Palestinians are Native Americans: Time to correct the language of history

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A mural by Navajo artist Remy denounces the Israeli occupation of Palestine. (Photo: provided)

By Ramzy Baroud

At a recent Istanbul conference that brought together many Palestinian scholars and activists to discuss finding a common narrative on Palestine, a Palestinian audience member said at the end of a brief but fiery, “we are not red Indians”.

The reference was relatively old. It was attributed to former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat during an interview in his office in Ramallah where he had been forcibly locked up and surrounded two years earlier by the Israeli army which had re-invaded the populous city Palestinian. In the interview, the PLO leader and President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) said that despite Israel’s attempt to eradicate the Palestinian people, they remain steadfast. Israel “failed to annihilate us,” Arafat said, adding, “we are not red Indians.”

Although Arafat’s intention was not to degrade or insult Native American communities, the statement, often taken out of context, hardly reflects the deep solidarity between Palestinians and national liberation struggles, including indigenous struggles around the world. Ironically, Arafat, more than any Palestinian leader, has forged ties with many communities in the Global South and indeed all over the world. A generation of activists had linked Arafat to their initial awareness and later involvement in Palestine solidarity movements.

What surprised me was that the comment that the Palestinians were not “Red Indians” in Istanbul was quoted several times and on occasion drew applause from the audience, who only stopped when the organizer of the conference, a well-known Palestinian professor, declared with frustration: “they are neither ‘red’ nor Indian.” Indeed, they are not. In fact, it was the natural allies of the Palestinian people, like many indigenous communities, who actively supported the Palestinian struggle for freedom.

The seemingly simple incident or poor choice of words, however, poses a much bigger challenge for Palestinians as they attempt to resuscitate a new discourse on Palestinian liberation that is no longer hostage to the self-serving language of elites. from the PA in Ramallah.

For several years, a new generation of Palestinians has been fighting on two different fronts: against the Israeli military occupation and apartheid, on the one hand, and the repression of the PA, on the other. For this generation to succeed in reclaiming the struggle for justice, they must also reclaim a unifying discourse, not only to reconnect their own fragmented communities across historic Palestine, but also to re-establish lines of communication of solidarity across the world.

I say “restore, because Palestine was a common denominator among many national and indigenous struggles in the Global South. It was not a random result. Throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s, fierce wars of liberation were fought across continents, leading in most cases to the defeat of traditional colonial powers and, in some cases such as Cuba, Vietnam and India. Algeria, to true decolonization. As Palestine is a composite case of Western imperialism and Zionist settler colonialism, the Palestinian cause has been embraced by many national struggles. It was, and remains, a stark example of Western-backed ethnic cleansing, genocide, apartheid, hypocrisy but also inspiring indigenous resistance.

PLO factions, intellectuals and activists were known and respected around the world as ambassadors of the Palestinian cause. Three years after his assassination by the Israeli Mossad in a car bomb attack in Beirut, the Palestinian novelist Ghassan Kanafani posthumously received the Annual Lotus Prize for Literature by the Union of Asian and African Writers as a delimitation of the common struggle between the peoples of the two continents. Not only did Palestine serve as a physical link between Asia and Africa, but it also served as an intellectual link and solidarity.

Arab countries, which also fought their own painful but heroic wars of national liberation, played a major role in the centrality of Palestine in the political discourses of African and Asian countries. Many non-Arab countries have supported collective Arab causes, especially Palestine, at the United Nations, pushed for the isolation of Israel, supported Arab boycotts, and even hosted PLO offices and fighters. When Arab governments began to change their political priorities, these nations, unfortunately but not surprisingly, followed suit.

The massive post-Cold War geopolitical shifts in favor of the US-led Western camp had a profound and negative impact on Palestine’s relations with the Arabs and the rest of the world. It also divided Palestinians, locating the Palestinian struggle in a process that seemed to be primarily determined by Israel alone. Gaza was placed under a permanent siege, the West Bank was fragmented by numerous illegal Jewish settlements and military checkpoints, Jerusalem was entirely engulfed, and Palestinians in Israel became the victims of a police state that defined itself primarily on racial grounds.

Abandoned by the world and their own leaders, oppressed by Israel and bewildered by remarkable events beyond their control, some Palestinians have turned against each other. It was the age of factionalism. However, Palestinian factionalism is greater than Fatah and Hamas, Ramallah and Gaza. Equally dangerous for self-serving politics are the many tentative discourses it has adopted, which are not governed by any collective strategy or inclusive national narrative.

When the PLO was driven out of Lebanon following the Israeli invasion and murderous war, the nature of the Palestinian struggle changed. Based in Tunisia, the PLO was no longer able to portray itself as a leader of a liberation movement in any practical sense. The 1993 Oslo Accords resulted from this political exile and subsequent marginalization. It also accentuated an existing trend where a real war of liberation turned into a form of corporate liberation, a thirst for funds, false status and, worse, a negotiated surrender.

This is now familiar and recognized by many Palestinians. What is less discussed, however, is that nearly forty years of this process have left Palestinians with a political discourse different from that which existed for decades before Oslo.

Undoubtedly, the Palestinians are aware of the need for a new liberated language. It is not an easy task, nor a randomly generated process. The indoctrination that has resulted from the culture of Oslo, the language of factions, the provincial political discourse of the various Palestinian communities, has left Palestinians with limited tools to articulate the priorities of the new era. Unity is not a political document. Nor is international solidarity. It is a process shaped by a language that must be spoken collectively, relentlessly and boldly. In this new language, Palestinians are Native Americans, not in their alleged propensity to be “annihilated,” but in their pride, resilience, and continued pursuit of equality and justice.

– Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of six books. His latest book, co-edited with Ilan Pappé, is “Our Vision for Liberation: Engaged Palestinian Leaders and Intellectuals Speak out”. Dr. Baroud is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA). His website is www.ramzybaroud.net

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