Indigenous there, settlers here: Palestinians in Australia

Growing up as part of the post-September 11, Arab-Muslim generation in Australia has been an experience wrought with tension. We’re conscious of the Islamophobia and hostility that tells us that we do not belong here, in the place of our exile, and that we are living on stolen land.

My parents came to Australia as Palestinian immigrants, seeking better opportunities for my three sisters, my two brothers and me. They secured citizenship and education rights that were not afforded to them in Jordan due to their status as dispossessed Palestinians. They both experienced the pain and hardship of dispossession. They were born in Palestine and fled as child refugees during Israel’s 1967 expansion of the occupation.

When we arrived here, they tutored us at home, they learned English for us and ensured we worked hard in school. And they taught us about our plight and our responsibility towards Palestine, as privileged, educated and ‘free’ youth.

Our parents integrated us to be ‘Palestinian Australians’, but being new here, they weren’t aware that these upwardly mobile pursuits involved their participation as settlers benefiting from the oppression of another Indigenous people. And growing up visibly Arab and Muslim, we quickly faced rejection, suspicion and exclusion from the very nation that we were taught to take as our home – until our right of return is restored, of course. We quickly learnt that the anti-Arab sentiment projected upon our grandparents’ bodies in Palestine was so near to us, though we were oceans away, in Sydney and Melbourne.

In our teens we watched videos of the Cronulla riots over and over – I was fourteen then. We heard the chants. We read the headlines. We saw Iraq. We knew that yes, we were Palestinian, but being ‘Aussie’ was just as frightening as what we anecdotally recognised as being Israeli.

Two settler colonies – Australia and Israel – and seventy years on, existing here, my family has come to know both intimately. While in Australia we have benefited from our proximity to whiteness, despite the Islamophobia and the surveillance our communities are subjected to. In Israel, we are Indigenous with no legal rights.

This is how I frame our political narrative today, seventy years on from Nakba, as a third-generation Palestinian existing within an Australian political context of white supremacy.

As an activist community member, I’ve observed that our political positioning as Palestinians in Australia is undergoing deep revision, not just by a few of us, but by our collective grassroots Palestinian movement, as more of us have become disaffected with ‘multicultural’ politics and develop greater knowledge of our own role in upholding structures that oppress Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Whether it is due to our own direct experiences with racism, the violent global consequences of the ‘War on Terror’, the dictatorships of the post-Arab spring era, or the rise of the alt-right in recent years, as a generation of Palestinians we cannot un-see the horrors upon which this country itself is built, and upon which this Catastrophe took place, upon which this Genocide is Ongoing.

While many of our Palestine advocacy groups have relied on our status as ‘equal’ citizens to try to sway political parties to revise their positions towards Israeli occupation, today I instinctively find it difficult to bargain with neoliberal parties that attempt to ship refugees to Trump’s America, who lock children up on Manus and Nauru, and who are responsible for Aboriginal deaths in custody. Though as a community we sought the dignity and the allusion of equality and participation in Australian democracy, and tried invoking UN resolutions that have been issued to uphold Palestinian rights to life, land and return, to my generation, it is very apparent that this has been to no avail.

I should say here that our failure to shake Australia’s staunch position as a strong ally and defender of the Zionist occupation does not shock me. Instead it helps us to arrive at an understanding of the parallel settler-colonial psyche of this nation. Australia’s support for Israel is logical and inevitable, as a nation that continues to dispossess, violate and exploit Indigenous land, and I feel that our movement has been learning to accept, and to prepare to confront, this reality.

Palestinian-Australian academic and author Randa Abdel-Fattah eloquently articulated the conviction that is crystallising in our Palestinian movement, when she wrote on 10 May that:

This year I will not write about why the struggle for our freedom is a just one. I will not write about the growing global momentum of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement or the increasing isolation of Israel… After seventy years, I’m done trying to persuade people of our cause. It needs no defence, no humanisation, no legitimising. My words are no longer an argument.

In some ways, with our public discourse around #Nakba70 this year and the unilateral US-Trump embassy move to Jerusalem, it appears as though we are a less hopeful generation; that we do not believe liberation is possible, because we see that The Great March of Return has continued for six weeks yet Israel is able to use live ammunition to crush the protests and permanently injure and disable Gazans, who lack access to efficient medical facilities.

In these ways, yes, this seventieth year does mark a loss of hope in an Australian politics. But it also marks a shift in trajectory for us, as our movement grows older and away from the assimilationist politics that required white saviours to recognise Palestinian statehood, and towards learning about our own Indigeneity, and about the pride and dignity of this identification from ATSI leaders.

#Nakba70 can mark a different imagination of a ‘Free, free Palestine’. An imagination rooted in a politics echoed by North-American Palestinian academic Steven Salaita in his 2016 book Inter/Nationalism – Decolonizing Native America and Palestine. He argues that within this shifting political narrative, ‘inter/nationalism demands commitment to mutual liberation based on the proposition that colonial power must be rendered diffuse across multiple hemispheres through reciprocal struggle.’

From here, I can only express that I’m sorry for the violence that we participated in by utilising an Australianness that was granted to us through multiculturalism and through the exclusion of ATSI sovereignty.

As a mother of two little boys, I know that today there is no other option but to raise my children to be the fourth generation of Palestinians in exile. But in this home of exile, I will make sure they plant just as many gum trees as olive. I will make sure they chant ‘Always was’ even louder than ‘From the river to the sea’.

The need to place our activism behind ATSI resistance in this country is urgent as is our responsibility as (Palestinian) Indigenous settlers, with all the oxymorons. My children will belong and survive despite Israeli and Australian efforts to assimilate us, and our cause will exist through their success and resistance, but just not with a Palestinian-Australian identity, not with this #Nakba70.


Image: Palestinian loss of land 1946 to 2000 / Palestine News Network


This is part of a special edition marking seventy years of occupation in Palestine. Read the rest of the edition:

– ‘Seventy years of the Nakba’: Jacinda Woodhead, Sian Vate and Rasheeda Wilson

– ‘Language, law and laudateurs: understanding the response to the Great March of Return’ – Elliot Dolan-Evans

– ‘A history of Palestinian dispossession’ – Lana Tatour

– ‘Reconciling the Nakba’ – Na’ama Carlin

Tasnim Mahmoud Sammak

Tasnim Mahmoud Sammak is a PhD candidate at Monash University, faculty of Education and Palestinian organiser. Her research project explores the emergence of radical political subjectivities and imaginaries. Tasnim’s grandparents were exiled from Yaffa during the Nakba in 1948 to a refugee camp in Gaza, where they, including her father, were again displaced to Al-Hussein refugee camp in Amman after the annexations of 1967, when her mother and her family were also exiled from Ya’bad, Jenin in the West Bank.

More by Tasnim Mahmoud Sammak ›

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