Palestinian Indigeneity and the Master’s Tools
November 12 2023
blog Series: 

Like many of my Palestinian colleagues who are academics in the U.S., I have found myself offering teach-ins on many campuses (mostly Zooming in) across this continent and Europe, as well as to many community organizations, since the escalation of Israel’s genocidal war on the Palestinian people in the wake of the events of Oct. 7, 2023.

I have cited innumerable United Nations General Assembly resolutions, U.N. Security Council Resolutions, and international laws that Israel is violating. I have cited the Geneva Conventions, the definition of apartheid, and the definition of genocide; I have explained what constitutes war crimes, and when and how resistance is permissible, even by armed means. I cite dates and numbers, and I explain the difference between “definition” and “working definition,” and between resolutions that can be implemented and those that cannot.

I mention U.N. GA Resolution 194, passed in 1948, guaranteeing the Palestinian Right of Return — which Israel continues to deny us — and U.N. Resolution GA 252, adopted in 1968, in the wake of Israel’s occupation of east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which “reaffirms” the inadmissibility of acquiring territory by military means, and “deplores” Israel’s failure to comply with the resolutions. I give an overview of these and many, many more definitions, working definitions, resolutions and unimplementable resolutions, and de jure, and de facto… I’m no lawyer, but I’ve learned some of the lingo.

By the end of the presentation, I feel empty. Cheated. Why do we even have all these resolutions and definitions, when not one of these is used to hold Israel accountable for what are — according to these laws and definitions — war crimes and crimes against humanity?

The answer, simply, is that these are the master’s tools. And, as Audre Lorde noted in 1979, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

Specifically, the resolutions and definitions I cite are the tools of the master that birthed the state of Israel. It is the United Nations that laid the foundations for the Israeli settler project to be built in 1948, on the ruins of over 500 Palestinian towns and villages, after 75% of the Palestinian people were forcefully expelled from their ancestral lands, after hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were ethnically cleansed by the Zionist militias.

The idea of creating a Jewish state in Palestine was a European colonial vision first formulated in the 19th century. It is in line with various European colonial ventures of the 19th century. The 1917 Balfour Declaration — which “views with favour” the Zionist aspirations to our land — was issued by the foreign secretary of an empire that took pride in having colonized nations and peoples across the globe. “The sun never sets on the British Empire” was an assertion of pride, unadulterated by guilt at the onus of empire on the dispossessed, the exploited, the enslaved. Indeed, the cavalier manner “His Majesty’s Government” referred to Palestinians as “the non-Jewish population” of Palestine, without so much as naming us, when Palestinian Christians, Muslims, Druze, and Baha’i — to list the largest “non-Jewish” religious communities, who made up 95% of this historically diverse people — is indicative of the total disregard for the Indigenous population of a land that Europeans planned to colonize.

It is not a coincidence that — even as online webinars have made virtual teach-ins a common occurrence, with almost everybody being able to meet up in cyberspace — Palestinians do not have to “educate” people in the Global South about Israel’s criminality according to international law. People there know — without the need for any legalese — what colonialism, Occupation, and the violation of human rights look like, feel like, and taste like, in daily life. These things taste like blood, rubble, and white phosphorous when people are made hungry, thirsty, and weary.

Lorde asked: “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow parameters of change are possible and allowable.”

Similarly, we can now ask, what does it mean when the tools of an institution that considers itself the “world’s peacekeeper” or the “world’s cop” are used to police the digressions of the progeny of that institution? In the case of the United Nations, the permanent presence within that institution of the “Big Five” (China, Russia, France, the UK, and the USA) within the Security Council — and the reality that the U.S. does not hesitate to wield its veto power to block any resolution that would hold Israel accountable for its violations — renders the whole process utterly futile. The latest such U.S. veto, to date, was on Oct. 18, 2023, and would have called for a humanitarian pause in Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip, to allow humanitarian corridors and the lifting of the order for civilians to leave the northern region.

Here I am, referencing a U.N. resolution, again.

For now, as we educate those who only speak the master discourse, it is useful to reiterate the frustrating inability of the master’s tools to bring about critically needed change. The U.S. has used its “permanent” veto power over 55 times to block U.N. resolutions critical of the Israeli regime.

We need to break free from the Mobius strip (of course, named after a European mathematician, even though it has existed across the world since antiquity) of the magisterial paradigm. It does not serve us. The United Nations, a world policing body — like all police forces globally — is at the service of the wealthy, the privileged, the masters, shielding them from the seething anger of the dispossessed. Like police forces everywhere (including our own “Palestinian Authority” security forces, who arrest anti-Israel protesters), it needs to be abolished. Reforming it only allows it to continue fulfilling its primary function, which is inherently oppressive. One major feature of this primary function is the maintenance of arbitrary, colonial lines drawn not by the Indigenous peoples who are now divided and uprooted, but by the alien European concept of the modern nation-state, with its militarized borders.

Abolitionists know that merely reforming an oppressive system isn’t enough. Still, we can use what is currently at our disposal, as a temporary stopgap, while creating the alternative. To cite Lorde again, the master’s tools “may temporarily help us beat him at his own game, but they can never bring about genuine change.”

As such, we can keep citing international law, U.N. resolutions, and definitions of war crimes and crimes against humanity, as these are formulated by the master, to point out the criminality of the Israeli project, all within the master narrative. But the alternative cannot be a “new and improved” Israel or a “reformed” apartheid project. Indeed, the distinction between the “legal occupation” of a people’s ancestral homeland (1948) and the “illegal Occupation” of that same people’s homeland (1967) is, at its very essence, a colonial concept. The alternative is one that the colonizing master cannot envision, as it continues to promote “two states” and the pacification of the dispossessed, rather than justice leading to genuine peace.

The alternative is what we are building, as we look with horror at the master’s accelerated genocide of the Palestinian people. We are witnessing its bloodthirsty desire to destroy what it could not tame… what was, and remains, beyond its reach. In response, we also see the defiant indigeneity of a people, we who define ourselves in terms incomprehensible to the master. We remain a nation driven to achieve social and political liberation, with dignity and freedom for all, not just the magisterial class.

We are Palestinian. We do not "occupy" the land, we belong to it.

About The Author: 

Nada Elia is a Diaspora Palestinian scholar-activist, and a member of the Palestinian Feminist Collective. She teaches in the Cultural Studies Program at Western Washington University.

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