Settler colonialism and racial capitalism in fair trade farming in Palestine

Gabi Kirk
race and capital Kirk

The recent proliferation of settler colonial and Indigenous studies of Palestine have addressed historical and present-day enclosure of Palestinian land, yet the question of ‘indigeneity’ is underexamined in this literature. Claims to indigeneity in Palestine straddle varied definitions: a racial category; as constructed through the colonial encounter or preceding colonialism; and as a local relation or an international juridico-political category. Using discourse analysis of a specific Palestinian sustainable agriculture initiative. I show how for Palestinians, claiming indigeneity brings into tension potential political economic gains, social relations of struggle, and discursive formations of collective subjectivity. A valorisation, commodification, and privatization of indigeniety narrows notions to the biological-cultural, offering challenges for Palestinian struggles for sovereignty. I conclude by asking what theorizing from Palestine offers to Marxist theories of racial capitalism and settler colonialism, and whether indigeneity can exceed its commodification.

This piece is being made available as a preprint edition of the Race and Capital special issue of Historical Materialism. The final published version of this text will be made available on the Brill website in the coming months, we ask that citations refer to the Brill edition.

Issue 32(2&3): Race and Capital

‘The people in Palestine are literally a part of the ecosystem!’ This exclamation came from Karmel Abufarha at webinar on January 28, 2021, hosted by the Abraham Path Initiative, a sustainable tourism non-government organization (NGO) that promotes ethical tourism to the Middle East, in partnership with Canaan Palestine. Canaan Palestine (formerly Canaan Fair Trade) is Palestine’s first and largest fair trade food product company, focusing particularly on olive oil. Abufarha,[i] marketing representative for Canaan Palestine, spoke to attendees over Zoom from his office in Burqin, a small village in the northern West Bank about five kilometers from Jenin, home to the headquarters of Canaan Palestine.

Over photographs of massive olive trees planted on stone terraces, and farmers and their children climbing into olive trees to harvest the fruit, Abufarha spoke passionately about the environmental and cultural value of the olive agro-ecosystem his family’s company cultivates, continuing the quote above:

The people in Palestine are literally a part of the ecosystem. It’s joined together, and so much today we disconnect. This is a living and breathing model of people living harmoniously with nature. You’re making land produce food for people, and it’s also holding so many other species of life – plants, animals, microbes, fungi, birds…it’s an amazing place.[ii]

Present in Abufarha’s comments is a promising political hope for a sustainable, ecologically ‘harmonious’ future in which humans and non-humans alike have their needs taken care of in Palestine. This utopian vision contains the assumption that the international (predominantly US and UK-based) attendees of the webinar agree that ‘living harmoniously with nature’ is a moral good; that attendees furthermore would be compelled by these descriptions to use their money to support these efforts (either by purchasing Canaan Palestine’s products or by donating to an affiliated non-profit like Abraham Path Initiative), and that such a money exchange would be an act of gift giving outside of the market economy, primarily an ethical, not consumerist, act.

Over a photograph of a family sorting a pile of olives on the ground, Abufarha praised Canaan’s farmers’ approach for being beyond capitalism: ‘A lot of food today, there isn’t the culture of it. It’s just producing food. It’s very overly economically driven, and this is a family – they own their land, and they’re teaching their sons and daughters what they’re doing and having a great time, living a great life doing this.’ Finally, Abufarha’s comments, as well as other materials produced by and about Palestinian farmers in recent years, make both implicit and explicit claims about the relationship between stewardship and territorial belonging: that Palestinians are the native or Indigenous people of the land of historic Palestine, that the land grows healthy under their care, and that Palestinians’ environmental stewardship is necessary not just for their own political sovereignty or independence, but also for the good of the entire planet.

What does it mean for Palestinian farmers to be ‘living a great life’ by participating in fair trade and organic farming and marketing their products to a global audience? In this vision of the great life, the Israeli occupation of Palestine is both ever present but also invisible. Palestinian fair trade emerged after decades of economic strangulation of agrarian livelihoods by Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, as part of the ongoing Nakba, Israel’s settler colonial imperative to remove Palestinians from their land (particularly productive agricultural land). Yet during the webinar that opens this article, Abufarha did not mention the occupation or Israeli settler colonialism until directly asked by an attendee. Instead, the great life of a Palestinian farmer in the eyes of the global consumer is painted as one of the agrarian peasant idyll: farmers living in ecological sync with non-human plants and animals, only producing what they need to survive and thrive and not accumulate beyond those basic needs.

This article asks what work this discourse does in global market structures of racial capitalism and settler colonialism. It argues that the fair trade and organic industry in the West Bank—focusing on a case study of the Canaan Palestine company—enacts a valorisation process not only of agricultural products, but also of racial identity in Palestine. Specifically, this article argues that ‘indigeneity,’ a multifaceted social relation that cannot be reduced only to racial identity, has nonetheless been increasingly evacuated of its other definitions under the forces of neoliberal racial capitalism. Indigeneity has become co-terminous with specific images of the ‘ecologically noble savage’ Palestinian farmer, evoking a racial (not just cultural) identity position of Palestinians as cohabitating with natural ecosystems since time immemorial. This reduction of indigeneity only to a biological concept of race has occurred in multiple settler colonial contexts. I argue that this reduction happens first at the stage of valorisation (per Marx), or the creation of surplus value in the production process, then during circulation, as a form of commodification for Palestinian agricultural products to circulate on the global market in the chains of market exchange. Yet while Palestinian indigeneity is commodified, it also escapes commodification—the commodification of indigeneity isolates the biological-cultural in favor of specific neoliberal and settler colonial political ends, but there remains potential that indigeneity can escape or exceed racial capitalist commodification in Palestine.[iii]

In the first section, this article reviews existing theoretical and empirical literature on settler colonial studies of racialisation and racial capitalist theories of settler colonialism, explaining what thinking from Palestine offers to gaps and tensions in these literatures. In the second section, I offer a brief history of neoliberalism in Palestine to understand the political economic and ecological context of this case study. In the third section, I offer an overview of the specific ways and reasons that Palestinian indigeneity has been commodified by fair trade companies and non-profit organizations, through an analysis of printed and online materials from these companies as well as insights from interviews conducted with farmers participating in Canaan Palestine’s fair trade cooperatives and staff responsible for sales and marketing. In the conclusion, I reflect on the significance that theorizing racial capitalism and settler colonialism from this case study in Palestine offers to broader understandings of the relations between race and capital overall, ask what else needs to be done to unpack indigeneity in Palestine, and ask how indigeneity might exceed commodification.

Race, capital, colonialism, and Palestine

Here I recap the major paradigms and critiques of a settler colonial studies analysis of the Israeli occupation, a theoretical approach that has in recent years become increasingly central to understand historical and present issues in Palestine. Then, I outline issues of racial formation in settler colonial contexts, focusing on contested definitions of indigeneity in Palestine and elsewhere. Finally, I explain how indigeneity can and has been valorised and commodified in the Marxist sense.

Theories of settler colonialism and racial capitalism

A Marxist analysis of dispossession is crucial to understanding how settler colonialism has functioned in the past and present. While Marx’s writings touched more lightly on European imperialism’s role in capitalist formation, subsequent thinkers, revolutionaries, and social movements have found much power in using Marxist theories of primitive accumulation and dispossession to understand, critique, and combat settler colonialism and empire.[iv] However, simply transposing the European historical process of primitive accumulation as first described in the closing of Capital Vol. 1 to colonial contexts in other locations and time periods risks reifying colonized space and peoples as simply “field[s] of application” rather than sites to productively theorize how expropriation has shaped social relations in different times and spaces.[v] In most examples of settler colonialism, especially the Anglo colonization of North America, dispossession did not only violently separate Indigenous people from their lands but also meant the turning of the land itself into capital. As defined by Robert Nichols, under settler colonialism ‘dispossession merges commodification…and theft into one moment.’[vi] A historical materialist analysis of settler colonial dispossession ties together the abstraction of land as a commodity to the violent abstraction of racial classification, hierarchy, and settler colonial genocide.[vii]

Palestinian scholars have long recognized and criticized Israel as a settler colonial state, even before the occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights in 1967.[viii] Additionally, Palestinian resistance has been self-conceptualized and recognized by others as anticolonial struggle since before the 1967 occupation. Before and after the occupation of the West Bank (the central geographic focus of this article’s case study), Palestinians were part of transnational anticolonial political coalitions that included Indigenous peoples’ groups, such as the American Indian Movement in the 1960s.[ix] The understanding of Israel as a settler colonial state, even without always explicitly using the term, has long been part of Palestinian theorization of Zionist dispossession.

However, a marked “settler colonial turn” in Palestine studies scholarship re-emerged in the past decade partially as a reaction to the entrenchment of neoliberal privatisation after the militant uprising in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jerusalem, and Israel proper of the Second Intifada (2000-2005). In the long shadow of the Oslo accords of 1993, with a two-state solution receding from future view, scholars, organizers, and ordinary people sought to understand and critique the ‘piecemeal approach to the establishment of some kind of sovereignty’ as a form of both material and discursive violence.[x] Understanding Israel as settler colonial also has allowed scholars to diagnose the specific racial apartheid form of the state and its structures, in which Israel treats Palestinians as, at best, second class ‘minority’ citizens with some amount of individual liberal rights but no national sovereignty rights, in order to try to maintain the boundaries of ‘liberal settler sovereignty.’ [xi]

However, the settler colonial studies framework in Palestine studies is not without its critics, and has been called to task for its over-emphasis on the occupation of 1967 as a point of historical rupture or for positioning Palestinians as only reactive agents to Zionism.[xii] Some Palestinian scholars have called for an Indigenous studies lens as a corrective to these tendencies.[xiii] An Indigenous studies approach to Palestine, per Steven Salaita, is not meant to compare ‘the ceremonial or the spiritual’ or simply find ‘similarities’ between Native peoples globally, but is instead a ‘rhetorical act is meant to situate...Palestinian dispossession in a specific framework of colonial history.’[xiv]

The ‘specific framework of colonial history’ in which Palestinian dispossession is situated is itself one of racial capitalism, and the racialised hierarchies of difference that co-constituted capitalist accumulation and violence in the modern world. Drawing upon the genealogy of Black radical thought particularly between the US and South Africa, racial capitalism contends that if race has become the enduring and dominant framework of creating difference and hierarchy among populations under capitalism, and capital ‘can only accumulate by producing and moving through relations of severe inequality among human groups,’[xv] then all capitalism is racial capitalism.[xvi] Racial capitalist theory expands upon Marxist understandings of the formation of private property through enclosure, situating primitive accumulation through the colonial (and particularly, settler colonial) encounter, thus centering racial domination as co-constituted with capitalist property relations. As Andy Clarno explains, studies of racial capitalism foreground a recognition that racialization and capital accumulation are mutually constitutive processes.’[xvii]

Understanding dispossession as an ongoing process under settler colonialism, instead of simply a formative precursor to capitalist accumulation, requires contending with dispossession as a racializing force shaped by discourses of difference.[xviii] Furthermore, thinking through racial capitalism and settler colonialism together complicates a ‘land/labor’ dichotomy which narrows racial violence as only occurring through either dispossession by accumulation/accumulation by dispossession, or by the exploitation of surplus populations—because Palestine and Palestinians, under settler colonialism, suffer from both. Finally, as first articulated by Cedric Robinson and expanded upon by Robin DG Kelley, the articulation of cultural or regional difference into racial categories and then hierarchies for the purpose of internal colonization, dispossession and proletarisation within Europe is crucial to understanding issues of race in Palestine-Israel historically and today.[xix] The liminal racial position of European Jews as ‘physically of Europe yet rejected by it’ was part of the antisemitic cauldron in which Zionism was formed.[xx] The Zionist settler colony that would become Israel constructed its new identity in the spirit of Europe and against the Arab Other (Jewish, Muslim, or Christian), yet the Zionist racialisation of the ‘new Jew’ in Palestine continued to ‘maintain… ‘Jews’ as a distinct entity from Europeans.’[xxi]

While racial capitalist and settler colonial projects have always been transnational, their structures have been enacted differently across space and time. As Patrick Wolfe noted, there is great ‘diversity distinguishing the regimes of difference with which colonizers have sought to manage subject populations.’[xxii] A comparative approach to racial formations and structures can obscure more than it reveals—rather than simply looking for what carries forth in multiple places, one should examine the work these structures do.[xxiii] Care must be taken to avoid applying theories to Palestine simply try to find similarities between the colonisation of Palestine and the colonization of the US, Canada, or other Anglo settler colonial states, particularly when searching for one-to-one comparisons between the racialisation of the settler and the native in multiple sites. Instead, it is worth asking what work transnational ‘racial regimes’ of private property and settler law do in multiple sites throughout place and time.[xxiv] For this case study, the question is less who fits into the categories of settler and native in Palestine, and more how these racial formations emerged under capitalist settler colonialism in the region and are continually shaped by these structures.

Racialisation under settler colonialism

How have scholars thus far theorised the formation of settler and native identities? As Sai Englert explains,

Processes of identification, including racialisation, operate within categories structured by the state. By mobilising these categories the state is able to exercise control, distribute rights, and facilitate exploitation, expropriation and exclusion. It is in this tension between the attempted imposition by the state of those categories and the response – of rejection or acquiescence – by the identified, that identities emerge.[xxv]

In the US, often the model example, state formation of settler identity was formed by what Maya Mikdashi termed a series of historical and contemporary ‘erasures’ making settler identity and whiteness into ‘both a phenotype and an ideological tool of oppression.’[xxvi] Settler whiteness is property, conferring ‘public and private privileges’ on its holders which are codified by legal structures.[xxvii] The privilege of whiteness undergirds structural white supremacy, and ‘is thus inextricably tied to the theft and appropriation of Indigenous lands in the first world.’[xxviii] In North America and globally, the racialisation of native people has been directly tied to the legal and material dispossession of their lands; per Joanne Barker (Delaware), ‘The erasure of the sovereign is the racialization of the ‘Indian.’’[xxix] In fact, some peoples who might otherwise be classified as Indigenous have rejected self-identification because of their associations of indigeneity as temporally bound to the past and therefore unable to attain sovereignty in the future.[xxx] The ‘rejection or acquiescence’ of an indigenous identity under settler colonialism is far from a static matter.

This unsettled nature of defining indigeneity can be represented by two major theorisations. In the first, indigeneity emerges during and after the encounter with settler colonialism—as often co-terminous with “colonized people” in settler colonial states.[xxxi] In the second, being Indigenous describes those who are rooted in specific and unique relations with place since time immemorial.[xxxii] A place-based understanding of indigeneity does not need to be a singular notion of biological essentialist identity, but instead can articulate indigeneity as the collection of ‘myriad place-based paradigms that share basic principles such as reciprocity and engagement with the land.’[xxxiii] This place-based understanding of indigeneity can work against the settler colonial state’s imperative of ‘creat[ing] a racialized and homogenized identity’ for Indigenous peoples by, for instance, drawing upon Native cosmologies and creation stories to ‘insist…that creators made the land specifically for them’—as in, each Native people is uniquely in their place, rather than one cohesive racial category.[xxxiv]

It is perhaps no surprise, though, that a place-based understanding of indigeneity has been divorced from the materialist understanding of indigeneity as a racial project under settler colonial and capitalist modernity. Furthermore, the contemporary neoliberal form of capitalism has seen the legal and political partial decoupling of Indigenous ‘cultural’ claims from the radical aspirations for social, political and economic change that once underpinned them.’[xxxv] Such a severing leads inevitably to a purely cultural and even biological understanding of indigenous peoples that positions them as closer to nature, uncivilized, not fully human, incapable of entering into property relations, and therefore, not deserving of sovereignty—commonly known as the ‘ecologically noble savage’ myth.[xxxvi] The ecologically noble savage myth relies heavily upon and contributes to a biological understanding of race, because arguing native people are ‘inherently’ part of the environment often reduces them to occupying specific biological niche in a specifically dehumanising way, the same way an ecologist would describe a non-human plant or animal. Settler states and even some Indigenous communities contribute to the naturalisation of Indigeneity as a biological racial category by linking together place-based cultural practices or stories with biological phenotypes, such as through genetic science.[xxxvii] For instance, in Palestine-Israel, separating out Palestinian Bedouins as indigenous—but not other Palestinians—due to their cultural-ecological practices that fit such ecologically noble savage imagery has been criticized as reinforcing a ‘liberal multicultural notion of indigeneity’ and not challenging settler sovereignty of the law.[xxxviii]

In this case study, I argue that the culturalisation and racialisation of Palestinian farmers as Indigenous can position them and their agroecological knowledge and practices as ancient and unchanged, naturalising them as a separate biological race and erasing innovation and adaptation that has occurred over time.[xxxix] Israel has upheld the ‘image of the fellahin [Palestinian peasant farmers] as a living museum’ to deny Palestinians’ grievances for more resources towards sustainable development.[xl] It is this notion of indigeneity—that of a natural identifier, both embedded in static place/time and completely excavated from it—that has been valorised and commodified under neoliberal racial capitalism, to which this paper now turns.

The commodification and valorisation of indigenous identity

I argue here that under neoliberalism in settler colonial states, racial identity itself is valorised and commodified as capital. This requires the recognition of first, the emergence of racial identity as a process of labor, and the production of racial identity as a ‘purposeful activity aimed at the production of use-value,’ as any labor process is.[xli] The first form of commodification of human identity under racial capitalism was the literal turning of human beings into property: the enslavement of Black Africans.[xlii] The commodification of indigeneity underway in Palestine-Israel is not the same as this particular form of genocidal violence; Palestinians themselves are not enslaved, although they are subjected to maintenance as a surplus population.[xliii] To understand more fully how Israeli settler colonialism works as a process of accumulation by dispossession, it cannot be thought of separate from the valorisation and circulation of racial formations through capitalism within and beyond territorial Palestine. Dispossession creates and relies on the valorisation and commodification of indigeneity to enclose and expropriate Palestinian land in an ongoing process, thus commodifying the land.[xliv] That is to say, the impetus to separate Palestinianness as a racial category can be used to depoliticize the collective struggle of Palestinians as a political collective, allowing for the commodification of Palestinian as a simple identity category to circulate around the world separate from the material struggle over land.

According to Marx, valorisation occurs in the sphere of production, not of exchange—the commodity must be valorised before it enters the money exchange, or else there would be no surplus value to accumulate.[xlv] Thus value is imbued to racial identity in the gap between ‘the value of labor power and the value which that labor power valorizes in the labor process,’ or in the valorisation process.[xlvi] As criticisms of the commodification of cultural heritage have demonstrated, even non-tangible signifiers can be drawn into the market relation; commodifying identity enacts ‘a form of colonization of previously non-market goods/services.’[xlvii] However, valorisation of indigeneity as a racial identity under settler colonialism cannot happen without the concurrent expropriation of land; the commodification of racial identity and the commodification of land and nature go hand in hand.[xlviii] Agricultural production offers an especially useful lens to understand the nature of the co-production of the commodification of land with the commodification of racial identity under settler colonialism—aside from an increasing but still marginal technoscientific push for forms of agriculture completely detached from the ground, agriculture relies quite basically on the ‘appropriation of what exists in nature for the requirement of man.’[xlix] Furthermore, settler understandings of Indigenous sustainable agriculture (particularly organic agriculture), because of popular understandings of organic as ‘more natural’ or ‘closer to natural processes,’ can easily slip into ecologically noble savage myths. I turn now to understanding how indigeneity is valorised and commodified through agricultural products and their marketing.

There is no specific regulatory schema for an ‘indigenous’ product, as there are for other regulated labeling schemes like fair trade or organic that invoke specific social equity and environmentally conscious protocols. Nor are the terminologies analyzed in the following section of this article necessarily the same as the labeling and commodification of specific place-based products that are spatially limited (for instance, champagne or Darjeeling Tea) some of which are often termed as ‘indigenous’ foods to their location. However, I argue that marketing materials invoke a definition of indigeneity as an inherent and racialized cultural attachment to place in order to create a market. Food labeling schemes, as Julie Guthman has argued, are a form of ‘neoliberal governance’ in the Polanyian sense, in that they create markets where there previously were none.[l] Fair trade, while founded as a movement in the era of decolonization to empower producers in the Global South against Bretton Woods global development schemas, became increasingly neoliberal in the 1980s. Today, fair trade labeling schemas have been widely criticized for how they reenact rather than resist developmentalist logics, being reduced to a consumerist panacea that is reformist at best and simply greenwashing neoliberalism at worst.[li] So too has organic certification been criticized for the erasure of the political aspects of organic in favor of a technoscientific regulatory schema that does not challenge capitalist exploitation.[lii] However, criticism of fair trade and organic as only labeling schemas misses that, on the ground, those engaged in fair trade and organic production may understand these systems in a different way. For instance, unlike the massive multinational corporations who are the object of criticism in most studies, in Palestine, Palestinians founded and run the company creating the global market for their products—and for an Indigenous Palestinian identity itself. Farmers I spoke to who participate in fair trade marketing cooperatives feel excited and relieved at the possibilities of the global market to receive their products, while also curious about how those products are perceived by those who purchase them. The issue still remains, once the bottle of olive oil or box of spices circulates on the market, in what form does the label of indigenous in Palestine today sell—by who, to whom, and at what cost?

Here, I argue that the companies and organizations analyzed in this article have contributed to creating a global neoliberal market—one unregulated and increasingly unbounded—for an indigenous identity from Palestine where there previously was none.[liii] That identity has built upon earlier notions of the Palestinian fellah (peasant) as inherently tied to her land, and cannot be seen either fully replacing or being subsumed by peasant imaginaries—a racialised Palestinian indigeneity is intertwined with racial notions of the peasantry.[liv] Indeed, this new market builds upon older ‘environmental imaginaries’ of the Middle East that are legible to the Western consumers of these products and discourses,[lv] as ‘alternative consumption is inescapably associated with historical fantasies of the ecological ‘Other.’’[lvi] Palestinians are cast in the frame of what Sarah Besky has termed a ‘Third World agrarian imaginary,’ which she determines is ‘not only an image of farming as an original, ecologically balanced form of connection between people and place but also a set of ideas about the relationship between people and nature.’[lvii] When depicting Palestine and Palestinians, that imaginary is specifically of the unchanged bucolic peasant, tending her olive trees the same as she has for thousands of years. Palestinians themselves contribute to this framing in order to reap the benefits of global market participation for both personal and familial economic security and for political goals. The idea is that fair trade and organic market participation will keep farmers on their land in the face of Israel settler colonialism; thus, commodified Indigeneity and political resistance are embedded within each other. The success of this is somewhat hard to measure in quantitative terms, but for the farmers I spoke to, without fair trade, they felt that their personal livelihoods as well as Palestinian farmers in the northern West Bank in general would have suffered greatly, weakening their ability to stay on their land.

Fair trade exists not entirely within the Palestinian ‘resistance economy’ mode, however, which Tariq Dana argues must prioritize ‘a systemic reorientation of …economic institutions and activities, and, therefore, the social structures and relations at large,’ and reject simply economic amelioration of life under Israel settler colonialism.[lviii] First, fair trade and organic farming does not represent a full scale rejection of capitalism; as farmers and company staff at all levels of production often noted to me, farming is still a business, and a farmer who cannot make money off of their production will not stay a farmer for long. Fair trade aims to circumvent Israeli restrictions on the export of goods, but necessarily does still have to work within Israeli regulations on the movement and export of products and imports of inputs (e.g., fertilizers, tools). Finally, fair trade in particular differentiates itself from many resistance economy initiatives by its focus on the international market—a focus that lends itself to the commodification of indigeneity as global consumers seek to connect to ‘authentic’ Palestinian life through their purchases.

Finally, it is important to understand the commodification of indigeneity alongside its valorisation, to recognize value production before circulation, but also to ask how circulation feeds into future value production. The critique of the commodification of knowledge is well-covered in Marxist geography and related fields, and so too is a concurrent question as to the limits of a defetishisation of the commodity. It is important to understand both valorisation and commodification because I seek to unpack the work put into creating, maintaining, and disseminating the discourses which make up the commodity known as ‘identity’—to defetishize the commodity ‘because the production of commodities also involves knowledge and communicative interaction—themselves framed by various cultural norms that are relatively autonomous—and environmental inputs.’[lix] The marketing of food products as indigenously Palestinian does more than simply contribute to a discursive framework; it also ‘creates an innovative material culture embedded in global capitalism, a culture that redefines place-based authenticity.’[lx]

In the following section, I seek to unpack the markers of Palestinian indigeneity beyond ‘mere symbols’ and explain how they define and are redefined by the global capitalist markets in which they are created, circulated, and consumed. Before this, I turn to a brief history of the political economic context in which Palestinian indigeneity emerged in the twenty-first century.

Agrarian capitalism and dispossession in Palestine

Much has already been said in critical scholarship about the emergence, expansion, and impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian lives and lands. Rather than recounting the entire history, I focus here on a brief history of capitalism and agriculture in Palestine, especially Jenin governorate (where fair trade emerged) since the Ottoman era, to contextualize the emergence and impacts of the neoliberalisation of the Palestinian economy in the 1990s and 2000s. Agrarian capitalism and the incorporation of rural production into global market economies was well under way in Ottoman Palestine before the twentieth century, even before external pressures of European modernisation on Ottoman governance.[lxi] Zionist settlement beginning in the 1880s, and the imposition of the British Mandate from 1921-1947, together brought multiple political and economic crises to the Palestinian countryside, experienced unevenly depending on the geographic region. The coupling of land titling and private property with western notions of cultivation under the Ottoman land laws paved the way for Zionist acquisition of tracts of land from absentee landlords, although seeing this as simple dispossession negates that many fellahin (Palestinian peasantry) continued to tend to their plots in formal or informal sharecropping agreements.[lxii] This was particularly true in the northern hills (of which Jenin is a part), where orchards dominated the agroecosystem, allowing for a persistence of cultivation in the face of settler colonial dispossession before and after 1948:

In the hills of the Galilee and the West Bank, most Palestinians were small farmers for whom the olive tree and its products constituted a central means of subsistence and revenue generation in times of surplus…Unlike the plains—which were better suited to consolidation under large landholders, as well as to agricultural mechanization, intensive irrigation, and the cultivation of field crops—the hills, for the most part, remained the domain of smallholder peasants who relied on patchwork parcels of land, densely planted with fruit trees— first and foremost the olive.[lxiii]

Thus the hills of the West Bank served as an economic and ecological refuge of sort during the buildup of Zionist settlement in the Mandate Era and continuing during Jordanian rule. Jordan also continued the project of titling private property in the West Bank highlands, offering one level of protection against mass state land confiscation by Israel when it occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, and Sinai Peninsula in 1967.

Yet the use of private property as defense against colonial dispossession soon formed a double bind in the 1970s, as Paul Kohlbry has shown. Israel moved their agricultural surplus into the Palestinian domestic market of the West Bank after its occupation, dropping prices for Palestinian agricultural goods while simultaneously cutting off their markets abroad. ‘By the late 1970s, landownership had been replaced by wages and remittances as the primary source of livelihood and social power, and rain-fed agriculture functioned as a secondary source of income.’[lxiv] The precarity of consistent agricultural cultivation opened up room for Israel to invoke laws allowing the seizure of ‘waste’ land, or that not under active cultivation, as state land, usually transferring it to Jewish-only settlements after a period of time. However, the proliferation of land titling in the north served as somewhat of a bulwark against this practice—meaning the histories of settler colonial dispossession told in most literature on Palestine, or the theories of racial capitalist dispossession, have not fully accounted for Jenin’s relatively high rate of agricultural land ownership and active cultivation in the West Bank.[lxv]

Even though farmers in the Jenin highlands, the site of the emergence of fair trade olive oil, were able to largely resist the direct expropriation of land, they were equally or even more so susceptible to the larger pressures of declining prices and pull of wage labor in Israel, and saw similar trends of agricultural work being abandoned in favor of wage labor inside Israel.[lxvi] This trend only grew after the 1993 Oslo Accords, creation of the Palestinian Authority, and, ostensibly, the move towards a two-state solution in policy and potential for Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank. The building up of proto-state political and capitalist institutions occlude the ‘the continuity of Israeli settler colonialism’ leading policy makers and analysts to allude that ‘its effects could be halted and reversed once Palestinians achieved independence in the occupied territories.’[lxvii] The Oslo Accords served not as a rupture between settler colonialism and neoliberalism, but a continuation of settler colonialism by other means. The influx of international donor money in the 1990s and early 2000s privileged what Toufic Haddad terms a ‘neoliberal conflict resolution’ model, in which building up the Palestinian economy and state simultaneously evacuated the project of Palestinian sovereignty of its radical elements.[lxviii] Increased privatization set the state for the emergence of private enterprise as the harbinger of hope for many Palestinians after the Second Intifada, including the farmers participating in the projects outlined hence.

Today, internal trade (retail and wholesale) has become the dominant sector of the Palestinian economy since 2006, taking up an increasing share of both its GDP and labor force, while manufacturing and agriculture has declined.[lxix] Palestinian farmers report challenges that range from the direct impact of Israeli military incursions onto agricultural land and their destruction of agricultural equipment and crops, to issues of de-development and competition from Israeli products with lower prices, to the limited ability of the internal market to absorb agricultural surplus.[lxx] The occupation has led to declining production across multiple agricultural sectors, due to decreased access to arable land, restrictions on inputs to improve productivity, and the decline in the agricultural workforce due to the downward pressure on wages.[lxxi] However, speaking to both farmers and agronomists in the Jenin area during fieldwork in 2018 and 2021, most named their biggest problem as that of income and marketing. The decline of Palestinian agriculture brings up political concerns of the opening up of land to Israeli dispossession and fears of loss of cultural heritage and political identity tied to agricultural practices and heirloom plants and animals.[lxxii] But in Jenin, agriculture still accounts for the largest sector of its economy; the governorate further produces 29% of the olive oil of the West Bank.[lxxiii] The question of whether Jenin was ripe for the emergence of fair trade due to its agricultural persistence or whether fair trade has helped that persistence does not lead to simple either/or answers. Regardless, it is to the issue of the neoliberal environments of Palestinian agriculture in Jenin, and the environment that fostered the commodification of Palestinian indigeneity, to which we now turn.

Palestinian indigeneity and its commodification

The field of fair trade and organic agriculture in Palestine is diverse and growing; any attempt to fully chronicle the various efforts, from small permaculture farms focused on serving only a local village to large companies producing products for exports, would necessarily be incomplete. Rather than attempt to argue comprehensively across multiple case studies, I focus here on only the efforts of one company and one organization. Canaan Palestine is well-known for being the first fair trade company in Palestine. Formerly known as Canaan Fair Trade, Dr Nasser Abufarha concurrently founded the company and an affiliated non-profit organization, the Palestine Fair Trade Association (PFTA), in Jenin in 2005. Dr Abufarha responded to a need he saw during his dissertation research around the villages of his youth in Jenin governorate, where olive farmers were facing major price drops of finished olive oil due to the Second Intifada’s disruption of local market demand. Canaan Palestine boasts it was not only the first fair trade company in Occupied Palestine, but also that Dr Abufarha helped to create international standards for fair trade olive oil (which did not exist at Canaan and PFTA’s founding), making Canaan Palestine the first fair trade olive oil company globally.[lxxiv]

Today, Canaan Palestine sells three major categories of products, both directly to consumers and as bulk commodities to be relabeled or manufactured into other goods[lxxv]: 1) olive oil; 2) almonds and almond oil; and 3) ‘Palestinian specialties,’ a grouping of value-added food products (including freekeh,[lxxvi] maftoul.[lxxvii] za’atar,[lxxviii] and carob syrup). Marketing of Palestinian olive oil and other agricultural products do not always explicitly, and in fact rarely, put ‘indigenous’ as a physical label on their products, although it is occasionally mentioned in associated marketing materials.

When not identifying something explicitly as indigenous, marketing and promotional materials do commonly include related terminology that invoke Palestinians’ connections to land since time immemorial. In addition to materials related to the actual food products for sale, terminology also appears on outreach materials to promote visiting the Jenin area for socially minded tourists, and materials to encourage donations to non-profit organizations that support the farmers who sell their products to Canaan Palestine. Discourse that invokes Palestinian indigeneity falls into multiple categories: invoking a long and timeless history of Palestinian connection to the land; invoking that Palestinian farming and its products is better for environmental and human health; and invoking the idea that Palestinian farmers and their products are culturally authentic and unchanged over time, representing a social and ecological ‘back to the land’ relation.

Discourses of indigeneity appeal to a global consumer market who desire to reach authenticity through food consumption, to have a unique experience of tasting a product allegedly unchanged for thousands of years, and often, to “act with one’s wallet” in solidarity with the Palestinian political struggle.[lxxix] However, these discourses emerge through a valorisation and commodification process enacted by Canaan Palestine and related organizations (as well as many sustainable agricultural efforts in Palestine not detailed directly in this article). The commodify fetish that obscures itself is in clear play here, and it is necessary to unpack how different actors labor under different conditions to contribute to this valorisation and commodification. One sphere of production is, of course, the orchard or farm. Farmers who sell their olive oil to Canaan must maintain organic certification, which every farmer I spoke to said was not a problem because of how their existing farming practices which they learned before Canaan was founded fit well with organic. In fact, one Palestinian agronomist I spoke to with experience in national agricultural research went so far as to say olive farming traditionally is always and has always been organic. The emphasis on the unchanged nature of the production of organic olives, particularly heirloom varieties (which will be detailed further below) after the transition to certified organic reinforces the argument that Palestinian ‘traditional’ or ‘indigenous’ olive oil is inherently and naturally better, even without the external imposition of international certification and regulation standards.[lxxx]

Beyond the agrarian sphere, there is labor conducted in circulation—not just the physical logistics of shipping products out of Palestine to markets abroad, but also in the discursive work of marketing, design, and communication by for-profit companies and non-profit organizations that further valorise the otherwise finished product of a bottle of olive oil. Take, for instance, a promotional tourism booklet from Canaan Palestine, distributed by Land of Canaan Foundation, a non-profit organization based in the US whose mission is to support the non-profit organizations associated with Canaan in Palestine. The booklet has on its front cover a photograph of khubz taboun (a traditional wood-fired flat bread), olive oil, fresh tomatoes, mint, and sliced cheese. Underneath the Canaan Palestine logo is written in italics, ‘You’re with family…’ Inside, different pages detail the potential trips a tourist could take, from touring the olive oil factory in Burqin to staying with a farming family for olive harvest. Describing the olive oil factory, the pamphlet says, ‘Palestine, the Land of Canaan, has witnessed the birth and development of the olive oil culture throughout the years. At Canaan, you learn the history of organic farming, and see exhibits of the olive oil food culture from the beginning of time to the latest state-of-the-art technology in olive oil processing.’ Describing a home-stay opportunity, it reads: ‘Meet the farmers, visit their lands, see their ancient trees, enjoy their delicious food, learn and experience their simple life-style, culture, traditions, and stay overnight in their warm homes. Welcome to village life!’ These descriptions invoke a simple yet comfortable Arab hospitality, both unchanged since time immemorial yet also contemporary —the style of the booklet would not be out of place as an advertisement for a hip coffee shop—and welcoming to non-Palestinians. These advertisements enlist a ‘Third world ecological imaginary’ of the Palestinian peasant farmer as one who is unthreatening and welcoming and in tune with  nature, and in doing so try to undo racist and Orientalist depictions of Arabs and Palestinians as violent, irrational terrorists. Many marketing staff at Canaan Palestine and farmers emphasized the importance of putting out positive messaging about Palestinians through their products and tourist visits to combat this Orientalist hegemony, especially for Americans.

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down nearly all travel to Palestine, as Israel stopped issuing tourist visas without strict pre-approval criteria for over twenty months, the fair trade association still brought tourists ‘virtually’ by hosting events on Zoom. I attended one Zoom live event for a UK audience in November 2021. Hosted in an olive orchard, a few farmers from the nearby village came to cook food over an open fire and gathered around an olive tree to pick olives by hand to show on the video feed. Meanwhile, a few meters away, family members of the landowner and hired workers were also picking olives—using diesel generator-powered harvesters which worked much faster than hand harvesting. Mechanized harvest, which fair trade staff said has grown in popularity in recent years, did not fit the image of farming practices unchanged over time, and was not portrayed in the event. Yet this was not due to a duplicitousness on the part of the farmers or fair trade staff. Leaving out the mechanical harvester was partially practical (the loud noise of the diesel tractor overpowered the cell phone microphone used to record the event), and partially because of the assumptions the Palestinians recording had of their audience: they felt that the participants on the call did not want to see the mechanical harvest. but instead enjoyed seeing us harvesting by hand. Such imagery reinforced the ecologically noble savage imaginary of Palestine and Palestinians that Western consumers desire or even demand.

The idea of Palestinians as inherently ecologically friendly also emerges throughout printed marketing. Canaan Palestine centers its support for regenerative, not just organic, agriculture, a terminology in rising use in recent years to explain the agroecological practices of carbon sequestration in the soil and protecting soil health. In an Instagram Live conversation with Olive and Heart, an online marketplace for Palestinian fair trade products, Dr Abufarha boasts that Palestine is home to the ‘longest standing regenerative agricultural practices on earth.’[lxxxi] The Land of Canaan Foundation asks for support for intercropping legumes in olive orchards to aid in nitrogen fixation and lessen the need for external fertilizer inputs. The website explains that ‘Regenerative Agriculture is new to much of the organic world but traditional in Palestine’; donating will support the use of ‘ancient native seeds’ which ‘are drought resistant, don't need fertilizer, and are resistant to pests and diseases. Plus, their produce is nutrient dense and preferred by the knowledgeable consumer.’[lxxxii] The term ‘knowledgeable consumer’ here also evokes the imaginary of a well-educated customer who makes her shopping choices based on personal health considerations; regardless of the consumer’s individual racial identity, the ‘knowledgeable consumer’s’ choices are shaped by white ideals of bodily purity.

The donor to these projects can be reassured that they are supporting not only a local project that benefits the farmer, but also a project of indigenous land stewardship that is seen to benefit the entire world. In a time of increasing threats from climate change, the idea that Palestinians’ ‘ancient traditions protect the future,’ as the host of the opening Abraham Path webinar put it, positions the indigenous Palestinian as a racial subject responsible not only for her own people’s landed future but for the ecological health of the planet. The aforementioned live Zoom event occurred at the same time as COP 26, the annual UN Climate Conference, held in 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland. One virtual participant asked if the farmers had any messages for COP 26 delegates. ‘This year, we have been touched by the effects of climate change more than ever,’ one replied. Speaking to farmers through numerous interviews, many expressed global concerns both about Palestine’s political and environmental futures and expressed pride that their organic farming practices would help improve the environment not just for their local communities but for the whole world. At the same time, immense pressure is put on Palestinian farmers to hold responsibility for the fate of the world facing climate catastrophe. The failure of governing structures like COP to regulate the root causes of climate change on either a national or international level puts the onus on the marginalized of the world, like Palestinians, to take up individual responsibility to serve as a bulwark against climate change’s devastating effects. Neoliberalism’s impacts on environmental governance extends beyond what it has destroyed (regulations, welfare structures) but also what it creates; here, the figure of the Palestinian farmer as a “responsible steward” individually responsible for fixing her local agro-ecology and later, the rest of the world, through green capitalism.

In addition to these broader themes, the word indigenous does show up in specific places in Canaan Palestine materials. Canaan’s three olive oils available for sale online are variously named after the variety of olive making up the majority of its content (Rumi, Nabali) or the location of the olives that make up a blend (Jenin), with minimal description on the bottles itself. In the extended production description of the aforementioned varietal named oils, however, both olive trees cultivars are described as ‘indigenous.’ ‘Rumi olive trees are the indigenous Surri olive trees of Palestine. The name Rumi refers to the tree’s ancient heritage dating back to Roman times,’ reads one;[lxxxiii] the other, ‘Nabali olive trees are indigenous to Palestine and cultivated according to sustainable agricultural traditions passed down over millennia.’[lxxxiv]

Another example is a booklet published in both Arabic and English to showcase the work of the Center for Organic Research and Extension (CORE), a non-profit organization also founded by Dr Abufarha, whose mission is to support training and development of Canaan-affiliated farmers in sustainable and regenerative agriculture techniques. The booklet lists under CORE’s ‘main goals’ to ‘preserve and enhance indigenous plant varieties and animal races’; in the Arabic booklet, the term used is mahaliyya, which can be translated to ‘local,’ ‘domestic,’ ‘native,’ or less commonly, ‘indigenous.’ It is usually to describe a place or non-human object (nabatat mahaliyya or ‘native plants’ is the phrased used), not a person or people.  

In both the case of the description of the olive cultivars and of the preservation of native plants and heirloom crop and livestock, ‘indigenous’ is used to directly refer to a non-human entity that Palestinians are in relation to in their work as agriculturalists. Yet the slippage between the olive tree and those who tend them is intentional. On Canaan Palestine’s website, a video titled ‘Canaan’s Living Culture’ plays on the front page. The voice of Dr Abufarha plays over clips that include him walking through fields of wheat, olive tree branches shaking in the wind, and a farmer looking back at the camera and gesturing onwards, inviting the viewer to walk through the trees. ‘We’re from here because we are part of here,’ his voiceover speaks. ‘This is the home of the olive tree. It is indigenous to the land. So are we.’[lxxxv]

The indigeneity invoked by Canaan Palestine is that of a place-based relation to land since time immemorial. This is stated quite simply in the booklet distributed by CORE, with a quote from Dr Abufarha as a header on one page: ‘Palestinian farmers lived in harmony with this ecosystem for thousands of years and continue to honor these traditions to this day.’ Surprisingly absent from these materials is the acknowledgement of the racialisation of Palestinians as indigenous under Israel settler colonialism, or increasingly, of the impacts of Israel’s occupation at all. Present in its origin story and much of its earlier marketing materials, the impact of Israel’s occupation on fair trade and organic farmers is conspicuously now absent from Canaan Palestine’s website description and of the online descriptions of non-profit supported projects at Land of Canaan Foundation. In some ways, this could be seen as incredibly liberatory; Canaan Palestine has transcended the need to define itself against the settler, and instead simply celebrates and disseminates authentic notions of Palestinian indigeneity that predate and exceed Zionism. Yet Israel’s occupation puts forth limits to valorising and commodifying indigeneity that can only be noted in this structural context, not beyond it.

The limits to value under settler colonialism

In 2011, reporting on its first six years of operation, Canaan Palestine put its price floor for a liter of olive oil at NIS 15 ($4 US), and explained the price paid to the farmer as containing a ‘social premium’:

Canaan pays farmers a sustainable price that includes a social premium, which is always above the market price. The social premium for farmers is intended to support the health, education, and overall well-being of farmers’ families. The social premium is part of the value chain of a product and represents a percentage of the price. As Canaan director Nasser Abufarha explains, if a bottle of olive oil sells for US$15.00, US$3.35 goes to the farmer (22.4%). The rest of the price is allocated for other pieces of the value chain…[lxxxvi]

The idea of a ‘social premium’ is a core part of fair trade projects as a whole; the consumer must be willing to pay for something above and beyond base product quality, to feel that they are supporting social, economic, and/or environmental values. For Palestinian olive oil, the overhead is, according to Lila Sharif, an ‘added social premium of solidarity.’[lxxxvii] However, no longer does Canaan Palestine even invoke that value of ‘solidarity’ directly in its marketing materials. The desire is for consumers beyond a core ‘Palestine solidarity’ customer base to engage with and purchase Canaan Palestine’s products. This came up repeatedly in my interviews with staff at Canaan Palestine in November and December 2021, as staff in the sales and marketing department of the company emphasized that they perceived the quality of their products as what was most appealing to international consumers. Such consumers are seen to be hailed by larger notions of authenticity and environmental protection, without going into the messier political questions of Palestinian sovereignty or Israeli settler colonial violence.

The issue emerges, what value does a commodified indigeneity hold? Farmers in the Jenin area are acutely aware of and engage in conversation, debate, and argument over the value of their products. Ten years after the aforementioned report, Canaan Palestine set the price for the 2021 harvest season for one kilogram of virgin olive oil at NIS 25.5 ($8.10 US) and for extra virgin at NIS 26.5 ($8.42 US). Each farmer has the choice to sell their product fully or partially to Canaan, through designated purchasers at olive oil presses or by bringing their product to Canaan’s factory directly. However, farmers must sell at least part of their harvest at least one time out of every three consecutive harvest seasons to remain in the fair trade network.[lxxxviii] Staff at Canaan and the fair trade association said this price was agreed upon between the company and farmer representatives, who are elected by the farmers every two years. However, the 2021 price proved to be controversial: buyers at non-fair-trade presses were paying NIS 28 per kilo, and farmers could even sell their oil directly on the local market for NIS 30 per kilo. On a daily basis in October and November 2021, I watched farmers come into the fair trade association’s office in Jenin to complain about Canaan’s price and argue it should be raised based on the local market price—or that they would simply sell to the local market instead. Interviews with some farmers with long-standing relationships with Canaan indicated some would sell part of their harvest to the local market and some to Canaan, or to the local market entirely, while others expressed a loyalty to Canaan for multiple years of positive treatment despite this year’s price discrepancy. Additionally, the fair trade association staff portrayed Canaan as more honest than the local olive oil brokers. ‘If you acted like a journalist and went to the [olive oil] press and asked the price, they might say 30 NIS [per kilo], but then if you went back and actually tried to sell them the oil, they would give you a price of 25 NIS,’ insisted Feras, a senior staff at the association.

The price discrepancy between non-fair-trade and fair trade olive oil raised the question as to what value the global market still brings to Palestinian farmers. If a commodified indigeneity does not bring extra value to a farmer and his family, is it worth pursuing? Why would farmers want to stay in a fair trade cooperative if the price was not higher than the local market, as fair trade promises? However, there are additionally ethical values not captured simply by the market relation, for instance, that of trust and long-term relationships between farmers, their purchasers, and their consumers overseas. Those relationships hold a less codified but no less important value, particularly, the potential to communicate and support Palestinian political goals—and while they may have been built on a Third world ecological imaginary of the Palestinian farmer, they do not necessarily have to rely on it.

One evening I was sitting in the home of Abu Ali, the olive farmer who I often stayed with in the village of Kufr Dan north of Jenin. I had been connected to Abu Ali directly from the fair trade association when I was seeking a host family, and he proudly showed me photos of the international visitors he had hosted over the years who had come to tour Canaan’s facilities. One night, he offered me a 250 ml bottle of Canaan olive oil, infused with lemon, as a gift. ‘How much would this olive oil cost in the US?’ he asked me. I pulled up Canaan Palestine’s US sales website and did the calculations of dollars to shekels and ounces to kilos. The sale price, of course, was much higher than what he is paid for the raw product—his question, though, was less about whether there was a direct correlation between what he was paid and what it was sold for (particularly a bottle of flavored oil that had been clearly modified from its raw form). Our conversation, however, showed that despite knowing that value is imbued to his product outside of his raw production of the olives, someone, somewhere, was benefitting extra from not just his socially necessary labor, in the strictest Marxist sense, but from his land and himself—from his Palestinianness.

It can easily be argued that settler colonial dispossession outweighs any commodity fetish imbued to identity. As long as Israel still tries to sever Palestinians from their lands in an ongoing process of enclosure, and the possibility for a revolutionary struggle staved, the ‘good life’ that fair trade and organic farming brings will always be an incomplete one. As Lila Sharif explains,

…through fair trade, Palestine is transformed from its commonplace site of violence and chaos to a commodity that is saturated with affective desires and high grade content. Palestine is suspended from violence, charity, and darkness, but is mainstreamed into a commodity that a worldly consumer can salivate over, chewing and digesting without the added ingredient of pain and violence.[lxxxix]

However, the ‘mainstream commodity’ of a commodified Palestinian indigeneity is partial. As long as settler colonialism persists, indigeneity will continue to be constricted and narrowed to a racial identity formation that is both hyper-consumed and devalued by settler colonial state structures and individuals alike. The purpose of marketing indigeneity at all in Palestine is for political gains, not just economic ones; yet in relying on techniques of circulation, the commodity fetish threatens to overwhelm the political power of indigeneity as a collective position against settler colonialism.


In her analysis of a short-lived mushroom farm in Jericho, Rayya El Zein encourages a understanding of the Palestinian ‘resistance economy’ that ‘shift[s] the notion of resistance from one that romanticizes microlevel agricultural collectives farming ancestral lands.’[xc] Instead it is crucial that ‘both capital and state-like institutions must be reimagined as tools, not for liberation, but for the process of struggle required by the latter—that is, as tools for the development of Palestinian labor.’[xci] Canaan Palestine, and fair trade and organic in Palestine writ large, use indigeneity as a tool for their economic and social work; so too, do the farmers participating in fair trade use Canaan and racial capitalism as a tool for their processes of economic and political struggle. Furthermore, in the vein of El Zein’s criticism of romanticism, taking for granted Palestinian indigeneity as inherently resistant to Israel settler colonialism—the commodification of indigeneity outlined in this article—is an imaginary that does little serve to the necessary struggle. Therefore, it behooves us to instead ask what Palestine offers to thinking settler colonialism and racial capitalism together, and what do these concepts then offer back to the struggle for Palestinian sovereignty still ongoing today.

The literature on settler colonialism and racial capitalism in Palestine must examine attend to the complexities of Palestinian capitalism historically and contemporarily under neoliberalism. This work, while robustly engaged with by political economists, anthropologists, geographers, and others in Palestine studies, is nonetheless not read enough outside of this geographic disciplinary silo. The transit of the question of Palestine to transnational questions of the settler colonial too often leaves behind the real ambivalence of capitalism and resistance on the ground. The farmers with whom I spoke were concerned with whether their products receive the best price possible on the market for their own and their family’s needs, while also expressing that they did feel that their work as farmers contributed to a better future for their communities and even for Palestine as a whole. Rather than seeing neoliberal capitalism as wholly exploitative or of alternative economic frameworks like fair trade as wholly liberatory, farmers expressed both pragmatic and principled stances as to why they participated in sustainable development schemas. Future scholarly work on settler colonialism and racial capitalism in Palestine should draw closer attention to these tensions and nuances.

Furthermore, there is more to be said still on the topic of indigeneity in Palestine-Israel. The rise of claims to Jewish indigeneity, themselves often relying on a biological essentialism of race, must be contended with not just as a cynical response to Palestinian political organizing, but as another emergence of racial formations as property under racial capitalism locally and globally. Jewish indigeneity claims may not articulate indigeneity meaning those who have been colonized; nonetheless, as this article shows, the understanding of Palestinians as indigenous because of Israeli settler colonialism is not the only way, or sometimes even the primary way, Palestinians articulate themselves to a global public. It is not as simple as saying that Jewish indigeneity claims arose from Palestinian claims; we must theorize deeper the question of Jewish racialisation not just as settlers aiming to be natives in Palestine, but in asking why Jews have not been racialised as native in any of the other places we have called home—notably, Europe.

Finally, despite the bleak outlooks perhaps gleaned from this article, theorizing racial capitalism and settler colonialism from Palestine offers the potentials for a transnational solidarity that resists the narrowing and commodification of indigeneity and subalternity writ large into easily ‘digestible’ soundbites or products. The impossibility of Palestinian indigeneity as truly valued under settler colonialism—the impossibility of divorcing who Palestinians are from the land of Palestine—opens up a gap in settler hegemony that can be exploited and expanded. Palestinian indigeneity calls into question the limits of understanding indigeneity through the settler relation, yet also challenges whether an invocation of reclaiming the untouched past will bring liberation. Palestinian indigeneity is at the least a ‘tool for the process of struggle’; it remains to be seen how it might be taken up by a grassroots class struggle both on the ground in Palestine and transnationally.


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[i] Karmel Abufarha is also the son of Canaan Palestine founder Dr Nasser Abufarha, who I will refer to as Dr Abufarha to distinguish the two.

[ii] Abraham Path Initiative, 2021, ‘Olive trees, olive oil, organic faming [sp], and coping with COVID.’, Available at <>

[iii] On the potential for resisting commodification see Engel-di Mauro and Van Sant 2020, Osborne 2020; indigeneity beyond settler colonialism, see Simpson 2014.

[iv] See Bardawil 2020; Coulthard 2014; Locker-Biletzki 2019

[v] Nichols 2020, p. 53.

[vi] Nichols 2020, p. 8.

[vii] Bhandar 2018, p. 29.

[viii] See, for instance, Sayegh 2012.

[ix] See Estes 2019.

[x] Salamanca et al. 2012, p. 3.

[xi] S. Robinson 2013, p. 10. On apartheid and settler colonialism, see also Peteet 2016; Rifkin 2017.

[xii] See Bhandar and Ziadah 2016, Seikaly 2016.

[xiii] See, in particular, Sharif 2016; Barakat 2017.

[xiv] Salaita 2016, p. xviii.

[xv] Melamed 2015, p. 77.

[xvi] See, for instance, C. Robinson 1983; Byrd et al. 2018.

[xvii] Clarno 2017, p. 9

[xviii] See Coulthard 2014, pp.10-15; Clarno 2017.

[xix] C. Robinson 1983, pp. 26-28; Kelley 2017 p. 273.

[xx] Seikaly and Ajl 2014, p. 123.

[xxi] Seikaly and Ajl 2014, p. 128.

[xxii] Wolfe 2016, p. 24.

[xxiii] See, for instance, Feldman 2015; Stoler 2016; Hart 2018.

[xxiv] Bhandar 2018. For further strong examples of comparative projects which include Palestine and multiple sites, see also Clarno 2017, Fields 2017.

[xxv] Englert 2018, p. 153

[xxvi] Mikdashi 2013, p. 28.

[xxvii] Harris 1993, p. 1713.

[xxviii] Moreton-Robinson 2015, p. xiii.

[xxix] Barker 2005, p. 17.

[xxx] See, for instance, Ives 2018; Kauanui 2018. 

[xxxi] See Radcliffe 2017, Abu-Lughod 2020.

[xxxii] Cook-Lynn 1996, p. 88.

[xxxiii] Larsen and Johnson 2012, p. 3; see also Louis 2017.

[xxxiv] Bauer Jr. 2016, pp. 25, 27.

[xxxv] Coulthard 2014, p. 20.

[xxxvi] Grande 2004, p. 64.

[xxxvii] Examples outside of Palestine include Kauanui 2008; Tallbear 2013; Arvin 2015.

[xxxviii] Tatour 2019, p. 2.

[xxxix] See, for instance, Tesdell, Othman, and Alkhoury 2019.

[xl] Gutkowski 2018, p. 486.

[xli] Marx 1990, p. 290.

[xlii] See Harris 1993, p. 1720.

[xliii] See Farsakh 2005.

[xliv] Abu-Lughod 2020.

[xlv] Marx 1990, p. 302.

[xlvi] Marx 1990, p. 300.

[xlvii] Baillie, Chatzoglou, and Taha 2010, p.53; see also Kirtsoglou and Theodossopoulos 2004.

[xlviii] See Wiegman 2003, p. 301; McKee 2016.

[xlix] Marx 1990, p. 290.

[l] Guthman 2007.

[li] See Fridell, 2006; Fridell, 2007; Dolan, 2010; Jaffee, 2012.

[lii] See Guthman 2004.

[liii] There is a much longer history of the consumption of Palestinian olive oil as a solidarity economy that exceeds this categorisation. Palestinian immigrants and then refugees in the Arab world brought with them agricultural practices, flora, and fauna; they imported Palestinian food products to Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, the US, South America, and more. The sale of olive oil in Palestinian cultural and political spaces in the US predates the economy I describe here. I do not intend to put the Palestinian diaspora as outside of the realm of the global market; a narrowing of the focus here illuminates certain points about neoliberalism, and the larger story of the history of the solidarity economy should still be told. For a more full telling of this history, see Sharif 2014.

[liv] On the relations between indigeneity and the question of the peasant, see Watts 2009, pp. 281-83; Li 2014.

[lv] See Davis 2011.

[lvi] Bryant and Goodman 2004, p. 350

[lvii] Besky 2014, p. 30.

[lviii] Dana 2020, p. 198.

[lix] Castree 2001, p. 1522. See also Whitt 1998.

[lx] Montrescu and Hendel 2019, p. 314.

[lxi] See Doumani 1995.

[lxii] See Fakhr Eldin, 2019.

[lxiii] Reger 2017, p. 31.

[lxiv] Kohlbry 2018, p. 33.

[lxv] Relatedly, Jenin is the only West Bank governorate home to no Jewish-only settlements, as it was the only site of withdrawal of West Bank settlements from the 2005 disengagement policy (overshadowed in most literature by the dismantling of the Gaza Strip Gush Katif settlements). The reason given for this is often Jenin’s history of militant attacks on settlements and the notoriety of the Jenin Refugee Camp as a center of armed resistance in the Second Intifada; however, a fuller accounting of the reason for low settlement activity in the area and relation to political economy has yet to be written.

[lxvi] See Farsakh 2005.

[lxvii] Farsakh 2016, p. 56.

[lxviii] Haddad 2016, p. 7

[lxix] Shikaki 2021, p. 1.

[lxx] Isaac et al. 2015, p. 29.

[lxxi] See Tartir 2018.

[lxxii] See Abufarha 2008.

[lxxiii] Isaac et al. 2015, p. 20.

[lxxiv] Bruhn et al. 2012, p. 3.

[lxxv] The major recipients of bulk purchases include Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps (olive oil makes up a major basis of their castile soap), Lush Cosmetics (for almond oil), and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream (for bulk almonds to produce almond milk for dairy-free ice cream). Canaan Palestine products are also sometimes relabeled under generic fair trade labels in some countries, although the company has turned away from that practice in recent years, in favor of maintaining their own brand label.

[lxxvi] Cereal food made of whole durum wheat kernels, similar to bulgur

[lxxvii] Wheat ‘couscous,’ a durum pasta hand rolled into larger grains

[lxxviii] A spice blend made of Palestinian thyme (za’atar), sumac, sesame, and salt

[lxxix] For more on Palestinian olive oil and global consumption, see Meneley 2008, 2011, 2014; Sharif 2014.

[lxxx] The reality of this is, of course, complicated; Palestinian olive farming practices have changed over time and new techniques and technologies have come to Palestine via organic training programs. This fully history is beyond the scope of this paper at present.

[lxxxi] Olive and Heart, 2020, ‘Instagram Live Chat,’ Available at <;

[lxxxii] Land of Canaan Foundation ‘Regenerative organic seed bank,’ Available at <…;

[lxxxiii] Canaan USA, ‘Rumi olive oil,’ Available at <;

[lxxxiv] Canaan USA, ‘Nabali olive oil,’ Available at <…;

[lxxxv] Canaan USA, ‘Canaan’s Living Culture,’ Available at <;

[lxxxvi] Buhn et al. 2012, p. 15.

[lxxxvii] Sharif 2014, p. 177.

[lxxxviii] Interview and participant observation, October 2021

[lxxxix] Sharif 2014, p. 188.

[xc] El Zein 2017, p. 22.

[xci] El Zein 2017, p. 8.