It is difficult to find someone more qualified to narrate and analyze the history of the Zionist-Arab conflict from a Palestinian perspective than Rashid Khalidi. A scion of a notable Palestinian family of Islamic scholars, diplomats and judges that has resided in Jerusalem since the 13th century, Khalidi is professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia University, the author of seven books on the Middle East and coeditor of the Journal of Palestine Studies.
Instead of providing an extensive and detailed account of Palestinian history, Khalidi decided to focus on six key events that highlight the colonial essence of the war against the Palestinian people during the last century. His main thesis is that the modern conflict over the Holy Land can best be understood “as a colonial war waged against the indigenous population, by a variety of parties, to force them to relinquish their homeland to another people against their will.” To buttress his argument, Khalidi infuses his scholarship with writings, experiences and “eyewitness accounts from members of his distinguished family.”
The earliest and starkest manifestation of anti-Palestinian colonialism occurred in November 1917, with the issuance of the Balfour Declaration by the British government. In committing itself to support the creation of a national home in Palestine for the Jewish people, Britain essentially denied national and political rights to 94 percent of Palestine’s Arab inhabitants at that time. Likewise, the 28 articles of the Mandate that was awarded to Britain by the League of Nations in 1922 do not contain a single reference to “Arabs” or “Palestinians” or to any of their national rights. At the same time, the Mandate document designated the Jewish Agency as the official representative of Palestine’s Jewish minority population, with authority to participate in the development of the country as a whole. For the next 26 years, the Jewish Agency acted as a quasi-governmental administration with control over the Jewish community’s public works, education, health and welfare services. The country’s Arab majority had no equivalent institution.
Khalidi maintains that, by 1947, the United States had replaced Britain as the colonial nemesis of the Palestinians, by mobilizing sufficient international support to ensure passage of the United Nations partition resolution. The resolution legitimated the emergence of a Jewish state in an area covering 56 percent of an Arab-majority land, in violation of their right to national self-determination enshrined in the UN Charter. The ensuing civil violence and then the first Arab-Israeli war led to the flight and deliberate expulsion of some 700,000 Palestinians to neighboring Arab states.
After the war, the Israeli government expropriated land that had been owned and abandoned by fleeing and ousted Palestinians. These properties were awarded to existing Jewish settlements or taken over by the Israel Lands Authority and the Jewish National Fund, with the stipulation that such possessions be used solely for the benefit of the Jewish people. That meant that former Arab land owners had lost their properties in perpetuity.
The 1967 war and its aftermath constituted the third historic calamity for the Palestinians, with the United States and Israel acting as the chief colonial culprits. Khalidi claims that the Johnson administration provided the Israeli military with the green light to launch the preemptive strike against Egypt, Jordan and Syria on June 5, 1967. After the war, the United States acquiesced in Israel’s conquest of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights through its support of UN Security Council (SC) Resolution 242. While it linked any Israeli withdrawal to peace treaties with the neighboring trio of Arab states, SC 242 did not explicitly demand that Israel withdraw from all newly occupied territories, nor did it specify that Israel must withdraw from the territories. Khalidi laments, “In the half century since, with American help, Israel has driven a coach and horses through this linguistic gap,” enabling it to colonize and maintain continuous control over East Jerusalem, much of the West Bank and the Golan Heights.
Like the Balfour Declaration, SC 242 did not mention Palestine nor the Palestinians, and instead called for “a just solution to the refugee problem.” In addition, the resolution legitimated the lines of June 5, 1967, as Israel’s de facto borders, thereby seemingly agreeing to Israel’s conquest of additional territory in the 1948 war. Khalidi concludes that the most serious deficiency of SC 242 is its failure to mention, let alone deal with, any of the core issues generated by the 1947 partition resolution: the expulsion of the Palestinians, the denial of their right to return, Israel’s expansion beyond the partition lines, and the disputed legal status of Jerusalem.
After receiving yet another green light from Washington, Israel inflicted an additional debacle on the Palestinians with its invasion of Lebanon in June 1982. By decimating the PLO in Lebanon, the Begin-led government intended to douse forever the flames of Palestinian nationalism in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Khalidi regards the war in Lebanon as a joint Israeli-American operation. The United States supplied Israel with lethal weapons that killed and wounded thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians, and it unequivocally supported the expulsion of the PLO’s political leadership and military fighters from Beirut to Tunis in August 1982. According to Khalidi, America “stepped into a position similar to that played by Britain in the 1930s, helping to repress the Palestinians by force in the service of Zionist ends.”
Khalidi’s conception of the fifth colonial war against the Palestinian people (from 1987 to 1995) includes the brutal Israeli repression of the first Intifada, the continuous expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and the ill-advised acceptance of the Oslo Accords — in essence, a colonial scheme — by the PLO leadership. The author blames the inexperienced PLO negotiators in Oslo for falling into several deep traps by accepting a profoundly flawed deal with grave consequences for the Palestinian people.
The author astutely notes that the widely hailed accords did not deal with or resolve any Palestinian demands at the heart of the conflict with Israel, including the quest for national sovereignty, the end of colonization and occupation, the juridical status of Jerusalem, the return of refugees, the delineation of borders, land ownership and water rights. Worse yet, Oslo transferred to the PLO the financial burden of administering a relatively poor population of over two million, and it obligated the Palestinian Authority to help Israel police the restless inhabitants through “security coordination” with Israeli intelligence and military forces.
According to Khalidi, the general architecture of Oslo, including an ill-defined interim implementation stage and interminable deferral of Palestinian statehood, was primarily enforced by a close diplomatic, political and military partnership between Washington and Jerusalem. He therefore concludes that “the Oslo Accords in effect constituted another internationally sanctioned American-Israeli declaration of war on the Palestinians in furtherance of the Zionist movement’s century-old project.”
The sixth and most recent war on the Palestinians consisted of four episodes during which Israel unleashed its military and security forces against Arab residents in the West Bank and Gaza. From late 2000 to 2008, Israel’s response to the second Intifada led to the deaths of close to 5,000 mostly civilian Palestinians. The three Israel Defense Forces (IDF) assaults on the Gaza Strip in late 2008, 2012 and 2014 killed approximately 4,000 Arabs, almost all of them civilians, including about 1,000 minors. During the 2014 war alone, approximately 16,000 houses became uninhabitable, and over 40,000 buildings — including schools, hospitals and universities — were damaged. As noted by Khalidi, the large numbers of casualties and the vast extent of physical destruction were caused by highly lethal U.S.-supplied weapons, including armed drones, Apache helicopters, F-15 and F-16 fighter bombers, and 155mm howitzers.
Summarized in such episodic fashion, this historical narrative makes it abundantly clear that the Palestinians, like most victims of 19th-century European imperialism, were never in control of their own destiny. Yet Khalidi also amasses considerable evidence that challenges the relevance of European settler colonialism to the Palestinian experience. For one, he blames the Palestinians themselves as well as neighboring Arab states for numerous sins of omission and commission during the past 100 years.
For example, even before the outbreak of World War I, Arab absentee landowners willingly sold to Zionist settler organizations vast amounts of fertile land in the lower Galilee, the Huleh Valley and along the coast. Khalidi further notes that, unlike the Wafd in Egypt, the Congress Party in India or Sinn Fein in Ireland, the Palestinians under British rule failed to forge a unified national movement. As a result, they greeted the end of the British Mandate without an effective political leadership, a centrally organized military force or any operative political institutions.
Following the 1967 war, there emerged a splintered Palestinian resistance camp, internally divided between a relatively pragmatic and non-ideological Fatah and the Marxist-oriented Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and its more militant allies. Whereas the Fatah-dominated PLO renounced violence in 1988, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in 1994 began a suicide-bombing campaign inside Israel that continued through the second Intifada. Khalidi maintains that the Palestinians’ resort to terrorism against scores of Israeli civilians not only ruined the favorable image the Palestinians had gained after the first uprising, but also unified the Israeli public behind the country’s increasingly harsh occupation of the West Bank.
The schism within the Palestinian camp reached new depths in 2006, when Fatah-controlled security forces launched a bloody campaign to unseat Hamas in Gaza. The failed attempt enabled a rejectionist Hamas to a establish its own Palestinian Authority in Gaza as a political rival against the Fatah-dominated governing authority in Ramallah.
The neighboring Arab states also aggravated in no small measure the travails of the Palestinian people. Toward the end of the British Mandate, King Abdullah of Transjordan and King Farouk of Egypt were engaged in an ambitious competition to carve out for themselves as much of Palestine as possible; that is why their armies entered the war against Israel in the spring of 1948. By the end of the war, the Arab Legion was in control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and Egypt had taken over the Gaza Strip. Thus, it was blatant Arab colonialism, not Zionist imperialism, that gobbled up most of the areas allocated by the 1947 UN partition resolution for an independent Palestinian state. Unfortunately, the pivotal events that deprived the Palestinians of statehood are summarized in a few paragraphs. On the other hand, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by Israeli forces in 1947-48 is detailed in several pages, while the flight of the Arab middle class in late 1947 is merely mentioned in a couple of sentences.
After the war, no Arab state supported the short-lived Government of All Palestine in Gaza, and for several years, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt prevented exiled Palestinians from organizing or launching incursions into Israel. In 1978, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat agreed to make peace with Israel despite his failure to extract any meaningful concessions that would have improved the lot of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. According to Khalidi, the failure of the Arab League to resist American insistence on the expulsion of the PLO from Beirut in 1982 was “one of the shabbiest and most shameful subsidiary aspects of the war.”
So far, no Arab state except Jordan has been willing to grant citizenship to Palestinians, and following the 1990–91 Gulf War, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled from Kuwait as punishment for the PLO’s support of Saddam Hussein. The PLO itself lost financial backing from the Gulf states and was banished by many Arab countries.
In the introduction to the book, Khalidi acknowledges, “there is no reason that what has happened in Palestine for over a century cannot be understood as both a colonial and a national conflict.” Modern political Zionism, he argues, was both a colonial and a national movement because it emphasized the Jews’ “biblical connection to the historic land of Israel.” However, over some unspecified time, the conflict over Palestine evolved into “a national confrontation between two new national entities, two peoples.”
Given this sequence, one would have expected Khalidi to focus on the national dimension of the confrontation between Jews and Palestinians. Instead, he decided to examine the colonial nature of the conflict because the history of the Palestinians allegedly shares much in common with that of other indigenous victims of European settler colonialism. He further claims that settler colonialism is an underappreciated, but superior, paradigm for understanding the Palestinian narrative. Yet, in the concluding chapter, Khalidi comes full circle by admitting that “establishing the colonial nature of the conflict has proven exceedingly hard given the biblical dimension of Zionism.”
Simply put, Khalidi made the poorer choice because, as he himself concedes, the Palestinian narrative is unique precisely because it differs significantly from the history of many other colonized peoples. To begin with, neither the early Zionists nor the later Jewish immigrants settled in Palestine in order to extract the country’s natural resources or exploit cheap indigenous labor.
Khalidi further notes that, “unlike most other peoples who fell under colonial rule, they [the Palestinians] not only had to contend with the colonial power in the metropole, in this case London, but also with a singular colonial-settler movement that, while beholden to Britain, was independent of it, had its own national mission, a seductive biblical justification, and an established international base and financing.” In addition, “Palestine was not a crown colony or any other form of colonial possession.” Britain was obligated to administer it under legal obligations contained in the 1922 Mandate of the League of Nations. Consequently, unlike the experience of most other colonized peoples, succeeding waves of Jewish immigrants turned the indigenous Palestinians into a minority.
Khalidi laments that, unlike other anticolonial movements, the Palestinians relied on strategies and tactics that were bound to end in failure. For example, whereas the use of violence by the FLN in Algeria divided French society and eventually led to the end of the colonial enterprise in that country, reliance on terror by the PLO unified Israeli society and bolstered support for expanding Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank. Furthermore, in marked distinction to liberation movements in Vietnam, Algeria and South Africa, which entered into negotiations to secure an end to colonization, the PLO “allowed itself to be drawn into a process explicitly designed by Israel, with the acquiescence of the United States, to prolong its occupation and colonization, not to end them.” Furthermore, while the Algerian and Vietnamese nationalists managed to convince the French public of the justice of their causes, the Palestinians have done nothing to shape Israeli public opinion in their favor.
The careful reader will look in vain for any discussion of Israeli behavior that clearly contradicts the settler colonialism model. Israel’s withdrawals from the Sinai (1982), Lebanon (2000) and Gaza (2005) — the first and the third of which included the forcible evictions of some 14,500 Jewish settlers — are barely noted.
Khalidi suggests that, heretofore, conflicts between settler colonialists and indigenous populations have ended in one of three ways: with total domination or elimination of the native people, as in North America; with the defeat and ouster of the colonial power, as in Algeria; and with an end to the colonial relationship through political compromise and reconciliation, as in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Ireland. He dismisses the relevance of the first two to the case at hand and regards a negotiated outcome as a very remote possibility. It would require the erstwhile antagonists to agree on all unresolved issues going back to 1948, including the partition borders, the status of Jerusalem and the return of refugees. Thus, by the end of this volume, nothing much remains of the settler-colonialism paradigm. That is why this book, by a most renowned and highly respected Palestinian scholar, remains such a disappointment.