To Palestine: Lessons from overthrowing the French in Algeria

In Algeria’s liberation struggle, we can find lessons on the limitations of humanistic ideals in the face of violence, offering insights into the ongoing Palestinian national liberation struggle

Sixty-six years ago, in the midst of a raging war, the renowned French-Algerian writer Albert Camus delivered his most perilous political speech. On the surface, his speech called for a civil truce in Algeria, but beneath the surface, it subtly rejected Arab nationalist aspirations.

In its essence, Camus expressed a humanist commitment to shared possibilities in a land shared by colonizers and the colonized. Amidst calls for armed resistance, Camus, a member of the Pieds-Noirs, the French-Algerian community, positioned himself as an outsider to the colonizer/colonized dichotomy. He aimed to be a mediator, above all, who despised indiscriminate violence and sought dialogue, and a truce, among the French and the Arabs of Algeria.

Today, despite the growing global demand for a ceasefire in Israel’s war on Gaza, the west is still firmly guarding Tel Aviv’s scorched-earth ambitions. The latter aims to eliminate the Palestinian resistance, while the former — like Camus — peppers the genocide with talks of “moderate” solutions with “moderate” Palestinians.

The Algerian experience provides insights into parallels and breaking points with the ongoing Palestinian national liberation struggle. It demonstrates that imposing a ceasefire can inadvertently breed more violence it intends to suppress, and a dispassionate rejection of violence can deny the oppressed their dignity, whether in surrender or self-liberation.

The first phase: French colonization of Algeria

France’s colonization of Algeria took place in phases: The first was the conquest, which lasted from 1830 until 1870. During military action, France committed unforgettable mass atrocities: Like the Zionists who sought to conquer Palestine a few decades later, French militias obliterated entire villages, violated their inhabitants, and confiscated their livestock and their crops.

In 1870, the second phase saw civilian settlers from the French metropole gradually taking control of Algerian land. These settlements operated under French laws known as the “Indigenous Legal Code,” a discriminatory legal framework that stripped Algerians of protections enjoyed by European settlers.

Following 1870, the settlers faced sporadic uprisings. In response to violent outbreaks, some French voices advocated for a reformist approach that would grant limited rights to a select group of Algerians considered “civilizable.”

The true aim of these reformist efforts was to divide the Algerian masses from their political leaders, thus undermining support for Algerian political autonomy.

This brief overview of Algerian colonization may resonate with those familiar with key points in Palestinian history: the mass expulsions (Nakba) in 1948, the humiliating 1967 war, the First Intifada, the futile Oslo Accords, the outbursts of violence during the Second Intifada, the fragmentation of Palestinian political representation, the Gaza withdrawal, and the Unity Uprising.

As a young man, and throughout his life, Albert Camus favored the reformist approach of the French progressives. In 1936, he embraced the Blum–Viollette Bill, the Sykes-Picot of French–Algeria, which would have granted some rights to a tiny minority of Algerians. Incidentally, not a single Algerian was seated at the negotiating table.

The French attempts at reforming the colonial system resulted in failure: The reform bill materially required the cooperation of the Algerian political infrastructure. Algerian political representatives met the proposal with coordinated threats of resignation and boycott. And for the French, the costs of establishing a purely French political infrastructure within the colony were deemed disproportionately high.

At the age of twenty-three, Camus co-authored a manifesto that supported the reform plans:

“Granting more rights to the Algerian elites would mean enlisting them on [the French] side […] far from harming the interests of France, this project serves them in the most up-to-date way, in that it will make the Arab people see the face of humanity that France must wear.”

The Oslo Accords, much criticized by Palestinian leaders and the people in general, were initially embraced and justified for similar reasons: they were seen as a means to humanize the occupation, validate Israel’s moral stance, and put on display the “reasonableness” and political “goodwill” of select Palestinians.

The second phase: war!

By the end of the Second World War, the repression of Algerians was ruthless: it was followed by a decade of wholesale massacres. Thousands upon thousands of Arab civilians were killed by the French army, air force, police, and settler militias.

Within less than a decade, France dopped forty-one tons of explosives on insurgent areas. That is a remarkable amount of firepower against a mostly civilian population, but it is a record that Israel – having dropped over 25,000 tons of explosives on densely populated Gaza – has well surpassed in the past 42 days. These events in Algeria were, and still are, severely underreported. Even by conservative estimates, reports talk about ten-thousand Algerian losses.

The collective trauma inflicted on Algeria reinforced the conviction among Algerian nationalists that national independence from France was the only path forward — and that it would have to be self-liberation by any means necessary.

Albert Camus faced accusations of double standards. When he spoke of “massacres,” he referred to the occasional deaths of French civilian settlers, but, when he mentioned “repression,” he was addressing the systematic killing of over ten thousand Algerian civilians by the French army, French police, and settler militias.

This situation parallels the current political discourse surrounding the people of Gaza as “casualties” of “the right to self-defense,” while Israelis are portrayed as “victims” of “terrorism.”

The third phase: humanistic colonialism

It should now be clear; Camus was not a staunch anti-colonialist. Camus’ battle was one of rationality, reasonableness, humanistic commitments, and stunning naiveté. “It Is Justice That Will Save Algeria From Hatred,” he titled one of his post-war essays. But for justice to manifest, he explained, France had to undertake a “second conquest” – a conquest, this time, escorted by diplomatic niceties.

In 1958, Camus finally unraveled. In his infamous speech in Algiers, he emphatically rejected Algerian national independence, dismissing self-liberation as a “purely emotional expression” compared to the dispassionate rigor of realpolitik.

Camus believed that both communities must find a way to coexist:

“On this soil there are a million Frenchmen who have been here for a century, millions of Moslems, either Arabs or Berbers, who have been here for centuries, and several vigorous religious communities. Those men must live together at the cross­roads where history put them. They can do so if they will take a few steps toward each other in an open confrontation

Camus intended for Algeria to remain part of France, but with the systematic and sincere application of equal political rights, both in Paris and Algiers. He warned that if France failed to do so, it would “reap hatred like all vanquishers who prove themselves incapable of moving beyond victory.”

At the Cercle de Progrès, Camus expressed how he believed both sides were right; tragically, the problem was that each side claimed sole possession of the truth. Soon, stones began to fly, and the audience responded with a great murmur. Once he suggested that “an exchange of views is still possible,” he was silenced by a furious audience.

Indirectly, Camus’s rejection of violent liberation, and his liberal stance in general, played into the hands of the Algerian resistance, the National Liberation Front (FLN), whose public stock continued to grow despite massive civilian losses and despite continuous humiliation and torture at the hands of the colonizers.

The fourth phase: liberation

Camus failed to halt the cycle of violence. Similarly, current calls for ceasefires between the occupation state and the Palestinian resistance are likely to yield the same tragic results. In the case of Algeria, the slaughter of civilians continued for another six years, until France “granted” the country independence.

Rather than decolonization by “consent,” political commentators and historians now agree that Algeria has been decolonized by force: Real freedom is always taken, never granted.

The fifth phase: silence

Camus believed there was nothing more to say about Algeria. To the French in Paris, he was seen as the politically naive mouthpiece of the Arabs, while to the Arabs in Algiers, he represented Parisian detachment and an attempt to rise above the morality of both colonizers and the colonized.

After the events in Algiers, Camus became despondent about the Algerian situation, ceased public speaking, and turned to writing prose. He gradually came to terms with the misplaced nature of his humanistic goodwill.

He later contextualized his absence from the cause, admitting that he had relinquished his clarity and philosophical demeanor in recognition of the tragic nature of the human condition.

Yet while violence rages in the present, there is no room for philosophical thought––an observation so beautifully translated into words by the Palestinian intellectual Bassel al-Araj:

“You, the academically inclined, your sights set on disenchanting all things by defining and explaining, reckoning that it will land you on the truth; In these overcast days, I tell you, I need no explanatory framework for rainfall — whether it is Thor’s hammer, God’s mercy, or the meteorologists’ consensus. I want none of it! What I want is my unabating wonder and a silly smile whenever the rain falls. Every time as if for the first time, like a child enchanted by the miracles of this world.”

Israeli forces killed Bassel upon his release from Palestinian detention after weeks of hunger strike.

“Bassel did not call on us to be resistance fighters. Nor did he call on us to be revolutionaries. Basel told us to be true, that is all. If you are true, you will be revolutionaries and resistance fighters,” said Kahled Oudatallah at Bassel’s funeral in March, 2017.

The sixth phase: reconciliation?

After receiving the Nobel Prize in Stockholm, an Algerian student questioned Camus about his anti-independence politics. Although he believed in justice, Camus said,

“I have always condemned terror. But I must also condemn terrorism that strikes blindly, for example in the streets of Algiers, and which might strike my mother and family. I believe in justice, but I’ll defend my mother before justice.”

This implicitly recognized the injustice of the colonial system, and the personal effects it had on Camus himself. He was not, after all, the aloof, dispassionate political observer hailing to the colony from the metropole to speak in the service of the “civilized people” of Paris.

Both the colonial system and the national liberation movement, he thought, had done him an injustice: he, the French-Algerian, who had strong ties with both the colonizers and the colonized. For that matter, he could not choose between them, and all he could do was to condemn the violence on both sides. He could only hope for reconciliation.

Lessons from Algeria to Palestine

It isn’t hard for outsiders to empathize with Camus’s perspective, and believe that there is potential for the occupation state and Palestinian resistance to redefine or even abolish the damaging concept of the nation-state.

Nevertheless, individuals like Basel, a Palestinian, have emphasized that in times of extreme violence, there’s no room for nuanced politics, philosophical debates, or bourgeois humanism.

Humanism is a privilege afforded to those who live in more humane conditions. French-Algeria offers numerous lessons: first, that national self-liberation is attainable, and true freedom is seized, not granted. It also teaches us that legal reforms can often harm those they aim to liberate.

Unfortunately, in situations of widespread violence, appeals to humanitarian ideals are generally futile and tend to create divisions.

Lastly, Camus’s silence is a powerful reminder of the uncontrollable nature of violence unleashed by colonization. It exists beyond justification, neither justifiable nor excusable, residing outside the realm of ethics, reason, and words.

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