Free-floating solutions: Unleashing the indigenous imagination

Daily News Egypt
8 Min Read
Emad El-Din Aysha

By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD

I got into a discussion with some American friends following an Edward Said Memorial Lecture I’d forgot to invite them to. I’d forgot about it myself, inexcusably given the speaker – Lila Abu-Lughod, Professor of Anthropology, Women’s and Gender Studies at Columbia University The lecture was entitled “A Settler Colonialism of Her Own: Imagining Palestine’s Alternatives,” at the American University in Cairo, on 31 October.

One talking point with my friends was ‘extracting’ a solution for the Palestinian issue from Dr. Abu-Lughod’s talk. She’d been asked herself about a solution, only to reply that she likes to make things more complex to understand them better. That’s perfectly understandable given that she’s an anthropologist, not a political scientist or decision-maker. (Not that they’ve found any solutions themselves). Fortunately I’d been asked the same question years ago when I was teaching at the AUC by an exceedingly German student. My main criticism of the way the Palestinian cause had been handled in the past, and a key theme that emerged in Dr. Abu-Lughod’s stellar lecture, was the insistence on “nationalism”. The idea of a Palestinian nation-state with Jerusalem as the capital.

A better approach, I’d argued at the time, was to internationalise Jerusalem as a holy city. The more you insist on a nationalist approach to things, the more the other party can deploy the same weapon against you. My other piece of piecemeal advice was to scrap the 1967 borders and use the older 1948 borders.

Former diplomats and experts in international law over here have been complaining for a long time that the UN Security Council resolution 242 is not suited to setting up a Palestinian state, with stipulations concerning the capital and sovereignty and borders, etc. The older resolution, 181, is tailor-made for such outlying issues and gives a higher ceiling for negotiations because you have more land to negotiate with on the 1948 borders. The important thing, ultimately, is to protect the holy sites, the people, the water resources, the agricultural land, etc. That’s precisely what the Israelis are after.

The paraphernalia of the state is unimportant if it can’t protect any of these key elements of existence; if it can’t even protect itself from Israeli airstrikes and summary arrests and border checkpoints. With Dr. Abu-Lughod’s lecture, we’ve got even more tools at our disposal, with an added set of precautions too. Her research had found that an increasing number of anthropologists are looking at the Palestinian struggle in terms of “settler” colonialism and “indigenous” rights. Israeli colonialism wasn’t of the standard type. It was concerned with eliminating the other party entirely, not exploiting them and their resources. As for the indigenous angle, this was to do with the rights that “native” populations have been able to wring out of the settlers, in the US, Canada and Australia – admitting to their wrongdoings and praising the culture and heritage of the vanquished natives.

The only catch here is that you have to admit you are a defeated people and give up any hope of getting the land back. Being paid lip-service to Palestinian rights is hardly enough and Dr. Abu-Lughod herself warned that the Israelis were taking advantage of this platform themselves with the Bedouins in the Negev, acknowledging their plight in exchange for cutting themselves off from the rest of the Palestinians. It’s the old divide-and-rule tactic the Israelis have always used with Palestinians, and frankly with the rest of the Arabs too.

On the plus side, as Dr. Abu-Lughod explained, “concepts float” around. The Arab-Israeli conflict doesn’t match apartheid in South Africa, that’s true, but if you can use the “label” apartheid properly you can mobilise support internationally for a boycott of Israel – on the South African model – and get the 1948 Palestinians equal rights. The same goes for the indigenous/native people’s argument. You can find common cause with other marginalised peoples in the world and drum up international support, again, for boycotting and rights advocacy.

Yasser Arafat insisted that the Palestinians were not the Red Indians as they were still here, alive and fighting back, only to have Dr. Abu-Lughod quote a Mohawk advocate’s response that they too are ‘still’ here. The Palestinians and Mohawks actually have more in common than they think, argued Dr. Abu-Lughod, since they unfortunately don’t know what they want; the end state of their struggles. Do Mohawks want their own independent state issuing its own passports – the Mohawks refuse to use American and Canadian passports – or an autonomous region within the US and Canada? It’s a failure of the imagination.

In this scenario, the Palestinians can make themselves out to be an indigenous people and, once they get their rights, they can do whatever they like with them. They could declare independence on the model of the Chinese in formerly Malaysian Singapore, if they want.

We could also argue that Palestinians with equal rights in Israel will be better poised to help out their brethren in the West Bank and Gaza and internationally. Look what Edward Said was able to do for the Palestinians with his American passport and British education. This could even be a way to open up an avenue for the return of the refugees, with autonomous Palestinian villages in Israel drawing up their own immigration policies. And if you don’t want to split off the 1948 Palestinians from those in the occupied territories, you could always utilise resolution 181 and regroup them into the national fold, in exchange for an internationalised Jerusalem, for instance.

The point is to do something positive that you build on later, not to mention making it perfectly clear to the world that Israel itself is a state of occupation and that the Israelis are not the true natives, as they claim. There’s more to the nation-state than the flag and national anthem. There’s the “nation” itself!

Emad El-Din Aysha received his PhD in International Studies from the University of Sheffield in the UK and taught, from 2001, at the American University in Cairo. From 2003 he has worked in English-language journalism in Egypt, first at The Egyptian Gazette and now as a staff writer with Egypt Oil and Gas

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