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What the French evisceration of Algeria has to do with Gaza today

What the French evisceration of Algeria has to do with Gaza today

The ultimately self-defeating impact of brutal counterinsurgency is well-known in history. Why won’t Israel and its US partners learn?

Analysis | Middle East

A brutal attack by militants “mercilessly slaughtering” civilians in their homes occurred simultaneously with attacks against military targets of an occupying power. These attacks resulted in an overwhelming military retaliation that killed so many people, one soldier wrote, “they had to be buried with bulldozers.”

While this sounds like coverage of October 7 and the current Gaza War, these are descriptions of the 1955 “Philippeville massacre” in Algeria. That event marked a major turning point in the Algerian War of Independence against 125 years of French occupation. It led to seven more years of brutality that killed 300,000 to one million Algerians and threatened a civil war in France. It also sowed seeds for future violence in Algeria and around the world.

Americans should reflect on the history of the French experience in Algeria in the context of the current Gaza War and the longer history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The United States has played a major role in this conflict, one which people across the Middle East clearly recognize and resent, even if most Americans do not.

It is important to recognize the bigger picture and historical context in which events occur. Confusing specific actions, such as the Philippeville massacre or Hamas’s 7 October attacks with the overall goals of an insurgency risks mistaking means for ends, resulting in a fundamental misunderstanding of the overall situation.

Prior to the Philippeville massacre, Algerian nationalists struggled for over a century against French rule. Emir Abd al-Qadir resisted French occupation for over a decade in the 1830s, and other major revolts occurred in the 1860s-70s. Moderate Algerians called for reforms, a constitution, and amelioration of social and economic concerns.

Unanswered petitions escalated to demands for autonomy, peaceful demands for independence, and eventually support for new armed resistance. Yet the French refused to seriously consider addressing these longer-term political grievances, viewing resistance solely from a military perspective. Some fixated on FLN (National Liberation Front) terror tactics, with one French leader exhorting, “Let us swear before these coffins to do everything…to revenge those who have been taken away from us.”

Another French military official viewed the Algerian revolt as part of a larger “march of Communism.” Other French perspectives claimed: “We have not come here to defend colonialism. We are the defenders of liberty and of a new order.” Others, including much of the French public and settlers in Algeria, staunchly defended French colonialism and viewed Algeria as an indissoluble part of France, refusing to entertain Algerian desires for independence.

Hamas’s ultimate “end,” like that of the FLN, is not the violence of October 7 itself, but the establishment of an independent state. Like the Algerians, Palestinians have long advocated for Palestinian statehood, the just resolution of the conflict, protection of human rights, opposition to settlements and settler violence, restructuring of Palestinian institutions, modification of U.S. policies, access to services and resources, and redress of inequality and discrimination. When the Arab Center surveyed Arab public opinion about reasons motivating Hamas’s attack, they found widespread understanding of the historical context and nationalist aims:

While 35% of respondents stated that the most important reason was the continued Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, 24% stated that it was Israel’s targeting of Al-Aqsa Mosque, 8% said it was the ongoing siege on the Gaza Strip, and 6% attributed it to the continuation of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories.

Most Western observers’ attention on Hamas focuses on its intent to destroy Israel, as outlined in Hamas’s founding charter. This focus ignores its 2008 offer of a truce based on acceptance of the 1967 borders and implicit recognition of Israel. It ignores Hamas’s publication of a new “manifesto” in 2017 which announced it would accept the 1967 borders and details of any deal, including the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, approved by referendum of the Palestinian people, upon implementation of that deal. It also ignores the potential to negotiate any alternative resolution than that espoused by the rhetoric of key Hamas leaders.

This also assumes that Hamas’s original and maximalist position is the only option for an acceptable resolution among Palestinians. This assumption ignores historical precedent for negotiated settlements, including missed opportunities for negotiated peace in Algeria.

A second lesson from the French experience in Algeria is also a warning: excessive French violence against Algerians, including explicit orders to implement “collective responsibility,” ultimately increased support for armed resistance. One French administrator observed: “To send in tank units, to destroy villages…it is using a sledgehammer to kill fleas. And what is much more serious, it is to encourage the young – and sometimes the less young – to go into the maquis.”

An Algerian leader similarly noted: “The French ratissages operations were ‘our best recruiting agent.’” A later FLN statement declared “to colonialism’s policy of collective repression we must reply with collective reprisals against the Europeans, military and civil, who are all united behind the crimes committed upon our people. For them, no pity, no quarter!”

This also convinced moderate Algerians to support hardline resistance, reducing avenues and interlocutors for political compromise. “My role, today, is to stand aside for the chiefs of the armed resistance,” declared one moderate leader. "The methods that I have upheld for the last fifteen years — co-operation, discussion, persuasion — have shown themselves to be ineffective”.

Another devastating French policy that achieved some short-term military success but ultimately proved counterproductive was forced displacement, which was aimed at “isolating communities from the FLN and thus denying it refuge and supplies.” This forced over one million civilians from their homes, into spaces where they were “crammed together in unbroken wretchedness” and where “children [died] from hunger” and cold.

Other brutal practices included mass detentions, widespread torture, and abuse of detainees. While French officials argued that these methods achieved short-term military success, historian Alistair Horne argues that they were ultimately self-defeating: “[Colonel] Massu won the Battle of Algiers; but that meant losing the war.”

The shocking death toll, displacement, disproportionate destruction, allegations of collective punishment, and inhumane treatment and possible torture of detainees in Gaza offer chilling parallels between current Israeli military operations and the French in Algeria. Like the Algerians, displaced Palestinians in Gaza currently face starvation and receive woefully insufficient humanitarian assistance and medical care. These reports are important for investigating allegations of violations of international law, which are examined elsewhere, but they are also generating global outrage similar to the international condemnation of French actions in Algeria.

Likewise, these actions are counterproductive as they increase support for armed Palestinian resistance, as indicated in an Arab Barometer survey.

The French ultimately accepted Algerian independence in 1962, five years after the French “victory” in the Battle of Algiers, seven years after the Philippeville massacre, 18 years after Algerian demands for federal autonomy, and 132 years after Algerian nationalists first used armed resistance against French occupation. Nonetheless, violence continued because of seeds sown during the war, shaping authoritarian rule in Algeria, the 1990s Algerian civil war, and connections to global terrorism.

The current Gaza War mirrors the French experience of repeated resistance, as demonstrated by armed groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, which emerged largely as a result of Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon after its 1982 war against the PLO in that country. This demonstrates that even if Hamas is militarily defeated, if Palestinian political demands and underlying grievances are not addressed, another armed resistance group will emerge.

Americans must learn from these lessons by understanding the full context of the current war in Gaza and recognize the ultimately self-defeating impact of Israel’s pursuit of an overwhelmingly brutal military “total victory,” facilitated by unconditional U.S. support.

Soldiers of the National Liberation Army during the Algerian War of Independence. (Museum of African Art/wikimedia)

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