Rashid Khalid, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine (Metropolitan Books, 2020), 319 pages.
With his new book The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, Rashid Khalidi had barely finished narrating six rounds of war on Palestine before the seventh one was launched—Trump’s so-called “Deal of the Century.” It all started with the 1917 Balfour Declaration, a defining colonial moment that formalized the British Empire’s adoption of the Zionist intent. In covering this vast history of Palestine and the Zionist project, Khalidi’s multi-layered navigation and intertwined perspective masterfully integrates bottom-up socio-cultural and political history with top-down geostrategic analysis. The balance between the broader and the focused remains, admirably, guarded throughout the book.
Khalidi re-situates the conflict and its historiography within a settler-colonial context versus arguments that have continued to project the conflict as either one over a disputed land involving two rival “national groups” with equal claims, or worse, one that is based on biblical and messianic myths. Thus, Khalidi reinstates the original colonial nature of the war on Palestine—from its earlier Zionist settler phase and continuing later in the form of Western (and primarily American) neo-colonial sponsorship.
The colonialization of Palestine has taken the form of a series of six successive declarations of war (so far!) as elaborated in this book; each of these wars perpetuated what was previously conquered, expanded into new territories, and established a new baseline for the next phase. The first “declaration” spanned the years 1917-1939 and was crucial in laying the ground plan for the subsequent creation of Israel. It began through the Balfour Declaration’s deliberate ignorance of the ninety-four percent Arab majority existing in Palestine while recognising only the six percent European immigrant Jews as the “Jewish people” in need of help to create “their” Jewish state (p. 24). This creation was indeed realized in the following second declaration that covered the two decisive years of 1947-48. The aftermath of this was disastrous for Palestine and the Palestinians, as half of them were expelled from their towns and villages and became refugees, while a Jewish state was established on seventy-eight percent of their land. The third declaration of war took place in and after the 1967 war, moving the earlier declared boundaries of the “Palestine issue” to engulf new territories by closing the file on what Israel had gained during the previous war, and establishing the new reality of the occupation of all of Palestine. With the understandable persistence of Palestinian nationalism and the rise of the PLO, the following fourth Israeli declaration of war in 1982 intended to destroy this nationalism and its collaborative bases in Lebanon. As with its predecessor, this war was backed militarily, politically, and diplomatically by the United States, following the standing pattern where Israel destroys and occupies, then the United States justifies, defends, and endorses.
Yet another fighting tide of Palestinian nationalism arose in the late 1980s, this time inside Palestine in the form of the first Intifada. A fifth Israeli declaration of war was unleashed that consumed the subsequent years until 1995. This war concluded with the Oslo Accords that duplicitously imprisoned the Palestinians in a fruitless process designed to keep them under an Israeli yoke. The sixth round of wars, according to Khalidi, extended from 2000 through 2014, spanning the brutal Israeli military campaign against the second Palestinian Intifada and the three wars on Gaza Strip some of whose extreme military measures have been designated “crimes against humanity.” The final chapter in Khalidi’s book takes the readers into Trump’s latest contribution to these wars: his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the preparations to announce his upcoming “Deal of the Century.” Trump’s engagement is by all measures “yet another declaration of war on Palestinians,” as Khalidi rightly comments.
All of these “declarations of war” have shared what one could describe as first a process-making and then a process-unleashing. Aggressive and obliterating, this chain of successive processes over a century has constituted a total war on Palestine and against the Palestinians—intending not only to inflict military defeats, but also to destroy the political, social and cultural aspects of Palestinian existence.
Many Palestinians and Israelis would read this book with frustration, each for different reasons. For Palestinians, Khalidi’s account is bitter because it re-narrates the disastrous failures, mismanagement, and divisions of their leadership from the time of the British Mandate right up until today. Sharply and unapologetically, traditional leaders, parties, and notables of Mandate Palestine are held accountable; their strategies against the Zionist project and the British, as well as their internal feuds, are scrutinized and exposed. Likewise, and even more critically, Khalidi exposes the PLO’s strategies and tactics both within the armed struggle and the “peace negotiations.” For many Israelis (and Americans), stressing the colonial surrogate nature of the Zionist project is morally unsettling and politically provocative. The Zionist-American mainline narrative suppresses the colonial substance of Israel and promotes Zionism as a liberal nationalist ideology and movement, some even going so far as to presumptuously consider it to be anti-colonial.
Khalidi begins his account by detailing his Jerusalemite great grand uncle, Yousuf Diya al-Din Khalidi’s engagement with the Zionist project and his correspondence with Herzl in the late nineteenth century (pp. 5-7). A highly cultured and multi-lingual Ottoman diplomat who wrote to Herzl in French, Khalidi was perhaps one of a small Palestinian elite that presciently sensed the looming danger of Zionism. Since then, many other Khalidis—right down to the author himself—have remained at the forefront of confrontation against the many wars on Palestine. In his late 20s and during the 1967 war, the author accompanied his father Ismail Khalidi to his office at the United Nations in New York, where he worked at the division of Political and Security Council Affairs, reporting “on the council’s Middle East deliberations” (p.98-108). The workings of the Americans in delaying the issuance of a ceasefire resolution which enabled Israeli military control on the Syrian and Egyptian fronts shocked the father and son, and is vividly recorded, along with a wealth of details, in the book. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Khalidi and his wife Mona spent several years in Beirut, engaged in PLO political and media activities while Khalidi was teaching at the AUB. In 1982 the Khalidis (with their two little daughters and son) lived through the horrors of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the siege of Beirut, and the subsequent massacres at the Palestinian refugee camps Sabra and Shatila—during the “Fourth Declaration of War, 1982.” Those horrors were summed up by one Mossad officer himself who described the bombing of Beirut as “killing for killing’s sake” (p. 149). In 1992-3, Khalidi was one of the few advisors to the Palestinian delegation in Washington during the post-Madrid negotiations with the Israelis. This short-term role was cut off by the sudden announcement that success had been made in the secret talks in Oslo, thus the Washington track was rendered obsolete. Here, as well as in addressing the PLO’s strategy in Lebanon and during the first Gulf War, Khalidi levels sharp criticism at Yasir Arafat and his inner circle. Short-sightedness, hastiness, unpreparedness and, on top of all that, the personalization of politics and mismanagement had wrought disastrous outcomes for the Palestinians (p. 177).
Central to Khalidi’s re-narration of the wars on Palestine is his analysis of the policies of Western and American hegemonic powers in the region. The Zionist settler-colonial project would have had no chances of survival without the staunch support of these powers. Over more than a century, a thread of shared approaches continued to characterize earlier British and later American backing first of the Zionists, and then Israel. From Arthur Balfour and his 1917 Declaration to Trump’s Plan and his officials, a deep sense of anti-Palestinianism has continued to persist. Palestinians have been denied recognition as a people, nation, or having a representative leadership. British strategies to block or even destroy any emerging form of institutionalized Palestinian “peoplehood,” nationhood, or national leadership were later picked up by American secretaries of state who fought against the PLO as fiercely as Israel did. Golda Meir’s infamous line that “there was no such thing as Palestinians” (p. 106) had in fact set the tone and policy for Israeli and American denial of the Palestinian people and nationhood. Pertinent to this denial, two heavy-handed strategies connected the various episodes of these wars: denying Palestinians any foothold in Palestine since the days of partition, and denying their leadership recognition of any national representation. Discussing the official American perception of the Palestinians, Khalidi concludes that almost “… every American administration since Harry Truman’s has been staffed by people whose views indicate that they believe Palestinians, whether or not they exist, are lesser beings than Israelis” (p. 12). By the end of the book, Khalidi furnishes another related conclusion, that “… the United States ceased to be 'Israel’s lawyer,' and has become instead the mouthpiece of the most extreme government in Israel’s history” (p. 250).
How can this ongoing war against Palestine be prevented from declaring new episodes then? In the first place, Khalidi summarizes “three approaches [that] have been effective in expanding the way in which reality in Palestine is understood.” These have been the perspectives of “settler colonialism,” the “gross imbalance of power,” and “inequality” (p. 241). Looking into the future, and although it seems to be “a high-sounding recommendation,” Khalidi’s conclusion is the following: “Any formula advanced as a resolution of the conflict will necessarily and inevitably fail if it is not squarely based on the principle of equality. Absolute equality of human, personal, civil, political, and national rights must be enshrined in whatever future scheme is ultimately accepted by the two societies … nothing else will address the core of the problem, nor will it be sustainable and lasting” (p. 245). The Palestinians too, adds Khalidi, “… need weaning from a pernicious delusion … that Jewish Israelis are not a ‘real’ people and that they do not have national rights.” Khalidi’s detailed elaboration for future resolution of the conflict could further provoke real politique experts and politicians, especially those on the Israeli-American side. “New negotiations would need to reopen,” Khalidi stresses, “all the crucial issues created by the 1948 war that were closed in Israel’s favor in 1967 by UNSC 242, the 1947 UNGA 181 partition borders and its corpus separatum proposal for Jerusalem, the return and compensation of refugees, and the political, national, and civil rights of the Palestinians inside Israel” (p. 253). These fundamental approaches that Khalidi’s book neatly arrives at offer indeed a serious re-start to end that century-long war on Palestine. While they acknowledge the realities created by the chain of wars, they however remain anchored in principles of justice and equality for all.