THE HUNDRED YEARS' WAR ON PALESTINE
A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917-2017
By Rashid Khalidi
On a morning in early June 1967, Rashid Khalidi was walking down a New York City sidewalk when he came upon a group of people holding an open bedsheet into which passers-by were tossing money. The donations were to aid the state of Israel, then at war with three of its Arab neighbors. What Khalidi found baffling was that, by that morning, the Israelis had already annihilated the air forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, and were now using their air supremacy to do the same to those nations' ground forces. It was the precise outcome that recent American intelligence analyses had predicted should the vastly more powerful Israeli military launch a pre-emptive strike on its adversaries — as Israel had, in fact, done. But this was not at all the story the American public was hearing, as witnessed by the fundraising on the Manhattan sidewalk. Instead, the 1967 Six-Day War neatly slotted into an ongoing narrative of a tiny Israel besieged by its larger and hateful neighbors, a nation able to survive only through ingenuity and grit.
To Khalidi, the scion of a storied Palestinian family, that sidewalk spectacle was but one more reminder of how thoroughly Israel has been able to control the story line of events in the Middle East over the past century. Wholly marginalized in that story line, he argues, are the Palestinians, their own competing narrative diminished to the point of erasure.
A professor of Arab studies at Columbia University, as well as the author of seven previous books, Khalidi is one of the world's foremost academic scholars on the topic of Palestinian identity and nationalism. Beyond its provocative title and occasional sharp insight, however, his "Hundred Years' War on Palestine" feels a rather thin achievement.
Khalidi's core thesis is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is best understood as a war of colonial conquest, one that closely hews to the pattern and mind-set of other national-colonial movements of the 19th century. As he points out, an early Zionist slogan calling for a Jewish homeland in Palestine — "a land without people for a people without a land" — not only discounted the presence of the estimated 700,000 Palestinians already there, but echoed a great body of settler lore that required conquered lands to be void of people, or at least inhabited only by lesser ones: Think of the expansion onto Indian lands in the American West, or white Australia's long denigration of the Aborigines. Zionism had the added advantage, Khalidi argues, of adorning "itself with a biblical coat that was powerfully attractive to Bible-reading Protestants in Great Britain and the United States."
Consolidating this colonial settler paradigm, in Khalidi's telling, was the 1948 Israeli War of Independence — or the "Nakba" (Catastrophe), as the Palestinians call it. By seizing control of nearly 80 percent of the land that constituted the British Palestine Mandate, and overseeing the expulsion or flight of a similar percentage of its native Arab population, the Israeli pioneers were emulating the model of earlier victorious settlers. Once outside actors became involved, Khalidi contends, matters only turned worse for the Palestinians. After the 1967 war, for example, the United Nations passed Resolution 242, demanding Israel return to its prewar borders. As Khalidi astutely points out, while SC 242 is generally regarded as the foundational basis for future Arab-Israeli peace talks, for the Palestinians it represented a one-two punch: Nowhere in the resolution are they referred to by name — they are merely "refugees" — while a return to the 1967 borders meant the outside world was now legitimating their 1948 expulsion. In Khalidi's view, each subsequent diplomatic "breakthrough" in the region has served only to further negate or marginalize the Palestinians. The 1979 Camp David peace treaty between Israel and Egypt meant that the Palestinians had lost a cornerstone ally in the region, while the much-heralded 1993 Oslo Accords served to co-opt the Palestinian leadership and maroon their followers into tiny enclaves under ultimate Israeli control.
While many of Khalidi's insights are thought-provoking, their persuasiveness is undermined at times by a tendency to shave the rhetorical corner. He quite justifiably labels the Irgun, an early Jewish paramilitary organization, as a "terror group," but is markedly more charitable when similar tactics were used by armed Palestinian factions. There is also a slipperiness to some of his formulations. To cite one particularly stark example, Khalidi contends that vital to the "settler-colonial enterprise" has been an Israeli campaign to sever the link displaced Palestinians feel for their homeland. "The comforting idea," he writes, "that 'the old will die and the young will forget' — a remark attributed to David Ben-Gurion, probably mistakenly — expresses one of the deepest aspirations of Israeli leaders after 1948." Well, if the writer himself notes that the source of a quote is probably wrong, then it's deeply problematic to use that quote.
But the bigger weakness of this book, to my mind, can be distilled to a simple question: Where does it get you? Even if one fully accepts Khalidi's colonialist thesis, does that move us any closer to some kind of resolution? This may seem an unfair criticism. After all, it is not incumbent on a historian to offer up possible remedies — except this is the closing task Khalidi sets for himself. It is also where his insights become noticeably threadbare.
His most intriguing suggestion is that the Palestinians stop regarding the United States as an honest broker in negotiations with Israel, but recognize that Washington will always ultimately side with Israel. He further suggests that with American influence in the region waning, it might be one of the new powers emerging on the scene — China or India or Russia — that could more honorably fulfill the arbiter role. While Khalidi's first point has considerable merit, it's exceedingly hard to see the United States, waning influence or no, ever taking a diplomatic back seat in the region to another external power, or forcing Israel to make the sorts of concessions that a new intermediary would surely demand. And with the possible exception of the current occupant of the White House, it's even harder to imagine anyone thinking a solution to their problems can be found in the tender embrace of Vladimir Putin.
But there is also a sense that Khalidi has fairly thrown up his hands at this point, that having argued his thesis there's really not much of anywhere else to go. There are two core reasons for this, both of which he is surely acutely aware.
First, even if the Israel-Palestine conflict is to be viewed through a colonial lens, it no longer fits any colonial precedent. In every other such contest, the settlers came to so outnumber the Indigenous as to make compromise unnecessary (the United States again), or remained so outnumbered by the Indigenous (think the whites of Rhodesia) that compromise was finally inevitable. With the populations of Israel and the extended Palestinian diaspora at near parity, neither formulation applies.
Second, the Palestinians are beset not by one antagonist, but rather by three concentric and interconnected rings of them: Israel; the surrounding Arab nations; and the political machinations of external powers, most notably the United States. As Khalidi repeatedly points out, over the decades all three of these sets of actors have used the Palestinian issue for their own interests, have teamed up or fallen out in a variety of ways, but almost always to the detriment of the Palestinian people. It is exceedingly difficult to imagine how any part of this dynamic changes in either the near or far term.
In its stead, Khalidi's notions for an eventual settlement take on an increasingly fantastic quality. In his view, true change will come only when the great inequality between Israelis and Palestinians is recognized, and sufficient numbers of both populations come to accept the right of national existence of the other. To this end, "new negotiations would need to reopen all the crucial issues created by the 1948 war." One of those key issues, Khalidi concludes, is the so-called "right of return," the proposal that Palestinians displaced in 1948, together with their offspring, be allowed to return to their original homes. This is an idea that even the most obdurate of Palestinian negotiators privately recognize as fanciful, and if Khalidi truly believes it is a prerequisite to peace, his Hundred Years' War on Palestine is likely to be an eternal one.
Scott Anderson is the author of "Lawrence in Arabia" and the Times Magazine special issue "Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart." His newest book, "The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War," will be published this fall.