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Zohra Drif’s Algeria memoir shows how occupation leads to terrible violence

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At first, Zohra Drif’s act of placing a bomb on September 30, 1956 in the Milk Bar in Algiers, a place frequented by French civilians, looks like a clear violation of the laws of war.

A closer look at the specific historical circumstances may qualify that judgment — and also expose the hypocrisy of some who condemned Zohra Drif, both then and now.

But in the end, this ethical discussion unfortunately does not matter. Zohra Drif’s message in her stunning, just-published memoir, Inside the Battle of Algiers, is that a people under occupation can never be completely subdued and will fight for their freedom with any means necessary. Terrible violence by the occupiers will eventually engender violence in return. Israelis and their supporters in the United States ignore this hard truth at their peril.

The modern Algerian fight for independence started on May 8, 1945, the very day France and its allies were celebrating victory over Nazi Germany. Thousands of Algerians demonstrated peacefully at the town of Sétif, in the eastern part of their country, arguing that they, too, deserved liberation — from a colonial apartheid system that had stolen their land and confined them to second-class status. French colonial forces opened fire, and in the days that followed somewhere between 6000 and 13,000 Algerians died, possibly more.

Still, the National Liberation Front (FLN) did not launch armed attacks until November 1954, a full 9 years after the massacre of Sétif, as the Algerians still hoped to move peacefully toward independence. The colonial regime responded to the first FLN attacks with ferocious, indiscriminate violence that made no distinction between civilians and armed resisters. There are well-documented accounts of French mass killings, bombing raids, torture, and gang rape. The French/American writer Ted Morgan, who was drafted into the French army, described in his 2005 memoir (My Battle of Algiers) how he beat to death an Algerian FLN fighter who had already surrendered. Algerians responded with atrocities of their own, including killing French civilians and mutilating bodies.

An informal Balance of Terror seems to have taken hold within the brutal conflict, in which the French recognized that if they went beyond certain limits, the Algerians would retaliate in kind. Then, in June 1956, the colonial forces broke one of the rules. First, they guillotined two captured FLN members, violating a tacit understanding. Then, the French or their colon allies planted a huge bomb at the Rue de Thebes in the Casbah, the segregated Muslim community in the capital of Algiers, that killed more than 70 people.

Zohra Drif explains in her memoir, “Before Rue de Thebes, neither the FLN nor the ALN (National Liberation Army) had any bombs, explosives labs, specialists in the explosives field, or activists prepared to place bombs in public places. . . our bombings were a response — completely necessary but not premeditated — to the bomb attacks perpetrated by European civilians against our people.”

Public opinion in France and elsewhere denounced the FLN bombings, often without inquiring too closely into French violence. A compelling scene in the classic film, “The Battle of Algiers,” illustrates this hypocrisy concisely. At a press conference, French reporters ask Larbi Ben M’hidi, a captured FLN leader, if putting bombs in picnic baskets is not unethical. He answers: “The French drop their bombs on our people from warplanes. Give us your planes and you can have our baskets.” (In reality, the French murdered Ben M’hidi after his capture. Zohra Drif’s book includes a vivid first-hand portrait of him, which shows painfully how much a man of his character and intelligence could have contributed to an independent Algeria.)

In fact, you could even argue that the actions of Zohra Drif and her colleagues may well have helped partly restore the Balance of Terror, and ended up actually sparing many more civilians, Algerians as well as even French.

But the hard truth is that once the Algerian conflict passed a certain level of savagery, the ethical question was barely relevant. The cold facts are that occupiers will use escalating violence to maintain their hold over a subject people. The colonized will fight back in every way they can, without paying strict attention to a system of ethics that the colonizer has long since thrown out.

The relevance to Israel/Palestine in 2017 is clear. Let us take Israel’s attack on Gaza in July 2014 as just one example. Israel and its apologists lied about the  “terror tunnels, ” supposedly aimed at civilians within Israel, even though the evidence is that Palestinian fighters used the underground passages exclusively to hit military targets. Meanwhile, the Israel Air Force blasted densely populated Gaza, and Israeli invading soldiers fired a total of 3 million bullets — nearly 2 rounds for every one of the territory’s 1.8 million people. The final death toll was more than 2000 Palestinians and 67 Israeli soldiers. But the international ethics discussion placed disproportionate importance on the Palestinian rockets — which killed a total of 4 civilians within Israel.

Again, though, the ethical debate unfortunately will come to matter little. Unless Boycott Divestment Sanctions and other peaceful measures start producing clear progress toward a solution, the Palestinians will continue to resist; Zohra Drif’s indispensable memoir points out that more than 120 years of French occupation did not break the Algerian people. The Israelis will become even more violent. And the Palestinians will not give in. They will fight back, using whatever means they can.

James North

James North is a Mondoweiss Editor-at-Large, and has reported from Africa, Latin America, and Asia for four decades. He lives in New York City.

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7 Responses

  1. JeffB on October 3, 2017, 10:43 am

    You don’t have to use the Algerians as an analogy. 120 years didn’t break the Jewish people. Pompy conquered Judaea in 63 BCE. The Bar Kokhba revolt started 132 CE. Odd that you don’t apply this idea to the Jewish people. You think that BDS will break them and they will agree to live under an Araby government or flee their homeland forever because of mild economic pressure.

    The problem with the Algerian analogy is that the Jews have already responded to FLN type tactics in quite different ways. An analogy with Israel would be if:
    a) After the French pullout the Pied-Noir had decided to fight on their own without France, though likely taking some French weapons.
    b) The Pied-Noir unified around a territorial section of Algeria with was economically viable, expelled large number of Algerians from their sectional territory and then created a fortress state in that territory.

    I think the Pied-Noirs win if they do that. France has far less reason to abandon Algeria if they don’t have to send 400k conscripts to hold it. The FLN has a much harder time attacking a fortress state from without than a France like state from within. The war in Algeria was not about whether the Pied-Noir could live their, but if they could live their as the managerial and upper class. This key difference between the Israelis and the Pied-Noir gets ignored the Pied-Noir were there to exploit the local labor. When they could no longer exploit the local labor they left. The Israelis are there for the land. The local labor is at best a nice to have. Or to put this another way, the Pied-Noir ultimately needed Algerian compliance and cooperation. The Battle of Algers was about trying to terrorize the population back into compliance and cooperation. The Israelis do not ultimately need Palestinian compliance nor cooperation.

    The other key difference is there is no France to retreat to. Coffin or suitcase, the Israelis choose the coffin and fight to take as many enemy as they can with them to hell. The Pied-Noir in a kill or die all out population war, would also have won.

    1937 was when the Yishuv made the choice not to be Algeria. The Palestinians would be better off if they worked to get into the situation of the Algerians. The analogy breaks down badly.

    These analogies IMHO have done more than anything else to damage the Palestinian cause. They continue trying to fight an anti-colonial war against a very different type of opponent. The strong global support for Palestine comes from the fact that their opponent is seen as colonizers. And while some of the symptomology is similar a permanent mass migration is a very different thing than an economic colony.

    The Palestinians have never been able to establish the (I think well named) “informal Balance of Terror” with Israelis. They keep trying but the Israelis keep being willing to escalate the conflict. And that’s because escalation is to the Israeli’s advantage while escalation was not the Pied-Noir’s advantage. Same problem that Israel’s neighbors have experienced.

    Zohra Drif doesn’t talk (at least in person haven’t read the book) a moral / legal frame. She speaks about people pursuing their rational self interest using the means available. Protecting the weapons lab is more strategically important than killing a collaborator. Not more or less moral. Terror is a tool for breaking political deadlock and advancing political aims not an alternative to it. On that I suspect she would disagree with the thesis in your article.

    As far as the issue with terror tunnels. The issue is that Gaza defines their war as defensive. If they are attacking Israel it isn’t defensive anymore. The Algerians wanted to conquer French Algeria not France.

  2. Eva Smagacz on October 4, 2017, 10:35 am

    Of all the arguments about what would give right to French to colonise Algeria, I favour the Christianity Excuse.

    Christianity excuse goes like this:

    Christianity spread to north Africa and Algerians have been Christian for several early centuries A.D, before converting to Islam.

    Over the following centuries, periodically, Europe was getting a foothold or two on the Algerian soil.

    And that’s it Folks!

    Because Algerian ancestors were christian in the past , and because they were invaded few times over the years by European Christians, that, so the logic goes, gave French European Christians perfect right for colonising Algeria.

    Can can anybody else see the similarity in logic employed by “a perfect little tiny” only demotheocracy in the Middle East?


    • JeffB on October 4, 2017, 11:54 am


      Jews don’t claim to be spreading Judaism. They claim to have been the descendents of the people of Judaea (Jew is literally just another form of Judean). Its the Palestinians who claim they were originally Jews in the time of Judaea, not the Jews, the Jews disagree and associate them mainly with later migrations into the territory. Finally, one of the central claims of Zionism is that Jews exist as a people separate from the Jewish religion.

      Exactly 0 of: Netanyahu, Olmart, Sharon, Peres, Rabin, Shamir, Begin, Mair, Eskhol, Sharatt, Allon, Ben Gurion believe the Jewish God even exists. None of them kept kosher. If Judaism is just a system of belief and practice in what sense are they Jewish?

      So cute attempt, but no it doesn’t work.

      • Mooser on October 4, 2017, 3:12 pm

        “Jews don’t claim to be spreading Judaism.”

        If we are going to support a “nation” and “Jewish State” we’d better get busy at it.
        Or maybe Israel will grow and stabilize while Judaism shrinks and claims it is too good to let anybody in.

        I must admit, it is amazing to belong to a community which only becomes more powerful the fewer people are in it, the less universal its religion is, and can only have sex nearly half the time.
        We’re bound to come out on top.

      • Eva Smagacz on October 5, 2017, 3:28 pm

        I am not claiming that Zionists use Christian Excuse.

        I am saying that similarity between Algeria and Palestine is based on use of Excuse, whatever it may be, by European Colonists who want to settle a North African country.

        Zionist’s Excuses are varied and many, and they have ability to transmogrify into another whenever argument becomes uncomfortable:
        Religious argument, race argument, nation argument, people without land, our pastsuffering is so exceptional, that stealing today is justified… and my favourite that you just furnished: Rules don’t apply to us arguments.

        Oh, and guys, please read my posts twice, before calling me a racist again.


      • Mooser on October 5, 2017, 6:52 pm

        “and my favoraite that you just furnished: Rules don’t apply to us arguments.”

        It’s my favorite, too. Usually “Rules don’t apply to us” makes sense only when it is backed by overwhelming power.

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