On February 26th of this year, the world witnessed an outbreak of untold savagery in the Palestinian town of Huwara perpetrated against town residents by vigilantes from nearby Israeli settlements. During this mayhem, settlers set fire to cars, businesses, and homes of Huwara residents, and killed one resident by gunfire as Israeli soldiers looked on and even assisted the perpetrators in committing these crimes. So depraved was this settler rampage that the Israeli military commander in the West Bank, Yehuda Fuchs described it as a “pogrom.”
The choice of the term, “pogrom” to label the carnage committed by these Jewish settlers was poignant. History is replete with examples of such mayhem committed against Jews by anti-Semitic European Christians, but the irony of Jews animated by similar kinds of racist animus toward the Palestinian “other,” and enlisting the same types of brutality against innocent Palestinian civilians, was particularly jarring. Sadly, it is no secret that Israeli settler violence against Palestinians has become routine in the Palestinian West Bank, especially in rural areas where groups of settlers target Palestinian farmers, often at gunpoint, while uprooting and setting fire to Palestinian croplands, especially olive trees (Fields, 2012).
At the time of events in Huwara, Israeli settler violence, was already on the rise, emboldened if not encouraged outright by the most settler-friendly, and arguably fascist government in Israel’s history. Trending at three attacks per day in February, settler violence is now averaging 7-9 daily attacks as documented by the Israeli human rights group, Yesh Din—with nary a condemnation by Israeli officials, and virtually no effort by Israeli authorities to prevent and punish this criminality.
Currently, as this settler regime continues its vengeful bombardment of Gaza, settlers in the West Bank have become even more brazen in their brutality—with Huwara as a model. Palestinian houses and cars are now being routinely targeted, vandalized, and set ablaze, Palestinian croplands ripped up and burned, and bodily attacks against Palestinians, above all olive harvesters, appear daily on the inventory of settler misdeeds.
In just one of countless incidents since October 7th, settlers in the West Bank town of Qusra near Nablus, shot and killed three Palestinians, and the following day attacked the funeral murdering another two men, ramming their cars into the funeral procession before stopping and opening fire on the procession. It is now the olive harvest in Palestine and in town after town, olive harvesters seeking to pick the crop confront setters with guns who threaten these Palestinians and order them off their own lands. Arguably the most revealing of this vigilantism in terms of motivation, however, occurred in the small Bedouin village of Wadi Seeq 10 kilometers East of Ramallah where settlers succeeded in terrorizing the residents so completely that the latter abandoned the village, fearing for their safety and leaving behind houses, livestock, and crops. Settlers have now taken possession of the village in what is surely a signal of the end game in this sinister activity.
It is tempting to view this settler violence as something so macabre and sinister as to be unique. There is, however, quite another way of understanding the Israeli settler-vigilante. This actor is actually the modern-day mirror image of a certain settler counterpart from the American colonial past. This genealogy not only imbues the Israeli settler with an identity as an historical actor. It enables a different kind of question to be posed about Israel settler violence: In what way is the vigilantism of the Israeli settler embedded in past colonial settler societies, and who is the Israeli setter-vigilante as an historical actor?
The Israeli Settler as Colonial Actor
In most major media accounts of settler terror against Palestinians, Israeli settler-vigilantes invariably escape critical categorization beyond the moniker of “extremist.” Portrayals of these perpetrators of violence invariably focus on the theme of fanaticism while presenting these figures as unsavory if misguided fringe elements in Israeli society. Such characterizations are naïve and incomplete.
The Israeli settler is the modern-day counterpart of a recurrent figure in settler societies worldwide but one specific example from American colonial history stands out in connecting the colonial past to present day.
In the early 19th century, in the American Southeast, most notably in Georgia, groups of settlers, believing themselves to be the deserving inheritors of American bounty and the rightful stewards of land in America, took it upon themselves to rid the landscape of those who would stand in their way. Their mission was to evict from the land those already anchored to the landscape whom these settlers believed to be impediments to their imagined vision of themselves and their rightfully dominant place on the landscape as ordained by God. Their target was none other than the Indigenous inhabitants of the American Southeast.
Motivated by theories of entitlement to land in the tradition of John Locke, and sentiments of superiority deriving from destiny and God’s will, these 19th century brethren of today’s Israeli setters squatted on Indian lands, burned Indian homes and croplands, stole Indian livestock and horses, and harassed and even killed Indians who failed to vacate their properties. These settlers, however, did not spring to life from any spontaneous impulses of self-organization.
For years, federal and state government officials along with voices from the white intelligentsia had been advocating publicly for the removal of Indians from the land contributing to a formidable “removal discourse” in American political, legal, and cultural life. These voices not only tolerated, but applauded acts of vigilantism against Indian groups as a useful instrument for helping accomplish what they were ultimately seeking through politics and the law—the removal of Indians from the landscape. Settler violence was a complement to this political, legal, and cultural climate. There was, in effect, a groundswell of support for Indian removal from the land, and the transfer of this group across the Mississippi to lands in the West. Settler violence was destined to play an integral role. What were the drivers of this project of removal and its complement of settler vigilantism in evicting Indians from their land?
Land Grab, Slavery, and Indian Removal
In the wake of the victorious Revolution against England, American colonial settlers were poised to be free of restrictions on acquisition of Indian lands that the English Crown had imposed on them. Nevertheless, administrations from George Washington through John Quincy Adams retained similar prohibitions on private acquisition of Indian land. Settlers who had expected freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness from the Revolution were furious at what they perceived as this betrayal.
Those in Georgia pressured the State into a “Compact” (1802) with the Federal Government in which the latter agreed to extinguish Indian title to lands in the State and reallocate the Indian lands to settlers. In the years that followed, settlers and state officials in Georgia, including the Georgia Congressional delegation as well as politicians from other federal and state jurisdictions, clamored for the Federal Government to act more decisively in extinguishing Indian title to land and evicting Indians from the landscape. Settlers, believed that they could hasten this process of displacement, and reap the bounties they believed themselves entitled to, by direct action on the land. What made conflict on the land seemingly more inevitable, however, and what elevated the role of settler violence against Indians in this conflict was an economy poised to transform not only the American South but the world economy as well.
In the early decades of the 1800s, following refinements in the cotton gin and newly developed hybrid strains of cotton, settlers, especially in Georgia, saw untold opportunities for cotton-growing with slave labor on plantations. Plantation agriculture, however, required land but much of the land in Georgia coveted by these would-be cotton growers was held by Creeks and Cherokees. Although the federal government was indeed securing land in Georgia from these tribes and reallocating it to settlers in the spirit of the Georgia Compact, settlers and politicians alike from the State demanded that the Government hasten the pace of these acquisitions and evict Indians from their lands. Finally, in 1828, settlers found a sympathetic voice in a fiery populist whose presidential campaign focused on a single issue—Indian removal. The candidate was Andrew Jackson.
A decorated army General who made a name for himself from campaigns against Indians, Jackson the populist also championed “states’ rights” when it came to Indian affairs. Following his election, Jackson in 1829 emphasized that if states themselves voted to extend their own laws over Indians, he would not enlist the power of the federal government to prevent it (Cave, 2003: 1332). Jackson was thus prepared to use both states’ rights and the federal government to remove Indians from their lands and transfer them to lands West of the Mississippi River.
Equally critical, Jackson was also amenable to direct action by settlers as a complement to an already well-established climate of fear associated with the campaign to remove Indians from their land and did not conceal his support for such efforts. In 1829, he famously signaled his advocacy of settler violence as a component of Indian removal when he suggested to a Congressman from Georgia who was irate at delays in extinguishing Indian title to land from the Georgia Compact: “Build a fire under them [Indians]. When it gets hot enough, they’ll move” (from Cave, 2003: 1339). Settlers who would build these fires had little reason to fear retribution from either federal or state authorities for their criminal actions.
In 1830, Jackson signed the legislation that defined his presidency and became the law of the land, the Indian Removal Act. Even before the Act became law, however, Cherokee and Creek Indians in Georgia, aware of the incendiary removal discourse within the halls of government and among the colonial population, alongside the violence being committed by settlers on Indian lands, began “voluntarily” removing themselves to lands in the West. In this sense, setter violence and intimidation was successful as a complement to the Law. One Cherokee chief, wrote to Andrew Jackson to complain that white settlers had invaded Indian country to “steal our property” and that federal soldiers in the area not only refused to help the Indians, but aided the vigilantes in hunting down and shooting Indians who resisted “as if…they had been so many wild dogs” (Cave, 2003: 1340).
The parallels with the actions of Israeli settlers are unmistakable. A highly charged legal and political climate, complemented by settler rampages on Indian lands in which authorities did nothing to stop these activities had rendered life impossible for Indians. The latter believed that they had little choice but to transfer themselves West and escape the violence.
Final Solution: Vigilantism and Transferring Populations
If settler violence prior to passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 was critical in creating splits among Creeks and Cherokees and compelling large numbers of these tribes to move West voluntarily, a vast array of vigilante groups, emboldened by passage of the Removal Law, emerged after 1830 to finish the task of evicting Indians from their lands. From horse thieves known as “The Pony Club,” to various paramilitary formations engaged in burning homes and crops and terrorizing Indians populations, settler vigilantism became even more widespread in the aftermath of the Removal Act as a weapon against tribespeople who tried to resist the Law and remain in their lands.
By 1838, even Cherokee who had resisted the Indian Removal Act and remained steadfast in their homes, conceded that the incessant settler rampages against them, along with inaction by the authorities, left them no choice but to accept removal and move West. What ensued under the auspices of the Federal Government was one of the sorriest criminal events in American history, the death march of 60,000 Indians from the Southeast to Oklahoma known as “Trail of Tears.”
In effect, settler violence had become an unofficial but acceptable expedient for carrying out a policy of forcing Indians from their land and insuring the promise of economic opportunity for Georgia’s white citizen-settlers (Pratt, 2022). In many ways, settler vigilantes in the West Bank are staking out a similar role for themselves in the model of Huwara and Wadi Seeq. These vigilantes are involved in an unmistakable effort to make life for Palestinians so unbearable that the latter imitate their Indian brethren from the American Southeast and leave their lands.
In the end, settler violence in the service of Indian Removal in Georgia reveals an unsettling resonance with the Israeli settler-vigilante of today. The pogrom in Huwara and the countless incidents of Israeli settler vigilantism, both urban and rural, are essentially historical mirror images of the White man’s vision in the American Southeast, differing in time and place but aligned in their mutual determination to drive the Indigenous from their lands. This symmetry emphasizes once again that Palestine is not alone in its encounter with settler colonialism and its impulses of dispossession and ethnic cleansing. From the West Bank and Gaza, these impulses to subdue and subjugate Indigenous people through the most hideous kinds of carnage are on full display for the world. It is incumbent upon the world to wake up to this lesson of history and stop the madness that is now fully transparent for all to see.
Cave, Alfred A. (2003). “Abuse of Power: Andrew Jackson and the Indian Removal Act of 1830.” The Historian. Vol. 65 (6): 1333-1353.
Fields, Gary (2012). “This is Our Land’: Collective Violence, Property Law, and Imagining the Geography of Palestine.” Journal of Cultural Geography. Vol 29 (3): 267-91.
Pratt, Adam J. (2022). Toward Cherokee Removal: Land, Violence, and the White Man’s Chance. Athens: The University of Georgia Press.