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Rashid Khalidi on the past and future of Palestine

Ismail Raghib Khalidi at UN Security council in 1967
Ismail Raghib Khalidi at UN Security council in 1967

The terms “century” and “one hundred years”, often interchangeable, shared a strange coincidence on 28 January, when the eminent Palestinian-American academic Professor Rashid Khalidi published his latest book, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917–2017. As it was hitting the bookshelves, US President Donald Trump unveiled his Middle East peace plan dubbed the “deal of the century”. Although each is aimed at the same Palestine-Israel issue, light years, rather than one hundred years, separate them.

Khalidi told me over the telephone that he chose the title to allude to the medieval Hundreds Years’ War between England and France (1337–1453) because he believed that it would resonate with Western audiences. “I’d read a lot about the Hundred Years’ War and was struck by the fact that in Palestine we’ve been at it for over 100 years now,” he explained. “The war between the crowns of England and France went on for 117 years, so we haven’t quite reached that, but nearly. I thought it would strike a chord with people.”

By using the phrase “on Palestine, Khalidi seeks to shift the framing of the predominant narrative from one of a tragic and intractable conflict between two peoples fighting over “contested” land to “a much truer” framing. “I wanted to shock the reader. I knew it would turn some people off but I don’t think you can sugar coat some of these things. It isn’t just the way Palestinians see it, I think that’s actually how it is: it’s a war on an indigenous population by an overwhelmingly powerful coalition, led by the greatest power of the age in support of the Zionist movement and, later, the state of Israel. It is like the war against the indigenous populations of North America or the war on the Algerians by French colonists and so on.”

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Prof. Khalidi sees his eighth book on modern Middle East history as the latest in a wide range of growing voices – of academic, cultural, legal and political figures – who are collectively, albeit incrementally, shaping an emerging Palestinian narrative that is gaining traction. One reason why this has been slow to emerge, he said, is that, “The Zionist narrative was put out by people who were natives of the countries from which they originated.” They were Austrian and German Zionists communicating in German, French Zionists in French, American and British Zionists in English, and so on. “The narrative was put to people in their own language, in their own idiom and within the context of their own national culture by people who were their countrymen or women.”

Palestinian-American academic Professor Rashid Khalidi, 17 March 2020

Palestinian-American academic Professor Rashid Khalidi, 17 March 2020

He added that Zionism’s narrative was also helped by its Biblical narrative, which was intimately familiar to these Western audiences, plus Zionism succeeded in allying itself to “the great colonial powers” of the age. “You had an innate advantage with the establishment in various countries in that they were sympathetic to Zionist aims and/or to supporting those aims, especially in the case of Britain and later the US.”

Palestinians never had that advantage until very recently and so started with a huge disadvantage, Khalidi added. But there have been critical changes to that landscape which give him optimism.

“I’ve seen a change in that over the past two or three decades in academic writing, especially on the Middle East and Palestine. There’s been an enormous change on university campuses in terms of a willingness to listen to an alternative interpretation of things and to be somewhat critical of the received versions. In some other sectors of American and European societies I think that, in spite of the enormous pushback, there is a receptivity today that really wasn’t there a decade or so ago in those wide sectors of the population.”

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Khalidi’s book concludes with reflections on the present and the opportunities and challenges ahead to continue to reframe the narrative. He is scathing of the rival Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, which he describes as two “ideologically bankrupt political movements” whose efforts “have come to nothing”. Reconciliation will help, he believes, but they lack “the dynamic new strategy needed to dislodge the Palestinian cause from its current state of stagnation and retreat.”

His concluding chapter doesn’t mention what role Palestinian citizens of Israel might play in future efforts. Does he feel that they have something to contribute?

“They have an enormous amount to teach other Palestinians about how to deal with Zionism, Israel, the Israel security state and their methods. They have by far the most sophisticated understanding of all of these things because they have the longest experience of it, they speak Hebrew and they are Israelis at the same time that they’re Palestinians. As time goes on some of the isolation that has arisen between Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on the one hand and Palestinians inside Israel on the other will diminish, and we have a great deal to learn from the latter.”

He also finds inspiration and leadership from elements of civil society initiatives. The rise of the global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel which was initiated by Palestinian civil society and is now supported by international grassroots human rights groups, church groups and trade unions, among others, has done more to further the Palestinian cause than the two main political parties in the West Bank and Gaza, he told me.

Acutely aware of the impact that BDS could have and its role in reframing the Palestinian narrative, the Israeli government has poured tens of millions of dollars into combatting it globally, primarily via the recently created Ministry of Strategic Affairs. Charges of anti-Semitism are an increasingly common tactic levelled at BDS and its supporters.

Khalidi believes that these accusations are having an impact – just look at the relentless accusations and witch hunt that Britain’s Labour Party has been enduring for several years now, or Bernie Sanders’ current Democrat leadership campaign in the US – but, he insisted, it is destined to fail.

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“They’re meant to have a chilling effect. Are they going to be successful? One thing we have in the US which you don’t have in Europe is the First Amendment. Ultimately any law that is passed in the direction of suppressing boycotts or the BDS movement is going to be ruled as an infringement of the First Amendment, citizens’ rights to free speech. They will fail. Boycotts are a respected form of resistance to oppression ever since Captain Boycott in Ireland was boycotted by the Irish peasants; then the Indians picked it up, the South Africans picked it up, the American Civil Rights movement picked it up, and now the Palestinians have picked it up. It’s as American as apple pie. You cannot make it illegal.”

Although they can argue that BDS is “anti-Semitic” we should turn the argument around. “Is what the Irish peasants were to Captain Boycott in some way racial discrimination? Of course it wasn’t; it was resistance against oppression. It shows that the hysterical brandishing of the term anti-Semitism to describe any critique of Israel or Zionism, or any defence of Palestinian rights, is so self-evidently ludicrous that I think people are going to be laughed out of court sooner or later.”

Khalidi touches on the idea of a one- or two-state solution in the closing pages of his book but said that he is agnostic about what form it ultimately takes. That reality is a long way off, he insisted, and is a distraction to the more pressing message required right now.

“We should be thinking: how do we transit from where we are, this kind of one-state status quo to an equitable one state situation, or to an equitable two- or multiple-state or whatever? It’s not going to happen very soon and fretting about the details distracts us from the principles: it has to be [based on] absolute equality. You pound that home in a country that is based on the idea that all men are created equal, or a country that says that liberty, equality and fraternity are the basis of the republic, and you have an argument that is incontrovertible. [What exists] is unequal and discriminatory – you don’t have to use a term like “apartheid” although it’s worse in my view than apartheid – and this is an ideal that involves equality. That should be the thing to stress.”

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