Natural History Under Siege


Video and Edited Transcript 
Steven Salaita
Transcript No. 424 (13 February 2015)


Dagmar Painter:
We have a lot of discussions about the Israeli occupation touching on the destruction of homes, destruction of olive groves. But of equal importance is the spoiling of the region’s flora and fauna, and that is the topic of our discussion today.

I’m happy to introduce Dr. Steven Salaita. His family hailed from Jordan, his mother was born and raised in Nicaragua by Palestinian parents. His grandmother lost her home in Ein Karem in 1948. He received a B.A. from Radford University, an M.A. from Radford and completed his Ph.D. at the University of Oklahoma. He became an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin in Whitewater, and was then hired as an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech. Dr. Salaita writes about themes of immigration, indigenous peoples, dislocation, race, ethnicity and multiculturalism which is why we’re so pleased to have him here today.

Steven Salaita: It’s really a pleasure to be here. I got a chance to look at the paintings, not as closely as I would have liked, but I think they’re absolutely gorgeous. I thank you [Debra Van Poolen] for taking the time to create them and to share them with us, it’s lovely work. I’m honored also to be here at The Jerusalem Fund. I want to thank Dagmar Painter particularly for her work in helping put the event together.

I don’t generally use technology in my presentations. It’s not because of any sort of principle, I’m just incompetent at technology. The backdrop of the watercolors is not really the supplemental material, but really the central material that I and we are working with here. I’ve prepared some comments in thinking about what it means to have a notion of Palestinian natural history in a time of colonization and conflict.

The geography is dry and withered, humid and verdant, rugged and restful—a cacophony, but also an ensemble. It is a panorama of glorious, incessant contradiction. But not everybody can see it. For many, it is a simulation of ideology, a diversion into mythic cultural adventure, an insatiable geopolitical headache, an inaccessible aspiration, or an unsolved mystery. For the crooked and pious alike, it is always in some way holy. It will never be decolonized unless it is first demythologized.

Despite its continuous reinvention, we can still speak of Palestine as an actual place, with geologic formations and a climate classification and an observable ecosystem. Those phenomena undergo actual change.  Humans physically experience their alteration. Flora live and die by them. All these factors cause fauna to migrate and immigrate to unnatural places

The cultural history of Palestine’s landscape is also observable. I have heard many Palestinians note the visual similarities between their homeland and Los Angeles. Those similarities aren’t an accident. Palm trees are ubiquitous to LA, but none of them is indigenous to the city’s territory. They are an import from Mexico and North Africa to coastal southern California. Early settlers wanted to brand the region. (It explains a lot about the modern city, doesn’t it?)  Conceptualizing dry, temperate Los Angeles as a tropical paradise proved farfetched, so they concocted a Mediterranean theme.
Many settlers were Spaniards with a religious mandate, so a Holy Land symbology emerged. This entailed palm trees, which inform important biblical events, including the story of Jesus’ birth. The trees also create a visual orientation in scriptural themes.

Images of Palestine (real and imagined) have also influenced literature, music, painting, fashion, architecture and landscaping. Such images have likewise inspired conquest and colonization.

This is all to say that Palestine’s natural history is also profoundly artificial.

I found myself trying to work through these complexities when preparing my comments.  I failed. I have no ability to describe Palestine without yet again performing a reinvention. It’s what makes the landscape so magical. I am convinced it has something to do with the difficulties of its political existence. On second thought, perhaps it has everything to do with them.

We can understand the entirety of the Israel-Palestine conflict by examining its physical effect on the land. The availability of land for human habitation illuminates the hardships of Israeli colonization. (Human habitation partners with military occupation to destroy the environment.)  Where do Palestinians live? Maps show us the incongruous geographies of areas A, B and C, but only life on the ground properly conveys Palestine’s fragmentation.

We needn’t contemplate where Palestinians live, then. It’s better to ask, “Where can they live?” The legal restrictions on their habitation are well-known, but the spatial limitations of their existence are more conspicuous. Israeli settlement consumes land and thus restricts space. It requires highways and walls and military installations. The West Bank is a bit smaller than Delaware. The portions of it under nominal Palestinian control could fit inside Jacksonville’s city limits.  Though it doesn’t physically disappear, Palestine is forever shrinking.

Even where Palestinians reside, their inhabitance is never secure. Israel demolishes homes, seizes farmland, rezones cities, clean-cuts forests, flattens hilltops and erects concrete monstrosities within and around villages. The Palestinian does not populate inorganic structures, but a luminous, living history. No bulldozer can destroy memory.

Memory enables Palestine to survive despite its persistent destruction. Israel has stolen millions of dunums of Palestinian land, with no sign of abatement. (The verb “appropriate” is more diplomatic, but I reckon we ought to use blunt words to describe ugly actions.) In 2014, the Netanyahu government claimed over 1,000 acres of the West Bank for settlement expansion. The number of Jewish settlers creeps toward half a million. Israel siphons water and returns it to Palestinians in the form of sewage. It builds with no regard for the influence of human activity on the land.

Inside Israel, Palestinians are similarly restricted. Israel contorts geography for the sake of demographic expediency, preventing the reestablishment of depopulated villages and locating new developments in places that will ensure Jewish expansion while retarding the growth of Muslims and Christians. Nazareth-Ilit is one example. Built on the hills overlooking the ancient Palestinian city, most famous is the home of Mary and Joseph, Nazareth-Ilit – new Nazareth -exemplifies Israel’s desire for ethnocentric jurisdiction. The new Nazareth seeks to recreate the city by mythologizing disappearance as an ancient reclamation project.
Thirteen percent of Palestine belongs to the Jewish National Fund (JNF), which has desired to refurbish the Holy Land since 1901. The JNF facilitates development, plants trees, sponsors public works and manages parkland. The primary effect of its work has been to transform Palestine into an Orientalized theme park, open only to those of a certain ethnic background. It all makes more sense if we think of Israeli settlement as a form of geostrategic gentrification.

We can’t properly understand Israel’s most recent land grab without discussing what preceded it. Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s 51-day siege of the Gaza Strip last summer, left the territory in shambles. Gaza’s modern natural history can be summed by its role as clearinghouse for hundreds of thousands of non-Jews disallowed in Israel. Shortly after wrecking the Gaza Strip, leaving its population to suffer the fallout of structural and economic collapse, Israel announced its new settlement plans on the West Bank.

Israel has performed this strategy often enough for it to have become predictable: bomb Gaza, steal the West Bank. There is a horrifying logic to its colonial violence.

Still, Palestine endures. Its indigenes recall the landscape that sustained our ancestors and gave rise to our existence, in many cases a continent away. Palestine endures in the way we select olives from the grocery store; plant fig and citrus trees in our backyards; decry the mischaracterization of our cuisine; display pictures of Jerusalem; affix images of Handala to protest signs; and revive our forbearers in the naming of children.

There’s a certain way to show that Israelis are fundamentally outsiders to the land, but, unfortunately, it doesn’t much resonate in the United States, in no small part because Americans are fundamentally outsiders to the land they occupy, as well. I speak of olive trees, which exemplify the phrase “labor of love.” The trees take years to bear fruit. Once they do, though, they can provide for centuries. The curved, cragged trees, blending into the tawny environs of surrounding earth, are ubiquitous throughout the West Bank and the Galilee, often arranged in captivating symmetry. Nearly every Palestinian I know owns some type of olivewood icon.

Since 1967, Israel has bulldozed over 800,000 of them. Settlers routinely destroy orchards, having uprooted over 11,000 olive trees last year alone. Government officials cite practical reasons for the destruction, all of them involving the apocryphal word “security.” Much of the time, however, they are simply being punitive.

A Palestinian would never destroy a healthy olive tree. This reality clarifies the so-called complexities of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Who is indigenous, Jews or Palestinians? A Palestinian would never destroy a healthy olive tree. Who is the aggressor? A Palestinian would never destroy a healthy olive tree. Who has a deep history on the land? A Palestinian would never destroy a healthy olive tree. Who wrecks the environment with irresponsible human settlement? A Palestinian would never destroy a healthy olive tree.

Even if it is incomprehensible to capitalists, politicians and much of the American public, it is the correct answer to any inquiry about instigations of violence: a Palestinian would never destroy a healthy olive tree.

There are feral dogs on the West Bank. They outnumber hyenas, which may not be extinct but are mostly the stuff of legend. The Anatolian leopard, a character in the Bible and the Epic of Gilgamesh, is elusive and exhausted. Animals don’t recognize human borders. When we build fences between jurisdictions, we inhibit migratory patterns and mating rituals. When we use supposedly empty places to test weaponry, we degrade food and water sources through chemical pollution. When we move people into new places for the purpose of demographic engineering, we also affect the tenuous existence of flora and fauna.

I know about Palestine’s feral dogs from experience. I studied for a summer at Birzeit University, near Ramallah, in 2000. I remember the year well because soon upon my return to my American doctoral institution, the second intifada began. I was a terrible classroom student at Birzeit, but I nevertheless learned tons about Palestine. My education arose through all-night tea and hookah sessions with my Palestinian friends, the adhan reminding us finally to get some sleep.

On one of these nights I and a fellow student found ourselves about two miles from Birzeit with no transportation. (Even service drivers take a few hours to sleep.) Although we were invited to sleep in the home of our friend, it was a lovely evening, so we opted to walk. Just after leaving the small cluster of homes, dogs began howling in the nearby hills. A few soon came into sight, their growls a greater threat than any we had yet faced from occupation soldiers. We climbed a rugged slope and trekked across loose dirt and stones on the ridge alongside the roadway. When headlights approached, we jumped down and hitched a ride home.

The soil of Palestine was lodged beneath my fingernails for over a week. It’s one of the few moments of my life that the Holy Land was rendered tactile and knowable.

Feral wildlife has a long history in the region. Lions, crocodiles, cheetahs, elephants, rhinos, giraffes and water buffalos once existed in Palestine, evoking its African origin and orientation. We cannot attribute their disappearance to Zionist colonization. Yet we can attribute to Zionists the revival of the camel.

Camels have been, and continue to be, crucial to the commerce of Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, but among Arab and Muslim Americans they tend to induce groans—not from any particular dislike of the animals themselves, but because of their uses in variegated Orientalist imagery. The camel is the great signifier of Arab culture in the West. Whenever a film wishes to denote or connote the Middle East, we hear canned oud music and see sandy dunes traversed peacefully by a caravan of slow-moving camels, usually in silhouette with a blazing sun in the background.

Zionism reproduces this imagery for the sake of ethnic verisimilitude. When I was at Virginia Tech, a Hillel event celebrating Israel included a camel. (Don’t ask me how they managed to get a camel to Blacksburg, but there it was on campus in southern Appalachia. I don’t think anyone was allowed to ride the camel for legal reasons, but you could take a picture with it.) In the touristy areas of Israel, one can take pictures of an authentic Bedouin and his humped conveyance. (To be fair, this is also true of Arab countries.)

Zionists play “Arab” to inscribe themselves as indigenous to a foreign geography. Beyond their fondness for camels, they revived a version of Hebrew meant to sound akin to Arabic; claim as Israeli numerous dishes that existed well before 1948; and attempt architectural authenticity by erecting structures in the style of the actual buildings they destroy. It’s a reinvention of a landscape that was mythologized by the West in the first place. Israel has destroyed Palestine’s natural history physically and symbolically.

I am no botanist or biologist, so I am more comfortable discussing people than plants or wildlife. While biologists work with the human animal, I am too ingrained in humanist traditions to rely on biology to make sense of culture or politics. Zionists, after all, created a nation-state based on the incongruities of biological determinism.

As to the people of the land, the Palestinians, they only figure into Zionist mythology as relics of the past, fit for display in shows of quaint nostalgia, never as agents fit for self-determination.

My father in law was born in Beit Jala, adjacent to Bethlehem, and spent his first twenty years there before immigrating to the United States as a student. Nobody would rightly call him a quiet man. He is boisterous and gregarious, a wonderful person who sometimes relishes playing the role of trickster. Yet despite his conviviality, he doesn’t speak often of his days in Palestine.

I take credit for his emergence as a storyteller. My wife once wondered, “How do you get him to talk so openly about his childhood?”

“It’s simple,” I replied. “I ask him about it.”

I’m damn glad I ask, too. His anecdotes are terrific. Even in the hands of a lesser storyteller, his tales would be interesting simply because of their content.

I love listening to him reflect on life in a West Bank devoid of Jewish settlement. Once enough stories are accumulated, it becomes clear that my father in law adores and embodies the natural history of Palestine. His narrative is filled with flora and fauna: olives, figs, pistachios, pomegranates; birds, gazelles and reptiles; streams, wells and aquifers.

Zaatar once grew wild all over the hills surrounding Beit Jala. Children hunted birds with old British shotguns. They could explore the surrounding for miles. Such activities exist no longer. Israel controls nearly all of the harvest. Palestinian children with shotguns—or with stones or with even nothing at all—are targets of occupation soldiers. And there’s no area of the West Bank wild enough for children to explore unfettered; sooner or later they will run into a checkpoint or a settlement.

The same problems affect the Gaza Strip, on a broader but more microcosmic scale. It is likewise true of the Palestinian citizens of Israel and those who inhabit refugee camps throughout the region. The Palestinian landscape is dominated by the structures of division.

Yet animals remain. Olive trees still age into centuries. The Palestinian people are even more attached to their ancestral land. Perhaps this is the natural history of Palestine: the unbelievable endurance of its flora and fauna despite so many threats of eradication; and the persistence of its indigenes despite the captivity of occupied space.


Steven Salaita is an American professor of comparative literature and post-colonialism and the author of an award-winning book. Salaita received his B.A. from Radford University in 1997 and his M.A. from Radford in 1999. He completed his Ph.D. at the University of Oklahoma. Following completion of his Ph.D, Salaita became an assistant professor of English at University of Wisconsin in Whitewater, where he taught American and ethnic American literature until 2006. He was then hired as associate professor of English at
Virginia Tech, and received tenure three years later. In addition to teaching English courses, Salaita wrote about themes of immigration, indigenous peoples, dislocation, race, ethnicity and multi-culturalism.