An Interview With Rashid Khalidi, Columbia University’s Historian of the Middle East

by | Nov 27, 2023

An Interview With Rashid Khalidi, Columbia University’s Historian of the Middle East

by | Nov 27, 2023

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This interview took place on November 3, 2023.

Rashid Khalidi is a Palestinian-American historian of the Middle East at Columbia University in New York City and worked as an advisor to Palestinian negotiators in the 1990s in Madrid and Washington. He has written many books on the Middle East, including the Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, which offers a fact-filled history of the Israel-Palestine conflict from 1917 to 2017. The gripping book is a hard-hitting critique of Israel’s many wars against the Palestinian people and the ongoing colonization of Palestine. It nevertheless offers a balanced, nuanced view of the conflict. Khalidi has woven fascinating personal stories of several generations of the Khalidi family into the narrative while appealing to his fellow Arabs to recognize the great importance of the Holocaust and the state of Israel to the Jewish people.

In this interview he explains the latest escalation of the conflict, its deep historical roots, and the role of the West and Israel’s central propaganda myths.

Q: Mr. Khalidi, how are you feeling these days?

A: I’m feeling great distress. I have family in Gaza and other parts of Palestine. I have many students and friends in Palestine and Israel. I’m feeling very distressed, especially at the enormous loss of civilian life in Gaza that’s ongoing right now.

Q: What are your initial thoughts at the moment. What’s most important to understand from your perspective?

A: It’s very important to understand that under international humanitarian law and under any moral standard civilian life should be protected to the greatest extent possible. That would apply not only to Israeli civilians – unless one applies a perverse moral scale -, but across the board. While I feel that for most people in the world that’s understood, I think it’s not as well understood as it should be in some parts of the West. I think there are assumptions about Israel’s right to self-defense and issues like proportionality and protection of civilians in combat situations of war that are not fully understood.

It’s very clear that Israeli civilians are killed, as happened especially on the 7th. These are non-combatants. Somehow, the killing of right now somewhere close to 9,000 or 9,500 Palestinians, does not evoke the same kind of concern. And I find that very distressing. That’s not true for everybody. I think much public opinion in the West is actually quite sympathetic to that point of view, that all human life is precious, and international humanitarian law applies to everybody. However, for most of our politicians and for much of our media and, unfortunately, for many institutions in our society, that’s simply not the case. Some human lives are deemed more important, some civilians, and that to me is very distressing.

Q: I’m quite shocked by the level of propaganda right now, even in Germany. I’m used to that on this conflict, but it’s quite extreme right now because it’s so obvious that war crimes are committed every day. They tell us all the time that Hamas is using human shields and so on. What’s your reaction to that? Why is there no justification for what’s happening?

A: Every irregular military force hides among people like fish swim in the sea. In addition, in Gaza, there’s nowhere to hide. It’s a tiny space. Army installations are also located in and around Israeli communities. Nobody says that Israel hides behind human shields. But they may be more clearly separated; they probably are. If you look carefully at the map of the areas around Gaza, there are military bases dotted amongst the civilian communities. I think that’s actually a brilliant talking point, but it doesn’t absolve any armed force of the responsibility to obey international humanitarian law. Whether there are combatants among civilians or whether they’re out in the field offering to be killed should make no difference in terms of international humanitarian law.

To the extent possible, civilians should be protected. In the case of Israel, its leaders have specifically adopted something that was called the Dahiya Doctrine right after the 2006 war in Lebanon. An Israeli general who is currently in this war, Gadi Eizenkot, was then a major general, and he enunciated the doctrine, which said, “We will not respect the principle of proportionality,” which is the central principle of international humanitarian law where it applies to non-combatants. He said, “We will destroy civilian targets.” He said that about villages and urban reaches. He was talking about the suburb of South Beirut named Dahiya, which the air force flattened in 2006, killing many hundreds of civilians.

So, we have a serial violator of international humanitarian law not just doing that surreptitiously, but announcing that it intends to and will continue to violate international law. And yet, nobody asks any questions. I mean, every Israeli talking point is repeated and repeated by our politicians and by our media. Gadi Eizenkot has said that he will commit war crimes. I’ve dealt with a great deal of media in the last many years and even more in the last three weeks, four weeks. I haven’t heard one person mention that doctrine in any media.

Q: It almost seems like senior politicians and army leaders in Israel agree. They say that they are going after civilians in Gaza. It almost seems like they would disagree with those Western propagandists who are trying to come up with excuses for Israel. They would agree with us and say, “No, we are doing it.”

I have to ask the big question, which is too big for an interview, people should really look into your book for this. But what can you tell us about the root causes of the whole conflict?

A: It’s a recent conflict. It’s a product of the development of modern nationalism. It’s a product of Western imperialism. Before modern nationalism, there were no Israelis and no Palestinians. There were Jews and Arabs in Palestine. They had ethnic and linguistic and historical and religious roots of different sorts. But the conflict is a function of the rise of modern political Zionism and the rise of nationalism among Palestinians. It’s a function of the British imperial decision to establish a settler colony in Palestine under the Balfour Declaration and the mandate for Palestine. Without those factors, nationalism and British imperialism, you would not have the conflict we have today.

You might have had a form of Zionism. But what we have today is a conflict between a national movement, which is also a settler colonial movement, which since its inception always saw itself as part of Europe, always saw itself as both entitled to Palestine with rights in Palestine, but also as a separate, a colonial movement. You had something called the Jewish Colonization Agency, this is not my name for it; this is not some antisemitic smear of Zionism. This is what Zionists called their land purchase agency, and they talked about settlement and colonialism. People like Jabotinsky, at least the honest ones amongst them, recognized that this was a colonial conflict.

So, it starts from those roots as well as being a national conflict. Obviously, you have had the development of a national movement and a national consciousness on both sides at approximately the same time, within a generation of each other. But it’s not an equal conflict. This is not France and Germany. This is a colonial movement backed by the greatest powers in world history at every stage of its existence. It is not the poor little Zionists in Palestine all by themselves against a sea of hostile Arabs. It’s Zionism backed by the British Empire, the greatest empire of its time, against Palestinians supported by Arab peoples, most of them under colonial control in the mandate period up to 1948. And then Israel supported by Western powers, most notably the United States, against the Palestinians supported by various forces, but less powerful ones.

Zionism has always depended on extremely powerful European imperialist forces and later American power to impose itself on Palestine. What you see in the West Bank, rampaging settlers driving Palestinians out, is part of a process that goes back to 1948, and it has its roots in this earlier settler colonial process. Efforts to push the Palestinians out of Palestine or into smaller and smaller parts of Palestine have been ongoing ever since 1948.

Even after the Nakba, when 750,000 people were pushed out of what became Israel, Israel shot and killed every person who tried to return. Israel squeezed the Arab population that remained into smaller and smaller areas and took their land for exclusive use by Jewish settlers and has operated on the same principles ever since, whether in the West Bank or in Jerusalem or in the occupied Golan Heights. Some characteristics of this process have not changed over time; obviously, many others have.

Q: In your book you show quite convincingly that there was never any offer for a Palestinian state that would have made possible a two-state solution. Rabin and later Barak maybe got close in some ways, but they didn’t quite get there. So, to summarize your book: there never was any serious solution to the conflict from the Israeli side since 1967 that could have been acceptable to the Palestinians. Correct?

A: That’s absolutely correct. No solution that was offered met the minimum requirement of the Palestinians for equal rights of sovereignty, equal rights of movement, equal rights to security. Several Israeli leaders were willing to negotiate. Netanyahu is not. Several Israeli leaders were willing to change Israeli positions. I would not call them concessions, because our land and our rights are not theirs to give. However, three Israeli leaders, Rabin, Barak and Olmert in different ways and at different times were at least willing to negotiate. Rabin agreed that the Palestinians were a people. No Israeli leader had ever said that. Golda Meir had said only a few years earlier that the Palestinians didn’t even exist. It is still a position of many Israeli leaders to this day. Rabin accepted that the Palestinians were represented by the PLO, which was an important shift. So he made major moves in terms of Israel’s previous positions. He did not, however, at any stage accept the idea of fully independent sovereign statehood for the Palestinians. In his last speech before the Knesset, he said, ‘We will offer the Palestinians less than a state.’ He said, ‘We will control the Jordan River Valley.’ What does that mean? Continued occupation and control of the occupied territories. So even Rabin, who made these important changes in Israel’s position up until his death, was not ready to give the Palestinians sovereign independent statehood and freedom from control by another power. The same for Barak and Olmert.

Q: Since then every Israeli government tended to be more and more right-wing. Sharon, Netanyahu, and now he’s brought extreme settler parties into the government. So the situation in Gaza and the West Bank became more and more untenable.

But let me play the advocatus diaboli. Many Westerners do understand that the Palestinians suffer and that they are victims of injustice. But most of them feel a bit closer to Israel I think. They believe that especially Hamas, but also the other Palestinian armed groups are hell-bent on destroying Israel. They want to kill all the Jews and commit a second Holocaust. And therefore it is our responsibility – despite Israel not being perfect when it comes to human rights – to support its essential right of self-defense. If I were a pro-peace Israeli in Tel Aviv, and I always tried to make peace, and I understand that Palestinians deserve their own state and human dignity, my reaction to this Hamas attack may very well be: Maybe they do want to kill us all! I would certainly be scared of Hamas if I would be an Israeli right now. So what would you say if I tell you, ‘Well look, I know we never tried very hard to make peace, but now we have no choice but to destroy Hamas, and it’s ugly, but what are we supposed to do?’

A: You’ve summed up so many central elements of the Israeli narrative. First of all, this starts in not just Germany but the West from a well-deserved sense of guilt because of what Christian Europe has done to the Jews for over a millennia. I’m not just talking about the Holocaust. This drives much of this sentiment unfortunately, and it is played upon by Israelis. So the Holocaust and the possible extermination of the entire Jews of Israel evokes these horrible memories and triggers feelings of guilt, well-deserved feelings.

When the PLO renounced violence in 1988. when we went to Madrid and Washington to support a peaceful solution, there was overwhelming support among Palestinians. When Arafat signed the Oslo Accords on the White House Lawn in 1993 support for peace among Palestinians and for a two state solution was overwhelming. The opposition was a small minority and this continued to be the case for most of the 1990s. So why did that change? Why did a small minority become a much larger minority? Why did they carry out suicide bombings in the 1990s and later on? It’s not as if suddenly some drug affected them! Israeli behaviour, Israeli actions affected them. Even while they negotiated the number of settlements doubled and tripled. The occupation became more restrictive in 1993. The imprisonment of the Palestinians in bantustans in the West Bank and the imprisonment of Gaza start with Oslo. Israel created a situation where violence appeared the only option. Israel indirectly created Hamas by its refusal to accept a sovereign Palestinian state. Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu, Barak. Olmert, Sharon – every single Israeli government increased the enclosure and the restrictions on Palestinians, expanded the settlement process. There are now 700000 to 800000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Palestinians are supposed to be non-violent. What about Israel’s violence? Settlement involves violence; you’re stealing land, you have to kick people off. Closing off the West Bank involves violence. Policing the West Bank and East Jerusalem involves violence; imprisonment is violence.

Now, were Palestinians willing to follow a peaceful course in their overwhelming majority from sometime in the 1980s until the end of the 1990s? Yes. How did Israel reciprocate? No Palestinian state, no hope, no peace settlement, a much, much more intense, vigorous, restrictive and harsh occupation. Well, you have violence; inevitably, necessarily.

Gross misconceptions, systematic misinformation, and guilt produce this toxic blend of lies and half-truths, which is the point of view that you put forward. Nothing, none of it is true. Are there Palestinians who want to eliminate Israel? Yes. Did they want to kill everybody? Maybe, maybe not. Are there Australians today who want to eliminate Australia? Yes. Are there Palestinians who support violence? Yes. Were Palestinians in a different place for a decade and a half? Yes. Why did that change? Well, you have to ask questions, and you also have to ask, were there opportunities even with groups that once advocated or practiced violence? Were there opportunities that were ignored or that were missed?

In the early 2000s, after Abbas was elected in 2005 and after Hamas won a plurality in the Legislative Council elections of 2006, unity governments formed between Fatah and Hamas, which offered to negotiate with Israel. The West and Israel turned that down; they said no. Israel said, ‘Hamas has to renounce violence, coded as terrorism, and has to accept the existence of Israel as a precondition for negotiations. But we continue our systematic unceasing violence of occupation and colonization. You stop resisting and apriori, before we talk, you accept our existence as we define it, and then we will agree to talk to you.’

Netanyahu didn’t agree to talk, and the next government did not, would not. So was this an opportunity? Maybe, maybe not. There’s no guarantee that a coalition government would have been able to reach an agreement with Israel, but the United States refused; Europe refused. So, again, this narrative of ‘they’ve always wanted to kill us, always, all they wanted to do is kill us, they’re killers, they’re no different than the Nazis’ is a completely false narrative.

In 1982 Begin compared Arafat in besieged West Beirut to Hitler in Berlin at the end of World War II, he constantly used those metaphors, and that’s been a trope of Israeli propaganda ever since. They focused on the Mufti, who did, in fact, collaborate with the Nazis during World War II, and it’s always been a central element. Well, there were many other Palestinian leaders who didn’t. There were many Palestinians who fought in the British army against Germany.

Q: I think an argument that is too often missing on the pro-Palestinian side is that the US and Europe should force the Israelis to do what’s best for their own security. To me it’s obvious that their politics in Palestine are the biggest threat to Israeli security for the reasons you just pointed out. Shouldn’t that be more emphasized?

A: I certainly think so. If Western politicians had the true interests of Israelis at heart as well as their own and the interest of peace and stability in the region, they would not have followed the policies of blindly and unquestioningly following whatever course Israel chooses. Is killing 9,000 people a good way to ensure the security of Israel into the next decade? I can guarantee you that it’s not. I can guarantee that the relatives of the killed and the 20,000 people so far who have been injured will not look kindly on Israel. The people they are now fighting are in many cases the children of people whom they have killed. Now, can people who fight each other sit down eventually and negotiate? Yes, they can. Every conflict that has been resolved in South Africa and elsewhere shows that that’s the case. Yitzhak Rabin was responsible for the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948. I’m not saying violence makes it impossible, but it doesn’t make it easier. Similarly, the killing of Israeli civilians certainly does not make resolution easier. What happened on the 7th of October does not make any kind of resolution easier.

Q: I’m quite shocked by the reaction of the U.S., Britain, Germany, and the European Union. I’ve always tried to tell people that the West is quite capable of doing horrible things, as seen in Yemen, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq.

But now, what I feel is different is that they are fanatical about this. They are very emotionally attached to Israel. The leaders of Western countries put a lot of pressure on everybody criticizing them. They try to discredit them by making it look like they sympathize with the horrible massacres by Hamas. I find that quite disturbing.

If I try to imagine what this looks like from a Palestinian perspective, it must be even more disturbing. It seems like the most important powers in the world are completely on the side of your enemies. That must be so disheartening.

A: We all have to remember that 66% of Americans in the latest poll favor a ceasefire, which means they don’t accept the Israeli narrative. They don’t accept the position of their government. So our government, the two political parties, the media, the great corporations, and the powers in this society, the universities, are all pushing the narrative that you just mentioned. You are baby killers; you are terrorists, if you support Palestinian rights; you’re antisemites. That’s the line being pushed. It will turn into law, regulations, and restrictions on free speech all over this country. The powers that be, that’s not public opinion. A huge proportion of it hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid of Israeli propaganda, which is whatever we do is justified, and we’ll do it as long as we want, and we won’t stop no matter what you say. And you have to support us. And anybody who disagrees is a terrorist, a baby killer, a Nazi, and worse than ISIS. I’m not even repeating what Israelis say; I’m repeating what the President of the United States said on repeated occasions. So it’s disheartening, At the same time, it’s heartening to realize that the few Western European countries and the few white settler colonies, including the United States and Canada, are not the world. They may have the money; they may have the aircraft carriers, but the big countries—Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, China, Brazil—all the people, with the exception of a few people in Western Europe and these white settler colonies, don’t accept any of this stuff. What’s heartening is the rest of the world is with Palestinian rights, even if they’re critical of Palestinian means.

Q: What Hamas did in Israel also shocked almost everyone. The majority of mankind has a very nuanced view, but they sympathize a lot with the Palestinians right now.

A: Yes, an Israeli child, woman or civilian should not be harmed. But that’s equally true for a Palestinian child, woman or civilian. Most people do see all people on the same level of humanity, and they don’t privilege one over the other. In international humanitarian law, there’s no such privilege. Whereas clearly for some people they’re not equal. For some people, the death of 900 or 1100 of Israeli civilians who were unarmed, it has more weight and more moral value than the death of so far 9,500 Palestinians or whatever – I don’t even know what the toll is yet—and it will be much higher by the time this is over.

Q: How afraid are you of a regional escalation? Will this war move on to Lebanon, maybe even Iran or Syria?

A: I think that is something to fear. It should be of grave concern to everybody because there might be no limit to it. It might end up in – heaven forbid – not just a regional war, but nuclear war or world war. If the United States is drawn in, if Russia is brought in, it could happen. I hope and I think that there are good reasons that it might be averted. I think that Iran, Hezbollah, Israel, and the United States probably do not want a wider war—each for its own reasons. All of those four key actors do not seem to want a much wider war. Now, does that mean that they control the situation? No. Does that mean that something unexpected might not trigger a war? Nobody wanted World War One. One thing led to another. Unplanned, uncontrolled escalation could happen. So I think that’s something to fear. But there’s good reason to assume that at least those four main actors will restrain themselves.

Q: Thank you very much. All the best to your family and friends.

A: Thank you.

Michael Holmes

Michael Holmes

Michael Holmes is a freelance journalist and founder of Global Apartheid, based in Potsdam, Germany.

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