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Algeria, Israel and the Last European Settler Colony in the Arab World

Week of July 11, 2022 Algeria celebrated 60 years of independence from more than a century of French settler colonialism.

During the week of July 11 Algeria celebrated 60 years of independence from more than a century of French settler colonialism. France’s genocidal war against the Algerian people cost, according to Algerian estimates, upwards of 1.5 million dead and wounded. 

The French depicted their conquest of Algeria as a “return” to the Roman Empire and a recovery of Roman lands. By 1962, Algeria had more than one million French colonists – one ninth of Algeria’s population. 

Charles De Gaulle expressed concern privately that if Algerian independence was not granted, France would be unable to “absorb 10 million Muslims who would soon become 20 million and then 40 million.” He feared France would cease to be what it is, “a European people of the white race, Greek and Latin culture, and the Christian religion,” and that churches would be replaced by mosques. 

He had already warned a Gaullist deputy: “Do you see yourself marrying our daughters with Arabs?” 

Independence would bring equality between the colonists and indigenous Algerians, but the colonial settlers would have none of it. Horrified by the prospect of equality and the loss of colonial and racial privileges, they opted to return to France where their white privilege would be preserved.

Of the five European settler colonies established in Arab countries since the 19th century, including Tunisia, Libya, and Morocco, only Algeria and Palestine remained colonized in the early 1960s. 

One settler colony down

When Algeria was liberated in 1962, the Arab public mood was jubilant: one more European settler colony down, one to go! Italy’s settler colony of Libya was the first to fall during World War II. 

In 1911, the Italians had invaded the Ottoman territories of “Tarabulus al-Gharb”, rendered by the Italians “Tripolitania”, Barqa, renamed “Cyrenaica”, and Fezzan, and began to call the territory, following the geographer Federico Minutilli, by the ancient Greco-Roman name: “Libia.” Italy immediately annexed “Libya” and began introducing colonists. 

Like the French, the Italians depicted their colonization as a “return” to the ancient lands of the Roman Empire. Libya was identified as Italy’s “Fourth shore”. Colonization accelerated under fascist rule and, by 1940, the number of colonists exceeded 110,000 – 12 percent of the population. 

By the time the Allies defeated the Italians, they had already brought about the wholesale destruction of cities and towns, not to mention famines and the spread of disease, which along with their mass murder of the resisting Libyans, obliterated up to two-thirds of Libya’s population.

As for Tunisia, it obtained its independence in 1956, five years after Libya, following a combination of anti-colonial guerrilla war and negotiations. Tunisia was occupied by France in 1881, and tens of thousands of colonists descended on the country. 

Morocco, which the French invaded and occupied in 1907, gained independence in March 1956, the same month as Tunisia, after a long anti-colonial struggle. 

A close alliance

As the last two European settler-colonial powers in the Arab world, France and Israel formed a close alliance to coordinate the preservation of their settler colonies. 

Like France and Italy, the European Jewish Zionists claimed to be descendants of the ancient Palestinian Hebrews and to be merely “returning” to their ancient land. Israel, which established a Jewish majority by expelling the majority of the Palestinian people in 1948, voted against the 1952 UN resolution recognising Tunisian and Moroccan self-determination.

France’s military alliance with Israel and its hostility to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser increased, especially as the Egyptian leader became identified as the force behind the Algerian National Liberation Front, FLN. 

The France-Israel alliance

Despite ongoing secret negotiations between the French and the FLN leaders based in Cairo, the French military carried out on 22 October 1956 the second ever act of air piracy in history. 

They intercepted over Algeria an aircraft carrying FLN political leaders from Morocco to Tunis, including Ben Bella, for one such secret meeting. The five captured FLN leaders were not released until 1962. 

The French adopted plane hijackings from their allies, as the first act of air piracy was Israel’s seizing of a Syrian Airways civilian airliner in December 1954. The Israeli hijackers forced the plane to Lydda airport and held its passengers hostage, demanding the release of five Israeli prisoners of war in Syria – a practice at which the Israelis continued to excel for decades to come.  

Against this background of air piracy, France launched its invasion of Egypt with the British and the Israelis in 1956, an adventure that ended in their defeat and only increased Nasser’s popularity.

French generals explained that their alliance with Israel was part of the fight against the Algerians, and against Nasser.

Official statement welcomed

Anti-colonial Algerian Jews welcomed the FLN’s official statements in 1956 addressed to the Jewish community leaders declaring their belonging to the Algerian nation. Small groups of Algerian Jews affirmed in response that they were one with their Muslim compatriots and that they wholeheartedly supported liberation.

After independence, Algeria became the biggest supporter of global resistance to settler colonialism, in Palestine and across Africa – Angola, Mozambique, South Africa, Namibia, and Rhodesia. 

The meeting organised by the Algerian leadership during July’s celebrations between the leader of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, and PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who collaborates with Israel, though misguided, was motivated by Algeria’s continued support for the Palestinian struggle. 

In the last few years, Israel’s normalising relations with Morocco and Sudan, and its work behind the scenes to normalise relations with Tunisia and some of Libya’s regional leaders, are part of its strategy of encircling Algeria, which adamantly refuses to abandon the Palestinian struggle and normalise with Israel. 

The terror the Israelis felt after the Algerian people’s victory was such that Israel’s foremost general Ariel Sharon kept a copy of Alistair Horne’s classic account of the Algerian struggle, A Savage War of Peace, on his nightstand.

Joseph Massad/MEE

Edited for space by The Islamic Post