- Ruqaiyah Damrah
Palestinian Indigeneity: Identity Shaped by Oppression
Updated: Aug 3, 2021
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?
“The ‘Red Indian’s’ Penultimate Speech to the White Man” - Mahmoud Darwish
In his 1992 poem, national Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote through the voice of an indigenous American, likening the Palestinian struggle to the Native American one and highlighting the dominant, overarching structure of settler colonialism. Darwish, however, was not the first to claim indigeneity in his fight for Palestinian liberation. Indigeneity as a concept has been historically evoked by people suffering under a settler-colonial invasion and its ensuing structures of violence, and Palestinians have long been creating their own discourse of indigeneity.
Where do settler colonialism and indigeneity sit in the question of Palestine and Israel? Who can we refer to as indigenous? How should we incorporate Palestinian indigeneity into liberation and equality movements? This article explores these questions by addressing common arguments around indigeneity and land claims and examining the frameworks of settler colonialism and indigeneity within the discourse of Palestine. Further, it argues that because Israel was imagined as a settler-colonial state, Palestinians were rendered indigenous through the “war of elimination” that Darwish describes and, therefore, indigeneity should be centered in all discourses on Palestinian decolonization and liberation.
The question of Palestine and Israel inevitably raises disputes over who has exclusive control over the whole territory, with Israelis and Palestinians asserting a claim of being the sole custodians of the land. Joan Peters’ “From a Time Immemorial” is often referenced to argue that Palestinians aren’t a real people and immigrated from other Arab lands in the 19th and 20th centuries to pursue economic opportunities. Some anti-Zionists cite Schlomo Sand’s “The Invention of the Jewish People” to assert that Ashkenazi Jews are Slavic or Turkic Europeans who converted to Judaism in the Middle Ages and therefore are not ethnically Jewish. Although both these texts and claims have been discredited by historians and researchers, similar arguments have been cited, and the question of claim to land remains central to the Palestinian and Israeli academic and political debate.
Claims to the land are often based on answers to the question “who was there first?” which has generated volumes of scholarly and historiographic work and decades of debate. A common answer to assert Jewish claim to the land is that Palestinians, who are primarily Arabs, entered the Levant after the Muslim conquest, implying that Palestinian Arabs have only been in Palestine since the seventh century AD. The argument usually sounds something like, “If Jewish people lived in Palestine before the Arabs, then the land is theirs and the creation of Israel is justified.” Palestinians often argue back that they descended from the Canaanites, so their ancestors were there first. However, this argument is completely separated from the larger historical context of the region. The terms Arabs, Muslims, and Palestinians are often used interchangeably, but they should not be conflated. Arab civilizations, such as the Nabataean kingdom, existed in Palestine and other areas of the Levant a whole millennium before any Muslims were in Palestine. Many non-Muslim Arab kingdoms, such as the Christian Arab Ghassanid kingdom, ruled over parts of Palestine.
Additionally, the “I was here first” arguments manipulate ancient history for present politics. Describing ancestors of peoples as static, defined, homogenous groups with sole claim over a land that matches modern-day borders is ahistorical and representative of modern conceptions of nationalism and colonialism. Palestinians did not descend from only one group of people, but from dozens of civilizations and peoples.
The crucial missing piece of this argument is the process by which the Middle East and North Africa were Arabized. Islamization of the MENA region was a distinct process from Arabization, and it was especially slow in the Levant. However, the Arabization of these provinces did not occur until after Islamization, during the Marwanid dynasty of the Umayyad Caliphate. Each province, including those in Palestine and the greater Levant, was ruled independently with its own language and laws. The process of Arabization entailed bringing all these provinces under Arab officials and the Arabic language and many of the pre-existing populations in Palestine assimilating into the Muslim Arab identity to gain more access to economic and government positions. This process did not involve the replacement of the native population; the conquered people mixed with and came to identify with their conquerors as Arabs. “Arab” transformed from a purely ethnic identity to a cultural and linguistic identity.
Throughout history, regions change rulers but populations often don’t change. They do, however, change how they politically identify themselves. The Germans didn’t kick out the Prussians and replace them with a new population - the Prussians remained but came to identify as Germans. Similarly, modern-day Palestinian Arabs did not suddenly appear in Palestine in the seventh century - they are the same peoples that have been living there since the earliest historical times. Palestinian Arabs today are the descendants of all the populations that have lived in historic Palestine: the Canaanites, Jebusites, Anatolian Greeks, Amorites, Nabataeans, and the Philistines are just a few examples. Arab conquerors never replaced the populations that were already living in Palestine for millennia. Rather, it was through immigration, intermarriage, and invasion that Arabs added to the native populations of Palestine, which include the Jewish people.
The second issue with the “who was there first?” argument is that it implies that Israel’s creation and crimes are immoral only because Palestinians’ ancestors have historical precedence. Even if we go along with the inaccurate claim that Palestinians suddenly appeared in the seventh century and Jewish people were there first, the ethnic cleansing, destruction, and occupation of a people can never be morally justified. The argument places unnecessary focus on ahistorical claims that support ideological agendas rather than on real history; the entire debate should be dismissed instead of regarding it as a legitimate factor for Israel’s creation.
So what is a better framework through which we can understand the issue of Palestine? The answer lies in the study of indigeneity and its relationship to settler colonialism.
In what Blaut describes as the “colonizer’s model of the world,” the colonizer imagines the self and the “other.” Through this relationship, this “other” becomes “indigenous.” Indigeneity cannot be separated from the colonial process - the two are bound together in a co-constitutive relationship. The label of “indigenous” is a product of the colonization process. There are no human qualities that mark “indigenousness” or that are identifiable as indigenous. To be indigenous is not an inherent human quality, but an artifact of a deliberate colonial construct that creates differences between the colonizer and the colonized. So how can we apply this framework to Palestine and Israel?
The central role that colonization - more specifically, settler colonialism - played in the creation of Israel is glaringly obvious, from the early Zionist slogan “a land without a people for a people without a land,” to the shockingly honest words of leading political Zionist leaders. Theodor Herzl, widely regarded as the founder of political Zionism, wrote to Cecil Rhodes in 1902, “You are being invited to help make history. It doesn’t involve Africa, but a piece of Asia Minor; not Englishmen, but Jews. How, then, do I happen to turn to you since this is an out-of-the-way matter for you? How indeed? Because it is something colonial.”
Herzl’s proposal was to create a political project inserted into the European colonialist framework to establish a majority Jewish state. As an ideology, 19th century European Zionism must be understood as a modern political movement influenced by European nationalisms that existed strictly as a form of colonization. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, wrote in a letter to his son, “We must expel the Arabs and take their places … and, if we have to use force — not to dispossess the Arabs of the Negev and Transjordan, but to guarantee our own right to settle in those places — then we have force at our disposal.” Israel’s founders and proponents were all explicitly aware of the colonial and violent nature of the settlement that was required to create their nation-state.
This colonial language was explicit for a reason: early European Zionists took pride in their settler-colonial movement because they viewed Palestine’s inhabitants as barbaric and regressive. In their eyes, the creation of a modern nation-state would serve as a modernizing force for the backward Arabs, a force that would “make the desert bloom,” to quote another popular Zionist slogan. Early Zionist political discourse described Palestinians as individuals or cities, but not a people or a nation, reinforcing the attitude that these natives, who couldn’t modernize themselves or contribute to the global free market or mass extract resources, were undeserving of the land.
When asked about the Palestinian Arabs, the first Israeli President, Chaim Weizman, responded, "The British told us that there are there some hundred thousands negroes [Kushim] and for those there is no value.” Similar feelings of superiority over Palestinians are echoed in the words of Moshe Smilansky, a Zionist writer and labor leader: “Let us not be too familiar with the Arab fellahin (farmers) lest our children adopt their ways and learn from their ugly deeds. Let all those who are loyal to the Torah avoid ugliness and that which resembles it and keep their distance from the fellahin and their base attributes.” Zionists looked upon Palestinians with disdain because they did not fit into the European frameworks of the notions of modernity and supremacy. It was Jewish settlers who modernized Palestine, they claim.
Former Israel Prime Minister Shimon Peres once said, “The country [Palestine] was mostly an empty desert, with only a few islands of Arab settlement; and Israel’s [cultivated] land today was indeed redeemed from swamp and wilderness.” Many Zionist thinkers also seized on Mark Twain’s account of visiting Palestine in his book The Innocents Abroad, in which he wrote, “The further we went the hotter the sun got, and the more rocky and bare, repulsive and dreary the landscape became… There was hardly a tree or a shrub any where. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.” Twain’s writing only reinforced the theme in Zionist mythology that Palestine was lifeless before Zionist colonialism. The entire premise of colonial Zionists’ argument was that their claim to Palestine was justified because they were superior to the natives.
If we go back to the constitutive relationship between colonialism and indigeneity, we can conclude that the colonial construct that was established through Zionism “indigenized” Palestinians. European Zionists and settlers created a colonial relationship between them and Palestinians, reinforcing the colonial idea that there is an inherent difference in human qualities between the settlers and their colonized subject. This difference - that Zionist settlers were a modernized nation-state and that Palestinians were barbaric nomads - justifies the Israeli modernity-coloniality project and creates Palestinian indigeneity.
This was the moral justification for the removal of Palestinians that the modern European Zionist movement provided. Combined with the physical means of removal, this ideology is demonstrative of Patrick Wolfe’s settler “logic of elimination,” which usually takes the form of settler and state violence. In the case of Israel, the ultimate goal was to create a “Jewish state” with a Jewish majority by mass immigration of European Jews. The already existing Palestinian Arabs, however, were in the way of this Jewish majority state, so Zionist leaders were, from the beginning, discussing how to handle the “Arab problem.”
The solution that seemed the most obvious was to shift the demographics of Palestine.
The Arab problem was to be solved through the so-called “transfer solution,” an ongoing violent process of forcibly cleansing Palestine of its native people. Yosef Weitz, head of Israel’s Transfer Committee of 1948, wrote, “After the Arabs are transferred, the country will be wide open for us; with the Arabs staying, the country will remain narrow and restricted … land purchasing will not bring about the state … The only way is to transfer the Arabs from here to neighboring countries … Not a single village or a single tribe must be left … there is no other solution.”
The “transfer solution” was achieved through the destruction of villages, the murder and forced exile of Palestinians, and military violence. Ben-Gurion gave a passionate speech to the Zionist Action Committee on April 6th, 1948, in which he said, "We will not be able to win the war if we do not, during the war, populate upper and lower, eastern and western Galilee, the Negev and Jerusalem area ..... I believe that war will also bring in its wake a great change in the distribution of Arab population." This “change” in the demographics of Palestinian Arabs could only be achieved through military violence - the logic of elimination.
In the years following the traumatizing violence that came with the creation of Israel, Palestinian writers and scholars, such as Fayez Sayegh, wrote about Zionist colonialism, and described Israel as a “settler state.” Following Sayegh, writers contributed to an academic shift in which the concept of settler colonialism was centered in criticisms of Israel, and links were drawn to apartheid South Africa. Through centering the concept of settler colonialism, academics were engaging with notions of Palestinian indigeneity and, in an attempt to emphasize structures of domination shared by settler states, compared the Palestinian struggle to those of indigenous people elsewhere, including in the United States.
Despite the centrality of indigeneity in settler colonial theory, for several decades and especially after the creation of the Oslo Accords in the 1990s, Palestinian leaders shifted away from narratives of decolonial struggle and focused on nationalist discourses and Zionist political structures of land politics, infrastructure, and dispossession. Yasser Arafat, Chair of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), held a prevalent view of indigenous people as weak and primitive and, in 2004 when he infamously declared that Palestinians “are not Red Indians,” disregarded using notions of indigeneity in order to assert the strength of Palestinians.
A national and legal framework of Palestinian liberation, however, is not effective because it disregards concepts of decolonial liberation and sovereignty and views settler colonialism as a singular event rather than a continuous process. While settler colonialism is used to examine the structures of violence and elimination enacted by the Israeli state, indigeneity helps Palestinians to understand their past and present and articulate their demands for the future. This is not to say that indigeneity and nationalism are mutually exclusive - there is a strong relationship between the two, in which goals of indigenous sovereignty can be written into the Palestinian national narrative and used to consolidate indigenous experiences into a national struggle.
Current frameworks focus only on “territories” or “equal rights,” but placing indigeneity at the center of political discourse demands a radical re-imagination of what justice and sovereignty look like for indigenous peoples. Palestinians are scattered across Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, and all over the world; al-Nakba al-mustimirrah (the continuous Nakba, or “the catastrophe” in Arabic that occurred with the creation of Israel in 1948) is the experience of settler colonialism that ties all of these Palestinians together. Indigenous understanding and anti-colonial resistance should be placed at the center of knowledge production.
Unfortunately, the concept of indigeneity in the context of Palestine has been co-opted by Zionist agendas that claim that Jewish people are the true indigenous people of the land because they have historical precedence. However, as argued earlier, the “I was here first” argument is ahistorical and invalid in this context. Additionally, indigeneity describes experiences and trauma at the hands of a colonial state: in this case, Palestinians are rendered indigenous at the hands of a Zionist state. While Jewish claims of being native to the land are valid arguments, claims of Jewish indigeneity are invalid. They appropriate Palestinians’ trauma and oppression and misconstrue the colonial nature of the relationship between Israeli settlers and native Palestinians. Jewish communities have been historically subjected to trauma and oppression, but of a different nature than that of a colonized people. Therefore, an indigenous framework cannot be applied to the plight of Jewish people.
Jewish history is an essential component of Palestinian heritage; Jewish and Palestinian histories should not be treated as mutually exclusive, because their narratives have beautifully intersected and intermixed at many points in time throughout history. But just as Jewish ties to the land of Palestine should be validated, Palestinian indigeneity should be centered in frameworks of criticism and justice. The political project of Zionism rendered Palestinians indigenous and created a new political reality for them and, therefore, political transformation and liberation must stem from indigenous decolonization. When thinking about current events in Palestine, from the dispossession in Sheikh Jarrah to the censorship of Palestinian journalists to the medical and vaccine apartheid, indigeneity offers a framework to think about oppression and justice so that it re-centers Palestinian aspirations for the future. Our vision for a decolonized Palestine should be one that is free from ethnonationalist and imperialist ideologies and creates new imaginings of indigenous sovereignty and self-determination.
Ruqaiyah Damrah is a rising Junior in Saybrook majoring in Ethnicity, Race, and Migration with a certificate in Arabic. She writes and edits for The Yale Politic and enjoys being involved with Havenly Treats, where she works with refugee women in the New Haven community.