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The Palestinians and Israel: A Modern Day ‘Trail of Tears’

The treatment of Native Americans more than 100 years ago cannot provide an exact comparison to the situation of Palestinians today – but there are striking similarities, writes Alexandra Hall Hall

Palestinians mourn the death of relatives killed in an Israeli bombing on a house in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on 10 January. Photo: Ismael Mohamad/UPI/Alamy

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The Palestinians are a classic example of a ‘dispossessed’ people, who for reasons of wider geopolitical developments beyond their control, suddenly find themselves struggling to retain rights within the land in which they were born.

The creation of Israel in 1948 led to the uprooting of more than 700,000 Palestinians from their homes – a deeply traumatic event known as the Nakba or “catastrophe”. Seventy-five years later, most descendants of those exiles are still living in refugee camps around the region, whilst clinging onto the unrealistic dream of one day being able to return.    

What we are witnessing now in Gaza is a second great ‘dispossession’ – as the residents of that enclave are driven by Israel’s military into ever smaller territorial confines, and Israeli Government ministers openly float the idea that Gazans should be permanently re-settled elsewhere. Of course, in the face of international opposition, as well as the charges of genocide laid against Israel at the International Court of Justice, the Israeli Government is rapidly backtracking, emphasising the measures it has taken to protect civilian lives, and insisting that it has no intention of permanently re-occupying Gaza or removing its residents. 

But, in practice, the damage has been done. More than 23,000 people in Gaza have been killed during Israel’s military campaign, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry. Nearly 85% of Gaza’s people have been driven from their homes, a quarter of the territory’s residents face starvation, and much of northern Gaza has been reduced to rubble. Even if most Gazans are eventually able to return to their homes after the fighting stops, most means of livelihood have been obliterated; and their every future movement is likely to be tightly circumscribed by Israeli security. They might technically remain on their land, but not in any meaningful sense in possession of it. 

Meanwhile, illegal Israeli settlements continue to be built on Palestinian lands in the West Bank. 


The Conquest of Native Americans

In searching for a historical analogy, it occurred to me that a good parallel might be the Native Americans in North America, who, as a result of waves of mostly white European immigration and territorial expansion westwards, were steadily driven out of their own homelands, into ever smaller “reservations”. 

One of the most notorious episodes was the so-called “Trail of Tears” – involving the forced relocation during the 1830s of approximately 100,000 Native Americans, including the Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole tribes, to Native American Territory west of the Mississippi river. Estimates suggest that some 15,000 died during this journey. 

According to the website History.com, these particular tribes had originally tried to cooperate with the settlers, becoming known as the “Five Civilised Tribes”. But their rich lands were coveted by the new arrivals, who often resorted to violent means to seize them – including stealing livestock, looting and burning houses, and squatting on land which did not belong to them. 

History.com goes on to describe how in 1830 President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, giving the Federal Government “power to exchange Native-held land in the cotton kingdom east of the Mississippi. This law required the Government to negotiate removal treaties fairly, voluntarily and peacefully…. However, President Jackson and his Government frequently ignored the letter of the law and forced Native Americans to vacate lands they had lived on for generations. The Federal Government promised that their new land would remain unmolested forever, but as the line of white settlement pushed westward, ‘Indian Country’ shrank and shrank. In 1907, Oklahoma became a state and Indian Territory was considered lost”.

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Of course, the treatment of native Americans more than 100 years ago does not provide an exact comparison to the situation of Palestinians  today, not least since the Jews, unlike the white American settlers, can point to a genuine historical and religious connection to Israel, going back thousands of years. It’s also true that while many of the American settlers were fleeing religious persecution or poverty, there was nothing to compare with the horrors of the Holocaust.

Nevertheless, there are many striking similarities. 

The US’ self-serving concept of manifest destiny – the belief that the expansion of the United States was divinely ordained, justifiable, and inevitable – was extensively used in the 18th and 19th Centuries to rationalise the removal of Native Americans from their homelands. 

This is not entirely dissimilar to the early Zionist narrative of Palestine as “a land without people for a people without land”, an empty homeland waiting to be “redeemed” by Jews in exile. 

Most white arrivals, including some of America’s founding fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson, regarded the Native Americans as culturally inferior. In particular, they believed the Native Americans were not using the land to its full potential as they reserved large tracts of unspoiled land for hunting, leaving the land uncultivated. If it was not being cultivated, then the land was being wasted – thereby justifying their takeover of it. 

This is akin to another Zionist myth, that before their arrival, Palestine was a neglected desert, and that it took the work of Zionist settlers to “make the desert bloom”. 

In America, not only did the white settlers systematically cheat the native Americans with false promises, but they also seized the best lands for themselves, making it harder for the Native American tribes to survive. Not incidentally, the settlers also slaughtered the buffaloes, central to many Native Americans’ way of life, to the verge of extinction. Sometimes this was just for fun, but it was also seen as a way to starve the tribes into submission. Apparently one hunter, who felt some guilt after shooting 30 bulls in one trip, was told “kill every buffalo you can! Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone”.

In similar fashion, violent Israeli settler attacks against Palestinians particularly target farmers. 45% of agricultural land in the West Bank and Gaza is planted with olive trees, providing a quarter of the region’s gross agricultural income, supporting about 100,000 families. According to research from the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem, more than 800,000 Palestinian olive trees have been uprooted by Israeli authorities and settlers since 1967.

Courts in both the US and Israel have tried, and failed, to protect the locals from violent settler attacks and land seizures. 

In the US, several state governments passed laws limiting Native American sovereignty and rights, despite US Supreme Court rulings that native nations were sovereign nations “in which the laws of Georgia [and other states] can have no force”.

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The Israeli High Court has imposed limits on some of the settlers’ excesses, including by barring settlement construction on Palestinian property, yet in other cases facilitated land grabs and Palestinian displacement.  

In neither country do the courts provide long-term protections. For example, in Israel, many analysts believe that the Netanyahu Government’s recent attempts to increase its control over the High Court is partly aimed at curtailing the court’s ability to limit government actions in the West Bank. 

Meanwhile, in 2022 the US Supreme Court overturned nearly 200 years of precedent recognising the right of tribal nations to self-govern without being infringed by states, by ruling that state governments have the authority to prosecute certain cases on tribal lands. Native American leaders worry that this could lead to further judgments overriding tribal authority, for example, concerning environmental regulation or child rights. In a scathing dissent, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote “where this Court once stood firm, today it wilts”. 


‘Savagery’ and Extremism

Much is made of the failures of Palestinian leadership – represented by the ineffective, corrupt Palestinian Authority on the one hand, or the brutal, terrorist Hamas, on the other, whose appalling attacks on 7 October precipitated this latest round of bloodletting. 

But Palestinian society was relatively advanced and sophisticated amongst Arab cultures at the time Israel was founded, and Jewish-Muslim relations relatively harmonious. Arguably, it was the shock of the Nakba which blew apart Palestinian society; and the never-ending series of humiliations and setbacks since then, which led so many Palestinians to embrace extremism instead.  

The French nobleman, Alexis de Tocqueville, who chronicled American democracy in the 1830s, observed a similar phenomenon when he described the pernicious effect of white settlement on the Native Americans. “Life for the Indians became more disorderly and less civilised… Their moral and physical condition deteriorated, and by becoming more wretched and oppressed, they also became more barbarous”. 

And indeed, the outcome was largely the same for all Indian tribes, whether they tried to live peacefully alongside the settlers or resist them. Those who cooperated were betrayed, as pledges and treaties were broken. Those who tried to fight back suffered fierce reprisals. The Native American practice of scalping their enemies, and the brutal nature of some of their attacks, allowed hostile settlers to portray them all as godless savages, whose removal was essential to white survival – just as some Israelis today portray all Palestinians as “animals” whose elimination is necessary.  

Israeli criticisms of Palestinian actions also conveniently overlook cases of Israeli terrorism against Palestinians. The most notorious example took place on 9 April 1946, when the Zionist paramilitary groups Irgun and Lehi killed more than 100 Palestinian villagers, including women and children, in Deir Yassin, a village near Jerusalem, despite having earlier agreed to a peace pact. Some of the Palestinians died during battle, others were killed while trying to flee or surrender, or were later executed, after being paraded in West Jerusalem, where they were jeered at, spat at, stoned, and eventually murdered.

Native Americans suffered similar violent attacks, such as the massacre at Wounded Knee on 29 December 1890, which involved the slaughter of approximately 150-300 Lakota Indians by United States Army troops in southwestern South Dakota

Who is to say who are the real “savages” in such cases? 

America’s Indian Tribes were consistently outgunned and outmanoeuvred by the white settlers, drawing numbers and strength from successive new arrivals from Europe. Likewise, the balance of power is overwhelmingly in Israel’s favour, backed by the US and other major western powers.

The Israeli Government makes no secret of its continuing territorial ambitions. Itamar Ben-gvir, the National Security Minister, has urged settlers to “run for the hilltops, settle them.” Bezalel Smotrich, the Finance Minister, has written that settlement expansion is key to “imposing sovereignty on all Judea and Samaria”. Prime Minister Netanyahu has declared that the Jewish people have “an exclusive and indisputable right to all areas of the Land of Israel,” including the West Bank. 

De Tocqueville felt that the Indians “had only two paths to safety: war or civilisation; in other words, they had to destroy the Europeans or become their equals.” But the Indians “never wanted to adopt the civilisation of the Whites, or when they finally desired to do so, it was too late”. 

The question is whether the  Palestinians are equally as doomed? Will they ever reconcile themselves to the existence of Israel, and try to make a viable future for themselves out of what they have left, peacefully alongside their neighbours? Or will they continue to resist, including sometimes through terrorism, trapping themselves in a tragic cycle of reprisal and loss, from which they can never emerge the winners? 

And if the Palestinians ever finally do offer a full hand of friendship and peaceful co-existence to the Israelis, will the latter accept? Will the Israelis cease their territorial encroachment, and allow the establishment of a proper Palestinian state? Or, will extremist Israelis be allowed to keep hounding the Palestinians further, until it is them who are pushed “into the sea?”



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