Palestine’s War and Peace

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A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917–2017
by Rashid Khalidi
pp. 336. Metropolitan Books. $30.

Though I have read a good number of histories of Palestine, I hardly turned a page in Rashid Khalidi’s new book,The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917–2017,” that didn’t surprise me with new and well-documented information about my own history. Moreover, the unique analysis and deductions make this book more engaging. Khalidi, a prominent Palestinian historian, is the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University in New York, the editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies and the author of seven history books.

At a recent event at Colombia Univerity, Khalidi explained that this was his first book endeavor that was not strictly academic in nature. On the urging of his son and a cousin, he had spent his last sabbatical year reviewing a large number of the Khalidi family documents and recalling intimate personal and family involvement in the over century-long Palestinian struggle.

The book starts with an introduction to some of Khalidi’s deep family connections to that history. He spent time digging deep into the private libraries of some of Jerusalem’s oldest families, including his own. After familiarizing us with the surroundings of his temporary residence in the lap of the extended Jerusalem Khalidi clan, he leads us to his family library:

“Just down Bab al-Silsila Street was the main building of the Khalidi Library, which was founded in 1899 by my grandfather [… .] Including some two thousand nineteenth-century Arabic books and miscellaneous family papers, [… .] At the time of my stay, the main library structure, which dates from around the thirteenth century, was undergoing restoration, so the contents were being stored temporarily in large cardboard boxes in a Mameluke-era building connected to our apartment by a narrow stairway. I spent over a year among those boxes, going through dusty, worm-eaten books, documents, and letters belonging to generations of Khalidis, among them my great-great-great uncle, Yusuf Diya al-Din Pasha al-Khalidi [… .] Through his papers, I discovered a worldly man with a broad education acquired in Jerusalem, Malta, Istanbul, and Vienna, a man who was deeply interested in comparative religion, especially in Judaism, and who owned a number of books in European languages on this and other subjects.”

Shortly, Khalidi enlists this scholarly ancestor to make the cogent assertion that from its start, the Zionist project in Palestine was one of the settler colonialism variety by design and practice and that the distinction between it and the enslavement variety of colonialism practiced by European empires in most of their African and Asian holdings had been clearly understood by Herzl, the father of the project.

Cover of The Hundred Years War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917–2017
Cover of “The Hundred Years War on Palestine:
A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917–2017.”

In his correspondence with Rashid’s above mentioned great grand uncle Diya, Theodor Herzl used the classic white man’s burden to argue that Jewish immigration would benefit Palestinians: “It is their well-being, their individual wealth, which we will increase by bringing in our own.” Echoing language he had used in “Der Judenstaat,” Herzl added: “In allowing immigration to a number of Jews bringing their intelligence, their financial acumen and their means of enterprise to the country, no one can doubt that the well-being of the entire country would be the happy result.” Yet in his private memoirs Herzl wrote about the need to expropriate property, “remove the poor” and “spirit the penniless population across the border.”

Diya acknowledged the historic connection of the Jews to the Holy Land, yet pointed to the more binding reality of his people’s rootedness in the land. 

I intentionally focus on this sample of Khalidi’s writing to illustrate the unique style he uses throughout this book of combining his personal and family-based memoirs seamlessly with the solid academic discourse that is part of his domain as a historian. This integrative approach of combining the personal with the academic is maintained throughout the book. It relies on oral testimonies and recorded memoirs of members of the Khalidi clan in Jerusalem and elsewhere as well as on the rich personal experiences of the author. The latter, for example, includes his chomping at the bit as a UN employee while witnessing in person the 1967 U.S. collusion with Israel to sidetrack the Palestinians and their Nakba of 1948 altogether and to alter the focus of debate at the UN Security Council to one between Israel and its neighboring states. “As the session wore on into the afternoon,” he writes, “I fidgeted nervously, waiting for the secretary-general’s confirmation of compliance with the cease-fire.”

Khalidi also brings to bear his 15-year residence in Beirut, coincident with the stormy events in the development of the Palestinian resistance in Lebanon and beyond. He marshals recollections of being physically present at the heart of the intense breakout of the Lebanese Civil War, from funerals of Palestinian leaders, to the siege of Tal al-Za’tar, to the ambush of a bus that ignited the war, all the way to the evacuation of the PLO from Beirut to Tunis and the consequent Sabra and Shatila Massacre. All through this hellish period, Khalidi and his family were direct witnesses to momentous events. He drops hints of the effects such close calls had on them, such as the excessive sensitivity to loud noise his infant son showed, perhaps as a result of having been, as an embryo, in the vicinity of the first two-thousand-pound bombs Israel dropped on Beirut in 1982. That account is casually admixed with explanatory historical notes and academic references on such issues as the cooperation of Israel and Syria in Tel al-Za’tar having been coordinated behind the scenes by Kissinger and the Israeli invasion of Beirut being greenlighted by the US Secretary of State, general Haig. Finally, he recounts escaping through Israeli-occupied Beirut with his family in an armored car provided by the last American diplomat in the city.

The effective combining of the personal and the academic gives the book its solid frame of reference and deft appeal. The basic premise of the book revolves around the following:

“There was no escaping the fact that Zionism initially had clung tightly to the British Empire for support, and had only successfully implanted itself in Palestine thanks to the unceasing efforts of British imperialism. It could not be otherwise, for as Jabotinsky stressed, only the British had the means to wage the colonial war that was necessary to suppress Palestinian resistance to the takeover of their country. This war has continued since then, waged sometimes overtly and sometimes covertly, but invariably with the tacit or overt approval, and often the direct involvement, of the leading powers of the day [especially the USA] and the sanction of the international bodies they dominated, the League of Nations and the United Nations.”

Khalidi’s six chapters are organized according to what are essentially six declarations of war against Palestine. They start with the Belfour Declaration (together with the 1922 League of Nations’ Mandate for Palestine that adopted the former document whole and unaltered) and end with The Oslo I and II Accords. In between, there is the 1947 UN Division Plan of Palestine and, later, the Kissinger-mediated secret letter from President Ford to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin pledging “that during any peace negotiations [the USA] would make every effort to coordinate with Israel its proposals with a view to refraining from putting forward proposals that Israel would find unsatisfactory.” This pledge came into full play in the UN Security Council decision 242 with its deceptive land for peace formula sidestepping the Palestinians altogether. Another open declaration of war on Palestine in the century-long era covered in the book is Israel’s Dahiya Doctrine with its repeated practice by Israel long before its full announcement in 2008.

Without exception, each chapter is rich with revelations of behind-the-scenes details, the author’s private angle on significant historical events that he personally witnessed or in which acquaintances, colleagues, friends and/or next of kin were involved. Khalidi was oftentimes closely involved in significant events to a degree that justifies a large measure of opinionated comment and analysis.

An appropriate measure of dismay percolates through Khalidi’s writing, as when he speaks of certain characters such as those behind the various declarations of war on Palestine. For example, he describes Lord Balfour as:

“A diffident, worldly patrician and former prime minister and nephew of long-time Tory Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, he had served for five years as Britain’s chief secretary in Ireland, the empire’s oldest colony, where he was much hated, earning the nickname ‘Bloody Balfour.’ Ironically, it was his government that authored the 1905 Aliens Act, meant primarily to keep destitute Jews fleeing tsarist pogroms out of Britain. A confirmed cynic, he nevertheless held a few beliefs, one of which was the utility to the British Empire, and the moral rightness, of Zionism, a cause to which he was enlisted by Chaim Weizmann. In spite of this belief, Balfour was clear-eyed regarding the implications of his government’s actions that others preferred to pretend did not exist.”

Khalidi displays much anger as well with the ineptitude and repeated failures of the official Palestinian leadership, whether those of the PLO or Hamas. That is in sharp contrast with his admiration of the grassroots leadership of the First Intifada before it was overtaken and replaced by PLO functionaries. He duly credits the PLO for putting Palestine on the world map again. But he faults its leaders, especially Arafat, for his lack of attention to the needed task of explaining the Palestinian cause to the American public as per the advice of Edward Said and his fellow expert academicians. Of special significance, Khalidi points out, was ignoring the expert advice from a partisan third-world revolutionary intellectual, Eqbal Ahmad, a friend of Edward Said and an associate of Fanon with links to the Algerian revolutionary forces. In the 1980s, Ahmad counseled the PLO to end its reliance on violent resistance to little effect. This all led to the PLO falling victim to America’s collusion with Israel while claiming to be an impartial mediator. The PLO found itself negotiating with Israel through multiple channels and ending with Israeli manipulated Oslo-I and Oslo-II, agreements that Palestinians should have read through as chocolate-covered capitulations. Especially Mahmoud Abbas comes for derision for playing the role of an underpaid subcontractor to the Israeli occupier.

Then there is Britain’s practice of its standard tactic of divide and rule tested and improved over centuries in its colonies of Ireland, India, and Egypt. That together with the Jewish Agency’s means and expertise in such ploys and the latter’s success should not have surprised anyone. Till that time the Zionist project was supported, protected and promoted by Britain and it had already developed a state within a state with the military support of the masters as per the vision of Jabotinsky. After the Palestinian revolt and Britain’s White Paper that envisioned some control on Jewish immigration, and with the USA gaining greater prominence on the world stage, the Zionist leadership shifted its focus to gaining American support. President Truman’s sober weighing of options and electioneering politics worked in their favor and that was never really reversed to any significant degree till the present. This, the author sees as one side of the U.S.’s committed support and sponsorship of Israel, past and present. The other side is the failure of the Palestinian leadership to address itself to the American public, an arena that has been fully dominated by clever Zionist propaganda.

The last chapter in this book of witnessed historical accounts and enlightening deep analysis is entitled “Conclusion: A Century of War on the Palestinians.” It is the best argument I have read for BDS and its logically attendant one-state solution, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, a utopian solution originally advocated by the PLO in the 1980s. In looking to the future, and based on historical examples, Khalidi points to three theoretical possibilities: driving out the colonialists as happened in the case of the French in Algeria, ethnic cleansing or genocidal war against the remaining natives as was done to Native Americans, or seeking a form of just reconciliation. The author doesn’t even allude to the first option in the case at hand while dismissing the second based on the proven Palestinian resistance and perseverance and on Israel’s inability to hide such acts from the world. That leaves the only reasonable hope in bringing about a compromise of coexistence similar to what happened in Ireland and South Africa, ergo the one-secular-and-democratic-state. My only reservation relates to Khalidi’s doubts regarding the likelihood of the continued ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Leaving aside for the moment Israel’s military handling of Gaza and its settlers and armed forces oppression of Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem, there is an ongoing threat of the removal of Palestinian citizens of Israel. The ominous Deal of the Century, for example, includes border adjustments to deprive quite a number of Palestinians of their Israeli citizenship. Not only that but leaked military documents confirm the existence of contingency plans for driving out of our community members across the border to Arab countries in the case of war. The continued lurch of most of the Jewish Israelis to the right with open hostility to Palestinians is reaching dangerous levels, Israel is not above starting wars, the neighbors to the north are sufficiently vilified to deserve a war and the media, national and international, has proven partial enough to Israel not to be trusted.

Apropos of which I would like to have read Khalidi’s recollections and analysis of two historical events of special relevance to shaping the civil and political life of my community, the Palestinian citizens of Israel: the Kufr-Qassim Massacre on the eve of the 1956 Suez War and the 1976 Land Day Intifada. Still, I doubt if my experience of reading this great intellectual contribution could have been any more enriching.

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I’ve put it on hold at the library (which is closed now, due to Covid 19). I’ve read so much that I wondered if it would be worth the time, but you’ve convinced me.

Sounds like a must-read. This touched a nerve with me: “But he faults its leaders, especially Arafat, for his lack of attention to the needed task of explaining the Palestinian cause to the American public as per the advice of Edward Said and his fellow expert academicians.” As one whose understanding of the invasion and dispossession came late – mostly through the good work of the “new Historians” I often wonder how it was that… Read more »

Brewer, “I can now see how Arafat and his confreres, living in the midst of it, could believe it so obvious as to need no explanation. They probably had no idea of the extent of the distortion and persuasiveness of the Zionist controlled media.” This is a plausible explanation but it doesn’t correspond entirely to fact. Arafat (+ Fatah) and most of the PLO (except the few Mossad-infested crazies who specialized in “publicity by terrorist… Read more »

All of this brings to mind what really happened during the Camp David Summit (July 11-25, 2000): Briefly – “Clinton and his negotiators were so eager, in pursuit of Israel’s interests and of Clinton’s much-ballyhooed ‘legacy,’ to forge a peace agreement at all costs before the end of his term, and were so outraged when the Palestinians refused to relinquish their hope for true independence and sovereignty by complying with Israel’s inadequate offer at Camp… Read more »

“My only reservation relates to Khalidi’s doubts regarding the likelihood of the continued ethnic cleansing of Palestinians” Thank you for this thoughtful intervention, Dr. Kanaaneh. There is not a shred of any fact that could support this too widespread belief, with no basis in any fact, that the Zionist “dare not” exterminate the owners of the country, the only obstacle to their ideological madness. Evidence abounds, though, to suggest that it is highly possible; that’s… Read more »