Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Palestinians, aboriginals share culture of vulnerability

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Palestinians throw stones at Israeli security forces following the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir.


Palestinians throw stones at Israeli security forces following the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir.

On July 2, 2014, 17-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Abu Khdeir's body was found in a Jerusalem forest. In the early morning, three Israelis had kidnapped Mohammed as he was going to the mosque to pray. His assailants beat him and set him on fire. The only reason Mohammed was attacked was because he is Palestinian. The three Israelis had earlier tried to kidnap an eight-year-old Palestinian boy. His mother was able to fend them off.

Mohammed's murder was fuelled by hatred and racism -- a modern-day lynching.

Although media outlets have said his death was sparked by three settlers' bodies being found in the West Bank, a revenge killing of sorts, the fact is Palestinians living in colonial Israel -- Occupied Palestine -- are constantly under threat as their existence challenges the Israeli colonial narrative.

This is a narrative that states only the Jews are God's chosen people and therefore God has given to them exclusively the land of Palestine. The early and continued Zionist slogan has been: "A Land without a People for a People without a Land." This slogan and corresponding narrative immediately made Palestinians, the original inhabitants, either intruders or non-persons. Because Palestinian existence challenges the Zionist narrative, their safety is threatened daily.

Palestinian lives have been made vulnerable as Israel tries to suppress their existence. This suppression reveals itself through official government actions such as military incursions, house demolitions, arrest and imprisonment, land confiscation, identity classification systems, and controlling movement, to name a few. It is not just through official means, however, that Palestinians feel the suppression and consequent vulnerability. It is also experienced through vigilante attacks by the Israeli population, such as the one against Mohammed. With his kidnapping and killing, the continuing message was sent to Palestinians: "You do not belong in our narrative and we, the Israeli public, will work to extinguish your existence."

On June 1 in Prince Albert, Sask., Marlene Bird was found in an abandoned building. She had been beaten, sexually assaulted and set on fire. She survived, but her legs had to be amputated. Marlene is an indigenous woman from the Cree nation. We do not know the reasons behind her assailant's attack, but when we look at the broader picture, we need to ask: What made her assailant think it was OK to attack Marlene?

Like Israel, Canada exists as a settler-colonial nation. Despite the fact indigenous people have always inhabited the land, European settlers believed their 'discovery' entitled them to it. The view that the land was discovered assumes no prior people inhabited the land. Similar to Palestinians, indigenous people suddenly became non-persons. For the settler, the original inhabitants challenged their 'discovery' narrative, and therefore indigenous existence had to be controlled and extinguished. This was done by government, both European and later Canadian, by distributing diseased blankets, kidnapping children into residential schools, pushing indigenous people onto reservations, controlling the agricultural sector which led to starvation, forcing and co-opting indigenous leaders into signing treaties, squelching rebellions, imposing identity classification systems and banning indigenous cultural activities, to name a few. The indigenous people of Canada inevitably felt vulnerable, not only at the hands of the Canadian government, but also at the hands of the white settler.

Some will argue these brutal tactics are a story from the past, something the Canadian people and government are trying to recognize and reconcile. But then we hear of the attack and burning of Marlene Bird. We do not know the assailant's reason for attacking Marlene; we do know, however, she was made vulnerable because her existence challenges the settler-Canadian narrative.

The brutal assault was made possible due to the prevailing notions within Canadian society that aboriginal women are considered to be vulnerable. Vulnerable populations are only so because society refuses to protect them, often because that same society can benefit from the vulnerability. People are made vulnerable when their existence challenges the system the colonizers are trying to impose. They are vulnerable due to the existing stereotypes at every level of society from civilian, to security, to government. Their vulnerability is a societal construction that dictates whose existence is valuable, thereby imposing and implementing the discovery narrative.

It is a systemic problem that indigenous women in Canada are being murdered and going missing. Nearly 1,200 indigenous women have gone missing or been murdered in Canada since 1981, causing many to call for a national inquiry into the disappearances. These demands have fallen on deaf ears in Ottawa so far.

They were raised again when the body of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was found in Winnipeg's Red River. She had been killed and her body thrown into a bag and dumped in the river. In settler-colonial Canada, aboriginal women are vulnerable because their very being continues to challenge the narrative of discovery on which Canada has built its existence. It does not matter if their perpetrators are white settlers or not, their vulnerability sends a message to broader society that it is OK to attack them.

Both Mohammed and Marlene's existence challenges the settler-colonial system. Their vulnerability was a result of the violence of settler-colonialism. Despite laws and politicians criticizing such horrific events, it is the settler system that allowed and even encouraged these events to happen. In the larger picture, these are not isolated incidents of abuse but byproducts of a racist narrative of colonialism.

Thus, in order for Mohammed and Marlene to receive justice, we need to not only hold accountable their perpetrators but all of society that continues to perpetuate settler colonialism.


Rachelle Friesen has spent the last four years working with an international aid organization in Jerusalem. She was born in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 26, 2014 A9

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