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Department of Political and Social Sciences

Settling Palestine: logics of (in)direct governance of Israel's occupation

Every year, about 30 researchers defend their PhD theses in the SPS Department. In order to illustrate the range of their research, each month the department selects and presents a dissertation notable for both its exceptionally high quality and general interest to the public.

15 September 2022 | Research


Why is the Israeli settler movement so powerful? Why does the 'powerful' Israeli state have so little control over a minority of its citizens? How is it that 'the tail is wagging the dog'?

The answer according to Youssef Mnaili's PhD thesis is that the state of Israel has become crucially dependent on the settlers for governing the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) it has held since the end of the Six-days war in 1967. Rather than viewing Israel's control over the OPT as reflective of a strong state, Youssef's thesis suggests how governance has been predicated on delegation practices, feeding a pattern of dependency on settlers and a shifting role for the army which in turn has constrained Israeli politics in fundamental and long-lasting ways. The thesis provides a theoretical argument that delineates the methods of indirect governance, the use of violence, bureaucratic blame avoidance, and forms of control that all speak directly to contemporary conditions on the ground. As such, it offers an analytical frame for understanding how the Israeli state and society have been transformed in recent decades.

The thesis reveals how many Israeli governments have been plagued by operational, reputational, and institutional capacity deficits that have hindered their attempts to govern the new territories effectively and to reign in Palestinian resistance directly with the Israeli army and other state agencies. To overcome these deficits, the Israeli government have mobilized different types of settlers who had the partial or complete capacity required by the state of Israel. At times, Youssef explains, the settlers offer mere strength in numbers since they can form a base of enthusiastic recruits into the army. At other times, they carry out surveillance over, and violence against, Palestinians, allowing official state actors to shirk blame for these unsavory practices. In return, the state has become increasingly dependent on the administrative, logistic and security services provided by settlers on the ground and on the recruits, they provide for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Youssef explains that this dependence eroded its control over them. This, in turn, gave the settlers the freedom to make the occupation permanent and virtually reversion-proof. The state cannot simply end the occupation but is forced to reproduce it thereby, inadvertently, further strengthening the settlers.

At times, the Israeli government has tried to impose some kind of control on the unrelenting settlers, though, Youssef argues, this has been accomplished with limited success. For their part, the settlers have reacted to an increasingly assertive Israeli state by either embracing more radical forms of militant violence or by seeking bureaucratic capture to insinuate themselves once again into state institutions and positions of power.

Empirically, the thesis builds on an extensive fieldwork in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories and engages with theories of settler colonialism, indirect governance, religious radicalism, and military sociology. It constitutes an innovative study of the Israeli settler movement and its historical evolution from the perspective of indirect governance and is one of a few studies focusing on radical right groups in a non-Western political context.

Youssef Mnaili defended his doctoral thesis at the European University Institute on 7 September 2022. Theoretically, his work focuses on State-Society relationships, Indirect governance theory and political economy. Empirically, his work covers the Middle East and Africa with a particular emphasis on Israel, Palestine, and South Africa. He is currently a GIAS postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Central European University Institute (Budapest) and the WISER Institute at Wits University (Johannesburg). Before his PhD studies at the EUI, Youssef studied at the International University of Rabat, Cardiff University, and Sciences Po Grenoble as Eiffel Excellency Scholar. He previously was the Mediterranean fellow at the NATO Defence College in Rome, and a library fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. Youssef's work has been published by the Review of International Organizations and supported by The Project on Middle East Political Science (Elliott School of International Affairs). Youssef is currently working on a book project based on his PhD dissertation.

Read Youssef Mnaili's thesis in CADMUS.

Last update: 15 September 2022

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