Israel Report

August 2001         

America's Occupied Territories

By Michael Freund - August 8, 2001
Ever since Israel won Judea, Samaria and Gaza in the 1967 Six Day War, the United States has insisted on classifying these territories as "occupied." Ignoring Israel's biblical, historical and legal rights to the areas, and overlooking the fact that they were taken in an act of self-defense by a country threatened with extinction by its neighbors, American presidents have stubbornly held to the view that Israel should "return" Judea, Samaria and Gaza and cease settling its citizens there.

In adopting such a position, the US has essentially rejected the principles of acquiring territory through the use of force and settling citizens in "foreign" lands. There is, however, something quite ironic about this stance because it was exactly these two principles that lay behind the successful expansion of the United States itself. Indeed, were it not for the westward flow of settlers across the North American continent in the 19th century and America's subsequent acquisition of territory by force, the world's only superpower might otherwise have amounted to little more than a small, backwater nation.

One of the more conspicuous examples in American history is that of Florida, a state made famous last year for its pivotal role in President George W. Bush's election. After Spain regained control of Florida from the British in 1783, a series of boundary disputes erupted between Spain and the US about delineating the northern border of the Florida territory. Even as the two sides bickered, American settlers poured in to Florida, tilting the demographic balance.

In 1810, a revolt against Spanish rule in West Florida prompted president James Madison to dispatch American troops, who occupied the area, which then became part of the state of Louisiana and the Mississippi Territory in 1812. The American settlers, of course, welcomed the move.

Local Indians, fearing for their future, stepped up attacks on white settlers in East Florida, and did not hesitate to cross the contested border and attack American communities. After Indians ambushed a ship carrying US troops and their families and brutally massacred most of them on November 30, 1817, president James Monroe, Madison's successor, sent in General Andrew Jackson, who subdued the Indians, overwhelmed the Spanish garrisons and returned home a national hero.

Faced with the inevitable loss of its territory, Spain agreed to sign the Adams-Onis Treaty of February 22, 1819, in which it sold Florida to the United States for $5 million. But the sale essentially formalized what had actually been achieved through force of arms. In modern parlance, then, Florida might very well be considered American-occupied territory.

American history is rife with other such examples. As a former governor of Texas, Bush is no doubt aware the state was previously Mexican territory. Though Mexico invited Americans to settle the area in the 1820s, by 1830 the settlers outnumbered Mexicans in Texas by three to one, leading Mexico to clamp down for fear of losing control of the territory. In 1835, American settlers rebelled and launched the Texas Revolution, routing the Mexican army and declaring independence in 1836.

The breakaway state of Texas then sought American annexation, greatly angering the Mexican government. After the US Congress passed a resolution offering it entry to the Union, Texas accepted American control in July 1845, which promptly led to the outbreak of the Mexican-American War. When the war ended in 1848, a defeated Mexico handed over vast swaths of territory to the United States, which later became California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. And, of course, Texas.

Indeed, throughout the 19th century, the dispatch of American settlers beyond the borders of the United States played a central role in expanding the country's boundaries. States such as Oregon and Wyoming (US Vice President Dick Cheney's home), were both settled by large numbers of Americans, usually against the wishes of local Indian tribes and European rulers. The growing presence of the American settlers inevitably changed the status quo, and ultimately led such states out of European and Indian hands and into American arms.

As historians have noted, much of this expansionism was propelled by a popular belief in "Manifest Destiny," the sense that America had a divine right to occupy the North American continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Unlike Israel, however, America had no historic or biblical ties to the land that might have justified its policy. But that did not stop America from pressing forward and building a great nation.

So before the United States decides to preach to Israel about the wisdom of building Jewish settlements or holding onto Judea, Samaria and Gaza, it might do well to take a look back at its own past. For if one were to take the American government's stance vis-ˆ-vis Israel's territories and retroactively apply it to America's own acquisition of land throughout history, there would be plenty to keep the United Nations Security Council busy for quite some time.

Once America decides to return Florida to Spain or California to Mexico, it can then feel free to offer advice to Israel. After all, why should America view its own "occupied" territories any differently from those of Israel?

(The writer served as deputy director of Communications and Policy Planning in the Prime Minister's Office from 1996 to 1999.)

©2001 - Jerusalem Post

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