Reading "The Hundred Years' War on Palestine" by Rashid Khalidi
Updated: Jan 7
This book by Palestinian-American historian Rashid Khalidi is an attempt to cast the entirety of Zionist and Israeli history as a settler-colonial war on the indigenous Arab population of Palestine. Zionism thus shares many similarities with some other notable settler-colonial projects throughout history, such as the British in the Ireland, Australasia and North America - eventually spawning the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and attaching Northern Ireland to the United Kingdom - as well as the failed French project in Algeria.
The point of Khalidi's narrative is to displace widespread conceptions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as being one of two equals trapped in the same land, or one of "right vs. right". Zionist settlers, and their Israeli successors, were through-and-through colonialists, imposing control over a foreign land and the inhabitants within it: the Arabs who would develop a national identity as Palestinians. Therefore, Khalidi frames the conflict as a hundred years' war on Palestine, rather than a war in Palestine.
The book, with its grand sweep of a hundred years of history in only 250 pages, is a portrayal of this settler-colonial project and a narrative of how we got to where we are today: an interminable stalemate characterised by incredible Israeli advantage and a fractured Palestinian population living under military occupation. In other words, it seeks to explain why the Israelis did so well and the Palestinians did so badly.
In my reading, there are two overarching reasons, the most prominent of them being the steadfast backing of Zionism and Israel by the predominant imperial powers of the age, whether they be Great Britain in the 1930s, US and Soviet support for Israeli statehood in 1947/48, France and Britain in the 1950s and 60s, and staunch US military, economic and diplomatic support from the 1970s to this day.
However, Khalidi also points to the ineptitude and the poorly-conceived strategies of Palestinian groups such as Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), or Hamas (whose violent tactics Khalidi deplores). Prominent among these failures was a refusal to pay sufficient attention to American and world public opinion, as well as the ways in which the Palestinians might influence it.
Before venturing into these topics in more detail, it is worth emphasising the very personal touch that Khalidi lends this book. It is often written in the first-person, outlining the experiences of both Rashid Khalidi himself and those of his family. Hence, the wider story of Zionist/Israeli settler-colonialism and Palestinian resistance is tightly interwoven with his own. It is also worth exploring further the theme of denying the existence of the Palestinians as a nation, a long thread in Zionism that Khalidi highlights as a key colonial trait.
I. Khalidi's Story
II. No Such Thing as Palestinians?
III. The Largesse of Great Powers
IV. The Failures of Palestinian Leaders
I. Khalidi's Story
I.I: Yusuf Diya al-Din Pasha al-Khalidi
Rashid Khalidi is not a detached, impassionate observer, and neither does he pretend to be. Indeed, he makes clear that he and his family have been deeply involved in the struggle against Zionism since the birth of Zionism itself. Near the beginning of the book, we are introduced to Yusuf Diya al-Din Pasha al-Khalidi, an Ottoman government official in Jerusalem and Rashid Khalidi's great-great-great uncle. After the Austro-Hungarian journalist Theodor Herzl effectively launched modern political Zionism with his 1896 book The Jewish State, Yusuf Diya quickly realised that there was "no way to reconcile Zionism's claims on Palestine and its explicit aim of Jewish statehood and sovereignty there with the rights and well-being of the country's indigenous inhabitants" (p.2).
Therefore, in 1899, Yusuf Diya replied with a letter addressed to Herzl that warned that Zionism would inevitably come up against the "brutal force of circumstances", the most important being that "Palestine is an integral part of the Ottoman empire [hence, evidently, Yusuf Diya was not an anti-Ottoman Palestinian nationalist], and more gravely, it is inhabited by others". Moreover, the Zionist project would disrupt the balance in the Middle East between Christians, Jews and Muslims, imperilling the "status and security" that Jews had enjoyed within the Ottoman empire. He concluded by pleading with Herzl to "in the name of God, let Palestine be left alone" (p.5).
In his swift reply, Herzl employed a justification that has been a "touchstone for colonialists at all times and in all places": he wrote that "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 happy result" thus "It is their well-being, their individual wealth, which we will increase by bringing in our own". Hence, through economic development, the indigenous population would be made to acquiesce to the Zionist project (pp.6,7).
Herzl had also developed ideas about the way in which Jewish settlers would come to take over the land. As he wrote in his diary in 1895:
"We must expropriate gently the private property on the estates assigned to us. We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it employment in our country. The property owners will come over to our side. Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly" (p.4)
As Rashid Khalidi notes, Herzl's thinking appears to have been "based on the assumption that the Arabs could ultimately be bribed or fooled into ignoring what the Zionist movement actually intended for Palestine", a "condescending attitude toward the intelligence, not to speak of the rights, of the Arab population of Palestine" that was to be "serially repeated by Zionist, British, European and American leaders in the decades that followed, down to the present day" (pp.7,8).
I.II: Husayn Fakhri al-Khalidi
Several decades later, Rashid Khalidi's uncle, Husayn al-Khalidi, played a key role in representing the Arab population of Palestine during the great Arab Revolt of 1936-39 against the British occupation authorities in Palestine and their support of Zionist causes. This "popular and spontaneous explosion" eventually led to the creation of an "Arab Higher Committee" which was set up to "lead and represent the entire Arab majority", and on which Husayn served (in addition to serving as Jerusalem's elected mayor for three years before his removal by the British) (p.43).
In his memoirs, Husayn recalls meeting the commander of British forces in Palestine, Major General Sir John Dill, who wanted to know, "what would be the effect of arresting the Arab leadership?" Would it end the revolt, or merely intensify it? Husayn forcefully argued the latter, impressing on the general that the violence would merely "accelerate and spiral out of control" (p.45).
He was eventually proved right; in October 1937, the British authorities outlawed the Arab Higher Committee and arrested several political leaders, including Husayn al-Khalidi himself. He was deported into exile in the Seychelles and only freed in December 1938, just in time for a February 1939 conference in London where he was to represent the Arabs of Palestine. Meanwhile, the Arab Revolt grew to its most intense phase, with the British "los[ing] control of several urban areas and much of the countryside" - it was eventually put down using the "full might" of the British empire, which was possible only after the September 1938 Munich agreement made available British troops in Europe (pp.45,46).
I.III: Ismail Raghib al-Khalidi
The political involvement of Rashid's father, Ismail al-Khalidi, dates back at least to November 1947, when his brother Husayn tasked him with delivering a certainly unwelcome message to King Abdullah of Transjordan*. King Abdullah had offered to extend his "tutelage" to the Palestinian people should they eventually escape British control. However, Husayn now instructed Ismail to refused King Abdullah's offer, stating that the Palestinians wished instead to control their own fate. The King received the message with anger and surprise, saying "You Palestinians have refused my offer. You deserve what happens to you" (pp.57,58).
* Renamed "Jordan" in 1949
As it turns out, their meeting on November 29th, 1947, took place on the same day as the United Nations General Assembly voted on a partition plan for Palestine - Resolution 181. Arab and Palestinian rejection of the plan led to civil war between Arab and Zionist militias in late 1947, culminating in a wider Arab-Israeli war after March 1948 upon the creation of the State of Israel and the entry of the militaries of Egypt, Iraq, Transjordan and Syria. The result was a resounding Zionist/Israeli victory, in which the State of Israel expanded past the borders described in Resolution 181, more than 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from this enlarged state (according to Rashid Khalidi and other historians, depopulation was a key objective of the Haganah militia's Plan Dalet in the spring of 1948 (pp.72,73)), and the new Israeli military delivered a decisive defeat on the combined militaries of the Arab belligerents. Meanwhile, the remaining land allocated to the hypothetical Arab state in Palestine was absorbed by Transjordan and Egypt in the West Bank and Gaza Strip respectively. Jordan formally annexed its part in 1950.
Twenty years later, and Ismail al-Khalidi was working in the Political and Security Council Affairs division of the United Nations in New York. Hence, he sat in on all UN Security Council deliberations involving the Middle East, including those that took place during the June 1967 war in which Israel managed to conquer territory from Syria, Egypt and Jordan. Following these deliberations was a key formative experience for his son Rashid, who was accompanying him at the time (p.101, Section III.II).
I.III: Rashid and Mona Khalidi
Both Rashid and his wife Mona were working in Beirut in 1982. Rashid held a post at the American University of Beirut, where he had been teaching since 1976. Mona was working at WAFA - the PLO's Palestine News Agency - as the chief editor of its English-language bulletin (p.140). Hence, they, as well as their two young daughters and unborn son, experienced first-hand the savage Israeli invasion of Lebanon and siege of Beirut in the summer of 1982, in which, in the space of ten weeks, more than 19,000 Palestinians and Lebanese were killed, with more than 30,000 wounded, mostly civilians (p.143). This experience traumatised the Khalidi family - especially the girls, who thereafter "went into a wild panic when they heard the screeching rumble of trolley cars in an adjacent street, thinking they were Israeli tanks" (p.163). In the end, it was the massacre of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps that drove them to flee Lebanon (p.162, Section III.III).
Rashid remained involved in political activities after the war. For instance, in 1984, he participated in a delegation that went to visit Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to convince him of the importance of communicating with the American and European publics - to no avail (p.120, Section IV.II). Rashid Khalidi also found himself in the Palestinian delegation at the Madrid peace talks in October 1991, where he learned first hand the obstacles facing the PLO in their diplomatic endeavour with Israel (p.185).
Hence, Khalidi approached this book as one who has fought for Palestinian national rights for most of his life, and whose family has opposed Zionism since its origins. This is not the work of a dispassionate observer, and Khalidi has no issues admitting that. After all, a "Palestinian" perspective is the only way to reclaim the long-lost "permission to narrate" (in Edward Said's phrase, p.118), of the Palestinian people, a condition exacerbated by the denial of Palestinian national identity itself.
II. No Such Thing as Palestinians?
The historian Timothy Snyder once remarked that "the whole history of colonialism … involves denying that another people is real". He was talking about Russia's current assault on Ukraine, but the point arguably applies to Zionist and Israeli efforts to deny Palestinian identity, the most infamous example of which is then-Prime Minister Golda Meir's assertion in 1969 that in years prior, "There were no such thing as Palestinians" (p.106).
However, of course, denial or dismissal of Palestinian national identity and aspiration was nothing new. After all, the Balfour Declaration of November 1917 - which pledged British support for the "establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people", stated only that "nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights [i.e., not national or political rights] of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine". Hence, the Arab majority in Palestine - which at the time comprised 94 percent of the population - was mentioned merely in a backhanded way and "in terms of what they were not, and certainly not as a nation or a people" (p.24).
In a September 1919 cabinet memo, foreign secretary Lord Arthur Balfour himself stated frankly that "in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country ... The four Great Powers are committed to Zionism. And Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land". Here was a remarkably honest admission of the ultimately dismissive attitude of the British toward the Arabs of Palestine (p.38).
Did "Palestinians" in fact exist as a nation during this period? For Khalidi, the answer is a somewhat qualified "yes". He rejects the idea that the Arabs of Palestine had always constituted a "Palestinian" nation - this national identity arose as a "product of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century circumstances" and was not "eternal and immutable". Hence, just like in the case of Zionism, the phenomenon of Palestinian nationalism was "modern and contingent" (p.31). In fact, he points out that "Palestinians ... today consider themselves a people with national links to what is indeed their ancestral homeland, for reasons that are as arbitrary and as conjunctural as those that led to Zionism, as arbitrary as any of the reasons that led to the emergence of scores of modern national movements" (p.245).
Nevertheless, in the early twentieth century, modern Palestinian nationalism did arise. In the aftermath of World War I, Woodrow Wilson's (largely empty) proclamation of the principle of national self-determination dovetailed with the collapse of the Ottoman empire, and its replacement by independent Arab regimes, as well as continued British control of Palestine to produce a distinct Palestinian identity. Hence, there was a distinct shift away from conceiving of Palestine as "an integral part of the Ottoman empire", in Yusuf Diya's formulation.
This shift could be witnessed in the Palestinian press at the time, with newspapers such as Filastin and al-Karmil evincing increasingly frequent use of the terms "Palestine" and "Palestinians" (p.29). Moreover, Palestinian national identity only strengthened with the British Mandate and its support of Zionism, which united the Arabs of Palestine in their political opposition against British rule (pp.31,33). Hence, the evidence flies in the face of the "popular mythology" of the conflict, in which Palestinian identity is merely an expression of "an unreasoning (if not fanatical) opposition to Jewish national self-determination". On the contrary, Palestinian nationalism arose in response to many stimuli, and at almost the same time as political Zionism. Opposition to Zionism was one of these stimuli, but they also included "love of country, a desire to improve society, religious attachment to Palestine, and opposition to European control" in a similar vein to other Arab national identities that developed in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq (pp.30,31).
Nonetheless, dismissal of the Palestinians remained a recurring thread in the decades afterward. A particularly striking example is the UN General Assembly's Resolution 242, which provided a framework between Israel and surrounding Arab states after the June 1967 war. The Resolution, which linked Israeli withdrawal from its recently occupied territories to the creation of "secure and recognized boundaries" for all the states in the region, was an exclusively state-to-state matter between the Arab countries and Israel, with no mention of "Palestine" or the Palestinians, despite the fact that it was the Palestinians who were suddenly tossed from one occupation regime to another. Hence, the Palestinian people could be "treated as no more than a nuisance, or at best as a humanitarian issue", but not as a people with national rights* (pp.105,106).
* An irony of this is that the 1967 war and Israeli's subsequent occupation of the Palestinian territories triggered "an extraordinary resurgence of Palestinian national consciousness [which had faltered after the crushing of the 1936-39 revolt] and resistance to Israel's negation of Palestinian identity" (p.109).
The ability of Israel and its Arab neighbours (such as Jordan) to impose this condition on the Palestinians arises from Israel's enduring position of strength in the region, itself a product of the stark disparity between the level of external support granted the Palestinians and that which as been lavished on Israel and its Zionist predecessors from great powers throughout the twentieth century.
III. The Largesse of Great Powers
III.I: British Support
This pattern of great power support arguably began with British backing for a Jewish "national home" in Palestine during World War I, stated clearly in the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and implemented by the British Mandatory authorities thereafter. Several reasons are generally invoked to explain this stance, including the strategic importance to the British Empire of Egypt and the Suez Canal (which necessitated British control of Palestine), British hopes that support for Zionism would convince American and Russian Jews to keep their respective countries in the war, sympathy for the Jews amid persecution in Europe, and the inherent pro-Zionist stance of men in the British political establishment of the time. However, Khalidi makes clear that the Balfour Declaration was not a mere outgrowth of sympathy for the persecuted Jews - after all, it was during Lord Balfour's tenure as prime minister that the British government authored the 1905 Aliens Act*, meant "primarily to keep destitute Jews fleeing tsarist pogroms out of Britain" (p.37). * Similarly, in America, the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 stifled immigration from Eastern Europe, making it effectively impossible for Jews to seek refuge in the United States.
Nevertheless, British support for Zionism was strong during the years of its post-war Mandatory rule in Palestine. One result was unfettered Jewish immigration and land purchases (mostly from absentee landlords (p.27)), such that the Jewish population as a proportion of the total population of Palestine grew from 6 percent in 1918 to 18 percent by 1926, then to more than 30 percent by 1939 (p.40). In this trend, Zionist leaders were able to foresee the great success of their project, with David Ben-Gurion, soon to be the first prime minister of Israel, stating that "immigration at a rate of 60,000 a year means a Jewish state in all Palestine" (p.41). Incidentally, the Palestinians agreed, and this sparked a spontaneous revolt in 1936 whose suppression was largely the work of the British.
However, in the aftermath of World War II, power over the Middle East began to shift from the British to the Americans. One case in point was the formation of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry in 1946, established to "consider the urgent and pitiful situation of Jewish Holocaust survivors", many of whom were still confined to displaced-persons camps in Europe. Despite British concerns about antagonising the Palestinian Arabs, the committee eventually endorsed the Truman administration's preference for the admission of a hundred thousand Jewish refugees to Palestine (with both nations reluctant to absorb the refugees themselves) (pp.61,62).
III.II: The Origins of US Support
Hence, the end of British supremacy and the arrival of the superpowers on the world stage did not herald an end to great power support of Zionism, but rather "a new phase of the colonial assault on Palestine" (p.59). The November 29th, 1947 partition plan for Palestine - which assigned 56 percent of territory to a Jewish state, leaving the rest for an Arab state as well as internationalised Jerusalem - was supported in the UN General Assembly by both the United States and the Soviet Union, each for their own unique reasons.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
The partition plan for Palestine under UN General Assembly Resolution 181, passed on November 29th, 1947.
The Soviet leadership had "expected that Israel would serve as a progressive counterweight to what Moscow saw as Britain's pawns, the reactionary British-aligned Arab monarchies of Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, and that it would fully align with the USSR". Of course, this proved to be a false hope, with Israel first choosing neutrality during the Korean War, then aligning with Britain and France against a new Soviet ally, Egypt, in 1956. Hence, it did not take long for Israeli-Soviet relations to cool considerably (p.78).
On the other hand, Israel's close relationship with the United States would prove to be enduring and highly significant. Before and during the war, support for Zionism was strong among America's Jewish and Christian communities - especially so after revelations of the horrors of the Holocaust proved "decisive in confirming the validity of the Zionists' call for a Jewish state and in discomfiting and silencing their opponents, within the Jewish community and outside it". Truman was ever-conscious of the political stakes involved in supporting Zionism. When warned by a group of US diplomats that an overtly pro-Zionist policy would harm US interests in the Arab world, he said "I am sorry, gentlemen ... but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism. I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents" (p.79).
Moreover, despite the initial resistance to a strongly pro-Zionist policy of many top US officials such as George Marshall or Dean Acheson - for fear that it would jeopardise US "strategic, economic and oil interests" in the region - the outlook of US officialdom suddenly changed in light of Israel's stunning military victories in the 1948 war. Thereafter, the Pentagon came to see Israel as a powerful potential ally in the Middle East, a region strategically vital for the United States due to "Cold War considerations and [its] vast energy resources". In addition, the absence of any protest mounted by Saudi Arabia during the 1948 war convinced the US oil establishment that support for Israel would not threaten their interests. As a result, US policymakers, military officers and oil companies "quickly came to appreciate the possible utility of the Jewish state for US interests in the region" (p.80).
However, the United States would not begin to lavish on Israel the astonishing political and economic support of later years until the early 1970s. Indeed, at many points until then, US policy was diametrically opposed to that of Israel, including during the 1956 Suez crisis when US pressure forced a humiliating retreat for the Israeli invasion of Egypt, which was supported by Britain and France. Nevertheless, further Egyptian and Syrian alignment with the Soviet Union combined with yet another stunning Israeli performance in 1967 to shift the US and Israel even closer together.
Even during the June 1967 war itself, the United States was already making its support felt in more subtle ways. The war broke out when Rashid Khalidi's father was working at the United Nations, reporting on the deliberations of its Security Council. By June 9th, the fifth day of the war, the Israeli military had already defeated the Egyptian and Jordanian armies and occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Sinai Peninsula, and Arab East Jerusalem, and was now storming through the Golan Heights, on the way to the Syrian capital, Damascus. The Soviets, who were this point, "desperate to protect their Syrian clients from further reverses", attempted to institute a ceasefire. However, despite the urgency of the situation, in the afternoon, the United States' Ambassador Arthur Goldberg asked for an adjournment of two hours. When the young Rashid demanded to know why the council had agreed to further delay, his father replied, "Don't you understand? ... The Americans are giving the Israelis a little more time". He had thus witnessed the emergence of a "new Middle East axis" whereby "the armored spearheads on the ground were Israeli, while the diplomatic cover was American" (p.101).
Hence, by now, the United States was squarely on the side of Israel, having abandoned the "semblance of balance" shown at times by previous administrations. It was all based "essentially on Israel showing itself in 1967 as a reliable partner against perceived Soviet proxies in the Middle East". In the aftermath of the war, the United States was a key proponent of UN Resolution 242, which exacerbated the situation of the Palestinians by "confining the conflict to its post-1948 state-to-state dimensions" which made it possible to "split the challenges facing Israel into separate bilateral state-to-state compartments, each of which could be dealt with in isolation, as Israel and the United States preferred". This is what happened in the end. Arab states eventually signed bilateral peace treaties with Israel (Egypt in 1979, Jordan in 1994, and the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco in 2020), yet without tackling any of the fundamental issues concerning the Palestinians, such as the right to return of the refugees of 1948 (p.107).
III.II: US Support in Lebanon
US support for Israel was again forthcoming during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. This particular invasion was only the latest in a pattern of increasing Israeli intervention in Lebanon throughout the 1970s. After 1967, Palestinian guerrillas were forced to set up base in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and launch attacks against Israel from Jordanian territory (which inevitably drew Israeli retaliation). However, Jordan's King Hussein came to fear the growing independent power of the PLO in his country, and chafed at Palestinian excesses, including a set of hijackings undertaken by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in which the hijackers landed the planes in Jordan, took the passengers hostage and blew up the planes in front of the international press. In response, in September 1970, the Jordanian army launched a major attack on the Palestinians, killing thousands of them and driving the PLO out of Jordan, after which they planted themselves in Lebanon.
Hence, Israel developed a keen interest in its northern neighbour. Its long-term involvement in Lebanon would allow it to achieve key objectives: "acquire Lebanese clients, develop a new sphere of influence, and weaken Syria and its allies*". This included providing support, including arms and training, to the PLO's enemies within Lebanon - most notably the "Lebanese Forces" militia, which received $118.5 million of equipment from Israel - as well as conducting attacks themselves, including car bombings and assassinations, against Palestinian leaders (p.131). Foremost among the atrocities perpetrated by the Lebanese Forces in this period was the August 1976 massacre of around two thousand Palestinian civilians in the refugee camp of Tal al-Za'tar, in which the Israelis were complicit**. Not only was the massacre carried out with weapons provided and forces trained by Israel - Israeli intelligence officers were even present at the command posts from which the operations were directed (p.130). There, they were joined by the intelligence officers from the Syrian armed forces, which in May 1976 had invaded Lebanon and attacked the PLO after the United States managed to persuade Israel not to oppose the invasion (which was undertaken in order to "break the back of the PLO", in Henry Kissinger's formulation).
* The Syrians were developing their own sphere of influence in Lebanon.
** After the September 1982 massacre of more than a thousand Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut - in which Israeli forces were complicit - then-Defence Minister Ariel Sharon came under parliamentary attacks by the opposition Labour Party. However, Sharon riposted that because the Labour Party had been in power in 1976, "You and us are acting according to the same moral principles ... The Phalangists [the political party behind the Lebanese Forces] murdered in Shatila and the Phalangists murdered in Tal Za'atar ... You supported them and continued to do so after Tal Za'atar" (p.130).
At the same time, the PLO was launching attacks from Lebanon on northern Israel - aimed primarily at civilian areas such as villages - and these provided ample opportunity for Israel to strike back. It did so on multiple occasions before 1982, most significantly in the March 1978 "Litani Operation", in which the Israeli military invaded southern Lebanon and attacked the PLO in response to the murder of 38 Israeli civilians - including 13 children - during a bus hijacking near Tel Aviv by Palestinian militants. However, by this time, the PLO had "built up such a position of strength in Lebanon both politically and militarily" that "limited operations of this nature had made only a minimal impact". Therefore, something grander had to be done (p.142).
According to Khalidi, the primary aim of the invasion in 1982 was to cripple the PLO in order to benefit the situation inside Palestine. This was the chief objective of Defence Minister Sharon, even though the apparent objective was to install an allied government in Beirut. The idea was that "destroying the PLO militarily and eliminating its power in Lebanon would also put an end to the strength of Palestinian nationalism in the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem". These areas would then "become far easier for Israel to control and ultimately annex" (p.142). As IDF general Mordechai Gur put it at the time to a secret session of a Knesset committee, in "the Occupied Territories ... the idea was to limit the [PLO] leadership's influence in order to provide us with greater freedom of action" (p.143).
The Reagan Administration supported these objectives. On May 25th, 1982 - a mere ten days before the invasion began - Sharon laid out his war plans to US Secretary of State Alexander Haig, giving him a "much fuller picture [even] than he later presented to the Israeli cabinet". He explained that Israeli forces would "eradicate the PLO presence" in Lebanon - including all military and political structures - in addition to expelling Syria from Lebanon "as a byproduct"; the result would be the installation of a puppet Lebanese government. To this, Haig gave a green light. Thus, Israel - wary of repeating the disaster of Suez - could not have carried out its invasion without the "explicit assent" of Haig, or the United States' "diplomatic and military support", as well as the "utter passivity of the Arab governments" (p.151).
The Americans were also tragically complicit in the Sabra and Shatila massacres of September 1982. To obtain the PLO's agreement to leave Beirut, US special envoy Philip Habib gave the PLO solemn, non-binding pledges, "typed on plain paper without letterhead, signatures, or identification" regarding the safety of Palestinians residing in Beirut's refugee camps. An August 18th note pledged that "Law-abiding Palestinian non-combatants remaining in Beirut, including the families of those who have departed, will be authorized to live in peace and security. The Lebanese and US governments will provide appropriate security guarantees ... on the basis of assurances received from the government of Israel and from the leaders of certain Lebanese groups with which it has been in contact" (p.155).
It was on the basis of these written guarantees, which the PLO interpreted as binding commitments, that they agreed to evacuate Beirut. Nevertheless, under the pretext that Palestinian fighters and heavy weapons remained in the city, the Israelis sent the Lebanese Forces into the Sabra and Shatila camps on September 16-18th, whereupon they proceeded to slaughter more than a thousand defenceless civilians, aided by Israeli troops firing flares above the camps at night to illuminate the scene for the attackers (p.158).
III.III: US Support in Washington
While American backing was apparent enough in times of war, it manifested itself just as clearly in the diplomatic arena. By late 1991, several factors (see Section IV.III) had pushed the Israelis and Palestinians to kick-start a negotiated peace process. The initial "peace conference" was held in Madrid, with talks being held in Washington from December 1991 onwards, talks in which Rashid Khalidi participated directly on the Palestinian side.
The talks were officially co-sponsored by the United States and the (now collapsing) Soviet Union. However, Khalidi came away from the experience concluding that rather than being the neutral, honest broker it pretended to be, the United States tilted the negotiations heavily in favour of Israel, acting instead as "Israel's lawyer" - to borrow a phrase used by one of the American negotiators himself (p.189).
Indeed, US backing of Israeli objectives - whether they concerned security or territory - was codified in a letter sent by President Gerald Ford to Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in September 1975. The letter pledged further US military aid, with the view to "maintain[ing] Israel's defensive strength", and this included F-16 fighter jets and Pershing ground-to-ground missiles. However, most strikingly, the letter reaffirmed that in the context of negotiations, "Should the U.S. desire ... to put forward proposals of its own", it would "make every effort to coordinate with Israel its proposals with a view to refraining from putting forth proposals that Israel would consider unsatisfactory". Hence, rather than pursuing a middle ground between Israel and the Palestinians, the United States would sit squarely on the side of Israel.
None of the Palestinians at Madrid knew of this commitment. In fact, Khalidi asserts that "Had I known how heavily the deck was stacked and that the United States was bound in this way by a formal commitment - which meant that Israel effectively determined both its own position and that of its sponsor - I probably would not have gone to Madrid or spent much of the next two years engaged in the Washington talks" (pp.187,188).
In fact at some points, the American position was even more staunchly pro-Israeli than that of the Israelis themselves. In this regard, Khalidi singles out Dennis Ross, an American negotiator whom a State Department official described as being prone to "preemptive capitulation to [Israeli] red lines". Indeed, Ross and his colleagues faithfully "accepted Israel's stated public positions as the limit of what was admissible in terms of US policy". In the case of Dennis Ross himself, he would even formulate his own assessments of what Israel would not accept, and therefore would the "US could not countenance". These assessments were often more extreme than the reality. For example, he deemed the direct involvement of the PLO in negotiations as unacceptable to Israel (initially, the Palestinians in Washington were tied to the Jordanian delegation), even though Rabin had in fact already agreed to this. In another instance, during stalemate in the negotiations, the US offered to put forward a "bridging proposal", yet this "bridging" position - presented by Ross - was in fact "even less forthcoming than the last position informally put forward by the Israelis themselves" (pp.191,192).
In fact, when the Israelis and the PLO finally struck an agreement at Oslo - in a separate and far more discreet diplomatic track - the Americans were incredulous that the Israelis had accepted such a deal at all. The informal agreement - which would be officially signed in September 1993 - provided for security cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian forces in managing affairs in the Occupied Territories, essentially enlisting the PLO as a "subcontractor for the occupation" (p.205). Even though Khalidi considers the Oslo Accord (and its successor Oslo II) a historic failure for the Palestinians, this agreement still went beyond anything the Americans thought the Israelis would accept, with their belief that "the Israelis would never deal directly with the PLO, let alone allow PLA [Palestine Liberation Army] forces into the Occupied Territories to take charge of security" (p.198). Hence, Rabin and his negotiators were shown to be more pragmatic even than their putative American sponsors.
Since then, US support for Israel has remained steadfast, reaching its apex during the administration of Donald Trump, who moved the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and recognised the city as its capital - as well as recognising Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights*, territory occupied from Syria since 1967. At the same time, there are many segments of American society shifting toward a stance more supportive of the Palestinians - Khalidi singles out in particular the younger, more liberal segments of the Democratic Party, which represent the party's future (p.229). Hence, only time can tell what the future trajectory of the special relationship will look like.
* That being said, even as early as 1975, Ford pledged in his letter to Rabin that the United States will "give great weight to Israel's position that any peace agreement with Syria must be predicated on Israel remaining on the Golan Heights".
Nevertheless, alongside the consistent support of the great powers, the success of Zionsism and Israel could be attributed partially to the constant missteps and failures of Palestinian leaders, about which Khalidi is searingly critical.
IV: The Failures of Palestinian Leaders
Since the days of the British Mandate, the Palestinians have been plagued by two primary ills: disorganisation, disarray and infighting between them, and a fundamental lack of understanding about the wider world and how to communicate with it.
Before the emergence of the State of Israel in May 1948, the Jewish Agency - the primary organisation in charge of the Jewish community in Palestine - had already constructed a "well-developed para-state", meaning that they already possessed the centralised organisation of a state before independence. In contrast, the Palestinians "had not developed effective Arab allies or the apparatus of a modern state". Indeed Palestinian "disarray in regard to institution-building was profound" (pp.62,63).
One case in point was the development of the Arab National Fund in 1946 - a sort of state treasury intended as a counterpart to the Jewish National Fund (which was by then almost half a century old). Its first director-general, Yusif Sayigh, recalled the perennial difficulties faced by the new organisation. It drew largely from the relatively poor Palestinian population. Thus in its first year of operation the Fund managed to raise about $700,000, in contrast to the $3.5 million that the JNF managed to raise annually in the United States alone (when a member of the ANF boasted to the press about the $700,000 figure, it learnt the next day of a gift of $4 million given to the JNF by a rich Jewish widow in South Africa). Hence, the Palestinians' disorganisation merely exacerbated the already-uneven playing field (p.63).
Sayigh was equally critical of the Arab Higher Committee - the executive body formed during the 1936-39 Arab Revolt. The committee lacked an effective bureaucratic apparatus, as evidenced when it suddenly faced the task of "documenting the Palestinian case" to the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry (see Section III.I). According to Sayigh:
"Now the Arab Higher Commitee realized it didn't have the intellectual skills among its members. Indeed it had no structure at all. When Jamal Husseini [an AHC leader] left the office in the afternoon, he locked the door and put the key in his pocket. There was no secretariat, absolutely no secretariat. One or two people to make coffee. Not even a secretary who would take notes or type. It was that empty, the whole thing" (p.64).
Compounding this difficulty was the disparity between the Palestinians and the Zionist movement in their understanding of world politics and foreign political systems. The Zionists were able to apply a "highly developed understanding of global politics", drawing on their membership of "well-educated, assimilating Jews" such as Theodor Herzl, as well as "deep roots and extensive connections in the United States" (as evidenced by the success of their fundraising efforts). Meanwhile, "no members of the Palestinian leadership had ever visited the United States". Therefore, Khalidi draws a sharp contrast between the "sophisticated grasp the Zionist leadership had of European and other Western societies, of which most of them were natives or citizens" and the shortcomings of Arab and Palestinian leaders, who possessed "at best a limited understanding of the politics, societies, and cultures of the countries of Europe, to say nothing of the nascent superpowers" (p.70).
The results of this disparity, along with the perennial fragmentation and infighting of the Palestinian leadership, was decisive in 1948. The Palestinians entered the conflict "woefully unprepared both politically and militarily", backed only by the "deeply divided and unstable Arab states, still under the influence of the old colonial powers, and which had poor and largely illiterate populations". In contrast, the Zionists possessed robust "international standing" as well as a "strong, modern para-state built up by the Zionist movement over several decades" (p.70).
This disparity narrowed somewhat in the years after 1967. One of the ironic results of the Arab states' crushing defeat in that war was the revitalisation of a strong Palestinian movement, culminating in the emergence of several Palestinian militant groups, most notably Fatah, which pooled together in the Palestine Liberation Organisation*. As a consequence, and due to certain other factors - such as the increasing presence of the Third World as a whole in organisations such as UN** - the Palestinians began to gain more traction in the international media, most prominently in the developing world but also to a lesser extent in Europe and the United States. For a time, this threatened to unseat Israel's "omnipresent narrative in the West, in which the Palestinians scarcely figured except as villains", and in which the term "Palestinian" was indelibly connected with "terrorism and hatred" (pp.117,118).
* The PLO was originally formed by the Arab League, under Egyptian leadership, in 1964 as a "tightly controlled subsidiary of Egyptian foreign policy that would channel and manage Palestinian enthusiasm for striking against Israel", which provoked Israeli retaliation against its Arab neighbours. However, this attempt to retain control unravelled and after 1967, these militant Palestinian groups took over the PLO and sidelined its Egypt-oriented leadership (p.116).
** Khalidi notes that the 1960s was an era in which national liberation movements in the Third World "garnered support, including among young people, in the West". Algeria had just attained independence in 1962 after an eight-year war against France, and the Vietnam War was drawing opposition from disaffected youth in Europe and the United States. In this milieu, the Palestinians, now seen as "another people struggling against a colonial-settler project backed by the Western powers" gained widespread traction, especially in China and the Soviet sphere of influence, but also in the West (p.120).
IV.II: Public Relations
Nevertheless, the PLO still failed to appreciate the sheer importance of courting public opinion in the West, and especially in the United States. Khalidi singles out the "PLO's failure to devote sufficient energy, talent and resources to diplomacy and information, despite the gains made in these areas". Nor did the "PLO work hard enough at understanding their target audiences, the most crucial of them being the United States and Israel". He notes that many respected Palestinian academics in the United States - including Edward Said - attempted to "impress on Palestinian leaders that they needed to take American public opinion into account and devote sufficient resources and energy", but to no avail (p.120).
He mentions one incident in 1984 in which he participated in a delegation to visit the PLO leadership in Amman, Jordan, to make this case to PLO leader Yasser Arafat. He agreed to meet the group and listened for only a couple of minutes until he dismissed them in order to provide an audience to the leader of the Palestine Liberation Front, a "tiny, insignificant faction that caused great damage to the Palestinian cause (but was Iraq's payroll)". Khalidi concluded that "In the PLO's misplaced priorities the inter-Arab balancing act at which 'Arafat excelled was more pressing than was furthering the Palestine cause with the public of the preeminent global superpower" (p.121).
Yet even within Arab world the PLO tended to bite the hand from which it was fed. This happened in Jordan, where Palestinian excesses led to the violent Jordanian clap-down in September 1970. It also happened in Lebanon prior to the expulsion of the PLO in 1982. Khalidi notes that "the PLO's heavy-handed and often arrogant behavior in the preceding decade and a half [before the invasion] had seriously eroded popular support for the Palestine cause in general and especially for the Palestinian presence in Lebanon". In a typical incident, the guards for a senior PLO leader had hastily erected a checkpoint near his apartment, and when one young Lebanese couple passed by late at night, the guards shot and killed them. Given PLO indiscipline, no one was punished for this atrocity, the likes of which were "all too common" (p.152).
The refusal of the PLO to pay sufficient attention to Western opinion endured even after 1982, when the Palestinians received a public relations windfall not by their own achievement, but by the sheer brutality of Israeli forces in Lebanon, which was covered amply by the international press. Khalidi notes that even after 1982, the PLO "remained ill-informed about the [United States] and its politics, with the exception of a few second-rank leaders ... [who] were unable to influence 'Arafat and his partners". Some PLO leaders attended sessions of the UN General Assembly in New York every autumn. However, they "mostly stayed put in their luxury hotels for the duration of their visits"; they made "few public appearances and did not engage with American groups or the New York media". They certainly never undertook the "all-points diplomatic and public relations campaigns of Israeli officials, who were ubiquitous on TV and at regional gatherings at all times" (p.177).
To this day, the Palestinian leadership - which is in any case bifurcated between separate regimes in the Gaza Strip and West Bank - "appears to have no better understanding of the workings of American society and politics than its predecessors had". It "does not have any idea of how to engage with American public opinion and has made no serious attempt to do so". By contrast, the supporters of Israeli policy "continue to expend lavish resources to advance their cause in the public arena" (p.252).
One third shortcoming of the PLO has been its inability to extract meaningful concessions in the diplomatic arena. Although this may be in part due to the PLO's disadvantageous negotiating position anyway, it also indicates a lack of understanding of the motives and intentions of Israel and its American sponsors.
Perhaps the most glaring case is that of the peace process in the early 1990s. The launching of this process in Madrid in 1991 occurred against the backstop of a widespread Palestinian popular uprising, at times violent but also peaceful, that erupted in 1987. This uprising, later dubbed the "First Intifada", gave a massive moral and political boost to the Palestinians in the arena of world opinion, given its spontaneous and popular nature. According to Nahum Admoni, then-director of Mossad, the Intifada "caused us a lot more political harm, damage to our image, than everything that the PLO had succeeded in doing throughout its existence" (p.179).
Indeed, the repression of the Intifada, which often involved the employment of violence, was proving very costly to the Israeli security forces. The uprising therefore "brought Rabin and the Israeli security establishment to the realization that the occupation - with Israeli troops policing densely populated Palestinian centers simmering with anger - needed modification". The solution was to outsource the repression of Palestinian popular sentiment to the Palestinians themselves. The framework agreed at Oslo would "preserve those parts of the occupation that were advantageous to Israel - the privileges and prerogatives enjoyed by the state and the settlers - while offloading onerous responsibilities" to the PLO, while "simultaneously preventing genuine Palestinian self-determination, statehood, and sovereignty" (p.205). It was a trap that the PLO gleefully walked into, allowing itself - via a series of fateful errors - to be drawn into a process "explicitly designed by Israel ... to prolong its occupation and colonization, not to end them" (pp.180,181).
The PLO's first mistake, preceding the negotiations, was its tacit support for Saddam Hussein after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on August 2nd, 1991. Instead of firmly supporting Kuwait against Iraq, Arafat offered to mediate between the two, which was interpreted as support for Iraq given that what had taken place was an instance of outright aggression. This decision, which emerged from several factors*, ended up making the PLO a pariah among the Gulf states, upon whom it depended on financial support, and "harmed it in innumerable other ways".
* Khalidi notes that the decision emerged partly from the PLO's alignment with Iraq as a counterweight to "Syrian efforts to coerce, constrain, and dominate the PLO". It has thus began to depend on Iraq's "political, military and financial patronage". In addition, Arafat and others "wildly overestimated Iraqi military capacities in 1990-91" and believed that Iraq could "withstand the onslaught by the US-led coalition that was clearly coming after the invasion of Kuwait" (pp.182,183).
The consequences of this "consensus of idiocy" came swiftly. The PLO was ostracised in many Arab countries, with the Gulf states halting all their financial support. Moreover, after Kuwait regained its sovereignty, the Kuwaits expelled hundreds of Palestinians who had lived and worked in Kuwait for years, and who had constituted "one of the PLO's most solid popular and financial bases anywhere in the world". The result was that the PLO "found itself more friendless and alone than perhaps at any stage in its history", leaving it in an incredibly weak position going into the negotiations with Israel (p.184).
The second mistake was its acceptance of UN Security Council Resolution 242 as the basis for negotiations, which set a framework for peace between Israel and the Arab states, yet did not address any Palestinian concerns such as sovereignty or the right to return of refugees. A third mistake was its attempt to put a halt to the intifada in 1991 when talks finally began in Madrid. In doing so, they "failed to understand the need to continue to put pressure on one's adversaries" and behaved as if "launching negotiations were the end of the process rather than the beginning" (p.181).
The fourth and perhaps most fundamental error was that in their haste to secure an agreement, they accepted one that was absolutely beneficial to Israel's colonisation projects, while not committing Israel to any concessions for the Palestinians. The framework that emerged from the principles of Oslo I - which was codified by Oslo II in 1995 - assigned 60 percent of the Occupied Territories for "complete, direct and unfettered Israeli control", with the newly established "Palestinian Authority" (PA) gaining "administrative and security control" in 18 percent, with the remaining 22 percent being placed under PA control but Israeli security control. And of course, "control" by the PA did not mean Palestinian sovereignty at all - it was "autonomy"*, with unfettered Israeli power to come in and impose their will whenever they chose (p.202).
* Khalidi notes that when he and his fellow negotiators in Washington saw the text of what had been agreed at Oslo, it become clear that "the Palestinian negotiators [at Oslo] had failed to understand what Israel meant by autonomy". They had signed onto a "highly restricted form of self-rule in a fragment of the Occupied Territories, and without control of land, water, borders , or much else (p.200).
The result was an increasing Israeli security presence in the Occupied Territory - now augmented by PA collaboration - with ever-shrinking rights for the Palestinians in terms of resources and travel. New travel restrictions between the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem constricted the Palestinian economy, with GDP per capita shrinking between 1993 and 2004 and the contribution of Arab East Jerusalem to overall Palestinian GDP shrinking from 15 percent in 1993 to 7 percent in 2018 (pp.208,209).
Perhaps the most pernicious aspect was that Oslo II was meant only to be an "interim" agreement, with so-called "final status" talks on matters such as sovereignty to be concluded by 1999. It eventually became clear to Khalidi that Arafat and co. had "optimistically assumed that what their envoys had been unable to obtain for the Palestinians at Oslo they would manage to extract from Israel in subsequent negotiations" (p.202). That would prove to be unbelievably naive. The final status talks have never occurred to this day, and the Oslo status quo remains in place, with Israeli settlement construction continuing apace and the PA exercising at most a "highly restricted form of self-rule". In light of the agreement that emerged, Khalidi remains convinced that "On balance, a failure to reach a deal would have been better than the deal that emerged from Oslo" (pp.200,201).
One final mistake after the Oslo agreements was to relocate virtually of the Palestinian leadership into the Occupied Territories themselves, in effect placing them at the mercy of Israeli security forces. This was to come back to bite them during the Second Intifada of 2000-05, a second - much more violent* - uprising that occurred in large part as a response to the deteriorating condition of the Palestinians after Oslo. Amidst the uprising, Israeli forces were easily able to crack down on Palestinian leaders, including Arafat, whose house was besieged by Israeli tanks for 34 months, and who died very shortly afterwards.
* In the First Intifada, around 1,600 people were killed in eight years (177 per year on average). In the Second Intifada, around 6,600 people were killed in eight years (825 per year on average) (p.213).
What lessons can we learn from Rashid Khalidi's narrative? Perhaps the main message is that the Zionist project in Palestine should be viewed as a settler-colonial war against an indigenous population. In this sense, it carries many similarities with other settler-colonial projects, but also some major differences.
The settler-colonial nature of the Zionist enterprise has often been obscured by "the profound resonance for Jews, and also for many Christians, of their biblical connection to the historic land of Israel", a sentiment which has been woven expertly into the fabric of modern political Zionism, and which endows it with a certain eternal quality, despite its relative recency (p.9). This sentiment - that modern Zionists are merely "reclaiming" and "returning to" the God-given land of their ancestors, sets Zionism apart from other settler-colonial movements. After all, surely, the British settlers in North American and Australia did not think that they were reclaiming some ancient birthright to the land*.
* Though perhaps the American advocates of "manifest destiny" could appreciate some of this sentiment.
Importantly, it helps to shift the terms of debate regarding the Israel/Palestine conflict. If Israel is a colonial entity amidst a land that has long been inhabited by the Palestinian people, then surely this saddles Israel with some responsibility in terms of recognising and respecting the phenomenon of Palestinian nationalism. However, this perspective is negated if one focuses solely on the struggle as being a contest between the incompatible desires of between two equal peoples in the same land.
Observing the conflict through this lens can help us identify certain trends that are typical of settler-colonial movements. Often, the colonising group benefits enormously from the advanced technology of its "metropole" - its imperial home. Thus, the American settlers were able to enjoy the combat superiority given to them by British weapons. Similarly, lavish amounts of financial and military aid allowed the Israelis to gain a qualitative advantage over their Arab neighbours - to the extent that Israeli "qualitative military edge" in the Middle East has long remained a pillar of US policy.
The advantages are not restricted to the realm of technology. As Khalidi makes clear, the Zionist settlers were able to out-compete the Palestinian Arabs in terms of their organisation and their ability to influence world opinion. Coming from developed countries in Europe and North America, the settlers were probably well versed in the methods typically used to run organisations in business, government or elsewhere. Moreover, the culturally diverse, cosmopolitan nature of the Jewish community in Palestine gave them a clear advantage when it came to communication with the peoples of the world. This was yet another instance of advantage gained from the metropole.
However, this then raises another question. If Britain was the metropole of the American colonies, and the France was the metropole of the Algerian settlers, then where is Israel's metropole? The answer is perhaps a bit more complex. The Jewish settlers came from a wide variety of places - from the United States and virtually all corners of Europe, as well as other areas of the Middle East. Meanwhile, the external power playing the role of patron has shifted at least once. First, it was Britain, which enabled the Zionist project to flourish under its Mandate, and then the United States, which continues to provide Israel crucial support in all fields. Thus, while Zionism is an outlier in many ways, it can be characterised as a settler-colonial project nonetheless.
What can the Palestinians do to improve their situation? Khalidi concludes the book by suggesting that this may begin by "changing existing perceptions of the conflict", an aim to which this book and Khalidi's life work in general is directed. To this today, Israel has the strong military, economic and diplomatic support of the United States, the world's preeminent superpower. However, this support is based to a large degree on the perceptions of the Israeli-Palestinian issue of the American public. If Palestinians are able to shift these perceptions and promote their own narrative - in other words, if they reclaim the "right to narrate" - they may finally be able to level the playing field.
Yet, in propagating this narrative, what Khalidi does not do is deny the true national nature of Israeli society, just as he does not deny the existence of an American nation, despite the settler-colonial origins of the United States. In fact, in his conclusion, he asserts that "Palestinians ... need weaning from a pernicious delusion - rooted in the colonial nature of their encounter with Zionism and in its denial of Palestinian peoplehood - that Jewish Israelis are not a 'real' people and that they do not have national rights" (p.245). In other words, Israeli Jews now possess a sense of national belonging to Palestine just as 'real' as that possessed by the Palestinians. This reality needs to be accepted by Palestinians and Israelis alike if a lasting peace is to be found.