Palestine

In case anyone’s interested, here’s the original version of my review of Khalidi’s book on the Israel-Palestine conflict, which will appear shortly – slightly edited – in Jacobin.

Rashid Khalidi, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine. A History of Settler Colonial Conquest and Resistance. 319pp, illustrated. Profile Books, 2020.

Imperial historians know what colonialism looks like. The history of modern Israel clearly fits that category. That’s why Leftists, who have always been in the forefront of the international anti-colonial struggle, are more likely to support the Palestinians in the present dire conflict between them and the Israeli state. It has nothing to do with ‘anti-semitism’ in the proper sense of the word.

Rashid Khalidi’s new book, part history, part politics, part personal reminiscence – he was involved in many of the later events described here – retails the story of the century-long conflict between Arabs and Zionists since 1917; not exactly impartially, as it’s told from a Palestinian point of view, but fairly in view of the overwhelmingly pro-Israeli narrative that has generally prevailed until recently, and which has needed to be counter-balanced, especially in Israel’s patron-state, the USA.  ‘Colonialism’ is the theme that runs right through the book, prompting parallels between Zionism and many of the now notorious European examples of the phenomenon in Africa, India and south-east Asia. Of course these weren’t quite so notorious when they happened, which was precisely when the idea of European Jews ‘colonising’ Palestine first took hold, with Zionists unembarrassed about using that word for it. It is only later that colonialism fell out of favour, which is why Israel now prefers a narrative that places them as the original indigènes of the country (with their title granted by God, no less), and the Arabs as the invaders. Either that, or sees the whole country as essentially empty of anyone but wandering tribes and savages: a terra nullius, therefore, like pre-settlement Australia or North America, which the Jews could ‘raise in civilisation’ (a common imperialist trope); and certainly never the ‘nation’ that many Palestinian Arabs claimed. The first part of this book contains plenty of evidence for those wanting to dispute either of these views.

The rest of it is an account of the one-sided ‘war’ between modern Palestinian nationalists on the one hand, and Jewish Zionists and their powerful allies – first Britain, then the USA – on the other. Most of this is pretty well-known by those who have managed to free themselves from the Hollywood Exodus image of the creation of the state of Israel, but is given added immediacy by the personal experiences of the Khalidi family recounted here. The main villains, as one might expect, are the Zionists who insisted on taking over the whole of Palestine for their new, ethnically-based state; together with the original British mandatories, the successive US governments which backed them, and the neighbouring Arab autocracies which, for reasons of their own, were – Khalidi maintains – almost equally complicit. The Palestinians should have expected more help from them. But their own leaders were equally culpable, due to their fratricidal divisions, personal failings, and lack of the diplomatic and propagandist skills that the Israeli side possessed in abundance. It could also be that the sheer ruthlessness of the Israeli armed and intelligence forces cowed them, as it was intended to: indiscriminate shootings and bombings, planned assassinations of Palestinian leaders, torture, mass imprisonment, exile, many of them recounted here; and their clever spread of disinformation in the West. Two forms of the latter were the over-identification of the Palestinian cause with wider phenomenon of Islamicist ‘terrorism’, in order to discredit it; and the deliberate confusion of anti-Zionism with the stain of anti-semitism, which of course no-one on the Left, especially, wanted to be tarred with. (This may have played a part in Jeremy Corbyn’s defeat in the British general election of December 2019. At any rate, that is what at least one Mossad agent claimed.) The Palestinian cause had nothing like the expertise or the money that the American pro-Israeli lobby could draw on, from the Jews living there. Rashid Khalidi knows all about this, as an American resident (and indeed citizen) himself for most of his professional life. (He is presently the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia.) Perhaps they should listen more to him.

At the end of this book he expresses the hope that the tide of opinion might now be beginning to turn in a Palestinian direction, at least among young Americans and Israelis – he cites the ‘BDS’ movement in American universities – which could augur happier times for the whole region. Widely-publicised Israeli atrocities in Gaza and the West Bank will have had much to do with this shift in opinion, contributing to the remarkable transformation of Israel in many people’s esteem over the past thirty or so years from victim (after the Holocaust) to villain. Maybe simply acknowledging these would help; as Khalidi himself fully recognises the Jews’ sufferings in the past as a powerful reason for their wanting a nation of their own, and Israel’s present fears of its neighbours, though he believes these are exaggerated. Nonetheless he thinks Israel must abandon full-throated Zionism – the ultra-colonialist Eretz Yisrael which is clearly still Netanyahu’s ultimate dream, for example – and recognise that the Palestinians constitute a genuine ‘nation’ too. That would pave a way to the ‘two-state’ solution that Israel has always disdained, but which the PLO came round to accepting relatively recently. It would also however require that the Palestinians recognise, on their side, the reality of Israel’s ‘national’ credentials, in spite of their having less credible historical roots – unless you’re a Bible fundamentalist – than are often claimed for them. As Khalidi points out, no-one disputes this in the cases of other comparatively recent settler states, like Canada and Australia. (There’s the colonial parallel again.)

The United States remains a problem. Quite apart from the powerful ‘Israel Lobby’, which one hardly dares to mention these days for fear of being labelled anti-Semitic, Khalidi makes the interesting suggestion that Americans might not be quite so repelled as other countries by Israel’s continuing expansion of its ‘settlements’ in the ‘Occupied Territories’ – one of the international community’s main gripes against it – in view of their own history of colonial settlement in the west of their own continent, which is not only tolerated in retrospect, but has even been made the stuff of heroic legend (all those ‘Westerns’), to a degree that Europe’s colonial exploits never have. For these and other reasons, Palestinians should stop regarding the USA as a potential mediator, and instead treat it ‘as an extension of Israel… which would represent its real position at least since 1967’. All previous agreements should be scrapped, and negotiations begin de novo. By that time, with the balance of the world changing as it seems to be doing now, we may reach a position in which other rising powers, more favourable to the Palestinians, will have more clout in Middle Eastern affairs. Khalidi suggests India and China. He seems to have given up on the USA.

‘Perhaps’, Khalidi concludes, ‘such changes will allow Palestinians, together with Israelis and others worldwide who wish for peace and stability with justice in Palestine, to craft a different trajectory than that of oppression of one people by another. Only such a path based on equality and justice is capable of concluding the hundred years’ war on Palestine with a lasting peace, one that brings with it the liberation that the Palestinian people deserve.’ That would make a happier conclusion to this distinctive episode in the history of European colonialism, than any of the hoped- and feared-for alternatives. It would also make things easier for non-Jewish philo-semites, like the present reviewer, who find the conduct of the present Israeli state so upsetting to our instinctive sympathies. Jews, we think: ‘you’re better than this’.

In any case anyone who wants to learn about the course of the Israel-Palestine conflict up till now, and is open-minded, should read this book. It comes over as a brilliant synthesis of high scholarship and experience, fair-minded despite its overtly Palestinian leanings, and highly readable. Americans and Israelis especially should read it, including the younger, more liberal ones, into whose hands the fates of both of the legitimate nations in this region must now pass. Please don’t let this go on for another hundred years.

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