Reflecting on the horrific crimes against humanity committed in Israel on October 7th, I am reminded of the controversial Oglala Lakota activist Russell Means who once said, “The Palestinians in Gaza are the American Indians of the Middle East.” I say controversial, not just because of comments like this, but also because of comments even more incendiary he made during his lifetime. Means was a blunt, and sometimes offensive social critic, but he was also often capable of keen observation—such as his recognition of a connection between the histories of Native Americans and Palestinians.
Imagine being Native American during the colonial period and realizing one day that the land that you grew up on—ground walked by your ancestors for centuries—no longer belonged to you, and probably never would again. What must it have been like to watch, in slow-motion, over the arc of a lifetime perhaps, as waves of pasty-faced settlers from across the seas, surrounded you and took everything you held dear?
A key reason Maryland is no longer the sovereign territory of the Piscataway, or the Patuxent, or the mighty Susquehannock Indigenous peoples is because they were all at some point out-numbered and out-resourced by settlers. This must have been what Russell Means was referring to when he identified with the fate of the Palestinians.
To be Palestinian today is to know that you have no friends in this world. Israel has the U.S. to smooth-over its transgressions and Hamas, Hezbollah and Palestinian militant groups have Big Brother Iran to turn to in their hour of need, but who has a kind word for the peaceful Palestinian?
The attacks of October 7th shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone reading recent news reports coming out of that part of the world. For years, Palestinians have been complaining about the open-air prison-like conditions of Gaza, and violent forced expulsions in the West Bank.
Both Jews and Arabs have ancient claims to Palestine, but after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, it was agreed that Israelis and Palestinians would try to live on the land peacefully, side-by-side, in two separate nations. Along with Gaza and East Jerusalem, the West Bank grazing communities are a critical part of Palestinian plans for its own state. This notwithstanding, Palestinians are being systematically forced from the land.
According to a UN report released just last month, “Settler violence has been increasing across the West Bank. Three settler related incidents per day have occurred on average in the first eight months of 2023—the highest daily average of settler-related incidents affecting Palestinians since the UN started recording this data in 2006.” Israeli settlers are using harassment, threats, violence and intimidation to force Palestinians from their land in a government sponsored, coordinated and resourced campaign.
One Israeli settler put things plainly for the New York Times when asked recently about the growing number of settlements in the West Bank, “It’s not the nicest thing to evacuate a population,” said Ariel Danino, who lives on a West Bank outpost. “But we’re talking about a war over the land, and this is what is done during times of war.” A former Israeli Army colonel, Shaul Arieli, was even more blunt, “The goal is to strengthen the Jewish presence in key areas in the West Bank in order to prevent the feasibility of a Palestinian state.”
The settlements are regarded by the global community as violations of international law, and yet their numbers increase. After the appointment of Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich as the official responsible for overseeing the settlements, their numbers are projected to grow. According to ABC News, after his appointment, “Smotrich moved swiftly to approve thousands of new settlement homes, legalize previously unauthorized wildcat outposts and make it more difficult for Palestinians to build homes.”
ABC News also reported that “Smotrich has said he seeks to double the settler population, build up roads and neighborhoods and erase any remaining differences between life for Israelis in the West Bank and within Israel proper. Along the way, he hopes to destroy any Palestinian hopes of independence.” According to Ilan Paz, former head of Israel’s Civil Administration, a military body overseeing civilian affairs in the West Bank, “If Smotrich keeps his position for four years, we will be at a point of no return.”
After a group of armed Israeli settlers entered his home without his permission early one morning and harassed him, Muhammad Mleihat, a Palestinian herder, tried to describe the incident to the New York Times. “Imagine what it is to leave a place you’ve lived in for 40 years,” he said. “They entered our front door several times. They wanted us to attack them so the security services would have a reason to arrest us.”
Polls show a majority of Israelis and Palestinians are skeptical of a two-state solution. There is simply no trust left, and the Settlements are only making matters worse. It is clear that Israel’s survival depends on defeating Hamas, but an eventual peace with Palestinians will require negotiation. Not only do the settlements erode the trust necessary for productive peace talks, they strengthen the hands of Hamas and Iran.
Palestinian-American writer Dr. Hala Alyan recently published an op-ed in which she endeavored to communicate the feeling of loss, hopelessness, and dispossession Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank have been experiencing for years: “One day,” she wrote, “a house is yours; one day it is not. One day a neighborhood is yours; one day it is not. One day a territory is yours; one day it is not.” The piece was an eerie reminder of a quote I recalled from my childhood from a school lesson on Thanksgiving and the Piscataway.
“A long time ago, this land belonged to our fathers, but when I go up to the river, I see camps of soldiers on its banks. These soldiers cut down my timber, they kill my buffalo, and when I see that, my heart feels like bursting.” –Satanta, Kiowa Chief, 1819-1878.