Rashid Khalidi is a Palestinian-American historian and the Edward Said professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia University in New York. Earlier this year he published The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonial Conquest and Resistance, 1917-2017, an examination and interpretation, often through personal recollection, of events during the last century that have negatively affected the Palestinians. Khalidi is the author of numerous books, including Under Siege: PLO Decision-Making During the 1982 War (Columbia University Press, 1986), The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood (Beacon Press. 2006), and Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East (Beacon Press, 2013). Diwan interviewed Khalidi in early March to discuss his most recent book.
Michael Young: You’ve just published The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonial Conquest and Resistance, 1917-2017. It is a book that is, alternatively, history, analysis, personal recollection, and political pamphlet. Why write such a book today?
Rashid Khalidi: I have written several academic monographs and a couple of other books that were partly targeted at general readers. I wanted to write a book that was relatable and readable for the broadest possible audience, one that busted some of the most pernicious myths that are out there. So I made the decision to use family papers, memoirs of family members and others, and my own personal experiences to illustrate some of the key points I was making. At the same time, I tried to carefully document my analysis with 45 pages of endnotes.
MY: What we have noticed in recent years is that the mood has shifted on the Palestinians, particularly in the United States, to one that seeks to underline that they have been defeated in their conflict with Israel. President Donald Trump’s recent “deal of the century” embodied that idea perfectly. What is the likely outcome of such an approach?
RK: There have been two shifts in the United States—on the right and on the left. On the right, the extreme Israeli view that the Palestinians are a defeated people with no rights to speak of has taken over the Republican Party and its Evangelical base. That view, mainly held by older, whiter, more male, more rural, and more southern segments of the population, is the basis of the Trump administration’s approach.
On the left, there is growing impatience with Israel’s arrogance, intransigence, and its systematically discriminatory policies. These attitudes, which can be found among younger, more diverse and more urban groups, including inside the Jewish community, are growing in influence within the base of the Democratic Party, if not yet among most of the party’s leadership.
MY: A big issue at the heart of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the interpretation of what happened in 1948. Many Palestinians, and even Israelis sympathetic to their cause, argue that what occurred was a case of ethnic cleansing. Mainstream Zionist historians tend to argue that the Palestinians left their homes voluntarily, or were pushed to do so by their leaders. What is your view?
RK: The false claim regarding “voluntary” departure of 750,000 Palestinians, or the even more absurd canard that “their leaders told them to do it” has long since been debunked. These ludicrous ideas were concocted by Israeli leaders and propagandists soon after 1948, and have been successfully peddled ever since. Today, even Israeli historians unsympathetic to the Palestinians concede, on the basis of Israeli archival sources, that the refugees were expelled as the result of systematic ethnic cleansing, which logically was necessary to turn even part of a country that had an over two-thirds Arab majority into a majority Jewish state.
MY: Your title suggests that the Palestinians were somehow passively acted upon. Yet you state in your book that at times actions by the Palestinian themselves exacerbated their predicament, such as in the Fatah-Hamas rift or the way Palestinians participated in inter-Arab rivalries. What would a self-renewal of the Palestinian national movement entail in the present context?
RK: The subtitle includes the word “resistance,” so that is not entirely correct. As I suggest in the book, what would be necessary to renew the tattered state of the Palestinian national movement is new leadership, greater unity, development of a clear strategic aim, and new mainly non-violent tactics. It would also involve an understanding that the battle is not just taking place in Palestine, but is global—a fact that generations of Palestinian leaders have failed to understand fully.
MY: You write that the failure to reach a deal would have been better than the deal that emerged from Oslo. But what many are condemning today in Trump’s approach is his refusal to accept the Oslo framework. So what did you mean?
RK: The approach of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Donald Trump, and his son in law Jared Kushner, rejects Oslo only because they want total victory and the entire “Land of Israel,” without any limitations. Israel has long since brushed aside Oslo in the few respects where it limited its action. Oslo gravely harmed the Palestinians, as it constituted the first acceptance by their leadership of a framework that was meant to fall short of statehood, sovereignty, and self-determination. They have since stubbornly insisted on continuing to provide security for a system that was designed to perpetuate colonization and occupation.
MY: In looking at the history of relations between Israelis and Palestinians, and before that between the Jewish community in Palestine and Palestinians, one thing evident is that Israel has never found a sustainable relationship with the Arabs in its midst, whether in Israel itself or the occupied territories. What would a sustainable relationship entail?
RK: It would need to be based on justice and equality, and on giving up the ethnic privileges that Zionism and the legal system of the state of Israel are designed to guarantee. That is a tall order, but there is no other basis for a sustainable outcome.
MY: What does it mean to be a Palestinian-American today?
RK: On the one hand, it means in my case to live on a university campus in an atmosphere created by the Trump administration’s Executive Order of December 2019 that basically claims that activism on behalf of Palestinian rights, or criticism of the policies of the state of Israel, constitutes anti-Semitism. The Department of Education is currently trying to force this view on universities. On the other hand, it means to be supported by the base of the majority political party (the Democratic Party got nearly 3 million more votes than the Republicans in the 2016 presidential election, and its majority in the 2018 midterm elections was 9.7 million). This is the case even if the leadership of the Democratic Party is tepid in its support. Nevertheless, the House of Representatives recently defeated by a vote of 219–194 a bill that would have banned the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions campaign.