Foot soldiers of the colonizer state

An Israeli soldier guards a group of settlers as Palestinians protest a new outpost near Ramallah in the occupied West Bank (Oren Ziv - ActiveStills)

Maureen Clare Murphy

The Electronic Intifada  /  January 21, 2021

Donald J. Trump may no longer be in office. But the fundamental racism of the US that his presidency made impossible to ignore has not changed.

Material change will require acknowledging the settler-colonial state for what it is and always has been. Until then, the toxic ideologies underpinning state policy will continue to churn under the surface.

President Joe Biden may preach unity and his supporters will compartmentalize the storming of the US Capitol on 6 January as an aberration. Many will view Trump’s presidency as a four-year nightmare that has now ended, ignoring the history and conditions that led up to his election.

Perhaps the most exceptional aspect of Trump’s presidency – which discarded the genteel traditions that put a veneer of respectability on a system that inflicts violence on so many – is that it forced those who would prefer to look the other way to see the US for what it truly is.

That truth – that white supremacy is institutionally embedded – was on display during the melee at the US Capitol.

Military service members joined the mob and the cooperation of law enforcement officers is strongly suspected, including by members of Congress. There are strong suspicions that some lawmakers played a role too.

Settler militias

The optics may have been shocking. But the fluidity between the ideologies running through the country’s foreign and domestic armed forces, on the one hand, and far-right militias and their fellow travelers, on the other, should be of little surprise.

Current and former military members were involved in the white supremacist violence such as the deadly 2017 confrontations in Charlottesville leading up to the incursion on the halls of US power.

Police unions overwhelmingly endorsed Trump’s authoritarian and white supremacist agenda.

The overlapping of the military and law enforcement with Trump’s militant white supremacist supporters is a living embodiment of the relationships and ideologies that drove the colonization of the continent and the United States’ founding.

Settler militias waged war against the Indigenous nations on the land that would become the US. The use of violence and terror to push out the existing population facilitated the state’s expropriation of Indigenous land.

The US’s earliest organized police forces were slave patrols dedicated to stamping out any threat to wealth accumulation from stolen lives and labour.

Tension occasionally bubbled up between the state and settler groups. But ultimately, they were working towards the same goal – expansion into Indigenous territories – with the settlers implementing the government’s aims.

The state is willing to loosen its monopoly on violence when it serves its interest – this mutualistic relationship between the US and its settlers is recounted in Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.

Final push

The US is not the only settler state where such relationships play out.

Israel finds utility in its violent settlers who enthusiastically deliver the final push in a state system of oppression to force Palestinians off of their land.

Israel frames its occupation of the West Bank in the language of security and law enforcement. But the truth is that everything Israel does is motivated by colonizing Palestinian (and Syrian) land.

Openly admitting that truth, however, would make it harder for Israel to sign military pacts with European states who wish to turn their territories into fortresses and use Israeli technology – “field-tested” on Palestinian bodies – to deny safe haven to refugees.

So it’s better for the colonizing power and its international allies if it is settlers, rather than uniformed soldiers, who set fire to Palestinian orchards and spray-paint racist graffiti on mosques and homes.

This even allows the Israeli state to sometimes pose as a moderating force between the settlers and their Palestinian victims, an additional pretext for the army’s presence on Palestinian land.

Israeli generals will occasionally bemoan settler violence, especially when settlers rebel against efforts to hem in their service to the settler-colony state. The settlers know that Israel couldn’t steal Palestinian land without them.

Settlers erect outposts on land forcibly stolen from Palestinians, squatting on it until it is eventually sanctioned by the state, which in turn formally recognizes the settlement and issues building tenders.

Israel seeks to extend its sovereignty to the West Bank in violation of international law and Palestinians’ right to self-determination. It is little surprise that its military does not stand in the way of the violent settlers who help create this coercive environment.

Israel’s maximalist annexation ambitions are laid out for everyone to see.

International bodies like the UN and EU may issue lukewarm condemnations when this violence becomes too severe to ignore. But lip service does little to protect Palestinians, their land and their rights.

The failure to leverage meaningful pressure can only be understood as tacit acceptance of Israel’s colonial agenda and the violence that imposing it requires.

Whether in Palestine or in the US, which bankrolls Israel’s military occupation, transformational change can only happen when uncomfortable truths are acknowledged.

As James Baldwin stated, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

The refusal to face a situation of injustice is to be complicit in its endurance.

Maureen Clare Murphy is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada and lives in Chicago