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Settler-Colonial Projection

In Gillo Pontercorvo's anti-colonial film The Battle of Algiers there is sequence where three Algerian women plant bombs in cafes and an airport, killing French civilians. While notable because the preparation of this action eludes to Fanon's Algeria Unveiled, it also demonstrates how the actors of an anti-colonial struggle become locked into a particular logic of violence overdetermined by the original violence of colonialism. That is, this sequence takes place after a half-an-hour of the film's description of the colonial situation and is directly driven by the fact that French colonial police and civilians decided to bomb a civilian quarter of Algerians. Until then, the FLN had limited its violence to military targets; when it places bombs in European cafes and the Air France airport, however, it is because it is responding to the fact that all settlers are potential military targets. The film, while firmly on the side of the FLN, admits the tragedy of this civilian bombing (it zooms in on the faces of civilians, including a child, before the bombs erupt), it also depicts this event as a response to colonial terror.

I regularly show this film in two of my critical reasoning classes (reasoning about social issues, reasoning about morality and values), connecting it to an assignment where they are asked to assess particular arguments made in the film, and the social issues or moral debates contained in those arguments. Almost every year I get at least one student who walks in late and begins their understanding of the film around that point of the bombing of the European quarters. Invariably these students imagine that the logic of violence begins with this bombing; some of them don't even bother to rewatch the film to understand the lead up to this event. And without watching the first half hour of the film, they are left with a very different sequence of events: the Algerians bomb the Europeans for some reason (no questions are asked about what the Europeans in this film are doing in Algeria), and then the French Army shows up and appear to be the main characters of the film. After all, directly after this bombing the character of Colonel Matthieu, who is meant to be a fictional mouthpiece of imperialist logic, becomes a main character. If you hadn't watched the previous thirty minutes that valorized Ali La Pointe and his mentorship by Jaffar, you would think that Matthieu was the main character! And with this warped watching of the film, without any understanding of how non-Hollywood narrative films were constructed (especially those that were part of so-called Third Cinema), a lazy watching ends up treating the FLN as the bad guys and the French Army represented by Matthieu as the protagonists.

And this is precisely how I feel the unfolding genocide in Gaza is being treated even by some who are willing to admit that Israel is carrying out a genocide. The demand that we treat Hamas on October 7th as a foundational event, that we are supposed to apologize for this event as some kind of necessary mea culpa, is like dropping into The Battle of Algiers at the point of that civilian bombing and refusing to watch the lead up to that event. It's a colonial trope: the notion that colonial violence is always in response to the violence of the colonized, obscuring the actual relationship of violence in the colonial context. Why were we immediately asked to denounce the events of October 7th, and are continually asked to keep denouncing them, when in fact whatever happened on October 7th was a response to the extremely violent Apartheid conditions that Palestinians have endured since 1948? But this is a continual refrain, and ideologues of October 7th keep repeating what we now know to be lies (beheaded babies, sexual violence, ritual murder), without even questioning what led to this event––the acceptable and horrendous violence of colonial conquest.

At this point we know that the hostages taken by Hamas were treated well, as opposed to the "prisoners" (who were in fact political hostages) that Israel has collected and held, subordinating them to the worst human rights abuses. But even still everyone supporting Palestine is asked to denounce Hamas for taking hostages when Israel's "legal" detention of hostages is a-okay. Again, the colonial situation is conjured away; it is normative, and all responses to it are treated as an aberration. Israel's "right to self-defense" against Hamas is identical to that point in The Battle of Algiers where the French military appears to rescue French colonialism from the violence of the FLN. If you weren't following the narrative before the FLN attacked civilians, then of course it makes sense you would treat the French army as heroic. But if you had bothered to follow the story before this event, you would have a better appreciation of who counted as protagonists and antagonists in this story.

As a communist, the only critique I have of Hamas is that they aren't devoted to a communist project––that their secular Islamic nationalism, like that of the FLN, is not secular and socialist enough. But beyond that, just as anti-colonial communists supported the FLN in the Algerian revolution, I don't see Hamas as a terrible murderous organization as conceptualized by the Israeli imagination. If the PFLP had led these attacks, the Israeli imagination would be making up the same stories about their supposed violence; the colonial imagination is always a racist imagination. This is an imagination of projection since Israel's everyday colonial violence is worse than what its colonial subjects have ever done. Indeed, what is claimed about the October 7 attacks is precisely what Israel has been doing since the Nakbah became a structural event: murders, disappearances, mutilations. Settler-colonial projection.

And it is this settler-colonial projection that demands––in the midst of an eruption of genocidal violence that resembles the colonial massacres that defined the 18th and 19th centuries––we blame the victims for responding to the violence of apartheid. Like we are entering the story of Palestinian immiseration, like those students entered the story of The Battle of Algiers, with only part of the narrative.