottoman and British policies, practices, and governmentality. I discuss transformations in land tenure in chapter 2.

4. The literature on settler colonialism is vast, from more contemporary scholarship (Loizides and Haklai 2015; Veracini 2010; Wolfe 1999, 2006, 2016a; Abdo and Yuval-Davis 1995; Elkins and Pedersen 2005) to now-classical works (e.g., Fredrickson 1981; Fieldhouse 1976).

5. Abu-Lughod and Abu-Laban 1974; Elmessiri 1977; Hilal 1976; Jabbour 1970; Said 1979b; Sayegh 1965; Sayigh 1979; and Touma 1973; and see Sabbagh-Khoury 2022c. Maxime Rodinson ([1967] 1973) and other leftists took part in these discussions, as did non- and anti-Zionist writers in Israel/Palestine.

6. Other Israeli researchers reached similar conclusions that Zionist settlement was akin to other settler colonization movements, without committing to the theoretical framework of settler colonialism. For example, Benvenisti (1997, 15) made the comparison—while studying the Hebraization of the space and the giving to local sites new Hebrew names—between Zionist practices and the way the British went about settling territory.

7. I do not further discuss internal arrangements of social reproduction, such as childrearing, cooking, and agricultural production. However, these were important considerations in terms of ideological differentiation and political-economic structures of kibbutzim from the wider society and of Ha-Kibbutz Ha-Artzi from other kibbutzim.