A Century of Struggle in Palestine

Present Absences

A century of struggle in Palestine.


Here’s the script: Criminalize the boycotts, deport the human rights advocates, rebrand anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism, smear the leftist Jews, infiltrate the leftist organizations, defund the aid programs, torpedo the political campaigns, fire the high school teachers and speech pathologists and network commentators, and pinkwash the occupation. The tactics vary today, but the intent remains the same. For as long as I have been alive, the barriers in the West to advocating for Palestinian rights have deterred all but the most committed people.

Often, as a result, the responsibility has fallen on the shoulders of Palestinians. Rashid Khalidi, a professor at Columbia and a codirector of its Center for Palestine Studies, is one of the best known to have taken up this responsibility. An acclaimed historian and former adviser to the Palestine delegation during the Madrid talks in 1991, he has written about the origins of Arab nationalism, American Cold War policy in the Middle East, the construction of Palestinian identity, and the history of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He has also played an important role in representing Palestinians in Western media and in mentoring a growing generation of Palestinian writers and academics, including Noura Erakat and Lana Tatour.

While Khalidi’s research interests are wide-ranging, he has often examined the history of Palestine in the context of the larger Western imperial project, which has spanned many Middle Eastern nations and whose tool kit of military occupation has laid waste to millions of Arab lives. The cyclical nature of this history is important. For example, on the topic of a single democratic state for all Palestinians and Israelis—an idea that has increasing purchase among young Palestinians and anti-Zionist Jews—he observes that it is not a radical departure but instead a return to a popular idea that has gestated since at least 1968 yet was marginalized by a now geriatric PLO leadership.

In Khalidi’s latest book, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, history proves once again to be the key to understanding the present. He builds on his previous work, interspersing personal and family stories with political ones and tracing the lineage of violence that has engulfed a land that has been known by many different names. In doing so, Khalidi identifies many of the actors who have been instrumental to the Palestinian cause, the revolutionaries, women, and young people who helped build the fabric of Palestinian life within the shadow of endless war, displacement, and occupation.

The “war” in Khalidi’s title is conceived as both singular and plural. It includes but also transcends the military conflicts most commonly used to narrate Palestinian history. He chooses to tell this story through six distinct periods, beginning with the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and moving on to the UN General Assembly’s 1947 resolution on the partition of Palestine and the ensuing Arab–Israeli War and the Nakba. Charting Palestinian life after the Six-Day War in 1967, he considers Israel’s de facto control over all the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean and then turns to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the first intifada of 1987, and finally the ceaseless bombings of Gaza and the expanding occupation of the West Bank today.

All of this can read like a chronicle of never-ending struggle. The question of Palestine has always been one of conditioning, of what we are willing to accept and willing to forget—and knowing this, the enemies of a Palestinian nation have pursued a relentless program of erasure. But Khalidi’s book is also an act of historical recovery, an effort to pen, as he puts it, the “first general account of the conflict told from an explicitly Palestinian perspective.” As with the pioneering work of the Israeli historians Ilan Pappé and Avi Shlaim, The Hundred Years’ War does not offer a unified theory of history but rather an account of the colonial structures on which the Israeli project depends and of the bridges that still connect the archipelago of Palestinian life.

Khalidi resists the urge to start his book with the founding of Israel in 1948. Instead he starts three decades earlier, in 1917, the year of the Balfour Declaration. That statement, issued at the height of World War I by British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, was delivered in a letter to Lord Rothschild, a prominent leader of the Jewish community in Britain, and outlined the government’s support for a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine, then a part of the Ottoman Empire. While some historians have argued that this decision was motivated by Western anti-Semitism, it was also no doubt a strategic choice, aimed at securing the support of American and European Jews for the war effort and potentially for British control of the Suez Canal, which would strengthen Britain’s imperial route to India.

After the war, the British followed through on the declaration, facilitating Zionist claims to territory in Palestine through the League of Nations, which set up mandates for colonial governance in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Transjordan in the wake of the Ottoman Empire’s collapse. The Palestinian mandate was unique, of course, in that a core tenet of British governance there included a vision for the settlement of the area by European Jews. Soon various Jewish organizations, including most prominently the Jewish Agency, offered housing, education, and other social services exclusively to the Jewish residents of Palestine and to Jews who moved there.

For Khalidi, the British mandate established two parallel realities in Palestine: an embryonic nation-building project for the Jewish minority and the continuation of colonial policy for the Arab majority, whose question of self-determination was left unaddressed. In describing this history, Khalidi lays out what would become the essential orientation of the Western powers toward the Middle East in the coming century, including an approach to Palestine’s Arabs defined by that peculiar combination of colonial paternalism and purposeful neglect.

This pattern continued into the next chapter of the Palestinian story: the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and the Nakba, which saw the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes. Khalidi speeds through the head-spinning violence of those months (the history of the Irgun and the Haganah and of Plan Dalet, the massacre at Deir Yassin, the bombardment of Jaffa and Haifa, the depopulation of West Jerusalem) to arrive at the outcome. As he explains, 1948 transformed Palestine “from what it had been for well over a millennium—a majority Arab country—into a new state that had a substantial Jewish majority.”

The next two decades of Palestinian history were marked by a continuous struggle against this new reality, with the hostilities boiling over in 1967 and culminating in the Six-Day War between the Arab states and Israel. Despite Israel’s insistence that it was the underdog in this war, the Arab states, Khalidi argues, didn’t stand a chance: 
Israel enjoyed military supremacy from the outset and, as American intelligence 
noted internally, was a nuclear-
armed Goliath.

The Israeli occupation that followed would change Palestine forever. After the war, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 242, on the “territories occupied” by Israel, in which the word “Palestinian” didn’t appear once. (The people were referred to simply as “the refugee problem.”) In Khalidi’s view, the resolution entrenched Israeli dominance in two ways. First, by conditioning Israel’s withdrawal from the lands it had seized from Jordan on the establishment of secure frontiers, it provided Israel with an opportunity to run roughshod over the resolution’s intent, enlarging its borders in perpetuity by claiming security as an excuse. Second, by outlining a negotiated settlement to come between Israel and “Arab” parties, the resolution allowed Israel to exploit its language and ignore the existence of the Palestinians, excluding them from the peace process even as its colonial project continued unabated, with only a wincing response from the international community.

The war had other reverberations as well, cultural and political. The idea of Palestine surged anew after 1967, led in part by artists and writers like Ghassan Kanafani, Mahmoud Darwish, Emile Habibi, Fadwa Touqan, and Tawfiq Zayyad and by the emergence of competing resistance groups: the Movement of Arab Nationalists, led by George Habash and Wadi Haddad, which was a precursor of the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the Fatah movement, led by Yasir Arafat. Together these standard-bearers marked a new era of Palestinian resistance and a strengthened Palestinian resolve. “A central paradox of 1967,” Rashid Khalidi notes, citing Ahmad Samih Khalidi, “is that by defeating the Arabs, Israel resurrected the Palestinians.”

Of course, some of these names now read like a list of present absences. This is partly because of Israel’s aggressive program of assassination—or “liquidation,” to use Ariel Sharon’s term—often employing the familiar pretext of preempting terrorism, an excuse that Khalidi finds hollow, especially given the large number of writers, poets, and intellectuals whom Israel targeted. As Khalidi shows, this use of violence has deep roots: Ze’ev Jabotinsky, one of the founding fathers of Israel, described Zionism as “a colonizing venture, [which] stands or falls on the question of armed forces.” The strategic use of violence caused many Palestinians to flee, and Khalidi’s remaining chapters map the expanding geography of violence as Israel pursued them to Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia, and back to the modern-day West Bank and Gaza.

At the center of Khalidi’s book is a question: How have the Palestinians lost so much and so often? To provide an answer, he explores the various strategies the Palestinians used to fight back as well as their strengths and limitations. On the reciprocal use of force, for example, he recalls the advice given by the Pakistani intellectual Eqbal Ahmad, a friend who had worked with the National Liberation Front in Algeria and believed that Palestinian armed struggle would necessarily falter in the face of an Israeli state that emphasized, above all else, the security of the Jewish people.

While this might lead, Khalidi writes, to a strategy of nonviolent resistance—he favorably compares the demonstrations of the first intifada with the armed insurrection of the second—he also grimly delineates its susceptibility to co-optation (with Palestinian leaders laying claim to the first intifada from their exile in Tunis) and subversion (with Israel initially supporting the rise of Hamas in order to weaken the PLO).

Nor is he sanguine about the history of support from the Arab states. Quoting Egyptian officer Ahmed Aziz, Nasser wrote in his 1954 memoir, The Philosophy of the Revolution, “We were fighting in Palestine but our dreams were in Egypt,” and there is much to be said about the largely aesthetic commitment to Palestinian liberation from the rest of the Arab world. Nor were Palestinian leaders blameless in this, having squandered many opportunities to build enduring alliances with neighboring Arab countries. But Western powers have also played a role in dividing Arabs, including the strategy of pushing Israel to negotiate treaties with individual states as a way of sidelining the Palestinian cause, first with Egypt in 1979, then with Jordan in 1994. Israel’s flourishing contemporary relationship with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates can be seen in this context as a continuation of a longstanding practice, not a departure from it.

This leads Khalidi to note the farce of diplomacy over the past three decades. Having attended the Madrid conference in 1991 and the subsequent talks in Washington, initially led by Secretary of State James Baker, Khalidi sees the efforts by the United States and other Western powers to force a settlement on the Palestinians as emblematic of their one-sided position. Throughout these talks, Yitzhak Shamir’s government was able to dictate not only which Palestinians were permitted to negotiate (members of the diaspora and residents of Jerusalem were excluded) but also what topics were forbidden from the outset, including “Palestinian self-determination, sovereignty, the return of refugees, an end to occupation and colonization, the disposition of Jerusalem, the future of the Jewish settlements, and control of land and water rights.” The Americans went so far in those years as to refer to their role as “Israel’s lawyer.”

As Khalidi shows, the negotiations were often a series of carefully laid traps. As a condition of the supposedly good-faith discussions to come, Palestinian negotiators were asked to acquiesce to various terms designed to preemptively nullify their claims, with the later breakdown of talks inevitably blamed on their intransigent leadership. Khalidi’s pessimism extends to the Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995, which he argues ought to have been rejected: “Occupation would have continued, as it has anyway, but without the veil of Palestinian self-government.”

For Khalidi, these failures of diplomacy have occurred in a context of Israeli legal overreach, with Israeli governments always preferring to reverse a decision unilaterally instead of asking for permission. For evangelists of the diplomatic approach, the artifice of success requires that negotiations not appear to be relitigating the same injustices over and over—and so the needle shifts ever so slightly, with the proposed solution always an attempt to suture a secondary, larger tear.

The most surprising chapter of The Hundred Years’ War does not take place in Palestine, Madrid, or Washington. Khalidi was in Beirut during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, a campaign led by Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and Prime Minister Menachem Begin, ostensibly to fight the PLO’s presence in the country. The war was green-lit by Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, Alexander Haig, with the administration giving assurances that the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon would remain protected should the PLO withdraw. Of course, those promises were hollow, and Khalidi supplements his analysis with an unsettling first-person perspective, having watched with horror as the Israeli bombs rained down on Beirut:

Later I saw that the entire building was flattened, pancaked into a single mound of smoking rubble. The structure, which had been full of Palestinian refugees from Sabra and Shatila, had reportedly just been visited by Arafat. At least one hundred people, probably more, were killed—most of them women and children. Days later, my friend told me that immediately after the air attack, just as he got into his car, shaken but unhurt, a car bomb exploded nearby, presumably having been set to kill the rescuers who were helping families trying to find their loved ones in the rubble. Such car bombs—a weapon of choice for the Israeli forces besieging Beirut, and one of their most terrifying instruments of death and destruction—were described by one Mossad officer as “killing for killing’s sake.”

The Lebanon experience showed that Palestinian social and political death is borderless: Whether in the refugee camps of Beirut, the streets of Gaza, or the American diaspora, Israel will pursue Palestinians wherever they exist. US complicity in this effort is also worth noting, with American munitions and American-made aircraft used in the shelling of Beirut, buttressed by the crucial support of Reagan’s special envoy, Philip Habib. It is stunning to read Khalidi’s postmortem on the war that destroyed what was known as the Paris of the Middle East and especially what became of its architects: “Shamir and Sharon, as well as [Benjamin] Netanyahu, went on to serve as Prime Ministers of Israel,” and Reagan, Haig, and Habib, all now dead, have “so far escaped judgment.”

It is not just the well-known ghosts that haunt The Hundred Years’ War. Like my own family, some members of Khalidi’s are from Jaffa, one of the most visible sites of ethnic cleansing in Israel. A photo of his grandfather’s house in Tal al-Rish adorns the book’s cover; the edifice has remained abandoned since 1948.

With more than 400 citations, The Hundred Years’ War is one of the best-researched general surveys of 20th and early 21st century Palestinian life, but it’s also a deeply personal work. To an outsider, Khalidi’s many references to his family’s experience may feel excessive, especially given that it was among the most prominent families in Palestine. But for a people whose history is all but criminalized, this act of retelling is itself a form of resistance, and to his credit, Khalidi takes pains to decry a patriarchal and centralized Palestinian leadership that persists to this day.

While capturing the social history, Khalidi is careful not to lose sight of the realpolitik of movement building, showing how the most successful moments of Palestinian resistance occurred at those junctures where Israel’s interests came into tension with core Western ones. The examples he cites include the dial-back in British support for Israel, prompted by fears that Palestine’s elevation to a pan-Islamic issue could pose “serious trouble” for Britain’s presence in India, and Israel’s increasingly strained relations with the United States as the war in Lebanon dragged on, with the US realizing—according to a passage in Reagan’s diaries describing a conversation with Begin—that the “picture of a 7 month old baby with its arms blown off” in Beirut had the potential to affect America’s standing on the world stage.

Some critics have taken issue with the range of Khalidi’s discussion here. Scott Anderson, in his frankly embarrassing review for The New York Times, opines that the “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?” It should not be surprising that Anderson, the author of the unironically Orientalist Lawrence in Arabia, is unable to read between Khalidi’s lines. In describing the arguments made by Palestinians in favor of breaking with the empty rhetoric of the British and Americans; in outlining the foundational importance of the 1936–39 revolt, which was led by “young, urban middle-class” Palestinians; and in highlighting the indispensable work of Hanan Ashrawi and others to advance the Palestinian cause on the world stage, Khalidi illustrates, among other things, the failures of diplomacy, the power of youthful activists, and the importance of women in Palestinian liberation. That he chooses to do all this implicitly while guiding the reader into an understanding of the depth of Palestinian frustration, rather than offer easily digestible bromides about peace in response to more than 50 years of occupation and over a century of dispossession, makes for good—what’s the word?—history.

Even if The Hundred Years’ War is primarily focused on the past, one can leave Khalidi’s book with some sense of what comes next. After reviewing the various manifestations of Palestinian resistance over time, from the use of force to the use of diplomacy, from a reliance on various Arab states to going it alone, he concludes that boycotts—whether the general strike in 1936 or the modern boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement—have advanced the Palestinian cause more than anything done by Fatah or Hamas.

The Palestinians have long understood this, but so has the Israeli government. Its Ministry of Strategic Affairs, helmed by Gilad Erdan, now identifies two primary existential threats to Israel: Iran and the BDS movement. And there are other signs of possible change on the horizon. In February the UN human rights office released its list of 112 companies—among them Airbnb and Motorola—that are engaged in illegal Israeli settlements. Nearly 130 members of Parliament have called on the United Kingdom to impose economic sanctions on Israel in response to its program of de jure annexation. And South Africa has permanently recalled its ambassador to Israel, describing the treatment of the Palestinians as “apartheid.”

Even so, one should not make the mistake of overestimating these developments. Ultimately, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine is a pessimistic book, a catalog of a century of sad stories. While this outcome is partly a result of the failures of the Western media and its abetting of Palestinian erasure, it is also the logical result of an ossified power imbalance that will finally crack only under the pressure exerted by a popular campaign of moral condemnation and economic nonparticipation. There’s your script.

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