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.

PYM Funambulist1
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.