Colonization and Resistance
in North America and Palestine

Similar Historical Processes





William S. Abruzzi






This web page shows the similarity between the situation faced by the American Indians over a century ago as a result of American colonization of their land and the situation which exists today in the state of Israel as a result of Israeli occupation of what was formerly Palestinian territory.   What this comparison shows is that the social processes examined by anthropologists are universal and occur repeatedly throughout the world.  Some people say that "history repeats itself."   Others say that "those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it."   The perspective on this issue is somewhat different.   From an anthropological perspective, the specific events that make up history do not repeat themselves.  However, the processes which underlie historical developments certainly do.  We see it happen over and over, because historical developments are not based on the "culture" or physical characteristics of specific peoples, but rather on the ecological and social processes that underlie human behavior, be it the behavior of Dobe Ju/'hoansi, Inuit,  Dine', Americans, Israelis or Palestinians.



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When you have a massive immigration of one population into a region occupied by another population, such as happened with European immigration into North America and the later American migration westward, you are going to have a massive relocation and disenfranchisement of the indigenous peoples of that region.  Whereas Native Americans were once sovereign peoples who occupied vast territories throughout what is today the U.S. and Canada, their descendents today are among the poorest people in both nations and occupy very restricted portions of their former lands. American Indians offered considerable political and military resistance to the expanding Euro-American population, killing soldiers and settlers (civilians) alike.  Great warriors emerged  --such as Crazy Horse, Geronimo, Sitting Bull and others--  who became heroes to their people as they led the resistance to the loss of their land.   These leaders embodied both the military and spiritual qualities that made them leaders among their peoples.  As the Indians became increasingly unable to halt the westward migration and became dispossessed minorities within their own land, they turned to military and religious leaders who offered hope for a different future.


Many Indians turned ultimately to prophets who offered them hope, including Neolin among the Delaware, Tentskwatawa among the Shawnee, Handsome Lake (Ganioda'yo) among the Iroquois and Wovoka among the Paiute.  Specific local circumstances determined whether these movements were peaceful or militant.  The Ghost Dance, a non-violent religious movement that spread among the Plains Indians, became associated with the increasing militant resistance to American colonialism when it reached to the Sioux.




We can see the same process operating in Israel today.  Each dot on the map to the right represent a Palestinian village that was destroyed between 1947 and 1949 to make way for the construction of Jewish settlements.  A total of 418 Palestinian villages were demolished during those years, resulting in the dislocation of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.  According to Moshe Dayan, former Commander-in-Chief of the Israeli Army and member of the Knesset (the Israeli parliament):


 "There is not one single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab Population."


The Palestinians were relocated primarily to two regions:  The West Bank and Gaza.  This process was not unlike the American policy of creating reservations for Indians and then both forcing Indians to live on those reservations and controlling their movement on and off the reservations.  Just as the U.S. Cavalry was used in the past to keep Indians on the reservation, the Israeli Army (IDF) is used today to control the flow of Palestinians in and out of the West Bank and Gaza.  Security is the justification that has been used in both cases.



Location of the villages destroyed during 

Israeli occupation of Palestine in 1948.





Similarly, just as the size of the Indian reservations were continuously eroded due to U.S. population growth and to the need to accommodate the increasing number of Americans who were moving westward, so has the amount of land available to Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank been reduced due to continuing Jewish immigration and to the continued construction of new Israeli settlements in these two regions.  As shown in the map to the left, 323 Israeli settlements have been established in these two Palestinian regions between 1967 and 1996, and more settlements continue to be established each year.


Consequently, Palestinians perceive the loss of their land and their sovereignty in the same way that the American Indians perceive what happened to them.  Furthermore, just as the Indians resisted American colonization, so have the Palestinians fought Israeli occupation.





Israeli settlements established in territories 

occupied in June 1967


Furthermore, like the American Indians, faced with the overwhelming economic, political and military forces lined up against them, many Palestinians have turned to a religious ideology  --militant fundamentalist Islam--  that unites them as a people in their opposition to Israel and the U.S., which they see as the principal supporter of Israel in the world today.  In addition, just as the Indians turned to spiritual/political leaders such as Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull Tecumsah, Tentswakawa and Neolin in their resistance to American colonization, so also have many Palestinians and other Muslims turned to religious/political movements and leaders that personify their opposition to what they perceive as Israeli colonialism and American neocolonialism, including Hamas and Hezbollah.  And just as the Israeli and U.S. Governments today consider it necessary to eliminate radical Islamists, who they perceive as a threat to regional and global political stability, the U.S. Government considered it necessary to remove and arrest Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Geronimo and other Indian leaders who they believed threatened the peace in the 19th century. 


By studying revitalization movements such as the Ghost Dance, we can better understand similar movements elsewhere.  American colonization, for example, had a similar effect on the indigenous Hispanic population of New Mexico, which had occupied that region for over 200 years.  Political resistance emerged among the Hispanic population almost immediately following American occupation of New Mexico, and it took both political and religious forms.  Similarly, Spanish colonization of the Southwest led to the Great Pueblo Revolt in 1680 in which all of the Pueblo villages throughout Arizona and New Mexico united under a prophet named Pope'` to expel the Spanish from their land.  Similarly, Jewish dissatisfaction with both Greek and Roman colonization led to several instances of religiously inspired political and military revolt --beginning with the Macabbeean Revolt in the second century BCE, through to the revolt under Bar Khova in 132 CE.  Indeed, the Jews waged an almost continuous resistance to Roman colonization of Palestine during the entire first century CE.  Similarly, it would be impossible to understand the origin of Christianity if it were not viewed within this context (see The Jesus Movement).



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The direct occupation of the territory of a conquered people was recommended by Machiavelli as one of the most effective means for controlling conquored land and the subjugated people on that land.  According to Machiavelli,


Unless you establish settlements, you will have to garrison large numbers of mounted troops and infantry.  Settlements do not cost much and . . .(they can be established and maintained) . . . at little or no personal expense . . . (to the political leaders).  . . .  settlements are economical and more faithful, and do less harm; and those who are injured cannot hurt you because . . . they are scattered and poor.  (Machiavelli, The Prince, p. 10)


Both the U.S. and Israel have adhered to Machiavelli's directive.  The U.S. passed the Homestead Act in 1862.  As a result of this act, over 270 million acres of former Indian land was made available to American citizens.  Any head of household at least 21 years of age could claim a 160 acre parcel of land.  The Homestead Act produced many a "land rush" like the one pictured below and resulted in the complete U.S. occupation of Indian lands.  Most of the land that has been set aside for Indians is only a fraction of their former territories.  Moreover, most Indian reservations were reduced in size as the expanding American population required more land and resources.  As a result, most of the land that was eventually given to Indians was "marginal" land that was not desired by whites.  Furthermore, the colonization of North America by Euroamerican immigrants was rationalized and justified through recourse to the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, the belief that colonization of the entire continent was a mission ordained by God.





Scenes of the Oklahoma Land Rush, 1889








The Israeli Government has followed a similar policy.  The Israeli Government has, like the U.S., promoted an aggressive immigration program, which brings Jewish settlers to Israel.  These immigrants are the primary colonists of the new settlements in the occupied territories.  As Machiavelli noted, the settlements are "more faithful"They are more supportive and less critical of government policy with regard to Palestinian land, just as those living in the American West were more committed to the occupation of Indian land than were those living in the East.  Indeed, the settlers  --Israeli and American--  owe/owed their homes and their livelihood to that policy.  It would hardly be in their interests not to support it.  Israel also uses an ideological/religious justification for its colonization in the form of Zionism: the belief that the colonization of Palestine represents a reclaiming of the Biblical Kingdom of Israel.  As with the Indian-White conflict that occurred throughout the American West, Israel has been the scene of numerous violent confrontations between settlers and the Palestinians who have lost their land, as well as of an ongoing resistance by the Palestinians to the Israeli Government.  Both sides see themselves as the victims of the other side's violence.  This should not be surprising.  The Americans and the Indians viewed each other in much the same was as do the Israelis and Palestinians.



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The lesson in all of this is very simple:  while specific events of history do not repeat themselves, the processes that create history certainly do.   While many people frequently repeat the above statement as a warning against people acting today in a way that will result in outcomes that have occurred in the past, the statement does not reflect a realistic view of the causes underlying historical and contemporary social behavior.  The implication is that people are able to control the social situations in which they find themselves and to make different choices.   How likely is it that individuals who are directly involved in a situation involving social or political conflict are able to stand outside that situation and view it objectively?  Isn't one of the assumptions of thinking in social science terms that a given set of circumstances will likely (i.e., predictably) lead to a given set of consequences ("given a, . . . then b")?  Haven't comparable situations, including ethnic conflict, genocide and warfare, recurred repeatedly throughout history precisely because people will respond predictably to similar circumstances in similar ways?  Can we realistically expect people to act otherwise?  Is there research which suggests that alternate behaviors and reactions could realistically be expected?  What implications does the research on social and ethnic conflict have for both our understanding of that conflict and for developing and implementing public policy?




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Here is a recent article on the expansion of

Israeli settlements from The Economist:



West Bank settlements

Swallowing all before them

Oct 31st 2002
The Economist

Despite the intifada, Israel intensifies colonization of the West Bank

KNOWING that it will take more than a cut in subsidies to reverse what they see as the gravest threat to their dream of a viable state, Palestinians were underwhelmed by the Labour Party's decision to leave Ariel Sharon's coalition over the money that the Israeli government proposes to spend on settlements. There are now 123 Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and 12 in occupied East Jerusalem, housing some 380,000 settlers who share the territory with 2.4m Palestinians. They do not share it equally.

According to a recent study by B'Tselem, an Israeli human-rights group, the West Bank settler population doubled in size during the seven-year Oslo peace process, and the settlements' territorial reach has now been extended to cover nearly 42% of the West Bank. This huge expansion has been achieved largely through the construction of settler-only bypass roads and military zones which serve to integrate the settlements with Israel proper.

What was interim during Oslo has become formalised during the intifada, says Yehezkel Lein, a B'Tselem researcher. Under the fire of conflict, settlements, roads and zones have in effect become Israel's new military borders in the West Bank, enabling the army to isolate Palestinian villages one from the other, and to reoccupy six of the eight main Palestinian towns.

The changes are most noticeable along Israel's northern border with the West Bank and around East Jerusalem, two areas Israel seeks to annex in any final settlement with the Palestinians. This is where most of Israel's settlement expenditure is being concentrated, says Mussi Raz, a member of the Knesset from the left-wing Meretz Party. Chunks of the northern West Bank have been cut off by the “security fence”—actually a grid of barriers, roads, trenches and sensors—that it is now being created along the pre-1967 border.




Around East Jerusalem, the fence is mapped to go even deeper into the West Bank. Palestinians fear that it will eventually envelop not only the East Jerusalem settlements (which the Israelis do not count as settlements as they long ago unilaterally annexed the city) but also vast urban blocks, such as Maale Adumim, in the West Bank. The result, they say, will be to cut off the 276,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem and its environs from their West Bank hinterland. Moreover, the implantation of Jewish enclaves within the densely populated Palestinian areas in and around the Old City is being encouraged with government money.


This mixing of populations is presumably intended to prevent any return to the “understandings” on Jerusalem reached by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, especially at the Taba talks in January 2001. It is, says Menachem Klein, an adviser to the Israeli delegation at the talks, Mr Sharon's answer to Bill Clinton's “parameter” that what is Jewish should be Israeli, and what is Arab should be Palestinian.

A similar logic appears to be behind the 100 or so settler outposts that now pepper the West Bank, and whose “illegal” establishment Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the Labour leader and departing defence minister, had at last decided to reverse. Begun as caravans on tops of hills, the outposts often develop into “legal” settlements.

Take Itamar, a settlement near Nablus. Home to fewer than 500 settlers, it has established seven outposts, some ten kilometres (six miles) beyond its built-up area. Earlier this month, the last families from the neighbouring Palestinian village of Yanun were forced to leave their homes after years of armed harassment from Itamar's settlers. It was the first full evacuation of a Palestinian village since the 1967 war.

The Palestinians ask for a full freeze on settlement construction as a first step to their evacuation or dismantlement. They presented this demand to William Burns, the State Department's special envoy, when he was in Jericho last week. Mr Burns is touring the region with the draft of a “roadmap” to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict within three years. Among a slew of other demands, the roadmap calls for dismantling the outposts by December, and a freeze “on all settlement activity” by next May. But Palestinians believe that only a handful of the outposts will be removed, and Mr Sharon has consistently ruled out a freeze.



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Of Related Interest . . .





Putting Israeli Bombing of Gaza in Perspective








Genealogy, Politics and History

in the Book of Genesis



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Cultural Anthropology