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In Times of Historical Amnesia, Palestinian History Has a Significance in Its Own Right

By Rashid Khalidi

Man with Palestinian flag
Photo credit: Hosny Salah

As the tragedies of the Israel-Gaza crisis unfold, we turn to historian Rashid Khalidi’s The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood to understand the roots of the conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis. It offers a much-needed perspective for anyone concerned about peace in the Middle East.


This book examines the failure of the Palestinians to establish an independent state before 1948, the year of Israel’s founding and of the dissolution of Arab Palestine, and the impact of that failure in the years thereafter. Such a topic provokes a sequence of questions that relate to the present as much as to the past: What purpose is served by such a study when, nearly six decades after 1948, an independent Palestinian state—in any real sense of the word “independent”—still does not exist, and when its establishment continues to face formidable obstacles?

The obstacles to independent Palestinian statehood only appeared to grow as violence escalated in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon during the summer of 2006. As these lines are written, in late July, Lebanon is the scene of hundreds of civilian deaths, enormous destruction, and fierce ground combat. Almost forgotten as a result of the carnage visited on Lebanon by Israel, and of Hizballah’s repeated rocket barrages against northern Israeli cities and towns, has been the suffering in Gaza caused by months of Israeli siege and bombardment. It is also forgotten that all of this started with Palestinian efforts to create a democratic structure of governance while still under Israeli occupation.

Specifically, this latest escalation began with response by Israel and the United States to the elections for the Legislative Council of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in January 2006, which brought to power a Hamas-led government. Their campaign quickly moved from a crippling financial siege of the PA, with the aim of bringing down that government, to an escalation of Israeli assassinations of Palestinian militants, and to artillery and air attacks in Gaza that killed and wounded scores of civilians. Hamas had for eighteen months observed a cease-fire in the face of these and earlier provocations (other factions were not so restrained, firing rockets into Israel). However, after a major spike in Palestinian civilian deaths and the particularly provocative Israeli assassination of militant leader Jamal Abu Samhadana, whom the PA government had just named to a security post, Hamas finally took the bait and responded with the capture of one Israeli soldier and the killing of others. The predictably ferocious Israeli response—even more killings of civilians, more assassinations, and ground incursions in Gaza—finally provoked Hizballah (or perhaps gave Hizballah and its allies, Iran and Syria, the preemptive opportunity they had been searching for). The rest of this tragic scenario then unfolded with the grim, bloody, unthinking precision we have seen so many times before in the conflict between Israel and the Arabs.

This book is not about that conflict but about its Palestinian component, specifically the effort of the Palestinians to achieve independence in their homeland. The ongoing war in Gaza and Lebanon illustrates once again how intimately this effort is intertwined with regional and international factors. It illustrates also the crucial importance of a careful reading of recent Palestinian history to attain an understanding of the Middle East conflict. The one-dimensional and ahistorical approach to the conflict through the prism of terrorism that is prevalent in the United States obscures thoroughly the specificity of Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, and other regional actors, like Syria and Iran, and how these relate to one another. The Palestinian quest for independence is only one of many elements that must be grasped in order to understand the causes of conflict in the Middle East. But because for nearly a century this quest has been so central to events there, willfully ignoring it leads to the kind of reductive, partial, and misguided American official thinking that has helped produce the profound problems that afflict the region. This book raises other questions as well: Is a historical study of why something occurred—or in this case did not occur—justified because it sheds light on apparent similarities with events that are currently taking place? Or are these two failures in state building—one in the past and the other ongoing—completely unrelated, and is any attempt to examine them in relation to one another an historical error, not to say an abuse of history?

It might be asked why I describe this failure to achieve independent statehood as a Palestinian failure. Specifically, why should the focus be on the role of the Palestinians in their past defeats, when they were the weakest of all the parties engaged in the prolonged struggle to determine the fate of Palestine, which culminated in 1948? These parties include the British Empire, until World War II the greatest power of its day, which actively opposed Palestinian aspirations for statehood and independence, and other major states, among them the United States, the Soviet Union, and France, all of which supported Zionism and the partition of Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state, but did nothing to prevent the abortion of the embryonic Arab state of Palestine in 1947–48. They include as well the Zionist movement, composed of a worldwide network of institutions capable of mobilizing extensive diplomatic, propaganda, and financial resources, and the highly motivated and well-organized yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine). Both Britain and the Zionist movement always treated the prospect of an independent Arab state in Palestine as a grave threat. The Zionist movement saw such a prospect as a particular challenge to the Jews’ aspirations to exclusive sovereignty over what they considered Eretz Israel (the land of Israel). Finally, there were the seven newly independent Arab states, all of them relatively weak and heavily influenced by the Western powers; these states acted in ways that frequently excluded the interests of the Palestinians, and sometimes contradicted them.

To rephrase the question in light of these facts, why concentrate on the failures or incapacities of the Palestinians to achieve independence before 1948, when the constellation of forces arrayed against them was so powerful, and in the end proved overwhelming? Why not focus on the external forces that played a predominant role in preventing the Palestinians from achieving self-determination? Others have countered that the Palestinians, or their leaders, should bear responsibility for their own failures, some going so far as to blame the victim entirely for the tragic history of the Palestinian people in the twentieth century and after. The benefits of blaming the victim, in light of the heavy responsibilities of various other parties in this story, are obvious, explaining the continuing vitality of this school of thought, although most of its core claims have long since been discredited. Others have argued that even if the Palestinians cannot be fully blamed for their own misfortunes, and even if the overwhelming balance of forces ranged against them must be taken into account, they nonetheless are accountable for their actions and decisions. Similar arguments can be heard today regarding Palestinian responsibility for the dire situation faced by the Palestinians after the collapse of the Oslo peace process of 1991–2000, the full reoccupation of the West Bank by Israel in 2001–6, and the election in January 2006 of a Palestinian Authority (PA) government headed by the radical Hamas movement.

Needless to say, all of these questions will be colored by the recognition that to this day the Palestinians remain considerably less powerful by any measure than the forces that stand in the way of their achieving independent statehood. It seems clear that in the decades since 1948 the Palestinians have been plagued by some of the same problems that afflicted them before that date. It is an open question whether examining past failures might help to prevent future ones, on the theory that there is a link between those structures and forces, internal and external, that operated in the past to hinder Palestinian self-determination, and those at work today. Either way—whether external forces or internal Palestinian weaknesses (or a combination of both) have prevented the establishment of an independent Palestinian state—a final question remains: Is statehood the destined outcome for a people who, since the early part of the twentieth century had a clearly defined national identity but who have been unable to develop lasting, viable structural forms for it, or to control a national territory in which it can be exercised? Is it not possible that the Palestinian people will continue to exist indefinitely into the future, as they have since Ottoman hegemony ended in 1918, in a stateless limbo? Are we perhaps too obsessed with the very idea of the state, demonstrating the bias in favor of the state that Hegel found in historical discourse, in our attempts to place the state at the center of the historical narrative?


The Palestinians in Their Own Right

Why is the study of the failure to achieve Palestinian statehood important? It is important, first, because Palestinian history has significance in its own right. It is a hidden history, one that is obscured, at least in the West, by the riveting and tragic narrative of modern Jewish history. Where it is recognized at all, it tends to serve as an appendage or feeble counterpoint to that powerful story. Palestine is a small country—and the Palestinians even today number perhaps only 9 or 10 million people—and yet the people and the land of Palestine loom large in world affairs beyond all consideration of their size. Their drama has been a central one.

Recognizing, and making restitution for, the harm done, primarily to the Palestinian people but also to others, as a result of that drama involves a major moral challenge to the international community, and particularly to the West, which bears a grave responsibility for helping to engender this conflict. Moreover, it has become clear in recent years that this is an issue that deeply moves major elements of international opinion, even if the bulk of public opinion in the United States appears indifferent to it. However, achieving any serious understanding of this poignant conflict, which has for decades rent the Middle East and has had such a wide-reaching political and moral impact outside it, requires a broad comprehension of Palestinian history in its own terms, and in its own context, which includes but cannot be subsumed by or subordinated to Jewish and Israeli history. Just as one cannot understand the history of France without taking into account its conflicts with Germany and Britain over the past three centuries, it would be unthinkable to reduce French history to these conflicts, or treat it as an addendum to the history of its erstwhile rivals.

In a sense, this is what has happened to the history of the Palestinians, under the powerful impact of the painful and amply recounted story of the catastrophic fate of the Jews of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century (and of the less well told story of the tragic calamities that befell most of the well-established Jewish communities in the Arab world in the middle of the century). I hope that this book will remedy that situation, in however modest a way, and will explain a crucial set of issues in Palestinian history that have profound implications down to the present day.

I hope secondly in this book to ascribe agency to the Palestinians. I thereby seek to avoid seeing them either as no more than helpless victims of forces far greater then themselves, or alternatively as driven solely by self-destructive tendencies and uncontrollable dissension, as do many analyses of their actions in the years leading up to 1948. This is not to say that the Palestinians were not facing an uphill struggle from the beginning of the British Mandate: we have already seen briefly how this was the case, and the pages to come will explore these long odds further. And Palestinian society and politics were most definitely divided and faction-ridden, in ways that gave hostile forces many cleavages to exploit. But the Palestinians had many assets, were far from helpless, and often faced a range of choices, some of which were better, or at least less bad, than others. In this way, I propose to put the Palestinians at the center of a critical phase of their own story.

I hope thirdly to show that the unfortunate case of Palestine illustrates strikingly the long-term perils and pitfalls of great powers following shortsighted policies that are not based on their own professed principles, and are not consonant with international law and legitimacy. This was just as true during the many decades during which Britain dominated the Middle East, as it has been of the more than half a century since then, during which time the United States has been the preeminent power in that region. As we have seen, because of its commitment to Zionism, Great Britain constructed a mandatory regime for Palestine that was in important ways in contravention of the Covenant of the League of Nations and of its World War I pledges of independence to the Arabs. For decades, Britain twisted and turned between these two contradictory poles of respect for the principle of self-determination embodied in the Covenant, and faithfulness to its commitment to create a Jewish national home, embodied in the Balfour Declaration and reiterated in the Mandate for Palestine. There was, however, never any question that the commitment to Zionism was the stronger. In the process, Great Britain enabled the Zionists to create the springboard from which they were ultimately able to take over the entire country at the expense of its indigenous population. It thereby helped significantly to produce a conflict that only became more bitterly intractable as time went on.

Similarly, the United States voted in the General Assembly for the creation of an Arab state in Palestine alongside a Jewish one, but acquiesced in the extinction of that Arab state before its birth by the combined efforts of the new state of Israel, Britain, Jordan, and other actors. Thereafter, the United States repeatedly sponsored or supported measures in the United Nations or on its own that might have alleviated the conflict. These ranged from General Assembly Resolution 194 of December 1948, which would have allowed the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes and compensated them for their losses, to the efforts of the Palestine Conciliation Commission of 1949, established by the U.N. General Assembly through Security Council Resolution 242, which laid down a basis ultimately agreed to by all the parties for resolution of the conflict, to a variety of essentially unilateral American initiatives toward peace. In all of these cases, however, the United States never unequivocally and in practice supported the self-determination and independent, viable statehood of the Palestinians, and often acted to undermine this and other universal principles of international law and legitimacy. Without these principles, needless to say, a just and lasting resolution of this problem is impossible.

In making policy on Palestine over most of the past century, leaders in both Britain and the United States were driven primarily by powerful strategic and domestic political considerations, rather than by principle. The strategic considerations included the goals of dominating this crucial piece of territory, keeping it in friendly hands, and denying it to others. The political ones included cold calculations of the considerable domestic electoral and financial advantages to be obtained from supporting Zionism, as against the negligible domestic political costs. There also existed naive sympathy for Zionism among many British and American politicians, based on a particularly Protestant immersion in the Bible. This sympathy was often combined with a laudable desire to make amends for the persecution of the Jews in different parts of Europe (often combined with a less laudable, indeed reprehensible, desire to have the victims of persecution find haven somewhere other than Great Britain or the United States). The result of such attitudes, which necessarily ignored or downplayed vital realities on the ground in Palestine, has been an enduring tragedy.

Revisiting History

This is not a “revisionist” history, along the lines of those that have emerged from Israel in recent years. Revisionist history requires as a foil an established, authoritative master narrative that is fundamentally flawed in some way. In this sense, the “revisionist” works written by a number of Israeli historians and social scientists—Avi Shlaim, Ilan Pappé, Tom Segev, Benny Morris, and others—are fully within this tradition, for what they are arguing against is the nationalist mythology of the state of Israel as it has informed and shaped Israeli accounts of that country’s history. That mythology is additionally the backbone of the received version of the history of the conflict as it is perceived in the West.

To revisit one of the most important of these myths about the infant state of Israel, the number of Arab armies that invaded Israel after its establishment is described in a range of standard accounts as ranging from five to seven. However, there were only seven independent Arab states in 1948 (some hardly independent, and some hardly states in any meaningful sense of the word), two of which, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, did not even have regular armies and no means of getting any armed forces they might have had to Palestine. Beyond this, of the five Arab regular armies, one (that of Lebanon) never crossed the international frontier with Palestine, two (those of Iraq and Transjordan) scrupulously refrained from crossing the frontiers of the Jewish state laid down in the United Nations partition plan as per secret Jordanian understandings with both Britain and the Zionist leadership and thus never “invaded” Israel, and one (that of Syria) made only minor inroads across the new Israeli state’s frontiers. The only serious and long-lasting incursion into the territory of the Jewish state as laid down under the partition plan was that of the Egyptian army. Meanwhile, the fiercest fighting during the 1948 war took place with the Jordanian army during multiple Israeli offensives into areas assigned by the U.N. to the Arab state, or into the U.N.-prescribed corpus separatum around Jerusalem. This story of an invasion by multiple, massive Arab armies, and other legends, is not just an important element of the Israeli myth of origin: it is a nearly universal myth, and in taking it on, the Israeli revisionist scholars, or “new historians,” as they are more often called in their own country, are shouldering a doubly daunting task.

By contrast, there is no established, authoritative Palestinian master narrative, against which this work can be set, although there is a Palestinian nationalist narrative that includes its share of myth. This version is in any case virtually unknown outside the Arab world (and is in some respects contested within it), drowned out as it is by the Israeli national myth-epic, which substitutes for any kind of substantive, critical history in the minds of most Westerners. Moreover, as the Israeli new historians have been showing, many elements of the standard Palestinian narrative have in fact been borne out by archival research. These include the causes for the flight of the Palestinian refugees; the collusion between Israel and Jordan, and Britain and Jordan, against the Palestinians; and the absolute superiority of the Zionist and later the Israeli armed forces against those of their adversaries in the field throughout most stages of the 1947–49 conflict.

This is not to say that there are not many myths worth debunking in the Palestinian version of events: there are indeed, particularly ideas relating to the Zionist movement and Israel and their connections with the Western powers, the relation of Zionism to the course of modern Jewish history, particularly the central place of the Holocaust in this history, and the reductionist view of Zionism as no more than a colonial enterprise. This enterprise was and is colonial in terms of its relationship to the indigenous Arab population of Palestine; Palestinians fail to understand, or refuse to recognize, however, that Zionism also served as the national movement of the nascent Israeli polity being constructed at their expense. There is no reason why both positions cannot be true: there are multiple examples of national movements, indeed nations, that were colonial in their origins, not least of them the United States. Deconstructing these ideas will be crucially important to an eventual reconciliation of the two peoples.


About the Author 

Rashid Khalidi is the author of 7 books about the Middle East, including Palestinian IdentityBrokers of DeceitResurrecting EmpireThe Iron Cage, and Sowing Crisis. His writing on Middle Eastern history and politics has appeared in the New York TimesBoston GlobeLos Angeles TimesChicago Tribune, and many journals. For his work on the Middle East, Professor Khalidi has received fellowships and grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the American Research Center in Egypt, and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others. He is the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University in New York and editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies.