By Ali Abunimah
Citing the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans as a way to justify not recognizing the Palestinian right of return, as I've often heard people do, is usually disingenuous. The situation is comparable up to a point and then breaks down. Native Americans were ethnically cleansed as Palestinians were and are being ethnically cleansed. As a percentage of the US population today, Native Americans constitute less than one percent. We should support doing everything possible to recognize and support their rights, including returning traditional land as has happened to greater or lesser degrees in other settler-colonial countries including Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
The main reason people can flippantly say "well if you support the Palestinian right of return then you should support Native Americans returning to their land" in order to justify Israel not recognizing the Palestinian right is that there are simply so few Native Americans that the question does not really arise. Native Americans in the United States are struggling for survival, justice and recognition, but generally not by seeking the return of land that is now, say, a neighborhood of Chicago. Their struggle came poignantly to light recently in the affair of the US refusal to recognize tribal passports of the Iroquois Lacrosse team that was supposed to travel to the UK.
But imagine if the situation were more analogous to Palestine today in terms of numbers. Imagine if Native Americans constituted 30, 40, or 50 or even 20 percent of the population of the United States and that they lived in sealed reservations in conditions similar to those in the Gaza Strip or refugee camps in the West Bank or Lebanon?
If there were 30, 70 or 100 million people who identified as Native Americans and existed in such conditions, no one would be able to so flippantly dismiss either their right to return to their original lands or any challenge they would make to the legitimacy of the United States. The United States would have a legitimacy crisis and bloodbath on its hands.
On the positive side, Natives have documented claims of land ownership and occupation going back thousands of years. More recently, they signed binding treaties giving them "permanent" rights under British and US law. Palestinians don't have anything resembling this treaty right to the land.
On the negative side, the US "legalized" its theft of Native land with myriad congressional and court decisions. Natives have no "right of return" because two centuries of American law have effectively eliminated this possibility. Israel doesn't have anything resembling this edifice of law to justify its occupation of foreign territory.
So Palestinians have less of a right to return and Israel has less of a right to block their return. Roughly speaking, the situation is a wash.
But the point of this posting is correct: that the Native analogy doesn't work. Not just because of the different population sizes, but for several reasons.
For a similar claim, see Zionists: Occupied Territories = Manhattan. For more on the subject, see Palestinians = Na'vi and Indians, Palestinians Have "Deep Parallels."