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BOOK REVIEW: “Decolonizing Palestine” by Somdeep Sen

- By Flavia Fusco

- Sen, S. (2021). Decolonizing Palestine: Hamas between the anticolonial and the postcolonial. Cornell University Press. Paperback.

- Book available here


“Decolonizing Palestine” by Somdeep Sen, Associate Professor of International Development Studies at Roskilde University in Denmark, is a brilliant ethnography inquiring about the anticolonial violence and postcolonial statecraft in Palestine from the prism of the experience of Israel’s settler colonialism in Gaza. Moving beyond the exceptionalist perspective prevailing in most of the analyses on Gaza and Hamas politics, the volume re-embeds Gaza in the Palestinian cause and goes even further by taking a global turn that re-connects Hamas’s anticolonial struggle and postcolonial governance to the long, protracted moment of liberation lived by colonised people around the world searching for their decolonised sense of self.

Structured in seven chapters, the book walks the reader through the long-term liberation struggle in which the anticolonial and postcolonial live and coexist. It starts in Gaza, crosses Palestine and goes on to Zimbabwe, Tanzania, India, Turkish Kurdistan, South Africa, Cuba and beyond. Taking the reader through this journey, the volume starts with an introductory chapter that sets the stage for the following ones, by outlining the book’s ambition, presenting the core concepts around which it is shaped – namely, the anticolonial, the postcolonial and the long moment of liberation – and briefly describing the content of each chapter. The second chapter sheds light on the settler colonial context in which Hamas’s anticolonial struggle and postcolonial governance in Gaza take place, by overcoming the apparent contradiction between settlers’ ambition of making the indigenous invisible and Gaza’s hypervisibility, and showing the physical as well as metaphorical elimination of the past and present of Palestine and Palestinian-ness pursued by the Israeli settler-colonial project. In chapter three, the author inquires into the legacy of the Oslo Accords for the Palestinian cause, maintaining that they both nourished the Palestinian anticolonial subjectivity and introduced postcoloniality to the identity and conduct of Palestinian factions. In this sense, Hamas is seen as illustratively embodying the Oslo Accords’ main legacies, acting as a resistance and governing entity at the same time. Chapters four and five represent the core of the volume, zooming in on Hamas’ muqawama and postcolonial governance, respectively. The author delves into the issue of violent anticolonial resistance through the stories and memories of Palestinians collected during his fieldwork and looks at violence’s presumed simultaneous ability, or at least ambition, to unmake the settler-colonial project and make a sense of Palestinian-ness by producing acts of resistance and collective scars of suffering recognisable as properly Palestinian (chapter four). Similarly, postcolonial governance – the core focus of the fifth chapter – is also characterised as a form of recognition of Palestine and Palestinian-ness. More specifically, the settler-colonial context in which the action of governing colonised subjects takes place makes the postcolonial state-like governance system of Hamas relevant to the liberation struggle of Palestinians from the perspective of both the former and the latter. Finally, the two concluding chapters re-connect Gaza’s experience of the anticolonial violence and postcolonial governance to the Palestinian moment of liberation and the liberation struggle of colonised people across the world more broadly. In underlining the significance of the struggle per se and not necessarily in relation to the presence or absence of the coloniser, the author finally explains how the anticolonial and postcolonial do not contradict each other but rather coexist and overlap in the protracted moment of liberation, with the anticolonial violence taking place even after the independence from the coloniser and the postcolonial governance being performed even in a settler-colonial context as if the coloniser has withdrawn.

Moving from the everyday to the transnational, the book successfully re-introduces Gaza in the Palestinian liberation process as well as in the global discussion about postcolonialism and anticolonial struggle around the world in a way that overcomes exceptionalism without overlooking or belittling the specificities of Gaza and Palestine. Greater attention to gendered experiences of the anticolonial struggle and postcolonial governance within the Israeli settler colonial system, taken alone but most significantly in their interaction with other racialised and/or class-based social identity structures and inequalities, might have strengthened the author’s analysis from the everyday to the transnational even further. In this respect, future research endeavours from critical feminist, postcolonial, decolonial, indigenous and critical race scholarships engaging with the subject may want to consider exploring further a radical intersectional approach to take interlocked injustices across scales from the particular to the transnational.

Overall, “Decolonising Palestine” represents a valuable empirical contribution to a deep understanding of Gaza’s experience of the Israeli settler-colonial condition and Hamas’s politics within the politics of Israel-Palestine. Moreover – and perhaps most importantly – the volume provides a significant theoretical contribution to postcolonial studies by offering interesting insights into the ways in which a transnational discussion on the struggle for liberation can be framed, potentially connecting anticolonial and postcolonial experiences of people around the world fighting for their liberation in a meaningful process of exchange, solidarity and mutual learning.

Flavia Fusco, former Junior Researcher at IAI

PhD student at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, Sweden


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