The Indigenous Palestinian People
A rare and much welcome event took place at the 20th Session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII20), which convened on 19 to 30 April 2021. Meeting under the theme ““Peace, justice and strong institutions: the role of indigenous peoples in implementing Sustainable Development Goal 16” (Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions). Under that rubric, HIC-HLRN joined HIC Members Al Haq and Al Mezan, as well as the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and the Jerusalem Legal Aid Center in an online panel on 27 April: “Toward Goal 16 for Sustainable Development in Palestine: The Realisation of the Palestinian Right to Self-Determination, and Ensuring Accountability.”
The event marked the first initiative addressing the indigenous Palestinian people as a whole in the UNPFII. However, the notion is not at all new or unprecedented. The comparative analysis of Palestine with indigenous peoples and victims of apartheid in southern Africa arose already in the context of the early UN General Assembly when, by the 1970s, all three situations were defined as cases of institutionalized and systematic racial discrimination and/or vestiges of colonialism.
An international NGO in consultative status with ECOSOC even emerged in the late 1970s to dedicate its efforts to applying its namesake, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. That included some of the first comparative analysis of the Palestinian people under Zionism with the analogous colonial legacies of other indigenous peoples, notably by the late Dr. Anis al-Qasem.
We recall also the triple intifadas of 1988—in Palestine, the Quichua people of Ecuador’s sierra and the Mohawk nation at Kanawake/Kanasatake—all over the dispossession of their lands by dominant non-indigenous people and their institutions. That year at the UN in Geneva, in the context of the UN Sub-Commission of the then UN Commission on Human Rights, Palestinian organizations from the Naqab were inspired by the Mohawks’ national passports with which they entered Switzerland. Today may be different in that some Palestinian carry passports recognizing their nationality, but without the corresponding self- determination or sovereignty over their land and natural resources, and still denied their means of subsistence.
It is this experience that binds Palestinians with other indigenous peoples. Also in the 1970s, at the height of decolonization across much of Africa, the UN Sub-Commission and Commission on Human Rights supported the study of indigenous peoples’ conditions, and eventually conducted studies on land and broken treaties. These points of intersection between Palestinian and other indigenous peoples became more evident a few years later with the recognition and adoption of the Martinez-Cobo report, which laid out the principal criteria for designation of an indigenous people:
- Continuous presence before a process of colonization or mass migration,
- Defined territory of consistent habitation,
- Culture distinct from the dominating society, and
- Self-identification as indigenous.
Accordingly, of the Palestinian people
- Are the people who precede the Zionist colonization just over a century ago.
- Identify with the land is the same one that bears its name: “Palestine.”
- Maintain their distinct culture expressed today, as from time immemorial, now imbued with the spirit of resistance of an existential and self-preserving nature.
- Self-identification is articulated here by this Palestinian initiative to take part in the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, as well as other expressions across the International System.
The sub-theme of the 27 April panel explored the indigenous Palestinian people within the promises and commitments of SDG 16: “Peace, justice and strong institutions.” The panel noted how Palestinians related to that promise, including the following targets:
16.3 Promote the rule of law at the national and international levels and ensure equal access to justice for all;
16.6 Develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels;
16.7 Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels;
16.9 By 2030, provide legal identity for all, including birth registration;
16.a Strengthen relevant national institutions, including through international cooperation, for building capacity at all levels, in particular in developing countries, to prevent violence and combat terrorism and crime;
16.b Promote and enforce non-discriminatory laws and policies for sustainable development.
In this context, the panelists and participants discussed the goal of democratic, accountable and inclusive institutions in the case of Palestine. Before the colonization of their territory, a particular colonial movement grew out of primordial soup of racial theories and ethnic nationalisms in late 19th Century Europe. That Zionist Movement sought to establish a state in Palestine uniquely for foreign persons of Jewish faith. However, it did not meet the criteria for a state according to what we now understand as the Montevideo criteria: (1) a defined territory, (2) a permanent population in that territory (i.e., people/s), and (3) public institutions functioning as a government, recognized by other states.
While the coveted land already belonged to the Palestinian people, and the notion of a “Jewish people” distinct from others will always remain contentious, the founders of the Zionist Movement prioritized the establishment of institutions instead that functioned exclusively on behalf of what their charters called people of “Jewish race, or descendency.” The purpose of these institutions was to create the conditions for fulfilling the other two classic criteria of a state in the international system.
It is those pre-state institutions that worked from Western capitals and through growing influence as a shadow government during the British Mandate in the League of nations-determined self-determination unit of Palestine to seize control of the land and all natural resources belonging the indigenous people. The process of eliminating the indigenous people was a punctuated by 33 strategic massacres and the ethnic cleansing of over 500 Palestinian villages in the Nakba (catastrophe) of 1947–48, the subsequent ethnic cleansing of the southern Naqab region and destruction of a further 108 villages and habitations to create an “enclosure” (siyaj) for the indigenous Palestinians there, and the acquisition of the still-occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jerusalem by military force in 1967.
Those same organizations—led by the World Zionist Organization/Jewish Agency and Jewish National Fund—with their common apartheid charters and overlapping executive bodies still operate on behalf of the State of Israel to dispossess the indigenous Palestinian people and replace them with colonial settlers. It is about time to interrogate those apartheid institutions. They also continue to do so while registered as nongovernmental, tax-exempt charities in some 50 countries around the world.
The democratization of state institutions is a core requirement to enable the indigenous Palestinian people to recover their homes, lands and other natural resources. It is also these institutions and their affiliates that actively deny the Palestinian people’s inalienable and internationally recognized right to self-determination.
In that connection, it is appropriate to remind about another feature of the 2030 Agenda, which reflects a permanent duty of states preceding and enduring beyond the SDGs. It is in para. 35 of the 2030 Agenda that states have pledged: “further effective measures and actions to be taken, in conformity with international law, to remove the obstacles to the full realization of the right of self-determination of peoples living under colonial and foreign occupation, which continue to adversely affect their economic and social development as well as their environment.” In 2021, a third of the way into Agenda 2030 implementation, this promise enjoys no corresponding SDG, Target or monitoring indicator. That broken promise is no better illustrated than by the continuing colonial and foreign occupation of indigenous peoples’ lands and denial of their means of subsistence.
The Palestinian case stands as one illustrious example of this pattern of egregious violations of human rights and peremptory norms of international law, binding on all states, to uphold the self-determination of peoples. And the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) reflects the development of international law to recognize indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination (Articles 3–4).
The side-event at UNPFII exemplified the task of Palestinian civil society and its organizations to raise their case in solidarity with other indigenous, colonized and occupied peoples of this world. It also bore witness to this self-identification of Palestinians and their institutions consistent not only with the voluntary pledges of global development policy, but also consistent with their inalienable rights as the people indigenous in their land, Palestine.
Note the following related references:
Ahmad Amara and Yara Hawari, “Using Indigeneity in the Struggle for Palestinian Liberation,” al shabaka (8 August 2019);
Reem Barakat, “Ecological Practices of Native Palestinians and Native American Indians,” Maan ();
International Indian Treaty Council (IITC), “The International Indian Treaty Council Calls on Israel, the Biden Administration and the World Community to Support the Rights of the Palestinian People,” IITC (posted 17 May 2021, updated 23 June 2021);
Al-Qasem, Anis. “An International View of Racial Discrimination,” EAFORD Paper No. 15 (1981).
Photo: Palestinian supporters fly the flag of Palestine in Yelamu, Ohlone Territory (San Francisco California), on Alcatraz Island at International Indian Treaty Council’s Indigenous Peoples Day Sunrise Gathering, October 2019. Source: International Indian Treaty Council (IITC).