Terra Nullius/Nakba

The political and academic discourse on colonised countries is deliberately framed in such a way that it problematises the victim while exonerating and legitimising the villain. This has involved rewriting the historical record, a sine qua non of European colonialism, and for us to confront it requires challenging it and recognising the colonial matrix that binds the oppressors together, argues Randa Abdel-Fattah.

In his ground-breaking book Silencing the Past, Michel-Rolph Trouillot argued that the West’s failure to acknowledge the Haitian Revolution ‘shows us that history is not simply the recording of facts and events, but a process of actively enforced silences, some unconscious, others quite deliberate’.

The settler-colonial logics underpinning the establishment and continuing logics of Israel as an ethno-religious state built on the land of the majority Palestinian population is routinely silenced and suppressed. It is also routinely erased in any understanding of how the governance regimes of Australia as a white settler state are shaped by its colonial origins.

What is at stake in upending this history? In naming the reality of Israel as a settler colonial enterprise? In framing justice for Indigenous people in terms of a deep and systematic project of decolonisation? What is threatened when we assert that the struggles of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and Palestinians, are united in an indivisible anti-colonial struggle?

Silencing the overarching framework of settler colonialism accounts for why we continually see an inversion of responsibility in Australia and Palestine, whereby the white settler state of Australia, and the Israeli settler state, shift blame from the enactors of state violence to the victims. Palestinians are blamed for daring to refuse to acknowledge Israel’s so-called right to exist as an ethno-religious state that privileges one ethno-racial group over all others; Palestinians are blamed for daring to refuse to acquiesce, accept, stop resisting. All attempts to shift blame are in effect an ‘actively enforced silencing’ of those who continue to testify to ethnic cleansing, depopulation, dispossession, massacres.

In Australia we see the ongoing failure of the state to take responsibility for colonial harms against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, for systemic and institutionalised state violence, systemic oppression, and brutality. Intergenerational trauma and poverty caused by Commonwealth, state and territory race-based welfare laws and policies of successive governments throughout Australia, land theft, stolen wages and blackbirding—Australia’s hidden history of slaveryare never properly and justly accounted for. Poverty, shorter life expectancy, health disparities, rates of incarceration, discrimination are not reckoned with as the ongoing effects of the violence of the settler state. Colonialism is forgotten and the language becomes one of ‘lifestyle choices’.

Despite the landmark ‘Bringing them home: The ‘Stolen Children’ report’ of 1997, and Australia’s National Apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008, the majority of the Bringing Them Home recommendations have not yet been implemented. Indeed, the rate of removal of Indigenous children in Australia has increased and activists like Grandmothers Against Removal are working against the systemic removal of Indigenous children. The language of terra nullius permeates the subtle saviour discourse that underpins the child protection sector. This is a sector where we see a consistent thread of the logic of the colonial protection authority which held the original rights to control Indigenous children. Settler colonial structures underpin law and policy today. It is an example of what anthropologist Ann Laura Stoller describes as ‘the everyday pervasive present-tense and presence of colonial power.’

A deep historical reading of both Black and Palestinian struggles as settler-colonialism problematises many hegemonies. One of these is the ‘European/Western’ prism of modernity and its refusal to engage with the colonial matrix of power. This colonial matrix of power is fundamental to my positionality as a settler of colour, as the daughter of a dispossessed Palestinian living in Australia on stolen land. The colonial project that created the state of Israel and dispossessed my father and his family from their homeland brought my father to another stolen land, Australia, in 1973— just two years after Indigenous people were counted in the national census for the first time.

A historical analysis is crucial in order to achieve justice and social transformation. We know this in Australia. Indigenous people who call for the abolishment of Australia Day because it marks the beginning of invasion, dispossession and genocide of Indigenous people are told to ‘get over it’; accused of fixating on the past, instead of reckoning with it. The appalling rate of Indigenous deaths in custody tends to be ‘counted’ from the 1991 Royal Commission report, ignoring the trajectory of deaths by settler state violence since invasion. 

We also know history matters to Palestinians. The systematic expunging of Palestinian bodies, identity, history and memory from Israel, as well as the collective forced amnesia around the Nakba, confronted me everywhere I turned when I visited Palestine. It’s truly a remarkable feat in censorship to construct an entire state around a falsehood: to systematically seek to erase a people’s existence, displacement, loss and nostalgia from both the past and present; to maintain the idea that nothing coherent, beautiful, legitimate, meaningful and non-Jewish predated Israel. In Jaffa, the tourist information plaques along the Corniche presented a multi-lingual history of the city covering thousands of years until the present day. There was nothing in Arabic. I took a photo there with my father, a personal stamp of our Palestinian presence. I subsequently found an article online about these signs which erase Palestinians from Jaffa’s history. The only reference to Palestinians is a single line: ‘In the year 1936, Arab barbarians attacked the Jewish neighbourhood’. The year 1936, the year of the Arab revolt, is also the year one of my great uncles was hanged by the British. I know nothing more about who he was or why he was killed. Because dispossession robs you of your personal archives.

Both in Australia and Israel, naming history, refusing erasure, provokes reactionary, oppressive political violence. In March 2011, the Israeli Knesset passed a law authorising the Finance Minister to reduce state funding or support to an institution if it engages in an “activity that is contrary to the principles of the state.” Relevantly, the activities include “rejecting the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” and “commemorating Independence Day or the day of the establishment of the state as a day of mourning.” Palestinians and their supporters are punished for commemorating the day they lost their land. To insist that the Nakba will not be ‘deliberately silenced’ is to invoke the wrath of a racist legal system and state apparatus structured on repressing the historical record.

In Australia, Indigenous activists either calling for the abolition of Australia Day or a ‘change of date’ from 26 January have been silenced, attacked and vilified in some astonishingly egregious ways. To speak truth to power, to resist terra nullius in all its present manifestations and expressions, to properly re-name Australia Day as Invasion Day, is a threat to the white settler state. Consider that in 2018, Indigenous activist 24-year-old Tarneen Onus-Williams delivered a speech at an Invasion Day rally in Melbourne. Addressing a crowd of 60 000, Onus-Williams said, ‘Fuck Australia, hope it burns to the ground’ and called for the abolition of Australia Day. For this, Onus-Williams was subjected to relentless vitriolic attacks, including from the Victorian state government and Opposition, and ‘dozens of fiery news articles, including some attacking her family’. Former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett attacked Onus-Williams for ‘inappropriate language’ and suggested she, an Indigenous woman, ‘buy a one-way plane ticket’. There were calls for her removal from her role with the government-funded Koori Youth Council, and demands for the Council to be defunded. That the settler state will brook no dissent, and crack down on all decolonisation efforts, is exemplified in the consequences meted out to local councils who have dared to cancel the national ritual of citizenship ceremonies being held on Australia Day. Such councils have been stripped by the Federal Government of their right to hold such ceremonies.  

Every effort to shut down dissent, stifle the terms of discourse and debate, impose punitive measures is exemplary of how settler colonies seek to control the way the past is remembered, and the way the future is imagined.

Palestinians, for example, are repeatedly met with a framing of their struggle for justice and freedom based on terms which mark 1967 as the starting point of the ‘conflict’ to be ‘solved’. This accounts for why negotiations and policies remain focused on conflict, not ethnic cleansing; occupation, at the expense of the right of return; the Green Line, not 1948 historic Palestine; a ‘two-state’ solution, not racial apartheid and land theft. In Australia, successive governments continue to insist on advocating a bipartisan policy of support for a two-state solution and, crucially, a commitment to Israel’s so-called ‘right to exist’. A commitment to the ‘right to exist’ mantra can only be sustained if ethnic cleansing, depopulation and dispossession are expunged from the terms of debate.  

Refugees, the right of return, the transferral of British mandate colonial frameworks to Israel’s control of the Palestinian population from 1948 are ignored. To begin at 1967 automatically signals an ideological position: settler colonialism is extinguished from the narrative. But a historical analysis is everything. Settler colonialism and its racial logics is there, in the historical record, the explicit basis upon which the founder of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, appealed to Cecil Rhodes for support. Rhodes, having colonized the land of the Shona people in Africa and renamed it Rhodesia, was specifically approached because of the (correctly) assumed shared sympathy for a colonial endeavour. Herzl wrote: ‘You are being invited to help make history. [I]t doesn’t involve Africa, but a piece of Asia Minor; not Englishmen but Jews… How, then, do I happen to turn to you since this is an out-of-the-way matter for you? How indeed? Because it is something colonial…’

History matters to both First Nations people in Australia, and Palestinians in historical and occupied Palestine. And these histories are, crucially, connected. That is, after all, how the tentacles of the British empire extended throughout the world. In his book, Righteous Victims, Israeli historian Benny Morris wrote that the early Zionist settlers tended to view the Arabs as ‘primitive, dishonest, fatalistic, lazy, savage – much as the European colonists viewed the natives elsewhere in Asia or Africa… [I]n most moshavot, Arabs were treated like the indigenous peoples in other places colonised by Europeans.’ In Australia, Joseph Banks, the British scientist who accompanied James Cook, described the Indigenous people encountered on invasion as nomadic, wandering ‘like Arabs from place to place’. The language of settler colonialism— wielded by the British or European Zionists— was fundamentally expressed through a shared racialized grammar. Consider that Cecil Rhodes is seen as having provided the blueprints for South Africa’s system of apartheid. And South Africa’s Apartheid system was modelled closely on Queensland’s Aboriginal Protection Act (1897). This is the settler-colonial matrix of power that is deliberately silenced.

Narratives about history, and collective imaginaries about liberation struggles, are powerful mobilisers of solidarity and activism. What we are witnessing in Palestine and Australia are extensions of settler colonial violence. Every attempt to frame the Israeli-Palestinian ‘conflict’ in the language of a two-state solution, or Israel being represented as a state founded as a refuge against the Nazi Holocaust, or this being a religious conflict is a move to deliberately redact the historical record. Likewise, in Australia, we see time and time again that white settler state violence is the engine behind what can be described as martial law in the Northern Territory Intervention, Indigenous deaths in custody, the carceral system that disproportionality imprisons black bodies, shuts down Indigenous dissent and protests. And yet this is routinely denied, obscured, ignored, certainly never leading to any accountability. As Teela Reid, Wiradjuri and Wailwan woman, lawyer and human rights activist, argues in relation to systemic racism and the over-incarceration ofIndigenous people: ‘The truth is Australia is a colony built on racism, it is written into the laws and operates within its institutions.  Systemic racism requires systemic change. If you deny racism exists, then you are part of the problem. This land always was, always will be sovereign Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land, sky and sea’. Unceded sovereignty, structural settler colonial racism and accountability are crucial to any reckoning of justice.

Last month, 29-year-old Australian Brenton Tarrant was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for his massacre of 51 Muslim worshippers in Aotearoa-New Zealand in March 2019.  Following mainstream media coverage and commentary, it was not at all surprising that, like the commentary that circulated a year earlier, the very macro structures of settler colonialism that the Christchurch shooting is grounded upon were disregarded. We have here a white supremacist terrorist attack committed by a white Australian male against Muslims in a neighbouring settler state and yet public conversation remains fixated on the false idea that white supremacy is an ugly, violent anomaly to Australia and New Zealand’s ‘we are better than this’/ ‘this is not us’ attitude. It is, to quote Indigenous professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson, a prime example of how the possessive logics of patriarchal white sovereignty operate to perpetually disavow and disappear Indigenous peoples. Settler colonialism and Indigenous sovereignty are white discursive possessions, left in or out of public conversations. Race, Moreton-Robinson powerfully argues, is the organising grammar of Australian society, rooted in patriarchal White sovereignty, in a politics of White anxiety over dispossession shaped by a refusal of Indigenous sovereignty. The patriarchal white sovereignty that refuses Indigenous sovereignty arguably shaped the logic of a young white man who carried out a murderous rampage against Muslims in Australia’s settler colony neighbour on the basis of his anxiety over ‘invasion’. When, in his manifesto, Tarrant described immigrants as ‘invaders’ in the midst of a ‘white genocide’, referring to Muslims as ‘the most despised group of invaders in the West’, his anxiety over genocide, over dispossession, was a projection of his fears of white people having done to them what they did (and still do) to Indigenous populations and brown people attacked and killed globally in the war on terror. ‘The unfinished business of Indigenous sovereignty’, Aileen Moreton-Robinson argues, is what ‘continues to psychically disturb patriarchal white sovereignty’. 

It is not a stretch, in fact it is arguably a diagnosis we have historically seen play out over and over again, that settler violence, whether by white Australia, or by gun-wielding settlers with Brooklyn accents in the West Bank, is rooted in this psychic disturbance. The late academic Patrick Wolfe powerfully argued that settler colonialism is a structure not a past event. The racial violence against Indigenous people and Palestinian people is enacted through ongoing structures of settler colonialism which are based on a historical matrix of power.

The reason why this analytical framing is so threatening— so ‘psychically disturbing’— to white supremacists and Zionists is because it is a framework that instantly opens up a powerful, unyielding transnational, global, collective solidarity movement. The Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is condemned and dismissed as ‘anti-Semitic’ in order to obscure the historical roots of Zionism as a settler colonial political project In Australia, a historic statement of solidarity for Palestinian people signed by over 900 academics and artists including prominent Indigenous leaders, elders, artists and writers was ignored and silenced by mainstream Australian media. Shared, global struggles are a threat not only to white supremacy and Zionism, but to liberal multiculturalism which limits anti-racism to diversity politics or interpersonal prejudice, never decolonization, never the dismantling of global power structures, systems and institutions.  

Acclaimed philosopher, academic, activist and writer Angela Davis writes, ‘When we are engaged in the struggle against racist violence…we can’t forget the connections with Palestine. In many ways, we have to engage in an exercise of intersectionality. Of always foregrounding those connections so that people remember that nothing happens in isolation’.  The connections and intersections of state-sanctioned violence are key. Nakba/Terra Nullius; ‘We are here, because you were there‘ (Ambalavaner Sivanandan). Recognising this colonial matrix heralds ongoing and historic solidarities between different movements against systemic and institutionalised state violence, systemic oppression, and brutality— and that indeed is a powerful force to be reckoned with.

Randa Abdel-Fattah is a prominent Palestinian Egyptian Muslim writer, anti-racism advocate and Islamophobia scholar. She is currently a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Sociology at Macquarie University researching the generational impact of the war on terror on Muslim and non-Muslim youth. Randa’s books include Islamophobia and Everyday Multiculturalism (2018), the co-edited anthology Arab, Australian, Other: Stories on Race and Identity and Coming of Age in the War on Terror, due out with New South Books in 2021. Randa is also the multi-award-winning author of 11 novels published in over 20 countries including multiple translations, stage productions in the US and Australia, and a graphic novel series (China).