[News] Using Indigeneity in the Struggle for Palestinian Liberation

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Aug 9 15:48:28 EDT 2019


  Using Indigeneity in the Struggle for Palestinian Liberation

by Ahmad Amara <https://al-shabaka.org/en/author/ahmad-amara/>, Yara 
Hawari <https://al-shabaka.org/en/author/yara-hawari/> on August 8, 2019


On Indigenous People’s Day in 2018, several Palestinian human rights 
organizations released a statement 
called on the international community “to center Native history as the 
necessary beginning of historical reconciliation and a collectively 
emancipatory process of decolonization.” The statement demonstrated how 
indigeneity has recently re-emerged within the discourse on Palestine 
and is becoming a central facet of political mobilization. It also 
highlighted the increasing links between Palestinians and indigenous 
communities across the globe and the collective nature of 
decolonization, which constitute important tools in the ongoing struggle 
against settler colonialism worldwide.

But what does this mean in practice for Palestinians engaged in the 
liberation struggle and how can it be harnessed to further Palestinian 
rights and sovereignty?

This commentary addresses these questions by fleshing out the notions of 
settler colonialism and indigeneity and the relationship between the two 
through an exploration of the process of Israeli settler colonialism 
that created Palestinian indigeneity. It then discusses the limitations 
of the application of international law to indigenous struggles and 
concludes with thoughts on how to better incorporate the notion of 
Palestinian indigeneity in the Palestinian quest for freedom, justice, 
and equality.

    *Settler Colonialism and Indigeneity*

Cases of settler colonialism have their particularities, though they 
have much in common. Indeed, while there are characteristics unique to 
the colonial experience in Palestine, the Zionist project is not 
exceptional as it follows a pattern of European invasion and domination. 
Similar to other settler colonial movements, the early Zionists claimed 
European superiority. Yet at the same time they claimed to be indigenous 
returnees to Palestine based on biblical narratives. In this way they 
were able to put forward the narrative that they were the rightful 
owners of the land. For example, the notion that only the Zionist 
settlers can make the “desert bloom” in Palestine is both a reference to 
the biblical narrative and therefore their supposed autochthonous 
“indigeneity,” as well as to their ostensible superiority in culture and 
knowledge and the productivity characteristic of European capitalism.

Thus the Zionist movement both used biblical autochthonous indigeneity 
and acknowledged Zionism as a colonial endeavor. Zionist leader Chaim 
Weizmann exemplified the colonial stance in the following 1947 statement 

Other peoples have colonized great countries, rich countries. They found 
when they entered there backward populations. And they did for the 
backward populations what they did…I would like to say that, as compared 
with the result of the colonizing activities of other peoples, our 
impact on the Arabs has not produced very much worse results than what 
has been produced by others in other countries.

Weizmann and his peers not only acknowledged the colonial nature of 
Zionism, they also regarded the “Arabs of Palestine” with similar 
disdain as other colonialists did with other native peoples.

The Zionist movement established various agencies that sought to help 
European Jews appropriate land and settle in Palestine, such as the 
Palestine Jewish Colonization Association. It worked to dominate the 
indigenous people to make room for settlers. The settlers as well as the 
indigenous people understood the nature of this settler colonial 
enterprise. Indeed, during this period many Palestinians were worried 
about the “settle to replace” impetus behind the Zionist movement, and 
continuously objected 
<https://www.palestine-studies.org/jq/fulltext/165370>to both British 
and Zionist colonialism in Palestine through public demonstrations, 
official petitions, political mobilization, and writing in the 
Palestinian press. Two main newspapers, /Al-Karmil /and 
/Falastin,/frequently published on Zionism and its impact on Palestine 
and Palestinians.

Later, in the decades following the 1948 Nakba, Palestinian scholars and 
revolutionaries engaged with the notion of indigeneity through work on 
settler colonialism. In 1965 Fayez Sayegh published 
paper “Zionist Colonialism in Palestine,” which  describes Israel as a 
“settler state” and explains that its racist characteristic is not 
acquired but “inherent in the very ideology of Zionism.” This early work 
is particularly important as it discusses the settler colonial reality 
in Palestine before the 1967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza 
Strip, and Golan Heights and stresses the colonial nature of the Zionist 
enterprise from its inception, countering the common assumption that the 
“problem” lies with Israel’s 1967 occupation.

Scholarship in this vein followed Sayegh’s article, including George 
Jabbour’s book, /Settler Colonialism in Southern Africa and the Middle 
East/(1970), Maxime Rodinson’s /Israel: A Settler-Colonial 
State?/(1973), and Elia Zureik’s /The Palestinians in Israel: A Study of 
Internal Colonialism/(1979). These later works linked Israel’s policies 
with those of apartheid South Africa, contributing to an emerging 
Western academic current that centered settler colonialism in its 
analysis of Israel.

In a 1982 interview with Giles Deleuze, founder of the /Journal for 
Palestine Studies /Elias Sanbarstated 

We are also the American Indians of the Jewish settlers in Palestine. In 
their eyes our one and only role consisted in disappearing. In this it 
is certain that the history of the establishment of Israel reproduces 
the process which gave birth to the United States of America.

This comparison of the Palestinian struggle to that of the indigenous 
peoples on Turtle Island (as many indigenous people refer to the North 
American continent) allows an understanding of the structures of power 
and domination that settler states share. Still, Chair of the Palestine 
Liberation Organization (PLO) Yasser Arafat, holding the commonly-held 
view of indigenous peoples as vulnerable and primitive, dismissed this 
comparison as far back as the 1980s in an attempt to reject notions of 
defeat and assert the steadfastness of the Palestinian people. He did so 
perhaps most infamously in 2004 when he proclaimed 
Palestinians “are not Red Indians” during his confinement in his 
Ramallah compound.

Yet in the 1960s and 1970s the PLO had primarily modelled its agenda, 
goals, and tactics on another struggle against settler colonialism: the 
Algerian Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), which had triumphed over 
French settlers. The PLO, identifying similar structures of invasion, 
sought camaraderie and expertise from Algerian leaders. The PLO would 
also later seek links with the ANC in their struggle against apartheid – 
the governing structure adopted by the South African settler colonial 

Comparing the Palestinian struggle to that of the indigenous peoples of 
North America allows an understanding of the structures of power and 
domination that settler states share 
To Tweet 

However, scholars and Palestinian leaders put the application of the 
settler-colonial paradigm to Palestine and affiliation with decolonial 
struggles on hiatus for several decades. Whereas in the first era of 
settler colonialism they had linked the history and political ideology 
of Zionism and the creation of Israel to the political project of 
Palestinian liberation, in the second wave they focused on Zionist 
ideology and political structures in terms of land policies, 
dispossession, Judaization, and infrastructures of control. This 
occurred particularly with the advent of the Oslo Accords in the early 
1990s, which framed Israeli settler colonialism as two conflicting 
national movements that would find peace within a two-state paradigm. At 
the same time, Palestinian civil society grew and NGOs began to focus on 
achieving freedoms within an international law framework and through 
rights-based advocacy. The limitations of this framework would soon 
become clear: Not only did it omit concepts such as liberation and 
sovereignty, it also limited the discussion of Palestine and 
Palestinians to the 1967 territories.

The past decade has seen a re-emergence of settler colonialism as an 
academic and analytical tool to examine Israel. The establishment of the 
journal /Settler Colonial Studies, /various edited collections, and an 
increase in academic events and scholarly production focusing on the 
topic have institutionalized settler colonialism as an academic field. 
However, there is a notable difference between the renewed focus on 
settler colonialism and its earlier usage as part of a revolutionary 
practice. Earlier works were tied to the political project of the PLO, 
whose goal at that time was to liberate all of historic Palestine from 
Zionist settler colonialism. In contrast, recent scholarship has emerged 
from the Western academy, which is not only increasingly neoliberal but 
also tends to favor a “de-politicization” of scholarship. Work that is 
challenging this environment by seeking to politicize and dismantle 
knowledge hierarchies is fighting an uphill battle.

The Israeli Zionist project is one of expansion and erasure of the 
indigenous Palestinian population. Scholarly work using this analytical 
framework has grown, yet indigeneity has not had the same level of 
engagement as settler colonialism, though the settler colonial paradigm 
necessitates it. While settler colonialism speaks to the Israeli state’s 
ongoing structure of violence and describes a situation of continuous 
replacement, indigeneity speaks to life before this structure, 
resistance during it, and visions for the future. In other words, 
indigeneity helps Palestinians articulate what they stand for and what 
they want.

Indeed, indigenous peoples are those who have suffered the settler 
colonial invasion and continue to suffer the subsequent structures of 
elimination. In Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s 1992 poem “The ‘Red 
Indian’s’ Penultimate Speech to the White Man,” he describes the 
settler-colonial logic of power and erasure and, unlike Arafat, likens 
the Palestinian case to the American one, adopting the voice of an 
indigenous American and pointing to a wholly dominating, continuous 

Columbus, the free, looks for a language
he couldn’t find here,
and looks for gold in the skulls of our good-hearted ancestors.
He took his fill from our living
and our dead.
So why is he bent on carrying out his war of elimination
from the grave, until the end? ^1 <#note-10352-1>

Indigenous peoples must be understood within this structure that 
persists after the initial event of invasion, described by Darwish as a 
“war of elimination” even after death.

    *Indigeneity and International Law*

After the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian leadership dropped much of its 
revolutionary discourse and adopted a narrative that followed the 
international law framework. The NGO-ization of Palestine and the focus 
on foreign donor agendas that emerged from Oslo has also led much of 
Palestinian civil society to use terms based in international law to 
articulate demands for rights. In 2007 the UN adopted the Declaration on 
the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in an attempt to further the 
rights of global indigenous peoples within an international law 
framework. While many celebrated UNDRIP despite its status as a 
non-binding document, it also faced serious criticism and debate, 
particularly from indigenous communities who felt that not only was it 
limited in its description of indigenous peoples, but that it also did 
not allow for indigenous sovereignty given the centrality it placed on 
maintaining the territorial integrity of existing nation states.

Following the main parameters of international law, UNDRIP takes the 
state as a given legal and political framework, as noted by Article 

Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any 
State, people, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to 
perform any act contrary to the Charter of the United Nations or 
construed as authorizing or encouraging any action which would dismember 
or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political 
unity of sovereign and independent States.

While UNDRIP frequently refers to the right to self-rule, it excludes 
the right of national independent self-determination and external 
sovereignty, which remains an aspiration for many indigenous peoples, 
including Palestinians. The declaration refers rather to indigenous 
autonomy or self-rule in internal affairs in order to preserve cultural 
identity. It therefore undermines much of the political aspirations of 
indigenous peoples as understood by the communities themselves. Of 
course, “sovereignty” means different things to different indigenous 
peoples, ranging from internal self-rule and cultural preservation and 
integrity to external self-rule through a process of decolonization. The 
former means autonomy within existing state structures while the latter 
connotes a de(con)struction of existing power structures.

This legal analytical approach to indigeneity also views 
colonialism as an event and not a structure. By failing to frame settler 
colonialism as a continuous process – and thus failing to use a settler 
colonial framework – the declaration misses many historical and 
contemporary injustices and leaps to a “post-conflict” situation by 
legitimizing contemporary colonial states’ existence. Moreover, the 
declaration lacks a serious discussion of a process of decolonization or 
elements that could contribute to such a process, such as historical 
justice processes or repatriation. Essentially, the legalization of 
indigenous struggles limits indigenous modes and ways of imagining a 
decolonized future.

Hence the UNDRIP not only undermines the political aspirations of many 
indigenous peoples; it also limits them to a certain definition. As 
such, many of those working on Israel’s suppression of Palestinian 
rights within the field of international law have preferred frameworks 
such as apartheid, particularly because apartheid is considered a 
serious crime under international law and has attracted international 
solidarity in the struggle against it. However, outside of international 
law, it is clear that apartheid and indigeneity are not mutually 
exclusive terms and that apartheid has been a mechanism through which to 
control and manage indigenous peoples.

The legalization of indigenous struggles limits indigenous modes and 
ways of imagining a decolonized future 
To Tweet 

Yet the use of indigeneity is more complex in the Palestinian case. For 
example, some who advocate for Palestinian Bedouin rights in the Naqab 
region have utilized indigeneity when working to secure rights for this 
group. Yet rather than affirm Bedouins’ rights as part of the 
Palestinian people as a whole and therefore work toward their 
entitlement to collective and individual rights, indigeneity has served 
as a mechanism of fragmentation. By privileging Bedouin indigeneity and 
not considering other Palestinians indigenous, this advocacy strategy 
puts the Bedouins in a minority category, dismembers it from its Arab 
and Palestinian contexts, and reinforces the stereotype of indigenous 
peoples as tribal and frozen in time. ^2 <#note-10352-2>

Recognizing Palestinian Bedouins as having a distinct culture and 
identity while also being part of the greater community of Palestinian 
people is crucial to a nuanced understanding of their struggle. The 
example of Palestinian Bedouins emphasizes the important intersections 
between indigeneity and nationalism, demonstrating that the two are not 
mutually exclusive. Rather, indigeneity can collectivize the experience 
of a national struggle.

It is important to note that this commentary’s critique and the 
reservations in it regarding the evolving legal discourses and 
categories of indigeneity are not to suggest the rejection of these 
discourses entirely. Rather, the analysis aims to stress the limits of 
“legal indigeneity” in particular and that of international law in 
general, and to point out the need to incorporate a more holistic 
understanding of indigeneity and indigenous aspirations of 
decolonization into the Palestinian national narrative.

    *An Indigenous Future*

Today Palestinians continue to be geographically fragmented across 
Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, and are scattered over the 
world in exile. Indigeneity connects these fragments to a single 
experience – the process of settler colonialism, also known as the 
continuous Nakba, or /al-Nakba al-mustimirrah/. It also connects these 
fragments to Palestine, their center of gravity. Indigeneity as a 
paradigm and an identity offers a focus and a re-centering of indigenous 
peoples that spans cultures, languages, and epistemologies. It places 
indigenous knowledge and understanding, particularly resistance to 
invasion and attempts at erasure, at its core. It offers a radical 
re-thinking of knowledge and knowledge production, in particular 
questioning what knowledge and historical sources are considered worthy 
and reliable.

This paradigm not only increases Palestinians’ understanding of their 
past and present, but also furthers their thoughts about the future. 
Indigeneity demands that Palestinians refocus their struggle on 
decolonization and liberation for all Palestinians. In this sense, it 
renders the current frameworks for “territory” and “negotiations” 
unsatisfactory in terms of delivering freedom and justice. Palestinian 
futures must be addressed in all their fragments, and this can only be 
done within an understanding of Zionism as a settler colonial project 
that rendered the Palestinian people indigenous. It is the colonial 
encounter that created the native and their new political reality. 
Indigeneity should therefore be treated as a political reality whose 
transformation comes with decolonization.

Harnessing indigeneity as a tool to achieve Palestinian rights and 
sovereignty faces serious challenges. The resurfacing of indigeneity and 
the settler colonial analysis remains largely found among academics and 
in certain activist spaces, with limited translation into the political 
arena. The Palestinian political representation within Israel has mostly 
sought to achieve “equal” rights within the state’s framework, and the 
PA seeks to establish a state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip 
(although this is now in question) within international legal 
parameters. Both have failed not only to achieve their political goals, 
but also to adequately incorporate the Palestinian refugees and their 
right to return and restitution.

Indigeneity offers a way to rethink the Palestinian political project as 
one that understands all Palestinians as indigenous people facing 
attempted erasure 
To Tweet 

The concepts of indigeneity and nationalism both contradict one another 
and overlap. Indigenous peoples can and do have nationalist aspirations. 
Just as other communities, they are pluralistic and their political and 
economic structures and aspirations may change. Yet an ongoing structure 
of elimination attempting to erase their indigeneity as well as hopes of 
constituting a nation defines their experience and aspirations. 
Indigeneity as a result offers a way to rethink the Palestinian 
political project as a more encompassing one that understands all 
Palestinians, wherever they may be, as indigenous people facing 
attempted erasure.

Moreover, indigeneity demystifies the Zionist project as something 
unique to Palestine and places it within a global context of settler 
colonial projects. This allows Palestinians to draw solidarity links 
with other indigenous peoples and to recognize intertwining threads of 
oppression. Considering a decolonial future is an important part of the 
(re)-shifting of the political paradigm. Indeed, Palestine’s struggle 
for freedom and justice must be recalibrated so that it re-centers 
Palestinian visions for the future, not a single vision imposed by 
outside forces determined to maintain the status quo.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 https://freedomarchives.org/
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