Middle East Eye: Joseph Massad – ‘In the West, Israel never initiates violence, it only ‘retaliates’

In the western narrative, it is the Palestinians who initiated violence by daring to resist racist and colonial Zionist violence, which is why their resistance can never be called ‘retaliation’

Joseph Massad is professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, New York

Cross-posted from Middle East Eye


One of the remarkable things about western support for settler-colonialism in Palestine is its insistence that the Zionist act of colonisation is legitimate and does not constitute aggression against the indigenous Palestinians.

On the other hand, it views the resistance that the Palestinians mount against settler-colonialism as illegitimate.

This is why the massive repression that Jewish colonists visit upon the Palestinian natives is invariably identified by Israel, western governments, think tanks, and the obsequious western press as “retaliations” or “reprisals”.

Such descriptions have been used by settler colonies more generally for their massacres but are never used to denote the indigenous peoples’ resistance to settler colonialism. From this perspective, the initial violence in settler colonies is always that of indigenous resistance, which is why the colonists’ war against the natives is always an act of “retaliation”.

This is not confined to the recent genocidal war that Israel waged against Gaza since 7 October, which it and western media identify as “retaliation”.

That term is never applied to the Palestinian resistance operation on the same day but is used to describe all of Israel’s major massacres since its establishment in 1948.

Racist narratives 

In 1982, Israel described its barbaric invasion of Lebanon, in which it killed 18,000 people and displaced more than half a million, as “retaliatory” against the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). It cited the assassination attempt on Israel’s London ambassador, for which the anti-PLO Abu Nidal group, and not the PLO, claimed responsibility.

Settler-colonies have used this rhetoric systematically. When, in 1976, the settler colony of Rhodesia massacred 310 Black guerrillas and civilians fighting to end settler colonialism and white supremacy, the Rhodesian white supremacists called their attack a “retaliation”, as did “political analysts” cited by The New York Times.

Similarly, The Times referred to the white Rhodesians’ killing of 1,600 Africans in Zambian refugee camps in 1978 as “retaliatory raids”. Yet it did not use this term to describe guerrilla attacks on the white supremacist settler colony.

In South Africa, the apartheid regime’s military campaign to defeat the Namibian freedom fighters of the South West Africa People’s Organisation (Swapo) continued to be labelled “retaliation” by the UN and The Times as late as 1989, on the eve of Namibian independence in 1990, and beyond.

In the white supremacist settler colony of Mozambique, the Portuguese military and the colonists’ attacks on the African population and the guerrillas struggling to end Portuguese rule in the 1970s were also deemed a “retaliation“. So, too, were Portuguese attacks in the white supremacist settler colony of Angola, which targeted Angola’s African population and the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) guerrillas.  

Indeed, even Human Rights Watch identified apartheid South Africa’s invasion of Angola between 1981 and 1993 as a “retaliation” for the MPLA’s support for Swapo, itself not seen as a “retaliation” against settler-colonialism.

Colonial savagery

Algeria is perhaps an exemplary case of colonial savagery that very much resembles the Palestinian case. France colonised it in 1830 and dispatched hundreds of thousands of settlers who took over the land of the indigenous Algerians. The French colonial army and the settlers set up an apartheid system and brutally and genocidally suppressed the persistent anti-colonial revolts until World War Two.   


Following the end of the war, insistent Algerian demands for independence from their French colonisers culminated in demonstrations that erupted in May 1945. Across the country, the people chanted, “Down with colonialism.”

On 8 May, in Setif, where landlessness and poverty were increasing, 8,000 demonstrators waving Algerian flags were confronted by the French police who shot and killed a young Algerian.

The crowd dispersed in panic, attacking French colonists in their way, killing 21 of them. The violence spread immediately to the Constantine region, where, driven by ongoing hunger and rage, Algerians attacked and killed 102 more colonists and mutilated their bodies in acts of revenge – often against their employers on the colonial farms where they worked.

In the wake of the violence, the Free French government declared a state of emergency in Algeria and unleashed 10,000 troops to quell the rebellion. They burned down homes and carried out summary executions backed by the French navy and air force, which shelled the coast and bombed entire villages.

Thousands of Algerians were forced to kneel before the French flag and chant “We are dogs”, while soldiers made rings out of mutilated fingers from dead Algerians as war trophies.

Colonist militias attacked Algerians in Guelma on the Tunisian border, where the local French colonial leader armed the 4,000 colonists in anticipation of the 8 May demonstrations that the police attacked.

More cruel violence was meted out as the settlers went on a rampage, targeting the 16,500 Algerians living in Guelma.

According to French official figures, they killed 1,500 of them, a quarter of the Algerian adult population aged 25-45. They buried the bodies in mass graves and then disinterred and burned them to prevent any investigation.

The final tally of the French repression was horrific: The New York Times reported between 17,000 and 20,000 Algerians killed, while Algerian sources put it upwards of 45,000. French historians, meanwhile, speak of no more than 6,000-8,000 dead. All of it was done “in retaliation”, as a French soldier-turn-historian tells us.

De Gaulle buried the whole massacre and suspended a commission of inquiry that was supposed to investigate the horrors perpetrated by Free France on the colonised Algerians.

A decade later, another uprising in August 1955 saw Algerians attack the colonists of Philippeville, a French colony established in 1838 in the ancient town of Skikda on the coast near Constantine, as well as police and army soldiers. They killed 100 European colonists, hacking many to death.

The French “retaliation” was savage. The army, police and the colonists killed thousands of Algerians. Dozens were shot on the spot, and hundreds more were herded into the Philippeville football stadium and executed.

During the funeral of the colonists, eight Muslims were lynched by the European mourners. The Algerian National Liberation Front claimed that the French killed 12,000 people, while the French claimed they killed a tenth of that number. However, a French official told a US diplomat that the French killed 20,000 people within a month of the attack in Philippeville.

A study by the Rand Corporation, the influential American think tank that has worked closely with the US government since the Second World War, describes the bloodbath as “retaliation” for the Algerian revolutionaries’ “massacre of civilians”, in which white colonists were killed.  

Yet, as far as the Rand researchers are concerned, the Algerian attack on the colonists was clearly not in retaliation – despite the genocide they were facing at the hands of their French colonisers. The French genocide of Algerians had already killed a third of the population by 1871 alone.

If all of this is reminiscent of the ongoing western rhetorical war against the Palestinian people, it is because it follows the same colonial playbook.

During Israel’s assault on Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009, in which 1,400 Palestinians were killed, The New York Times, echoing Israel, western governments, and the mainstream press, claimed it was launched “in retaliation” for Palestinian rocket fire on Israel. The latter, of course, is never carried out in retaliation for Israeli colonial violence, occupation, and siege of Gaza.

In 2012, Israeli attacks that killed 180 Palestinians were also described as “retaliation”.

The New York Times also informed us that Israel’s bombing of Israeli-besieged Gaza in June 2014, which would lead to an all-out attack in July and August, killing 2,250 Palestinians, was a “retaliatory strike”.

In 2021, The Times, among other western outlets, described Israel’s deadly attacks on Gaza, in which 256 Palestinians were killed, as “rounds of retaliation”.

It is therefore hardly a surprise that the word “retaliatory” or “retaliation” is omnipresent in western descriptions of Israel’s ongoing genocide in Gaza.

‘Retaliatory’ genocide

The Israelis seem to have realised that their military defeat on 7 October was not sufficient by itself to justify the “retaliatory” genocide against the Palestinian people.  

They began fabricating gruesome stories of baby burning, disembowelment of pregnant women, and systematic rape – as well as their later campaign of lies that Unrwa employees are members of Hamas.

The baby burning stories and disembowelment were quickly exposed as Israeli fictional accounts that never happened.


In the meantime, much evidence has surfaced in the Israeli press that Israeli forces have killed many Israeli civilians with friendly fire and possibly sacrificed them deliberately in line with an Israeli military tactic called the “Hannibal Directive“.

As for the rape stories, in the absence of any forensic evidence or testimonies from rape victims or survivors, the allegations remain unproven, including in the very offices of The New York Times.

Its role in disseminating these Israeli claims as truth has gotten the newspaper in trouble with its own reporters (leading to a witch hunt inside the newspaper against employees of Arab and Muslim heritage whom it suspects of leaking news of the internal fights) and with Israeli families who denied that their female kin had been raped or sexually abused.

Even the UN has a part to play in spreading Israeli propaganda. The more recent UN report on the alleged rapes, in which UN officials were not allowed to conduct an investigation but were fed information by the Israeli government, concluded that there are “reasonable grounds” to believe the Israeli claims. But the report never reveals what they are and even finds some of the sensational Israeli claims “unfounded”.

The report declared that its investigation team “was unable to establish the prevalence of sexual violence” and that “the overall magnitude, scope, and specific attribution of these violations would require a fully-fledged investigation”. Furthermore, the UN team “did not meet with any survivor/victim of sexual violence from 7 October despite concerted efforts encouraging them to come forward”

As Ali Abunimah and Asa Winstanley of the Electronic Intifada demonstrated in a thorough assessment of the UN report, the surprising aspect of the report is that it makes no mention of any evidence it uncovered of sexual violence, but solely of “clear and convincing information”, which it admits was “in large part sourced from Israeli national institutions”.

The UN report states that its team saw “no digital evidence specifically depicting acts of sexual violence” in their own “open source” investigation despite reviewing “extensive digital material.”

Given the centrality of the rape allegations in justifying Israel’s “retaliatory” genocide, such absence of evidence has confirmed the doubts that many have expressed about Israeli accusations.

Yet the allegations of sexual crimes the UN report finds credible are those committed by Israeli forces and settlers against Palestinian women and men in the West Bank. It urged the Israeli military to open inquiries into the allegations, which the latter rejected outright.

Palestinian women and children flee the area after Israeli bombardment in central Gaza City on 18 March 2024 (AFP)
Palestinian families flee the area after Israeli bombardment in central Gaza City on 18 March 2024 (AFP)

The report leaves out the fact that Israeli female soldiers have been subjected to sexual assault and rape by Israeli male soldiers for decades. But then again, that was not part of its charge. In 2020 alone, the Israeli military released figures of sexual assault that included 1,542 complaints, including 26 cases of rape, 391 obscene acts, and 92 cases of distributing photos and videos. Of those, the Israeli military filed no more than 31 indictments.  

It is unclear if Israeli sexual assaults on Israeli and Palestinian women are also in retaliation.

What is often absent from western discussions of Israel’s “retaliation” is the real and true defeat of the Israeli military by Palestinian resistance groups for which there exists ample evidence. That fact is incontrovertible.

The Palestinian take-over of several Israeli military bases, and checkpoints besieging the Gaza Strip, and the scenes of humiliated Israeli soldiers asleep during the attack, is in fact the real reason for Israel’s rageful genocidal war, as it found it incomprehensible that colonised “human animals,” as Israeli officials refer to Palestinians, could defeat the colonising Israeli military.

The problem with the western narrative is that it insists that Israeli and Zionist colonialism that initiated violence against the indigenous Palestinians since the 1880s is a legitimate right of conquest and is not a form of aggression that could be legitimately resisted.

In this narrative, it is the Palestinians who have initiated violence by daring to resist this racist and colonial European Zionist violence, which is why their resistance can never be called “retaliation”.

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