Settler Colonialism and the Case of Palestine: A Reflexion on Historical Trauma and the Presence of Neo Colonialism in the 21st Century


By Marcelina Horrillo Husillos

“For over 55 years, the Israeli military occupation has prevented the realisation of the right to self-determination of the Palestinian people, violating each component of that right and wilfully pursuing the ‘de-Palestinianisation’ of the occupied territory,” Francesca Albanese, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967, states in her report to the UN General Assembly.

Settler colonialism is perpetuated in the 21st century as we speak. It stresses  the “logic of elimination”, including the genocidal elimination of the indigenous people, their expulsion from the land, and a number of strategies to destructure and destroy the autochthonous society. It is a long-term territorial conquest that substitutes the indigenous population with settlers.

‘Genocide’ in Gaza is ‘the logic of an apartheid settler colonial state and it has no place in the civilized world,’ says Richard Boyd Barrett, Irish People Before Profit–Solidarity politician.

Israel’s behaviour in Gaza and the West Bank reveals a settler-colony unwilling to engage with the indigenous people of these regions, except through regular forcible removal of Palestinians and appropriation of their lands. What may be considered ethnic cleansing has been a tool for deliberately operating demographic change in the run-up to Israel’s founding in 1948, continuing up to the present-day. Since then, the genocidal statements, slogans of political leaders, and movements that promote the killing of Palestinian children have become crosshairs of apartheid in order to prevent new generations from settling and claiming back their identity.

“The Occupied Palestinian Territory lies above sizable reservoirs of oil and natural gas wealth, in Area C of the occupied West Bank and the Mediterranean coast off the Gaza Strip. However, occupation continues to prevent Palestinians from developing their energy fields so as to exploit and benefit from such assets,” said the study conducted by UNCTAD in 2019.

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), significant reservoirs of oil and natural gas have been found off the Gaza Strip and elsewhere under the occupied West Bank. In 2000, two wells drilled by British Gas off the coast of Gaza revealed gas reserves estimated at 1.4 trillion cubic feet. Sixty percent of those reserves belong to Palestinians. Today, natural gas reserves off the coast of Gaza have attracted the attention of British Petroleum and Chevron.

The opportunity presents itself for a final solution— expelling  the Palestinian people into the Sinai desert to clear the way for exploiting the natural resources. The Abraham Accords provide a cover for the Arab states—including Qatar, which hosts the biggest US base—to deceive their own populations.

The concept of historical trauma explains the gap between both communities and and the mutual denial that is wider than ever. Each side absorbed on its own trauma is unable to recognize the other’s party’s historical trauma, which may be the main motivator promoting the circle for the history repeating itself pattern.

“Massive traumas like these affect people and societies in multidimensional ways,” said Yael Danieli, PhD, cofounder and director of the Group Project for Holocaust Survivors and their Children in New York

Following Hamas’ Oct. 7th massacre of 1,000 Israeli civilians and kidnapping of 220 Israelis, Israel swiftly launched a relentless campaign of hatred, colossal destruction, and genocide against Palestinian citizens. Over a month into the conflict, Israel has slaughtered more than 17,000 Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, where approximately 70% are women and children and nearly all are civilians. The precise death toll remains unknown as bodies lay under the rubble of bombed homes, hospitals, schools, and marketplaces.

On October 29th Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invoked ‘Amalek’ Biblical rhetoric to announce genocidal intentions: “slay both man and woman, infant and suckling.” Israeli President Isaac Herzog declared: “It is an entire nation out there that is responsible.” Using dehumanizing language reminiscent of historical genocidal regimes, Israeli defense minister Yoav Gallant announced: “There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed. We are fighting human animals and we act accordingly.” Israeli military spokesperson Daniel Hagari explained, “The emphasis is on damage and not accuracy.” The New York Times reported “Israeli leaders believed mass civilian casualties were an acceptable price,” and officials cited “the dropping of the two atomic warheads in Hiroshima and Nagasaki” as a model.

Although Israeli-biased propaganda – Hasbara is a strategy of propaganda used by Israel that “seeks to explain actions, whether or not they are justified” – tries to deflect blame by accusing Hamas of using civilians as “human shields,” as “Hamas operations HQs [are] situated in a large network of tunnels below the main hospitals in Gaza”, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and United Nations investigators have time and again found no evidence for the accusation. These groups add that it’s illegal to kill human shields, and that bombing hospitals or any health units breaks international humanitarian law that should be respected in every war.

Neo-colonialism is the cruellest form of the continuation of colonial policies under the guise of achieving freedom and needs to find a stimulus to justify atrocities publicly. Settler colonialism needs public noise to create confusion and legitimize apartheid, crimes, destruction, and the settler subsequent expansion, which otherwise wouldn’t be easily digested by public opinion.

By the mid-1700s, the promoters of the Enlightenment in Scotland, England, and France were fine-tuning “four stages” theories to classify human societies according to imagined “stages of civilization.” Unsurprisingly, Enlightenment writers placed themselves at the “apex” defined as the European commercial society, with agriculturalists, then pastoralists, and lastly hunter-gatherers falling below them.

During the old western colonial times, people inhabiting lands sought for colonization were often describing these as “wasting” land, having “backward” food production practices, and being in need of “civilization”—all according to western definitions.

Beginning in the late 19th century, Zionists who initiated the nationalist project for Israel, a land that they considered their ancestral home, gave little thought to the Palestinians. Zionists were deeply informed by scornful views of small-scale farming and sheep-herding societies. British administrators during the Mandate period (1920-1948) developed a similarly dim view on much of Arab agriculture.

The Zionist project to “make the desert bloom” was based, in part, on damaging misunderstandings of Arab dryland wheat and baʿlī farming systems. Baʿlī planting, tillage, and plant protection methods, as demonstrated by Palestinian geographer Omar Tesdell, facilitate growing crops without irrigation,and have much to teach farmers in increasingly drought-prone regions.

“From Hawaiʻi to Palestine—occupation is a crime. A lāhui [Nation, race, tribe, people, or nationality] that stands for decolonization and de-occupation should also stand behind freedom for Palestine,” says Uahikea Maile, Assistant Professor of Indigenous Politics in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto.

Historical trauma

Psychological researchers and clinicians examine what the long-term impact of these and other traumatic events can have—not just on those who survive these tragedies, but on their children and grandchildren as well. Their varied efforts look at intergenerational effects of events as diverse as the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge killings in Cambodia, the Rwandan genocide, the cultural displacement of American Indians, and the enslavement of African Americans, as well as of large-scale natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes. Not only are the transgenerational effects psychological, but also familial, social, cultural, neurobiological, and possibly even genetic, the researchers say.

One way to understand the present events between Israelis and Palestinians is to see it through the historical trauma’s perspective. For both sides, some of the recent events have evoked memories of each community worst national suffering. For Israelis and Palestinians, this conflict has surfaced fears, that history could possibly repeat itself.

For many Israelis, the 9/11 Hamas attack evoked the most chilling memory of all: the Holocaust. Part of Israel’s creation story is the idea that Jews would no longer find themselves defenceless, that a modern state and a strong military would act as a guarantee against further exterminations.

Palestinians have their own trauma, beginning with the Nakba—the catastrophe that coincided with Israel’s founding in 1948. Approximately 700,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes and became refugees, many forcibly displaced by the nascent Israeli army. Most Palestinians in Gaza today are the descendants of those refugees. The Nakba is not the exclusive trauma of the 1948 refugees and their descendants. Like the Holocaust for Jews, it is the emotional inheritance of all Palestinians.

For years, Israel admitted that the Nakba never took place. Israelis accused the Palestinians of creating this fiction in order to delegitimize Israel. Only recently hasIsrael begun to acknowledge the incontrovertible facts of the Nakba, and the latest event will surely reaffirm these facts.

Among some Palestinians, there is also a trend to deny the historicity of the Holocaust, to claim that it never happened. For those who acknowledge the horrific crimes of the Nazis, many feel that the creation of Israel was an attempt to redress those crimes at their expense. Israelis largely view these claims as a polemical construct designed to delegitimize Israel and a manifestation of Palestinian antisemitism. So that’s where Israelis and Palestinians are as this conflict enters another week—triggered by their own traumas and reluctant to recognize the other side’s.

The renowned Austrian Jewish author and psychiatrist Professor Viktor Frankl, who was a Holocaust survivor, and founded the revolutionary theory in psychiatry named Logotherapy, always promoted forgiveness as the way to set yourself free from previous living traumas, as it will break the circle of hatred and violence:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” Viktor Frankl

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of any entities they represent.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Political Anthropologist.