Much of the mainstream U.S. coverage of the recent Hamas attacks in Israel and Israel’s escalating war on Gaza — such as former New York Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief Steven Erlanger’s October 9 analysis piece or NPR reporter Juliana Kim’s story of the same day — focused heavily on the Israeli security establishment’s alleged failures of anticipation or comprehension vis-á-vis Hamas. Other coverage highlighted the suffering of Palestinians living under bombardment in Gaza and Israelis attacked at a music festival in southern Israel, among many other angles.
What all of this coverage lacked, however, was any engagement with a key concept that lies at the center of the analysis provided by many critical scholars and activists whose voices are often excluded from establishment media narratives: the concept of settler colonialism.
As I have argued elsewhere, an understanding of settler colonialism remains essential for anyone seeking to make sense of daily injustices in Palestine and in many other places, including the U.S. When that category is absent from news coverage, there is a highly consequential explanatory vacuum. News outlets tend to fill that vacuum with other explanations that either miss essential aspects of the story or actively participate in deflecting attention from the real historical and structural causes that lie behind the headlines.
At the most fundamental level, the category of settler colonialism highlights that certain territories are the site of ongoing attempts to displace or eliminate Indigenous societies and peoples and replace them with new, permanent settler societies. The U.S. itself is the product of such a project; so are Israel, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, to name a few of the most prominent examples.
Scholars of settler colonialism emphasize that these projects are ongoing, not located only in the past. This means, for instance, that when Israeli soldiers or settler militias attack Palestinians and force them from their homes and lands, these are not simply isolated criminal incidents; they are part of the continuing process of enacting and extending the settler colonization of Palestine.
With the benefit of hindsight, we know that such actions were fundamental to the colonization of North America via organized massacres, legal dispossession and vigilante violence on the so-called “frontier.” We are seeing these dynamics now before our very eyes, with the entire territory of Palestine essentially constituting the “frontier” of the Zionist project. Yet establishment news organizations consistently fail to place such actions in their proper context.
An Explanatory Vacuum
As an example, consider the “explainer” and other background pieces that news organizations routinely produce, ostensibly as an effort to put layers of context around breaking news stories. Anyone producing such a piece needs to decide what the relevant context actually is, and such decisions are seldom made transparently.
On October 8, 2023, the day after Hamas launched its attack from Gaza, The Guardian published an “explainer” piece by reporter Harriet Sherwood. In addition to summarizing events (also a selective process), Sherwood included a section addressing the reasons behind the attack. These included:
- Rising attacks against Palestinian communities by Israeli settlers in the West Bank, with some Palestinian groups responding;
- Israel Defense Forces’ raids on Palestinian cities;
- provocative moves by extremist Jewish groups to pray inside the Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem;
- Israel’s 16-year blockade of the Gaza Strip;
- growing calls in Israel for annexation of Palestinian territories.
In short, The Guardian highlighted recent events as well as the ongoing situation of Palestinians living under siege in Gaza. All of these are relevant pieces of context. None of them, however, were presented as connected with the much longer and ongoing process of settler colonization in Palestine. Without such a recognition, immediate pieces of context appear implicitly as the results of specific political decisions or groups rather than as reflections of a set of structures that are literally constitutive of Israeli society as such.
The explanatory vacuum in coverage of Palestine has profound consequences. If the category of settler colonialism were to be included in news coverage and mainstream public discourse more generally, the results would be something akin to an ideological earthquake, and audiences would be pushed to confront a variety of uncomfortable realities.
For example, it would become obvious to audiences that when Israel receives bipartisan support from the U.S., this support reflects an alliance that is grounded in the transnational realities of settler colonialism. The “shared values” that are often trumpeted as the core of this alliance include the commitment to maintaining colonized populations in a permanent state of fear and subservience while making sure that land and resources are monopolized for the benefit of settler populations. As a result of this alliance, members of the settler population in the U.S. are complicit in the ongoing violence against Palestinians.
It would also become clear that Israeli communities in the news, such as the development town of Sderot, only exist because of organized efforts to drive Palestinians from the land and, in many cases, erase their communities from the map. This helps explain why, from the perspective of the colonized, the distinction between settlers and Natives is much more salient than the distinction routinely made in media narratives between soldiers and civilians.
Finally, including settler colonialism in the coverage would reveal that what is called “terrorism” (including real and unjustifiable war crimes) is in reality part of an ongoing colonial dynamic. Decolonization is violent because colonization is violent. Consequently, the elimination of violence would require the dismantling of colonial systems, including the systems of occupation, apartheid and colonial-militarism that currently prevail in Palestine.
It is these realities that are hidden from view when settler colonialism is excluded from the story. Settler colonialism, to borrow Palestinian scholar Edward Said’s fundamental observation, is still not a “socially acceptable narrative” within a system that reflects the perspectives and the interests of the colonizers. “Facts do not at all speak for themselves,” wrote Said in response to journalistic coverage of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, “but require a socially acceptable narrative to absorb, sustain and circulate them.”
This is why we see settler populations, whether in the U.S. or Israel, expressing “shock” when the inherent violence of their settler-colonial systems produces violence from the colonized. As philosopher Slavoj Žižek pointed out in his famous 2001 response to the 9/11 attacks, such populations are on a permanent “holiday from history” that insulates them from the daily realities of those on the receiving end of imperial and colonial brutality. As a result, when the other shoe drops, they fail to see it coming.
The idea of a “holiday from history” is also a useful way to understand why establishment journalists tend to stay locked within a bubble of decontextualized questions and assumptions about Palestine. As in the case of the October 8, 2023 BBC interview with Palestinian ambassador Husam Zomlot, or CNN host Fareed Zakaria’s same-day interview with Palestinian activist and politician Mustafa Barghouti, it falls to Palestinian interlocutors to give their interviewers a basic history lesson.
In such cases, we see that the construction of reality has obvious ethical implications. When audiences are shielded from uncomfortable truths, it is easier for them to avoid confronting their ethical responsibilities and to be led toward supporting unethical policies.
Ethical Implications of News Frames
In news coverage, narrative framing always matters. If the events surrounding the Hamas attack are framed as “Israel’s 9/11,” then the coverage is effectively preparing its audiences for a catastrophic, limitless, even genocidal Israeli response. If those events are framed in more humanitarian terms, as a tragic set of attacks and counterattacks affecting innocent people on “both sides,” then the coverage is effectively guiding its audiences toward a return to the “normal” reality of Israel’s violent, everyday domination of Palestinians.
Such narrative frames are not “objective” in any way. Instead, they signal that news organizations are actively taking part in constructing the horizon of what is possible, what is permissible and what is ethically required of us. In other words, even though their professional ideology of “objectivity” prevents them from acknowledging it, they are still ethically engaged and implicated. The only question is what sort of ethical principles they will choose to embrace.
In the Palestinian case, the explanatory framework of settler colonialism dates at least to 1965, when Palestinian-American diplomat and scholar Fayez Sayegh published his important monograph Zionist Colonialism in Palestine, which identifies Zionism as a colonial movement marked by an ideology of racial exclusiveness and an aggressive drive for territorial expansion. A noteworthy recent contribution is The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, in which the eminent historian Rashid Khalidi uses archival documents to show the settler-colonialist intentions of early Zionist leaders such as Theodor Herzl and also emphasizes the essential role of Britain and the U.S. in the long “colonial war” against the Palestinians.
Today’s journalists who cover events in Palestine for a living have a responsibility to be aware of this history and to make sure its lessons are reflected in their coverage. Do journalists need to spend years becoming the equivalent of scholarly experts on every detail of the topic? Of course not. But the broad outlines of the settler-colonial framework are easily available in the work of essential authors such as Said, Khalidi, Noura Erakat, Ilan Pappé, J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, Patrick Wolfe and Steven Salaita (just to name a few). Scholars, activists and independent journalists who use this framework are active on social media and constantly producing content that is publicly available for journalists to use if they choose.
No More “Holiday From History”
What would news coverage grounded in an explicit acknowledgment of settler-colonial realities look like? It would involve consistently focusing attention on the root causes of ongoing violence, starting with ongoing efforts by the state of Israel and its allies to continue carrying out a colonial project (Zionism) that is inseparable from the effort to displace Palestinians and prevent them from exercising sovereignty on their own land.
Such coverage would spotlight the failure to apply international law governing cases of colonial occupation. It would also explain clearly the system of apartheid governing the everyday lives of people on the ground.
Looking squarely at these root causes would represent a powerful antidote to the “holiday from history” that afflicts so many people in settler societies. It would also produce coverage that has very different ethical implications for audiences. It would require centering the voices of people who are committed to dismantling systems of colonization and apartheid so that all can be truly free.
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