The injection of "indigeneity" into the Arab-Israeli conflict is of recent vintage. Over the last century, numerous arguments have been leveled against a Jewish state. The use of this term conflates a critique of Zionism with a contemporary legal concept initially expected to protect the rights of authentic indigenous peoples such as the First Nations in Canada and the Aborigines in Australia; it was not intended to apply to the Arabs of Palestine and the Arab-Israeli conflict. When so employed, it attempts to present Palestinian Arabs as the sole indigenous people of the country and thereby challenges the legitimacy of Jewish settlement and the establishment of a Jewish state.
The "indigeneity argument" was initially launched in the Arab-Israeli dispute during the 1990s to advocate for the Negev Bedouin in their contest over land ownership. It has since spread across the internal divisions within Arab society. The opening sentence of the Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel (2007), a document prepared by a large cross-section of the Palestinian Arab leadership in Israel, explicitly reflects this new approach. It declares "We are the Palestinian Arabs in Israel, the indigenous peoples, the residents of the States of Israel, and an integral part of the Palestinian People and the Arab and Muslim and human Nation." It further asserts that Palestinian Arabs are the sole long-resident population with rights over the land, while Jews are but recent foreign conquerors.1
As we shall see, indigeneity can be used both in religious and secular discourses. Moreover, while each may be used independently, they may also complement one another and be intertwined. However employed, they have enormous resonance in the ongoing conflict over a land considered sacred by the three related monotheistic traditions and contested by distinct nationalisms. [End Page 17]
"Indigenous" is a term based in historical interpretation. The simple meaning of "indigenous" applies not only to people but to plants and animals. The Latin root means "native" or "born in a country" and indicates that something exists naturally in a particular place. It is readily interchangeable with "native" in reference to humans, fauna, or flora; "alien" and "foreign" are antonyms. Although it first appears in the mid-seventeenth century and enjoys minor but continual use until the mid-twentieth century, "indigenous" acquired contemporary legal and political significance during the 1960s when the International Labor Organization applied the term to tribes in Central and South America in an effort to protect the disadvantaged and vulnerable descendants of the inhabitants subjected to European colonization.2 Protecting these communities included safeguarding their cultures and languages as well as their lands, natural resources, and environment.
In the course of following decades, the movement became part of the agenda of the UN and NGOs3 and culminated in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007.4 However, success was incomplete. The UN "declaration" is not a legally-binding and universal "treaty" due to internal dissension and a lack of agreement on the definition for "indigenous" and which rights should be protected.
The movement spread from Central and South America to include the First Peoples of Canada and Native Americans. Canada and the United States delayed signing until they could register reservations: sovereignty resided in the modern state and was not divisible with indigenous groups. The same assertion was adopted in other parts of the world, notably Australia, New Zealand, and other lands where aboriginals—an alternative term for indigenous—demanded the right to maintain their territory and culture.
In the 1990s, Negev Bedouins initiated the transfer and adoption of "indigenous", despite or perhaps because of its fuzziness, into the discourse of the Israel-Arab dispute.5 As we noted concerning the Future Vision Document, the term is used to include most non-Jewish citizens of Israel. The document focuses on the "affiliation, identity and citizenship of the Palestinian Arab in Israel" and underscores that this definition marks a dichotomy between Jews and Arabs. As we shall see, some Jews were previously considered "native" even though, unlike native Arabs, their rights were curtailed. [End Page...