Strangers Hang Their Guns in an Olive Tree
The Colonial History (and Presentary) of Occupied Palestine
No time, around you, for sentimental talk.
You blended the whole afternoon with basil. You baked, in sumac,
the crest of the rooster. I know what devastates your heart, pierced
by the peacock, since you were expelled from Eden a second time.
Our whole world has changed. Our voices have changed. Even
our greetings to each other fall without an echo…
-Mahmoud Darwish, from “Huriyya”s Teachings”
Here strangers hung their guns on
the branches of an olive tree
-Mahmoud Darwish, from “The Owl’s Night”
In Judaic tradition, Jews are the people of exile, persecuted and wandering the desert. But beginning in the early twentieth century, with the embodiment of Zionist ideals, another group was dispossessed. The passages that open this paper, chronicling such dispossession, were written by Mahmoud Darwish, who’s celebrated in the literary world as the Poet of Exile. He’s also known as the Voice of Palestine.
Settler colonialism in Palestine is set apart from other instances of colonization by the continuing erasure and denial of Palestinian Indigeneity and by not only the intervention of global powers but also the approval, explicit and implicit, of international law. These factors have led to disproportionate violence against Palestinians—both physical and cultural—alongside a defamation of Palestinian identity and Palestinian freedom fighters.
Zionist Exceptionalism: “A land without people for a people without land”
"Israel is not a colonial power"; that’s the official narrative, at least (Veracini 2015). What Israel is, by Israel’s account, is the product of divine will—the fulfillment of a covenant allowing an exiled people to go home. “Divine will,” in this case, is code for a religiously endorsed manifest destiny, a destiny that must be accepted by outside powers for the self-aware colonial project to succeed (Dana and Jarbawi 2017). This exceptionalism, exempting Israel from accusations of exploitation and genocide, is facilitated, and actively promoted, by Zionism.
Zionist ideology is based on the belief that the land hosting the stories of the Torah—the Holy Land—is the birthright of the Jewish people. It transforms the identity of “Jewish” from one of religious practice to an ethno-national identification (de Jong 2018). Since the Jews are the people of the Holy Land, those who occupy that land, in this model, must be rendered un-Indigenous to allow for continuity between historical Jews and the promise of an empty land awaiting them. The locals must be rendered un-Indigenous to mask the colonial project of demolishing a homeland so that a new one can be constructed (Masalha 2015).
Early Settlers (1900-1948)
I begin my account of Zionist colonialism at the beginning of the twentieth century because, contrary to common assumptions in the United States, the first wave of settlers arrived a substantial time before Israel was established as a nation. Before they fought the onslaught of Israelis, and before they shook off the British, Palestinians were striving for independence from the Ottoman Empire (Ellis 2000). As the empire stumbled toward its fall, it began selling off land. The Sursuq family purchased, at that time, a swath of agricultural land in the Tiberias region unbeknownst to the fallahin, the peasants, who lived there (de Jong 2018). The land changed hands again in 1902, when the Sursuq family, having never visited, sold the whole area to Zionists (de Jong 2018). Upon the arrival of Jewish settlers, the fallahin revolted, and the Ottoman troops stepped in to enforce the transfer, displacing the locals and killing resistors (Dana and Jarbawi 2017).
In 1918, the British swept into the territorial vacuum of a collapsed Ottoman Empire, and the support of Zionist settler aspirations transitioned smoothly from one dominant power to the next. The era of Mandate Palestine (1918-1948) was a period of “dual colonialism” (Shamir 2000). During this period, Britain treated the Zionist organization as a sort of client state, selling them land, opening immigration, and supporting the growth of their settlements from the outset, even subsidizing infrastructural development while denying permits for the same sort of development to Palestinians (Dana and Jarbawi 2017). The British colonial state was able to exercise a considerable coercive power over the Indigenous people in favor of the influxing Zionist settlers (Salamanca et al. 2012). Part of this power was reinforced by their beneficiaries: they collaborated with the Israeli Defense Force in suppressing several Palestinian uprisings, of which the final one was the 1936 Great Revolt of Palestinian Laborers, also known as the Great Arab Revolt (Yazbak 2020). Economically marginalized by British mandates, the Palestinian laborers revolted, and the outcome was a treaty: the White Paper. The White Paper promised Palestinians their independence within ten years, giving them a claim to their own land (Dana and Jarbawi 2017). Israel, though, would contest that claim.
As mentioned previously, in order to avoid the label of colonizer and to assert their own claim to the land, Zionists had to deny the Indigeneity of the people whom they displaced. Like the Japanese when they denied the Ainu their Indigeneity, the nationalistic assertions of Zionists benefited from a narrative wherein they were the only natives—the original ones—owing nothing to those they dispossessed (Kambayashi 2008; Abdullah 2016; de Jong 2018).
Increasingly, academics have come to agree that there was indeed an Indigeneity to erase (de Jong 2018; Veracini 2015; Abdullah 2016; Abu-Saad 2008): Palestinians in the 1940s were (and still are) a marginalized group living on the land of, and practicing the culture of, their ancestors, with borders and lives shaped by experiences of colonialism (Coates 2004). Zionists, therefore, were quick to begin the process of erasure.
To be de-Indigenized, Palestinians had to be de-placed; the actual displacement would be carried out later, but in the beginning, it was their association with their home-place that had to be obliterated. A common Zionist refrain was that Jews could claim “a land without people for a people without land” (Shamir 2000). No one at the time of the first Zionist occupations believed that the land was actually devoid of people: instead, they were convinced through Zionist propaganda that the people who inhabited the land were not “a people” (de Jong 2018). In some cases this involved delegitimizing claims to land by up-playing the nomadic history of the Indigenous people (eliding the fact that there were many established institutions such as schools and hospitals before the occupations); in others it involved dehumanizing Arabs on an ethno-racial basis, but more often it was that key word “Arab” that did the trick (Salamanca et al. 2012).
When the Indigenous people of Palestine were lumped in with “the Arabs,” then they became wards of a monolithic power—a Goliath to Israel’s David—with plenty of other land to go to. In this scenario, the Arab Nations could afford a sliver of land for Israel, and if they denied it then Israel’s underdog character could merit the support of international interveners (de Jong 2018). Palestinians were thus abstracted from their physical presence on the land and into the Arab Nations. They weren’t, at the end of this de-Indigenizing campaign, the group that merited protection. It was time for Israel to test its favor.
Since Palestinians were widely accepted by outsiders as transient members of the Arab Nations instead of natives, the ethnic cleansing of 1947, carried out by Israel and commonly referred to as the Nakba, the catastrophe, by Palestinians, was accepted by international press as a war. Twelve thousand Palestinians either died or went missing, presumed dead (Abdulla 2016). The Palestinians were unorganized, fighting from their own homes as troops swept through their towns and cities, but when the United Nations called a General Assembly to come up with a resolution, it was a resolution between two conflicting claims to land, not one resolving to end the genocide of the people already inhabiting the places over which the assembly would draw a map (Dana and Jarbawi 2017).
International Intervention (Post WWII)
In response to the Nakba came the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181. Since foreign Arab troops had intervened in the Arab-Israeli war, the catastrophe, the final decisions on divisions of land appeared to be in support of the persecuted minority: in this case the Israelites (Abdulla 2016). The section of the Resolution describing Palestine’s new borders is nearly three times longer than the section describing Israel’s claim, but the division actually allots a minor majority of the land to Israel, a state representing only approximately five percent of the population (UN General Assembly Resolution 181, de Jong 2018). While some saw—and continue to see—this resolution as one that takes a simple stance on a singular conflict, one not unlike past conflicts plaguing the region (Ellis 200), the implied acquittal of Israel from accountability for a genocide set a dangerous precedent, and it fragmented Palestine in favor of Israel’s colonial expansion (Abdula 2016).
The settlement, despite its design, did not stop Israel’s settler expansion at the ethnic cleansing of 1947. In many subsequent occupations, or “transfers,” as the government euphemizes, the Israeli state continued to appropriate land. In 1967, in violation of international law, they annexed Jerusalem, taking over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and killing 300,000 Palestinians, most of them civilians, in the process (Vadasaria 2015). Facing no serious reprimands, they continued their occupation along the banks of the Jordan, ignoring a law that was only ever enforced in their favor and building settlements along the West Bank (Allen 2008). They justified their stay—funded by supporters across the globe, including the United States government, which has its own messy colonial past—as a necessity for ensuring “national security.”
National Security: The Criminalization of Existing as an Arab
Winning the approval of international law required de-Indigenizing Palestinian natives, but afterward, keeping that approval required an excuse for Israel’s continued military endeavors. The perfect excuse manifested itself in "safety." Constructing Palestinians as the terrorist other (in place of the native other) allowed Israel to justify its aggressive militarism and “precautionary” discrimination against those of Indigenous descent (Shalhoub 2004).
Militarism as a Method of “Peace”
Israel is in constant support of the peace element of the peace/conflict paradigm that dominates discussions about Israel’s colonization of Palestine (de Jong 2016), and they enforce this peace with a highly militaristic society (Shalhoub-Kevorkian 2004). The "peace" that Israel strives toward is one without resistance, and resistors are therefore rendered as the radical agents of terror. By this rendering, people defending their homes, from their homes, are reimagined as terrorists or guerrilla fighters whereas the invaders, who in several advancements were encouraged to fire on civilians, are called troops; their actions are called “war” not terrorism (Allen 2012). In 2002, the Israeli military bombed a string of refugee camps in Gaza. Again, it was simply an act of war (Allen 2008). Where the best defense is a good offense, Israel could justify its removal of potential threats across the border as a protection of the border.
Responding to the accelerating violence, there was a second intifada (the first having occurred in response to 1967’s ethnic cleansing). The intifada was a grassroots uprising of Palestinians, consisting of youth and elders alike, practicing civil disobedience on the streets: at this time “simply surviving and staying on the land became a nationalist value” (Allen 2008, p. 454).
Expressing Palestinian nationalist values, though, is dangerous. Any marker of a Palestinian political association is criminalized and could cost Arabs in Israel, or its occupied territories, their homes and jobs, if not their lives (Dana and Jarbawi 2017). For this reason, watermelons have become a symbol of Palestinian resistance, as they share the colors of the Palestinian flag.
Palestinians in or near Israel are subject to constant scrutiny, and Israelis of Arab descent are likewise subject to “conditional minority citizenship” (Hackl 2018, p. 350). If suspected of collaboration with Palestinian freedom fighters, Arabs can be expelled, their citizenship revoked and their homes seized. They can also face the same economic discrimination as their Palestinian peers. Gazans are denied work permits to the occupied West Bank, and thousands must enter illegally to work, as Gaza has long had the highest unemployment rate in the world at nearly fifty percent (Allen 2012). Palestinians aren’t allowed to ride the buses that go to the West Bank, and they must pass through multiple checkpoints on their trip (de Jong 2016). These checkpoints often make hospitals and other amenities inaccessible and they complicate everyday tasks (Allen 2012).
In order to access work and resources, many Gazans practice an “immersive invisibility” to negotiate “a particular regime of settler-colonial liberal incorporation” (Hackl 2018, p. 350). Though not quite assimilation, this invisibility also requires that Indigenous identity suffers self-erasure so that the Indigenous person can enter, as a second class citizen, the dominant culture. The Israel-Palestine borders are thus considered permeable, but only in one direction. As Israel casts out an ever-expanding safety net, it fears the counter-diffusionism potential of Palestinians within its ever-newly established borders (Blaut 1993).
An Unworthy People
Ethnic Palestinians in Israel are treated as suspects even when they are the ones reporting to the police, that is if the police respond at all (Shalhoub-Kevorkian 2004). According to a study in the early 2000s, oftentimes “Responding to violence against Arab women is considered futile because of Arab cultural inferiority, and police are better off not reacting to calls for help in the Arab community” (Shalhoub-Kevorkian 2004, p. 185). Where the main concern is national security, Israeli personnel dedicate little time—far less than they would to similar situations involving ethno-national Jews—to a cause they consider futile: the protection of Arab citizens. Instead, they, as a general trend, engage in victim blaming, leave the matter to resolve itself, or actively avoid Arab communities (Shalhoub-Kevorkian 2004).
These police practices leave Palestinian Israelis at a higher risk for domestic abuse and homicide and they relegate interactions between the Israeli military and police branches and indigenous Arabs to accusations of terrorism. Palestinians are thus written off, like many Indigenous groups around the world as “social junk” (Nielson and Robyn 2019; Jaber 2019), needing to be dealt with appropriately.
The Implication of Jurisdiction
These same dangerous persons that exist in the Israeli imagination as either terrorists or hopeless cases of backward cultural practice are assigned to a suitably strict jurisdiction: Arabs living in Israel or the occupied territories are tried in military courts (Allen 2008). Palestinian children are tried in Israel's military courts.
There is an automatic assumption in this delegation of jurisdiction that places the defendant in opposition to the colonial state, and it dates back to early uprisings. Below are fragments from another poem by Darwish, this one written as if the transcript from an intifada rebel’s trial following the ethnic cleansing in 1967:
Bertolt Brecht’s Testimony
before a Military Court
I am not a soldier
So what do you want from me now?
The war is over. Your officers returned safe and sound
They say: God is ours
and the land of God
is not for others!
What do you want, Your Honor,
from a passerby amidst passerby?
In a country where the executioner demands
that his victims praise his medals!
The time has come for me to scream
and to tear from my voice the mask of the word:
This is a prison cell, Your Honor, not a court
I am the witness and the judge. You are the defendant
Get out of your seat and go: You’re free, you’re free
oh imprisoned judge (Darwish 2006)
Metaphor aside, courts quickly turn to prison cells, and many of those who were tried for defending their homes in the sixties, and are still alive, are imprisoned to this day (Abdulla 2016). Existing as an Arab in the area surrounding Israel is to exist as a threat, and fighting to continue that existence is to exist as a “terrorist.”
Dispossession of Land and Culture
Where survivance is a crime, erasure is an ideal. The ethnic cleansing of 1967 wasn’t a stand-alone war; it was simply one act in a larger practice of genocide. Genocide, as defined by Patrick Wolfe, is the killing of a group, going beyond the slaughter of individuals to involve the destruction of what binds those people to their identification as “a people” (Wolfe 2006). Israel, then, practiced genocide on several fronts: the colonial state displaced Palestinians, killed Palestinians, and—even in cases where the people were not killed—effectively cleansed their traces, culturally and archaeologically, from the land. In some cases, Israel went so far as to transform the land itself (Jaber 2019).
Expelled from Eden
From 1931-1939 net immigration into Palestine was higher than in the next three largest flows combined. It was 228,000 people (Kahn 1944). Accordingly, the population of Gaza doubled as refugees fled from the conquested Israel, and the population density in the region has only increased over the years (Lori 2012). Abandoned houses, or homes with recently murdered inhabitants, were seized by the Israeli colonial state, and the homes of “present absentees”—those who fled and came back, or those who chose Palestinian citizenship—were often appropriated as well (Abu-Saad 2008). Palestinians who survived the multiple waves of ethnic cleansing were expelled from their homes and then denied their memory of them. The Israeli state, to obscure its own colonial processes and history, invested heavily in Necronationalism, which is
a concept for thinking about the management of life after death. The concept of necronationalism...signals attention to the practices of settler colonial nation-building organized around the colonial management of dead racial (Indigenous) subjects through strategic displacement of their corporeality. (Vadasaria 2013, p. 119)
Though one aspect of this corporeality is the presence of living human bodies, another important corporeal presence is that of human structures and archaeological remains. The Israeli necronationalistic campaign, then, focused not only on erasing Indigenous bodies and occupying their homes but also on the next step: erasing the homes and any trace that the bodies had ever been there. Colonizers demolished entire cities, building new ones atop them and carefully asserting their own traced histories (Masalha 2015).
In 2004, Israelis began building the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem on top of Mamilla Cemetery, “one of the oldest and most significant sacred Muslim burial grounds in the region” (Vadasaria 2015). Its construction effectively, with ironic cruelty, revealed the colonial model of tolerance: destruction of the intolerable. Though by the Museum of Tolerance their dead were doubly buried, Palestinians after 1967 have been barred from burying their dead in Jerusalem; their contemporary presence in Jerusalem is snuffed from the archaeological record at the same time their past one is (Vadasaria 2015).
The archeological record is an incredibly important one to the practice of necronationalism. Especially because of Zionism’s tenuous dependence on the claim that the Holy Land is their land (and it’s located in Palestine), material evidence can be the breaking point in some people’s nationalistic faith (Vadasaria 2015). According to anthropologist Nur Masalha:
Holy Land archeology and cartography and scriptural geography have been critical to the success of the Western colonial enterprise in the Middle East, recreating the ‘Biblelands,’ reinventing a historical-primordial Hebrew ethnicity, while at the same time silencing Palestinian history and de-Arabising Palestinian toponomy. (Masalha 2015, p. 31)
Quasi-scientific projections of ethnic past onto colonized land allowed for a claiming and renaming process that made the story of Palestinian lands a possession of the occupiers. Landmarks and villages alike were given new identities, their previous ones altered or denied.
Guns in the Olive Tree: The Destruction and Appropriation of Palestinian Land
It’s not only the names of places that are changed, but entire landscapes, too. The pine forests of occupied Palestine are a cover up, blanketing the ruins of heritage sites (Jaber 2019). In his discussion of the appropriation of Palestinian place names,” “Settler-Colonialism, Memoricide and Indigenous Toponymic Memory,” Masalha (2015) quotes the Israeli journalist Gideon Levy:
Look at this prickly pear plant. It's covering a mound of stones. This mound of stones was once a house, or a shed, or a sheep pen, or a school...Take a look at the grove of pines around the prickly pear as well. Beneath it there was once a village. All of its 405 houses were destroyed in one day in 1948 and its 2,350 inhabitants scattered all over. No one ever told us about this. The pines were planted right afterward by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), to which we contributed...in order to cover the ruins, to cover the possibility of return and maybe also a little of the shame and the guilt. (Mashala 2015, p. 35)
The JNF not only paid to plant trees, but also to raze them, transfiguring the land in the opposite direction. Olive trees were uprooted to make way for grazing, and erosion further rendered the topography unrecognizable (Jaber 2019). The land was thus literally reshaped from Palestine into Israel, and Israel claimed Indigeneity to this new land, marketing themselves as the inheritors and purveyors of Palestinian resources, all the while denying Palestinians recognition or economic opportunity (Monterescu and Handel 2019).
Though a major export of Palestine has always been citrus, costal area oranges are now listed in Israeli and Palestinian textbooks as a crop introduced to the region by Jewish settlers, the credit given to them (Abu-Saad). Crops are a point of national pride, and claiming the crop is claiming its history on the land: because of this, the title of “Indigenous” crops is covetable and highly sought after (Monterescu and Handel 2019). Israel pursues it as they do possession of the land and its history.
A Non-Ontological Relationship to the Land
Antagonistically to the Zionist efforts to make Israelis Indigenous while simultaneously rendering non-ethno-national-Jewish Israelis (the survivors) objects of either disdain or terror, Lorenzo Veracini asserts that occupiers can never surpass the claims of Indigenous people to their lands: the Zionists have a “non-ontological relationship to the land” (Veracini 2015). But Palestinians have that ontological relationship, one that survives through all attempts at breaking them or the earth (Jaber 2019).
Palestinians have fought for their land for centuries. They expelled the Ottomans and the British, and they fight still for their freedom today. Despite erasure, genocides, defamation, and economic marginalization—all leading to precarious existences wherein violence is normalized (Allen 2008)—the Indigenous people of Palestine seek the reconciliation that comes from not “peace settlements” (a settler coercion), but rather from decolonization. They cannot return to homes rubbled and grown over in trees, erased and renamed on the maps, but they can trace their oral memories along the path of longing to a reclamation of home (Abu-Saad 2008, Abdulla 2016). So, following this path, you are left with the following lines by the Poet of Exile and the Voice of Palestine, an excerpt from “To My End and to Its End…”:
- Are you tired of walking
my son, are you getting tired?
- Yes, father.
- We’ll return to the house
Do you know the way, my son?
- Yes, father:
- Do you know the house, my son?
- I know it like I know the path:
Jasmine winds around an iron gate
Footprints of light on the stone stairs
Sunflowers stare at what lies behind the place
Friendly bees prepare breakfast for my grandfather
on a reed tray
In the yard there’s a well and a willow tree and a horse
Behind the fence, a tomorrow, thumbing through our papers…
- Oh father, are you getting tired?
Do I see sweat in your eyes?
- My son, I am tired...Can you carry me?
- Like you used to carry me, father
I’ll carry this longing
and its beginning
I’ll follow this road to
my end...and to its end! (Darwish 2006)
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