Rashid Khalidi is perhaps the leading academic on Palestine in the US. He is the Edward Said professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia University in New York, where he has taught since 2003, and ran the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Chicago in the 1980s and 1990s, where he met and befriended Barack Obama, then a young professor. Khalidi was born in New York, from where he spoke to the New Statesman on 6 November over video link, but he and his family have deep roots in Palestinian society.
His most recent book, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine (2020), tells a history of the Israel-Palestine conflict that doubles as a history of his own family and of his life. (He was born in 1948, the year in which Israel was founded.) He was living and teaching in Lebanon during the 1982 Israel-Lebanon war, and was affiliated with the Palestine Liberation Organisation in press reports at the time. He advised the Palestinian delegation at the Madrid Conference of 1991, in the years leading up to the Oslo Accords.
His manner is both professorial and polemical, friendly and stern. He speaks expressively. When he talked of Palestinians being “locked into enclaves” after 2005 he created a cage in mid-air with sounds and gestures. His answers often gathered a strength of feeling as he unwound them, as the occasional exclamations below seek to convey.
Harry Lambert: You set out a compelling account in your book of how Palestine was, in effect, colonised. I can’t judge that account. But given the case you make, do you think the creation of the state of Israel was legitimate?
Rashid Khalidi: I think it depends on what lens you choose. Take the Covenant of the League of Nations , which said that Palestine and other provinces were independent nations, so they should have been granted self-determination. But under the Balfour Declaration of 1917 they were not, so there’s a contradiction [one conceded by Balfour in a 1919 memo]. International law called for Palestine to be independent, but it also called for the establishment of the Jewish national home and in effect excluded Palestinian statehood. The same can be said about the UN Charter , which also calls for self-determination, and contrasts with the UN Partition Plan of 1947, which created a state for the Jewish minority in most of Palestine.
So you can say international legitimacy is on the side of a Jewish national home and of a Jewish state in most of Palestine, while an Arab state was never created – in fact it was strangled at birth. Or you can say, by the right of self-determination that people should have had after the First and Second World Wars, that there was no legitimate ground for creating a Jewish state in a majority Arab country. I would take the latter position.
Palestinians as a people had a right to self-determination after those wars, whatever rights should have accrued to the Jewish people after the First World War or after the Holocaust. Those [Jewish] rights were being exercised at the expense of another people that had – what I would argue were – prior rights.
The fact that racist immigration laws prevented Jewish survivors of the Holocaust from going to the United States or going to Britain, forcing them to come to Palestine – and the fact that the Zionist movement wanted to bring them to Palestine – doesn’t annul the right of a people to self-determination. The world had a problem which it chose to resolve at the expense of the Palestinians because it had a justified sense of guilt over a long period of time, from its persecution of Jews, and over a very short period of time after the Holocaust.
HL: But given these origins, it must be difficult for you to see how this conflict can be solved within today’s constraints. Because according to the position you take, this state should never have been created in this manner.
RK: That’s correct. I think Israel in the structure in which it exists has a problem. That doesn’t mean there’s no possible resolution for a problem of two peoples in one land, or for resolving the problem created by a colonial-settler paradigm. There are solutions that have been put forward in South Africa, in what used to be called Southern Rhodesia [Zimbabwe], in Kenya, in Ireland – I think you can see how you might grow towards a situation where the settler becomes a native, and is accepted as having a distinct personality. In the case of Ireland, the Protestants are no longer on sufferance. They are part of this polity with their own distinct identity. The same thing would be true of Israelis.
[See also: The slipperiness of ceasefire]
HL: But is the logic of what you’ve just said that the Jewish people would remain in some form settlers or colonialists until they come to a sort of peace with the Palestinian people?
RK: You can see in the West Bank – day in, day out for the past 56 years [since the 1967 war] – to what extent this is and has always been a settler-colonial process. We see it with our bare eyes every single day, as armed settlers rampage through Palestinian towns and villages, chasing people off their land. The same kinds of legal processes were applied in Australia and North America, to dispossess people and squeeze them into smaller areas. That process is a settler-colonial process. Israel as a state is accepted in the international community, it has all of these aspects of legitimacy. But that process is, in my view, illegitimate.
They’re stealing land in the West Bank as we speak! They’re doing the same thing in Jerusalem. I’m afraid they’re going to try and do the same thing in the northern part of Gaza – chase everybody out and make it a free-fire zone. In many parts of the West Bank [Israel] hasn’t taken it over, they declare it a military or green zone: you can’t build on it, you can’t live; “it’s ours”, they’ll say. And it is and one day they’ll put a settlement there, or not. Anybody who is blind to that, and to the earlier colonial nature of Zionism before 1948, is missing something about the state of Israel as it was established, and operates today.
HL: You describe the Zionist movement as more well-resourced than the Palestine cause in the 30-year period to 1948, with it being able to finance land purchases and so forth. Given that, what could Palestinians have done to resist the momentum of history at that time?
RK: They could have done one of two things. They could have tried to compromise and say, ‘OK, you can have most of our country or half of it,’ but I don’t think Zionism would have been satisfied with that. They wanted, in [Zionist politician and soldier, Ze’ev] Jabotinsky’s words, to transform Palestine into the land of Israel. And they meant all of it – they didn’t mean 12 or 20 or 8 per cent. And by 1967, they had all of it.
Or they [the Palestinians] could have resisted earlier. Look at what the Egyptians and Iraqis did. They rose up against their colonial occupiers. Britain intended to rule Egypt and Mesopotamia [Iraq] as an extension of the Indian Empire – the empire that controlled the Gulf and southern Iran and would have been extended into Mesopotamia, with Indian settlers put in. But the Iraqis rose up in 1920 and forced a feeble and unsatisfactory form of independence on the British. The Egyptians rose up in 1919 and did the same thing. I’m not saying it could have happened. It didn’t happen. But had it happened, maybe the Palestinians could have cut a better deal with the British.
HL: But was Palestine big enough to have caused those problems for Britain? Egypt was a much bigger country to try and control.
RK: This is part of the problem. These other countries were also dealing with only one colonial power. The Palestinians were up against the British, the Zionist movement, and the League of Nations. In Palestine, there was no Arab administration [unlike in other Arab countries, where the British ruled indirectly through local leaders]. The British ruled directly, and then they allowed the Jewish Agency [the body designated to represent the Jews in Palestine] to establish a sort of quasi-state under their protection. Palestinians were not allowed to have a parallel structure.
HL: You talk in the book about how your father was sent by his older brother in 1947 to see Abdullah I, the king of Jordan, in order to deliver a message from the Palestinians. There was, to your point, no formal diplomatic channel.
RK: In the 1920s, in the 1930s, the Palestinians did have a generally accepted representative: the Arab Higher Committee. But the British exiled most of the members of that committee in 1937, including my uncle and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. From that point on, the Palestinians suffered from not having a recognised central representative. And that continues until the founding of the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organisation] in 1964. Addressing the UN General Assembly in 1974 is one of the first occasions when the Palestinians were allowed to speak for themselves.
HL: Who then speaks for the Palestinian movement today?
RK: The Palestinians have a grave problem: the division of the national movement since the 1990s. There was a golden era of recognition of the PLO after [Yitzhak] Rabin became Israeli prime minister again in 1992. That was centred on its renunciation of “terrorism”, its adoption of a two-state approach, and its acceptance of Security Council resolution 242 [of 1967, which called for Israel to withdraw from occupied territories]. All of these things had grave disadvantages by the way. You accept that your resistance is terrorism, you accept the resolution that excludes you, you join negotiations on a basis that is designed to limit what you can get.
Nevertheless, the PLO represented majority opinion among the Palestinians until sometime in the late 1990s, when people begin to realise that the 1993 Oslo Accords had actually been designed to freeze and exacerbate an unfavourable status quo. Instead of ending occupation, occupation is reinforced. Gaza is blockaded starting in 1993. The first limitations on movement in and out of Gaza start then. GDP per capita falls, movement is restricted. Before 1993 you could drive with Palestinian plates to the Golan Heights, to Eilat [Israel’s southernmost point, on the Red Sea] or to Gaza with no hindrance. Suddenly the Palestinians are locked into enclaves – Bantustans [areas reserved for black populations in apartheid South Africa]. That’s Oslo.
That’s when Hamas [formed in 1987] becomes a serious challenger. The blocking off of the political horizon, which the PLO had assumed Oslo provided, was grist to the mill of Hamas. The Israelis in a sense helped to create Hamas as a counter to the PLO in the late 1980s. Israeli intelligence people have written this. Israel pulled the rug out from under the PLO, and you had the Second Intifada [2000-05]. And because the PLO don’t submit to what Israel demands, the US lifts its hands and says: “OK, then stay in their interim status under Israeli control and stew in your own juices.”
That’s been the American position. They weren’t willing to talk to a unified Palestinian national movement when Hamas won a plurality of the Legislative Council in the 2006 elections. [Mahmoud] Abbas had won the presidency the year before. The two sides [Hamas and Fatah, Abbas’s party] agreed on a unity government that would have allowed them to negotiate and which would have supported a two-state solution. Hamas was talking about a 100-year truce. Israel was not interested.
HL: You knew Barack Obama well, when you both lived in Chicago in the 1990s. What do you make of his approach to the issue in office?
RK: I think he understood a great deal more than his presidency ever showed. But he was a wily politician. He tried and failed to run for a seat in the House [in Chicago], held by a former member of the Black Panther party called Bobby Rush. He was crushed by the Chicago machine, and Michelle was not supportive of his continuing to run. But he was an ambitious man, and he ran for Senate in 2004. It was clear then that he was not going to stick his neck out on this issue because it was politically toxic. And then that carried over into his presidential campaign. From that point on we really lost touch with him.
HL: Because you felt betrayed by him on this issue, given the knowledge he had?
RK: Friends said, “He betrayed us, we expected great things of him.” I did not expect great things. Knowing what I know about American politics, I did not think that his knowledge and his understanding, such as it was, would necessarily translate into a change of American policy. He tried through John Kerry [secretary of state in Obama’s second term] to do something.
HL: But is Israel too powerful at this point to be directed by the US?
RK: The United States has the capability to force Israel to do exactly what it wants when American policymakers determine that vital American national interests are at stake. Obama actually did that with the Iran nuclear deal. [Ehud] Barak was minister of defence under Netanyahu [in 2007-13]. They were going to attack Iran. The Obama administration put its foot down and went ahead with the JCPOA, the nuclear agreement with Iran signed in the teeth of the most ferocious Israeli opposition [in 2015]. It’s the best example you can have. Israel wants to go to war, the Americans say, “under no circumstances! And we’re going to strike a deal with the Iranians. If you don’t like it, tough.” This in spite of Netanyahu’s rabble-rousing before the US Congress, with the connivance of the Republicans. He spoke three times in front of joint sessions of Congress. The only other world leader to speak more than twice to joint sessions is Winston Churchill.
George Bush and James Baker, and Nixon and Kissinger, did the same when American vital interests were seen to be at stake. Nixon and Kissinger basically forced the Israelis out of Sinai! And out of part of the Golan Heights. That was an American national interest: winning Egypt to the American camp during the Cold War, the Israelis be damned. The military-industrial complex is more important than Israel. But on Palestine, no vital interest is seen to be engaged by most American policymakers. And you have a powerful constituency in [America] who support Israel unconditionally.
HL: For a century Western interests haven’t been disturbed by the Palestine question.
RK: That may be changing now. A majority of Americans in one poll favour a ceasefire. Only 10 per cent of 18- to 35-year-olds in another supported their policy on Gaza. Biden may lose Michigan and other states if Arab and Muslim voters turn against him.
HL: You quote Truman in your book saying “I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism. I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.” That’s not true for an American president anymore.
RK: There’s a shift in young people generally, who know that the mainstream media are lying and pay no attention to them. They have their own sources – Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat – and they know better what’s actually going on than the distorted picture that the New York Times and the Washington Post and CNN and Fox present to people over 50. Hakeem Jeffries, and the leadership of the Democratic Party, is as pro-Israel as can be. But that does not represent opinion among the Democratic grassroots.
[See also: The Iran Trap]
HL: But how then do you think Israel should have responded after the 7 October attacks?
RK: It depends on what they wanted to do. If they wanted to reproduce the bankrupt concept which held that the more Palestinians you kill the more secure you’ll be, they should have done exactly what they’re doing. Then killing 10,000 Palestinians, including 4,000 children, is a brilliant strategy.
Yoav Gallant created Gaza! He was a division commander, he was head of the Southern Command, he was former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s closest adviser in the withdrawal and imprisonment of Gaza starting in 2005. He’s been the architect of that. And this is the man who is today Israel’s minister of defence. Gadi Eisenkot, who is an observer in the war cabinet, is the man who talked about the Dahiya doctrine [a military strategy that legitimises the destruction of civilian buildings]. He became chief of the Israeli general staff. He said we will not obey the laws of war, we will not obey the law of proportionality, we will devastate the villages and cities, as they did in Beirut in 2006.
What should Israel have done? They shouldn’t have done what they were doing to begin with. They should think about having an entirely different approach to the Palestinians. They have undermined the Palestinian Authority systematically. They have elected people who want to annex and take over the West Bank. Bezalel Smotrich, the Israeli finance minister, said “if they don’t like it they can leave, or we’ll kill them”.
Well, if those are the people who represent you, and that’s what you believe – as a government, as a state, as a people – then you’re going to get the response that that kind of repression always inevitably will bring. An unpleasant, unacceptable response, which may be a gross violation of international humanitarian law, as was what happened on 7 October. But Israel has choices, which it has not chosen to take.
HL: How though do you get Hamas out of Gaza?
RK: Hamas has been demonised since 7 October and cast beyond the pale. They’re unacceptable. OK, fine – why? They’ve committed war crimes. OK. Is the killing of 10,000 Palestinian civilians a war crime? If only the killing of Israeli civilians is a war crime, and everything else is legitimate self-defence, then we’re not talking the same language. If these people who kill 1,000 innocent civilians in Israeli settlements along the Gaza border are war criminals and terrorists – why are the generals and people who are ordering the deaths of ten times as many civilians on the other side not?
As far as I’m concerned Benny Gantz, Eisenkot and Gallant – the three generals in the war cabinet – are war criminals. I would say we as Palestinians have to sit down with them, we have no choice. Equally Israel cannot pick and choose which Palestinian leader they are going to sit down with, unless they only want to sit down with emasculated, castrated, tame Palestinians. It’s like the British saying we will not deal with the IRA. Well then you’ve got troubles. And you did in Britain.
HL: Israeli strategists say that every bombing they do goes through a legal process. They do not bomb indiscriminately.
RK: Since they don’t let Western journalists into Gaza, you have no way of knowing, because all Arabs are of course liars, you can’t believe them. The president of the United States said you can’t believe their statistics [Biden said on 25 October that he has “no confidence” in the death-toll figures in Gaza]. Somebody can go into Shifa, the main hospital in Gaza City. Send a white man or woman to walk the corridors, and you’d see that there are no military facilities there. I know a doctor who works there. [Note: the US has said that “Hamas does use hospitals, along with a lot of other civilian facilities, for command-and-control, for storing weapons, for housing its fighters.”]
But Israel has sealed Gaza. Nobody can get in. They bombed the water tanks in Jabalia refugee camp. Is that a military target? No, they’re trying to force the people of Gaza out. Those are war crimes. You think Hamas doesn’t have its own supplies of everything: water, fuel, weapons, food, medicines? Of course they do, if they have the wherewithal to be firing rockets on day 32 of this miserable war. Just as the Iraqi people suffered from sanctions, while its leaders had all the goodies they needed. Ultimately Israel will have to live with the people they bombed.
HL: But Hamas wanted the Gazan population to suffer after their attack on 7 October.
RK: That may be true. One has to assume that they knew Israel’s response would be ferocious. They’d seen it in the past.
HL: What about the role of the Arab states? They have always been crucial to Palestine’s fate. The Israeli strategist I spoke with [Eitan Shamir] thought that the comments being made by various leaders – Queen Rania of Jordan and others – are really just window-dressing to Arabs in “the street”, that these Arab leaders want Hamas to be crushed even more than Israel does.
RK: There is no question that the repressive, dictatorial regimes in the region are very opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood and to Hamas, which is an offshoot of it. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates have had massive internal campaigns against the Muslim Brotherhood since 2000. There’s no question they would prefer a divided Palestinian national movement to one dominated by Hamas. These same regimes were very eager for a normalisation with Israel. Yet every single poll has shown that Arab public opinion is completely different. So don’t talk to me about the Arab street. It is the Arab peoples on the one hand and a bunch of autocrats clinging to their thrones on the other.
Egypt has had peace with Israel since 1979. The Egyptian people have not accepted that. They will not go to Israel. The same is true of Jordan. They’ve had peace since 1994, and there’s no interaction between Jordanians and Israelis at all! What does that mean? It means Israel has made peace with a bunch of autocrats that don’t represent their people and Israel are in fact dependent on these regimes staying in power at the expense of democracy.
HL: You talk as if you’d like them all to be democracies. But would you be happy to live under the Muslim Brotherhood? Would you be happy to live under Hamas?
RK: I don’t know that the Muslim Brotherhood would necessarily win an election.
HL: But they did in Egypt in 2012 after the “Arab spring”.
RK: And they probably would have lost the next one, had the Egyptians allowed them. They had turned the people against them by the time the military launched its coup. Yes, I would prefer democracy.
Israel’s response to Hamas has made these regimes’ moves in the direction of normalisation impossible. In fact, you have a tougher position on the part of the Arab governments that I can remember, saying “under no circumstances we will allow Israel to ethnically cleanse Palestine at our expense”. That’s pretty important.
HL: But they’re not doing anything to prevent it, if that’s what you think Israel are doing.
RK: No, but they’re not letting Israel dump Palestinians in Sinai and Jordan.
HL: What about the role of Iran and Hezbollah?
RK: I don’t want to make predictions because I can be proved wrong within five minutes. But I think the Iranians and Hezbollah have made a calculation that it is not to their advantage to become more involved in this conflict, because I think they believe Israel cannot destroy Hamas. They might defeat its military wing, but they’ve defeated its military wing before. Hamas is a political, religious, cultural, and ideological body. And it exists wherever the Palestinians are. It is a powerful force in Palestinian society. They got 44 per cent in 2006. They’d probably have less than that now. But you can’t destroy Hamas in the long term.
Why would you [as Iran] waste the powerful deterrent that’s been built up in Lebanon to protect Iran against Israel in a situation where you’re not losing? I don’t think Iran’s leaders care about Gaza – they care about staying in power and not having their country devastated. You get into a war with Israel and the United States becomes involved, and you are going to be flattened. Why would they do that?
HL: How does this end?
RK: Things changed after the First Intifada (1987-93) very quickly. Who would have thought that Yasser Arafat and Rabin would have signed an agreement [Oslo], or that Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin would in 1978 after the 1973 war. Although I’m not terribly optimistic about such change in Israel. There is an enormous amount of hurt and rage and pain in Israel, understandably, at the huge toll of civilian casualties. It may take a long time for that to be overcome. And the same thing is true among Palestinians. Israelis are affected. And ten times as many Palestinians are affected, because the number of civilian deaths is ten times as great.