On November 10th, 2013, the Israeli cabinet voted in a special session to authorize the demolition and removal of Umm al-Hiran, an “unauthorized,” Palestinian Bedouin village in the Negev Desert, and to build in its place a new community for national Jews to be named Hiran, which had been planned and approved in early 2002. The stated reason for this demolition and forceful eviction is the lack of permits for the existing settlement, with Umm al-Hiran being one of a number of Palestinian Bedouin communities that were settled without permits and are currently subject to intense Israeli plans for removal. Umm al-Hiran itself was set-up in early 1956 by the Palestinian Abu-Alkian tribe after they had been forced to move from their ancestral tribal lands near Kibbutz Shoval in the Northern Negev.
A more critical development related to this event is the Israeli Parliament’s passing of the first reading of the Prawer law. If the plan wins final approval, as it appears it will, it would cause the forceful displacement of 40,000-70,000 Arab Bedouins from the Negev, the confiscation of 800,000 dunams of Arab land, the razing to the ground of 36 or more Arab villages, and the dispossession of another generation of Palestinians. According to Adallah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, the “underlying premise of the draft bill is that there is no Bedouin land ownership,” effectively negating the “population’s right to property and historic affinity to the land.” At the heart of this matter is the ongoing contestation of Palestinian land rights, with the Israeli government using its authority to define these policies to favor the Jewish population over the Arab. Thus, this bill, like others before it, “promotes the principle of segregation along the lines of ethnic affiliation and labeling.”
While the contestations within Palestine and related diplomatic efforts are focused on contemporary events, an ontologically constructed and operative interpretation of the issue is rooted in what I define as the biblical theology of dispossession – a process of utilizing religious text as a vehicle by which to grant legitimacy to the displacement and collective silencing of the Palestinians. The physical removal of the Palestinians from their lands in the present is preceded by an epistemic dispossession which is facilitated by the ongoing attempts at recreating the biblical text in the modern, religious nationalist period. Attempting to address the Palestine crisis without accounting for the textual manipulation and theologically sanctioned dispossession of the Palestinians will only manage to delay a future cycle of religiously motivated violence directed at the indigenous population, which is deemed to be standing in the way of divine fulfillment and “the Return.” Thus, one way to approach the Palestinian issue is to ask critical questions about the biblical theology of dispossession, how it functions to silence the Palestinians, and how it authorizes a trans-historical and continuous process of uprooting the indigenous population to bring about fulfillment of a Divine promise. Also important at this time is to explore how groups and nations undertake the manipulation of religious texts in colonial and nationalist projects around the world, including the modern Zionist project, in order to clothe human projects in divine purpose, which often leads to destruction, conflict, or profound misery.
Narrative Manipulation Affecting Peace Processes
The debates within Israel proper surrounding the eviction of the Arab Bedouin communities discuss the same themes that propel the building and expansion of settlements in the Occupied West Bank and the Golan Heights. Since Israel’s occupation of both areas in 1967, the policy has been to effectively alter the areas’ demographic landscape by transferring and settling Jewish civilian populations onto confiscated lands, with the end goal of preventing the emergence of a contiguous Palestinian state in the future. Indeed, settler movement into the West Bank has swelled in the past 20 years, and at present some 344,779 settlers reside in approximately 130 settlements authorized and protected by the Israeli state. In addition, another 200,000 settlers have moved into East Jerusalem in hopes of altering the Palestinian demography in the city and preventing a possible Palestinian capital from emerging if a “peace” agreement is reached.
In 1993, Yasser Arafat, on behalf of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), signed the Oslo agreement, a declaration of principles to be followed during negotiations to resolve many outstanding issues including: settlements, borders, refugees, water rights, sovereignty, Jerusalem, and security between the parties. Needless to say, the only part of the agreement that has been operational is the issue of security, and only through the Palestinians being given the responsibility to protect the illegal settlements. What started on a hopeful note in 1993 with the White House ceremony has been transformed into “facts on the ground,” “by-pass roads,” an apartheid wall, and the fragmentation of the West Bank into Bantustans.
While many would lay the blame on the violence committed by the Palestinians, one must also consider the intensive campaign of deep biblical conviction waged by the right wing in Israel. In my view, the problem is deeper than the “peace process,” for at the core rests a narrative of dispossession that not only informed the past but serves as the cauldron for shaping the present reconstruction of the imagined past. What is constantly omitted from this reconstruction of the past is the identity of Palestinians as an indigenous population. The settlements, the eviction of Bedouins, the uprooting of 1.2 million trees, the burning of crops, the confiscation of land, the denial of residency permits, the theft of water and resources, the demolition of homes, the arrest and imprisonment strategies, the dumping of sewage, the restriction of marriages, and the daily use of violence and humiliation are all supposedly sanctioned by biblical authority. We must confront the idea that Palestinians are not disposable in the past and the present, thus asserting their indigenous rights to their ancestral land and property. A theology of dispossession and “manifest destiny” should not be allowed to claim the region as a “well of God.” Rather, we should insist that it is a human enterprise rooted in human goals.
Roots in the Biblical Text
Writing on the silencing of Palestinian history, Professor Keith W. Whitelam, in his book The Invention of Ancient Israel, asserts that “the history of ancient Palestine has been ignored and silenced by biblical studies because its object of interest has been ancient Israel conceived and presented as the taproot of Western civilization.” Whitelam’s book is of great importance, managing to take the established and “authoritative” biblical account to task, while also focusing on developing ways for scholars and academics to make Palestine’s history speak for itself,
A similar authoritative figure is Thomas L. Thompson, who in 1975 was forced out of academia and into a “full-time house-painter and handyman” job for his Ph.D. thesis arguing against the “historicity of the tales of the patriarchs in Genesis.” He developed a much later dating for the constructed narrative and, in a later book, The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel, forcefully altered the academic debate on the history of Palestine. Another important work on this early period in the history of the region is Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman’s The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. Finkelstein and Silberman maintain that, “it is now evident that many events of biblical history did take place in either the particular era or the manner described. Some of the most famous events in the Bible clearly never happened at all.”
This of course does not to imply that everyone is in agreement with the shifting grounds in the field of biblical studies. William G. Dever, in his book, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did they Know it? What Archaeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel, strongly counters what is known as the “minimalist” or “revisionist” school of Biblical Studies by asserting that the “Hebrew Bible, is so familiar to those of us still steeped in the Western cultural tradition that it would seem to need little explanation, much less defense.” However, over the past 40 years, we have witnessed a shift in the basic “academic” assumptions concerning the history of ancient Palestine, and in the process a fundamental alteration of the field of Biblical studies. We see that central to all of these works, even those that are in opposition, has been the ancient Palestinian history, which up to this day is only allowed to exist as a “backdrop to the histories of Israel and Judah.” (Whitelam 1996, p.2) At present, this Palestinian history is seen as a problem disrupting the triumphant return of the Biblical people. We therefore must begin to answer questions like who are the Palestinians, what are their origins, what does archeology and history inform us about this human group, and why would it be important to approach these and other questions about the Palestinians?
Consequences of Erasing the Palestinian Narrative
Recognizing now that the Palestinian narrative gets erased and misappropriated by means of a biblical theology of dispossession, what does this mean in practical terms for the conflict? How does it function on a daily basis? Well if a people have no history, then their ability to interrogate the past and engage with it for the present will constantly encounter unpassable limits. In this regard, the first act of true liberation and freedom is to be located in the mind, with the reclamation of the history and memory of the Palestinians and Palestine.
We must also note that to interrogate the above questions would be a normal academic exercise if it had to do with any other region in the world, but when it comes to Palestine and its people, the starting point for many tends to be the rendition of the familiar biblical narrative, ending with the creation of modern Israel by Zionism. Indeed, the success of modern Zionism in Palestine complicates our attempts to locate and treat the history of the indigenous Palestinians, since the colonial project undertook the normative strategy of negating or problematizing the relationship of the people to their ancestral lands, as illustrated by the case of the Bedouins in the Negev. Utilizing such rudimentary and racist notions as a “land without a people for a people without a land” or “making the desert bloom,” colonialist rhetoric on the one hand implies that the territory was not inhabited or cultivated, and on the other gives credence to the idea of a religious community returning to claim what rightfully belongs to it.
Indeed, one has to admit that nothing related to Palestine is without contestation, from the name, people, borders, history, economy, religion, cities, archeology, language, food, dress, and I am certain the term indigenous as well. However, this contestation must not be a deterrence. Rather, it is a statement of the present record and topography of speaking Palestine in the modern world. How should we understand the Palestinians from the indigenous lens, knowing that the concept itself is evolving, and that an international legal structure is increasingly developing that might reshape the discourse related to Palestine and its people?
Much has been said and written about Palestine, and I do expect more to be forthcoming as the issue continues to occupy the world in the coming decades. My article is not an attempt to provide a grand scheme for solving this intractable issue, nor an offer of a chronological history of the conflict and its many up and mostly down details. Rather, I wish to establish that, at this juncture, it is critical to seriously isolate the existing Palestinian history, and to locate it away from being a mere oppositional to the establishment of a “State for the Jews”. What we must advance in reading the past and rewriting Palestine’s history is the vantage point of an indigenous population facing the consequences of a biblical theology of dispossession, which has translated into a colonial and religious nationalist project. In reality, Palestinians are an indigenous population that entered the 20th century as victims of a global, colonial grab at the territory and resources of the collapsing Ottoman order. The major powers’ complete disregard for Palestinian rights at the turn of the century was on the one hand informed by the biblical theology of dispossession, but on the other was a normative political discourse concerning the treatment of indigenous populations which aimed to take control of land and resources in a vast territory. Greed was the motivation. The biblical text was used as a deed to claim the territory.
The Palestinian as a True Indigenous
While the history of the Palestinians, as an indigenous group, is unique, it should not be separated from the broader global struggle of native and indigenous populations. Since the ushering of the new world by the “discovery” of the Americas in 1492, we have witnessed the systematic and industrialized process of dispossession and complete elimination of indigenous populations and cultures across the globe, with limited remnants of these affected communities visible today. Ravaged by greed, disease, and systematic military destruction, the indigenous populations in the Americas, Africa, and parts of Asia faced the trilogy that caused the death of countless millions over the past five hundred years. From a broader perspective, one can begin to downplay the suffering of the Palestinians as an indigenous population, considering the circumstances of other native groups around the world and the history of genocide and total destruction visited upon them over the years. In addition, I can also understand those who would argue that the horrors of the Holocaust should engender the Palestinians to be more understanding of the Zionist ideal, and thus not see it or describe it as a colonial project. Some insist that the Jewish population itself should be viewed equally indigenous to the land, rather than as an extension of Western colonization.
The problem in this context is once again a crime of omission and memory. I do not espouse the denial of Jewish suffering at any level, and I assert that each people have a right to speak of their pain and history of suffering. However, at no time should this give birth to an open-ended colonial project that is supported by a biblical theology of dispossession. Over a 50 year period, the indigenous Palestinians faced an emergent European nationalist movement that succeeded in dispossessing them and transforming their ancestral homeland into a modern nation state that locates its genesis in the biblical text. Not dissimilar to the Native Americans or Africans who suffered under “manifest destiny,” the Palestinians were relegated to a secondary role and possessed no rights other than those granted to them by the emerging colonial state. Palestinians are victims of a Zionist “manifest destiny” that functions to create facts on the ground and attempts to recreate the mythical past in the present through reenactment of biblical narrative.
Coming back to the Bedouins, they are as ancient as the land itself and can trace their movement in the region over generations and even back to biblical times, as they are often referenced in, or even central to, narratives of biblical myth The indigenous Palestinians are an amalgamation of all the people, civilizations, tribes, and religious groups escaping the persecution of powers that left their imprint on the landscape. However, we must maintain that the original and most ancient inhabitants of Palestine are the Canaanites, while everyone else is a historical passer-by in the land. Today’s Palestinians are not pure Canaanites, for no one can assert a purity of lineage, but at the same time this does not mean that they have no critical and sustained presence on the land to claim the ownership of it. The Bedouins of the Negev are rightfully living on their land, and the Israeli state, through its apartheid laws and policies, can’t alter this fact. For anyone desiring “peace” in the region, the starting point is the setting aside of the biblical text and the theology of dispossession, and the recognition in word and deed of the Palestinians as indigenous people of the land. Then, and only then, can we have a discussion of what can be done to solve the specific context emerging from the theology of dispossession.