The Scarred Land: Settler Imprints and Indigenous Futures


the scarred land
inaugurates life
at the moment of dawn
Fadwa Tuqan, “Labor Pains.”

Scarred Land:
The Beginning of Falahin Displacement ///

When the British colonized Palestine and claimed it as their mandate in 1920, the vast majority of the Palestinian population lived across what might now be considered a “rural” landscape and held the identities of Falahin, “farmers,” or people of the soil. In the dense “urban” epicenters of our nation like Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Haifa, many Palestinians did not identify wholly as Falahin, but instead as tradespeople and town folk. However, the land hosted a diversity — even in urban spaces — of plants, animals, terrains, and climates. These spaces provided sustenance for the people: Jerusalem, our Holy City, was encased in stone buildings and surrounded by olive trees; Jaffa, the “Bride of the Sea,” was on the edge of a natural coral port and flanked by citrus groves; and surrounding Haifa, almost any plant, from cucumbers, to barley, to poppies, flourished. Even across a diversity of contexts, the land was the foundation of our indigeneity: it was and is the very root of who we are. The sea, rivers, landscape, animals, and crops were critical parts of identity, culture and daily life. Although the Ottoman Empire developed a roster of land “ownership” prior to British control, the popular understanding by Palestinians in our locales was far less paternalistic: our stewardship and presence maintained connection to place and asserted relationship to home and heritage.

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The Palestinian flag in Standing Rock. / Photograph by Nadya Raja Tannous (2016).

Parchment and paper became tools of colonization, establishing a paper record that devalued and sanitized a long-established oral litany. The early Zionist movement out of Europe targeted the most arable land for early colonization by paper and pen, as well as sources of sweet water and aquifers. The Zionist movement began quasi-government organizations, such as the Jewish National Fund (JNF), which facilitated early European Jewish settlement to the land by purchasing Ottoman land deeds and acquiring large swaths of fertile areas, laying the foundation of laws that still exist today in the Zionist state of Israel. The JNF deeds still assert that no one can purchase a piece of land, once it is owned by a Jewish family, unless they themselves are also Jewish.

Many early Zionists became farmers as an attempt to indigenize themselves: many had no relationship to or knowledge of our crops, but the land was so accustomed to regular contact that it often produced for them nonetheless, though it eventually suffered over time due to colonial ignorance and arrogance. The purpose of such early policies was to remove Palestinians from areas of access and inject a steady stream of European settlers, which diminished our relationship with the land and, by extension, our sovereignty. And so began the initial displacement and dislocation of Palestinians from their stewardship of the land and their physical displacement. The permanent barring of Palestinian habitation under state law is now thoroughly institutionalized and continues to devastate remaining populations of Palestinians in their homeland today.

The British at the time recognized that the systemic removal of people from place increased the ability to quell Palestinian uprisings and unrest against the growing population of Jewish Europeans who came to assert “ownership” and dominance over resources without any connection to heritage. In 1936, the Palestinian people launched a general strike, rising up as a result of three principle factors: the increase Zionist settlement and land expropriation, the British mandate government, and the inability of the Palestinian elite, whom the British had appointed to serve as representatives of the Palestinian cause, to make any substantial gains in the achievement of national sovereignty. Palestinians from urban communities and rural communities shut down the British-controlled means of production crippling the colonial economy. It was one of the longest strikes in history, lasting over seven months. Palestinians from every region collectively worked to undermine British rule, risking starvation and physical violence. The British retaliated by using the language of “urban renewal” to execute the mass demolition of houses in Palestinian trade centers like Jaffa. It was a forecast of the force to come.

The Nakba ///

By 1948, parts of the British mandate of Palestine were transitioned, via the United Nations Partition Plan, to the Zionist settlers. Armed with British fire power, marauding groups of Zionist militias carried out Plan Dalit, a coordinated military strategy that used JNF-acquired land bases to force Palestinians West into the ocean, North to Lebanon, South to the Naqab desert and Gaza, and East towards Jordan. Wielding massacre and mass-brutalization, the Nakba (the catastrophe) resulted in the exile of over 750,000 from Palestine and the expansion of the Zionist land base. With much of the rest of the Palestinian population displaced internally within segmented parcels of land, choked by encroaching Zionist settlement, those who remained in urban areas were ghettoized into pockets of larger cities, shut off from their own means of production and the dialectics of nature. As the Europeans settled into Palestine with the confidence of Manifest Destiny, they chopped down Palestinian olive groves, orange groves, and planted oily European trees such as pine and eucalyptus, using their rapid growth to hide the presence of Palestinian villages and to prevent Palestinians from resettling the land in the case that they made their way past the Zionist frontier. As Zionist colonization expanded over the landscape, the settlers diverted the sweet water towards their own locales and tapped deep into the natural aquifers, depriving the land of nutrients. They suffocated the land with cement as part of a strategy to keep the Falahin from sustaining crop cycles or routine harvest. By forcing our physical removal from the land, they hoped to cause an infinite and total dispossession for Palestinians from the knowledge of taking care of our original places. Mahmoud Darwish sums it up:

To seize an ancient olive tree
Is a confiscation of memory
If the Tree knew the hands that once planted her
Her oil would turn to tears

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PYM Caravan at Standing Rock. / Photograph by Awad Yasin (2016)

Even today, as a nation sorted, assessed, deprived and starved of place by colonialism, we Palestinians still define our local and national identities through the plants, land, and water that has sustained our very existence since our origination. Most of Jaffa’s orange trees are now uprooted, Jerusalem’s olive groves are often thirsty and are routinely attacked by arson, and large areas of open land are covered by cement and foreign infrastructure. For most Palestinians, even those living in traditionally Falahi communities, the cycle of stewardship of the land and our relationship to it is severely impaired. And yet, those same communities still flow in accordance to the traditional Olive Season; we still mark the presence of our villages that have been leveled by planting cacti at their entrances. Today, the majority of the Palestinian people hold a land-based Indigenous identity while simultaneously being physically removed and separated from the land itself. However, around 12% of Palestinians remain on their heritage lands, even as the land and people are being suffocated by active colonization. Many communities are still determined to grow fresh life among the ruins.

Palestinian Exile in Turtle Island ///

As a grassroots organization of young Palestinians whose character is necessarily

transnational due to the ongoing Zionist colonization of our homeland, we in the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) understand all too well the precarity imposed by settler-colonial dispossession and violence. Our identity as displaced Indigenous Palestinians is further complicated in the US by the fact that our forced itinerancy has driven us onto Turtle Island, where, as one among many variously racialized and repressed “arrivant” communities (to use Chickasaw intellectual Jodi Byrd’s phrase), our presence as non-Native people carries the weight of inherently reifying the settler hegemony of the colonial state if not critically engaged and challenged through meaningful joint struggle work. This Settler empire — which we join our Indigenous siblings in recognizing as Turtle Island — is reprehensible, not only because it currently subsidizes the Zionist settler project that drives us from the homeland, but also because it has meted out, and continues to inflict, original violences upon communities and nations who, like us in our lands, preceded the earliest days of settlement.

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Four runners along the border with the Peace and Dignity staffs from different communities on Turtle Island. / Photograph by Nadya Raja Tannouns (2018)

While we recognize the dangers of homogenizing struggles, we note some related tendencies in the United States. and Zionist settler-projects: both require the making of settler-place out of Indigenous place. This can only be achieved through the invention of “uninhabited space” ripe for settler innovation and tenacity. When this fiction eventually runs up against the more formidable duration of Indigenous history and presence, it gives way to a related conceit of superior settler “knowledge” of the land. It manifests through an ability to cultivate its resources to the fullest potential and apply more “modernized” claims of ownership that “savage” and simplistic Indigenes could not possibly comprehend. The arrival of settlers fulfills a violent teleology of “progress.” An immutable truth is that the landscapes that have birthed our lineages live within us as the Indigenous people of our lands, even as they are materially vanished and assaulted by the colonizing state and its people. Being Indigenous in an urban context means that we mark the existence of memory, the pieces of us that cannot be directly accessed or tangibly interacted with but that we know are present.

We exist in varied ghettos and landscapes in Palestine, with examples such as Ajami, Sheikh Jarrah, Al-Khalil and Gaza City, an entire history living in our plasma, our collective memory, and exalted in our embodiment of who we are, even in the face of intense pressure, violence, starvation and destabilization by the settler state. Paralysis through generations of trauma and methods of community control, such as dependency on substances, settler economy, and attacks on a dignified existence, are all colonial routes of power that aim to cook the Indigenous out of the people. Routine violence aims to instill desperation in us and internalize the settler imprint on the land.

Zionists, we are told, were the ones who “made the desert bloom.” The land our people inhabited for thousands of years was torn asunder by the increasing arrival of colonizers who bulldozed thousands of olive trees and encouraged pine trees be planted in their stead. Coupled with the creation of ethnically purified colonies, the destruction of ancient Palestinian grave sites, and the construction of “historical” colonial monuments atop the ruins of destroyed property, the bulldozing of trees catalyzed the process of ethnic cleansing through the transformation of the landscape and topography. Checkpoints, the apartheid wall, and the siege upon the Gaza strip are physical projections of our colonizers’ existential anxiety. The language of their architecture is clear: the price of their history is the possibility of our future.

Under such conditions, the term “solidarity” seems insufficient to describe the drive that moves us to take up coalitional work with Indigenous communities in the stolen lands of Turtle Island. We are resolute to resist; “joint struggle” feels a more apt fit that reflects our responsibility to foreground our Indigenous identities and attack the normalization of settler violence. However, it is a standard that we must work to gain.

Indigenous communities separated by the US-Mexico Border — which divides the territories of the Kumeyaay Nation from north of San Diego to Baja California — traverse the physical and colonial language barriers of the border to contend with and counteract the violent security apparatuses of the state, also predicated on dispossession. In so doing, they build a different kind of relationality and power not determined by colonially imposed demarcations of space. For example, an elder shared with us that the Kumeyaay focus on teaching traditional craft with Tule reeds, such as boat building, in order to develop practical skills of engagement with the now urbanized landscape. They do this in order to bolster the newer generation’s conviction of their collective memories. Skimming the waters as they have for generations literally expands their horizon. On the fifth anniversary of PYM’s and Colectivo Zapatista’s Border Run, elders of the Kumeyaay and the Yaqui Nation (to the east) detailed their struggle to reaffirm agency and generational connection to the land, coast, and sweet water. Many of the other people present were newly arrived refugees from Syria. Translations between English, Spanish, and Arabic flowed.

Settler Imprints and Indigenous Futures ///

Etched upon our collective psyche is the layered trauma of land taken, razed, and remade. Yet,even as we wander the globe, we will never be driven to amnesia. We want to imbue in our newly displaced community that we are populating a colonial mirage as guests on Kumeyaay land who must discern the difference between ascension to privilege and the culmination of people power. We believe that part and parcel of our power as Indigenous people is to encourage the unification of struggles by destroying colonial myths that see us as monoliths. Our responsibility is to our mutual self-determination. Indigenous communities routinely access power from our heritage lands, even when we are separated physically from the soil or the traditional cycle of stewardship. There are many ways of reincorporating practice and maintaining agency in the cracks of these settler-constructions. One example is Kumeyaay boat building. Another is the re-activation of Palestinian presence in our lands through the relay of memory. And yet another is building joint struggle to win self-determination for our Indigenous nations in Palestine and in Turtle Island.

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Banner in Standing Rock. / Photograph by Haithem El-Zabri with creative help from PYM (2016).

The PYM has formed close relationships with particular Indigenous nations and know that deepening our connection to one another can shatter the colonial framework. From our delegation to Black Mesa, to organizing the Palestinian caravans to Standing Rock, to the ongoing fight to Save the West Berkeley Shellmound, we are tapping into our resistance to the impending powers of erasure and removal of our “place” from the present. We know that if we are committed to decolonization as a verb rather than a metaphor, we must deepen our relationships to the Nations of this land, particularly in bolstering struggles against enduring colonization in the places where we presently live. These struggles must be led and unified by the original people of these lands.

Land reparations and the realization of complete self-determination must be possible not only for us, but for all those around the globe who seek liberation from colonial control. Because, like us, there are others who will never forget who they are, where they come from, and what their (our) future will be, even as we are surrounded by structures predicated on our extermination. We believe that creating a transnational connection between Palestinians in our homeland, the Nations of Turtle Island, and Palestinians in the diaspora on Turtle Island, can help lay the groundwork for a future of collective Indigenous struggle and liberation.

We have on this land that which makes life worth living
We have on this land all of that which makes life worth living
April’s hesitation…
And the invader’s fear of memories
We have on this land that which makes life worth living
September’s end…
A people’s applause for those who face their own erasure with a smile
And the tyrant’s fear of songs.
We have on this land all of that which makes life worth living
On this land
The lady of our land
The mother of all beginnings
And the mother of all ends
Mahmoud Darwish, “On This Land.”