The Hundred Years' War on Palestine
A Palestinian's perspective
Last week I wrote about Zionism’s founding text. On the recommendation of Murtaza Hussain, I read The Hundred Years' War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917–2017 by Rashid Khalidi.
I am a Zionist and grew up soaked in the Zionist history of Israeli. I have been deeply sympathetic to many of the antagonists of Khalidi’s story for many years, including by temperament the more forceful strains expressed in Jabotinsky and Begin and their modern successors in Likud (Bibi’s unforgiveable allowance of October 7th notwithstanding).
But I wanted to read a good account of the Palestinian perspective. (I may be an extremist on some things, but I am no fanatic.) Khalidi presents an erudite and forceful one. His story is from one of the elite Palestinian families displaced through the events surrounding the creation of Israel, and subsequent wars (he was in Beirut during Israel’s 1982 invasion).
This is not a review of the book. I’m glad I read it, and I want to focus on a few specific observations with which I agree.
But before that, without nitpicking, some of my major qualms.
First, his account of the Israeli War of Independence / the Nakba (every event has two names and stories) differs meaningfully from the dominant account I’m acquainted with via Israeli historian Benny Morris. Gone are the Arab massacres of Jews in the region in the first half century. I’d love for Murtaza Hussain or someone else to put Khalidi’s account to Morris and try to reconcile them.
Secondly, Khalidi’s narrative is that Israel has always been the big power, backed by the superpower of the day — from 1948 all the way through to the present. Not that I think it really matters, but I’m skeptical of this. The biggest tell that Khalidi doesn’t entirely believe it either is that he elides the Yom Kippur War. And you can see why: it undermines the narrative. Unlike 1967 where Israel struck pre-emptively, there is no hiding that Israel was attacked and nearly overwhelmed in 1973, which doesn’t fit so nicely into his story.
Lastly, it’s impossible to sit comfortably with his excuse for Palestinian actions over the years. He seems to defend civilian airplane hijackings:
It carried out multiple airplane hijackings in that short time… seen as terrorist attacks by much of the world.
Which, by the way, paved the way for some of the most epic Israeli stories of heroism, most notably the rescue at Entebbe which resulted in the death of one Israeli commando — its leader, Yoni Netanyahu, and Bibi’s older brother (Yoni’s letters are a good read).
The Munich Olympics massacre of Israeli athletes is ignored. The Black September attempted coup in Jordan is described as a “Palestinian excess” whose sole regret was its failure. One can’t help that Khalidi would rather keep his sharper opinions to himself.
Khalidi is most poignant when he discusses his own family’s displacement, the massacres by the Christian militias in Lebanon (with Israeli culpability — I’m a big fan of the film Walz With Bashir) — as well as the difficulties of Palestinians in the West Bank to build normal lives under conditions of occupation and territorial fragmentation (on this, The Gatekeepers is an excellent documentary).
I find it funny that when Khalidi insists that Palestinians have against all odds put the case of the Palestinians to the international community, he only names Palestinian activists. Nowhere are some of the loudest voices in the west like those of Chomsky or Finkelstein…
Violence as counterproductive
The first extracts I share below from Khalidi ruminate on the counterproductivity of violence against Israel (my highlights):
Even before 1982, many in the PLO understood that the time had come to end the armed struggle. While still based in Lebanon, its leaders had tasked the distinguished Pakistani intellectual Eqbal Ahmad, a close friend of Edward Said and a friend of mine, with assessing their military strategy. Ahmad had worked with the Front de libération nationale in Algeria in the early 1960s, had known Frantz Fanon, and was a renowned Third World anticolonial thinker. After visiting PLO bases in south Lebanon he returned with a critique that disconcerted those who had asked his advice. While in principle a committed supporter of armed struggle against colonial regimes such as that in Algeria, Ahmad had strong criticisms of the ineffective and often counterproductive way in which the PLO was carrying out this strategy.
More seriously, on political rather than moral or legal grounds, he questioned whether armed struggle was the right course of action against the PLO’s particular adversary, Israel. He argued that given the course of Jewish history, especially in the twentieth century, the use of force only strengthened a preexisting and pervasive sense of victimhood among Israelis, while it united Israeli society, reinforced the most militant tendencies in Zionism, and bolstered the support of external actors. This was in distinction to Algeria, where the FLN’s use of violence (including women using “baskets to carry bombs, which have taken so many innocent lives” in the accusatory words of a French interrogator in the 1966 Gillo Pontecorvo film The Battle of Algiers) ultimately succeeded in dividing French society and eroding its support for the colonial project. Ahmad’s critique was profound and devastating, and not welcomed by the PLO’s leaders, who still publicly proclaimed a devotion to armed struggle even as they were moving away from it in practice. Beyond his acute understanding of the deep connection between Zionism and the long history of persecution of Jews in Europe, Ahmad’s analysis shrewdly perceived the unique nature of the Israeli colonial project.
Another consequence was that the terrible violence of the Second Intifada erased the positive image of Palestinians that had evolved since 1982 and through the First Intifada and the peace negotiations. With horrifying scenes of recurrent suicide bombings transmitting globally (and with this coverage eclipsing that of the much greater violence perpetrated against the Palestinians), Israelis ceased to be seen as oppressors, reverting to the more familiar role of victims of irrational, fanatical tormentors.
Equally risible is the idea that such attacks on civilians were hammer blows that might lead to a dissolution of Israeli society. This theory is based on a widespread but fatally awed analysis of Israel as a deeply divided and “artificial” polity, which ignores the manifestly successful nation-building efforts of Zionism over more than a century, as well as the cohesiveness of Israeli society in spite of its many internal divisions. But the most important factor missing in whatever calculations were being made by those who planned the bombings was the fact that the longer the attacks continued, the more united the Israeli public became behind Sharon’s hard-line posture. In effect, suicide bombings served to unite and strengthen the adversary, while weakening and dividing the Palestinian side
I think this is all essentially correct. And in this post-October 7 massacre world, it foretells both Hamas’s political failure and Israel’s unequivocal response.
I’m not sure how unique it is though to the Jewish context — I suspect settlers on the American frontier would have felt righteous in response to Comanche brutality. In fact, we know they did. Which is a nice segue into the next extract.
The aesthetic supremacy of Zionism in America
Establishing the colonial nature of the conflict has proven exceedingly hard given the biblical dimension of Zionism, which casts the new arrivals as indigenous and as the historic proprietors of the land they colonized. In this light, the original population of Palestine appears extraneous to the post-Holocaust resurgence of a Jewish nation-state with its roots in the kingdom of David and Solomon: they are no more than undesirable interlopers in this uplifting scenario. Challenging this epic myth is especially difficult in the United States, which is steeped in an evangelical Protestantism that makes it particularly susceptible to such an evocative Bible-based appeal and which also prides itself on its colonial past. The word “colonial” has a valence in the United States that is deeply different from its associations in the former European imperial metropoles and the countries that were once part of their empires.
Similarly, the terms “settler” and “pioneer” have positive connotations in American history, arising from the heroic tale of the conquest of the West at the expense of its indigenous population as projected in movies, literature, and television. Indeed, there are striking parallels between these portrayals of the resistance of Native Americans to their dispossession and that of the Palestinians. Both groups are cast as backward and uncivilized, a violent, murderous, and irrational obstacle to progress and modernity. While many Americans have begun to contest this strand of their national narrative, Israeli society and its supporters still celebrate—indeed, depend on—its foundational version. Moreover, comparisons between Palestine and the Native American or African American experiences are fraught because the United States has yet to fully acknowledge these dark chapters of its past or to address their toxic effects in the present. There is still a long way to go to change Americans’ consciousness of their nation’s history, let alone that of Palestine and Israel, in which the United States has played such a supportive role.
We can nitpick with various framings in here, but I do think this touches on something true: the story of Israel does strike a deep chord within the American consciousness, for historical, political and cultural reasons. I am a Zionist and so live within the “epic myth” Khalid decries. It’s to his credit he can see its outlines — however contorted — and its resonance with the American self-conception. The story of America is essentially heroic, one of conquering the New World with a great new Protestant-capitalist ethic, building the greatest industrial and innovation engine in history and dominating the world. The language of the New World Puritans has often been of the Hebrew Bible and a resonance with its Jews (Texans finding their Promised Land, their blacks seeks Exodus out of bondage). (“Call me Ishmael,” the opening lines to perhaps the great American novel is a notable exception). Similarly in Israel, also populated by fleeing peoples, the remnants of European Jewry shed the old world to forge themselves anew.
I’ll finish off with this prescient quote:
Given the clarity of what is involved in ethnic cleansing in a colonial situation… a new wave of expulsions would probably not unfold as smoothly for Israel as in the past. Even if undertaken under cover of a major regional war, such a move would have the potential to cause fatal damage to the West’s support for Israel, on which it relies… the odds so far seem against Israeli taking such a step.
One man’s ethnic cleansing is another man’s population transfer (ala the 15 million people moved during the partition of India and Pakistan or the 15 million Germans moved out of Poland after WWII). The October 7th massacre may have created the impetus for just such transfers. Northern Gaza is now barren. Let’s see what Israel will do with southern Gaza.
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