Recognising Indigeneity, Erasing Palestine

What did the widespread recognition of the Palestinian Bedouin of the Naqab as “indigenous people” under international law mean?
2019-05-18

Lana Tatour

Adjunct lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. She is the recipient of the 2019–2020 Ibrahim Abu-Lughod Award, awarded by the Center for Palestine Studies at Columbia University


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Women sit next to the ruins of their dwellings, which were demolished by Israeli bulldozers, in the tiny village of Umm Al-Hiran, in January 2017.

Recent years have seen the recognition of the Palestinian Bedouin of the Naqab as indigenous people under international law. This recognition has become widespread, enjoying an international consensus. Today the United Nations, the European Union, international NGOs and critical scholarship refer to the Bedouin as indigenous, and since 2005 Bedouin activists have been routinely attending the meetings of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

At the forefront of advancing recognition of the Bedouin as indigenous is the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, a joint Arab–Jewish civil society organisation based in the Naqab. Also taking a leading role is a group of sympathetic scholars, such as Alexandre Kedar, Oren Yiftachel, Ahmad Amara—all non-Bedouin—who developed the arguments to justify such recognition under international law. The turn to an indigenous rights framework is not without reasoning. It is the result of an escalation in Israel’s policies towards the Bedouin, manifested in a sharp rise in house demolitions—including the obliteration of entire villages—as well as state plans that threaten to demolish 40 Bedouin villages and to forcibly displace tens of thousands of Bedouin residents.

The recognition is an achievement unique among the Palestinian population, with the Bedouin being the only Palestinian group to enjoy this status. No doubt, recognition has drawn widespread international attention to the struggle of the Naqab Bedouin for land justice. That said, the exceptionality of the Bedouin case raises the question as to how, why and on what grounds the Bedouin are recognised as indigenous people, and what the ramifications of such recognition are both for the Palestinian–Bedouin struggle and for the wider Palestinian struggle.

Culturalising Bedouin Indigeneity

According to international law, there are a number of criteria that ought to be met in order to qualify as an indigenous group. These criteria are characterised by an emphasis on cultural traits. They include priority in time; cultural distinctiveness; the voluntary perpetuation of a traditional culture; self-identification as indigenous; and experience of marginalisation, dispossession and exclusion. As these criteria illustrate, the UN working definition reflects a multicultural understanding of the term “indigenous” that stresses cultural uniqueness and its perpetual performance as paramount principles in determining indigeneity. These criteria also mean that, under international law, colonisation is not an essential criterion for recognition. As such, groups that have not experienced colonisation can also qualify as indigenous.

In the Bedouin case, recognition as indigenous has been premised on grounds of cultural distinctiveness and traditional lifestyle, rather than on political claims that recognise indigeneity as a product of settler colonisation. The Bedouin were recognised as indigenous based on the following claims: they are a tribal society; their existence in the Naqab predates the establishment of the Israeli state; they are culturally distinct from the Jewish majority and the Palestinians in Israel; they continue to practise Bedouin traditions and customs; they demonstrate special connection to the land; they experience marginalisation; and they self-identify as indigenous.

The erasure of the colonial factor has led to a situation where the justification for an indigenous status for the Bedouin is predicated on the mobilisation of an essentialist model of indigeneity that centres culture as the defining feature of indigeneity, and rests on fetishisation of the Bedouin as a premodern and endangered culture that is deserving of protection and preservation. As a result, the Bedouin have been reduced to a culture and have become defined through that culture, which is perceived as uniquely premodern and traditional. Within this culturally dominated reading of indigeneity, the strife between the state and its Bedouin citizenry has been constructed as a cultural clash between a modern state and a premodern population rather than a conflict between coloniser and colonised. Consequently, the conversation has been framed around the question of how to make the modern state accommodative to, and tolerant of, cultural difference.

Indigenous Rights as Divide and Rule

Once cultural distinctiveness had become the basis for recognition, the Bedouin had to be established as culturally distinct from both the Palestinian people and the Israeli–Jewish population. In its formal appeal for recognition to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues on behalf of the Bedouin population, the Negev Coexistence Forum wrote as follows: “They [the Bedouin] are ethnically distinct from the Jewish majority and socially distinct from the Palestinian Arab minority living in Israel.” Accordingly, the Jewish settlers and the Palestinian natives, to whom the Palestinian Bedouin belong, are portrayed to be equally exogenous to the Bedouin population. We thus see the Bedouin recognised as indigenous not because they are part of the broader Palestinian people (which is made up of diverse ethnic and religious groups) or because they face settler colonialism. Rather, the Bedouin are entitled to recognition because settler colonialism and the question of Palestine can be made absent from the discussion of Bedouin indigeneity, and because the Bedouin can be culturally differentiated from the Palestinian population.

In this respect, there is little difference between Israel’s divide-and-rule policies, which sought to split the Palestinian people along ethnic and religious lines as a means of weakening their ability to organise as a national collective, and indigenous discourse, which demands the separation of the Bedouin from the Palestinian people to whom they belong. Under indigenous rights, the Bedouin are constructed as an unconnected people, rather than as part of the Palestinian people. Consequently, indigenous rights risk serving as a divide-and-rule mechanism that further fractures and weakens Palestinian unity and resistance.

That said, there are some suggestions that the recognition of the Naqab Bedouin as indigenous can open the door for the recognition of the rest of the Palestinian people as indigenous. This proposition, however, appears to be too optimistic. Any expansion of recognition is bound to be based on the further fragmentation of the Palestinian people rather than on the recognition of the Palestinian people—as a unified whole—as indigenous. As we have seen recently, Bedouin refugee communities in the Hebron Hills in Area C of the West Bank are gradually being recognised as indigenous, separated from the Palestinian community in the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 specifically and the Palestinian people more generally. As with the Naqab Bedouin, this recognition is not political. It is, rather, based on cultural grounds and on racial views of both groups as being sufficiently authentic and “premodern” to qualify as indigenous.

Since indigeneity is not understood in political terms, Palestinians cannot qualify as indigenous under international law. In contrast to the Palestinian Bedouin, other Palestinians are considered to be “too modern” to qualify as indigenous under international law. If there is a scenario for the expansion of the definition of indigeneity to apply to more Palestinians in addition to the Bedouin, it would be based on the further fragmentation of the Palestinian people. From the perspective of international law, a plausible scenario could be, for example, the Druze community claiming an indigenous status on grounds of cultural distinctiveness.

Culturalising the Right to Land

Despite these critiques, there is still room to ask whether indigenous rights could serve as a useful framework that could embolden the Bedouin struggle and their claim to land. For those who advocated recognition, pursuing an indigenous status for the Bedouin has been regarded as a strategic tool to facilitate access to international institutions and foreign audiences. In the short term, there is no doubt that the mobilisation of the indigenous discourse has helped draw attention to the Bedouin cause and to Israel’s racial and colonial policies. Recent years have seen hundreds of delegations of diplomats, international organisations and solidarity activists visit unrecognised Bedouin villages. This is not an insignificant achievement.

However, when it comes to land rights, the story is more complicated. The emphasis on Bedouin culture as a traditional culture that faces the danger of extinction has resulted in a discourse that ties claims to land on claims to cultural survival. This has meant a profound process of shifting Bedouin claims to land from the political to the cultural realm, meaning that the right to land is now articulated through claims of lifestyle preservation. The land is important insofar as it helps to protect Bedouin traditional culture and lifestyle (whatever that might mean). This raises the question of what happens when indigenous peoples stop being perceived as authentic enough by settlers and in liberal eyes. Do they then lose their right to land?

Here we ought to learn from the experiences of other indigenous peoples. As the Native American scholar Sam Deloria warned, by predicating land claims on principles of cultural survival, indigenous peoples risk compromising their right to land by rendering it conditional on cultural purity. In Canada and Australia, for example, cultural conditionality has been enshrined in court rulings that in order to qualify for native title, indigenous peoples must demonstrate the ongoing practice of traditional customs and culture. And, of course, it is settler courts that determine authenticity.

The current discourse on Bedouin indigeneity risks reproducing a similar dynamic by making the Bedouin right to land conditional, for the first time, upon cultural authenticity. This dynamics is becoming increasingly visible. For example, the activist Amir Abu Kweder from the Bedouin village Al-Zarnouk tells: ‘A while ago I led a tour of a group from Australia. We were at Wadi Al-Na’am [an unrec- ognised village]. They asked me later: ‘How come people here have cutlery and plates?’ They then attacked me personally, saying: ‘You are an educated man, wearing jeans. You [Bedouin] need to stop playing the victim role’. I was too modern for them to be a victim’. He adds: ‘I want people to be able to choose the life they want to lead … Some people will have olive trees, others will raise sheep and goats. Others will be bourgeoisie like me, smoking a cigar on their balcony and reading a stupid book on self-improvement. Some villages and villagers will rely on agriculture, others will also have high-tech’.

As pointed by Dr Awad Abu Frieh of the Bedouin village Al-Arakib, a professor of chemistry and the Head of the Department of Biotechnology at Sapir College, foreigners ‘see a very simple life, living in the desert, in a tent, with your sheep and goats, far from urbanism. They don’t see that in Palestinians. When they see a Palestinian from Haifa, they do not see an indigenous way of living. I used to argue with them on these issues, but could not convince them that all Palestinians are indigenous to the land’. He adds: ‘Some of the people are in solidarity with us because they value our culture and think it deserves to be preserved. They want us to stay this way, preserve our simplicity. They want us to maintain our way of life, not to surrender to modernity … We [the Naqab Bedouin] are prevented from having a modern desert life. We are only given two options: either super-fast urbanism or that I die in the desert. I want neither. We are indigenous and we have the right to develop and progress. I want a rural life with scientific progress … I take what I want from other cultures and keep what I want from my own culture. What I take from the West, however, cannot compromise my identity, belonging and culture’.

As we see, Bedouin activists have been rejecting the liberal discourse that ties the right to land on principles of cultural authenticity, performativity and distinctiveness. Instead, they have been stressing the right of the Bedouin to choose their own lifestyle, without having that choice compromise their right to land. Unfortunately, the Bedouin’s own articulation of the right to land has been overlooked in the ways in which the discourse on Bedouin indigeneity has been promoted by NGOs and academics.

Palestinian human rights NGOs, as well as Palestinian Bedouin and non-Bedouin activists, have been wary of the use of indigenous rights—and rightly so. At the moment, it seems that indigenous rights have little to offer in the Palestinian struggle against Zionist colonisation. Indigenous rights are proving to be the framework that can enhance colonisation and domination by compromising the historical and long-term rights of Palestinians to the land. Moreover, indigenous rights can limit rather than expand the scope of rights that Palestinians can demand by reconfiguring the Palestinian struggle from a political undertaking to one of cultural recognition. If Palestinians do decide to pursue recognition as indigenous under international law, this will shift the conversation. The international gaze will not be focused on Israel as an illegitimate settler colonial enterprise. Instead, Palestinians will find themselves constantly scrutinised on whether they meet the cultural criteria necessary to be considered indigenous.

As Palestinians, our right to land is political, not cultural. So is our indigeneity. Our understanding of indigeneity stands in contrast to the ways in which indigeneity is defined under international law. As Palestinians, we know that we are indigenous and we do not need international law to confirm this. We know that we are the natives of this land. And we know that we are the rightful owners of the land. Our indigeneity is not a product of our culture. It is the result of our encounter with the Zionist movement as a settler colonial enterprise. As the revolutionary thinker Frantz Fanon pointed out, “it is the settler who has brought the native into existence and who perpetuates his existence”. A political understanding of indigeneity would acknowledge that as long as settler colonialism exists, so too does the category of indigeneity. Our struggle is not to gain cultural recognition by the settler state. Our struggle is to dismantle the settler state altogether.

This article is based on a recently published paper in the International Journal of Human Rights.

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