Rashid Khalidi: We’re not even close to a Palestinian solution

A prominent Palestinian-American historian tells Al Majalla that a passion for justice drives growing youth support for the Palestinian cause.

Western support for the Palestinian cause is increasing, but not in the corridors of power. Prominent Palestinian-American historian Rashid Khalidi speaks to Al Majalla on Gaza's war and its global implications.
Al Majalla
Western support for the Palestinian cause is increasing, but not in the corridors of power. Prominent Palestinian-American historian Rashid Khalidi speaks to Al Majalla on Gaza's war and its global implications.

Rashid Khalidi: We’re not even close to a Palestinian solution

The Gaza war has refocused the world’s attention on the Palestinian cause. Mass rallies, particularly in the West, put pressure on politicians, as thousands regularly decry Israeli crimes against the Palestinian people.

In Gaza, that has not had much effect. Israel continues to bombard the Strip — despite having already killed 25,000 people since October — because it enjoys unwavering support from political leaders in the United States and Europe.

Yet this resurgence of interest in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially among the young, has prompted a quest for understanding and context.

In this quest, Dr Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian-American historian and professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, is a wonderful guide. His compelling book The Hundred Year War on Palestine addresses key questions and provides an objective and methodical historical backdrop.

It sheds light on the colonial mentality that underpins the steadfast support extended to Israel, even despite the recent allegations of genocide levelled against it at the International Court of Justice.

Al Majalla had the privilege of meeting Dr Khalidi to discuss the war and what may have changed because of it.

Drawing on his experience as an adviser to the Palestinian negotiating delegation during the Oslo Accords, he provided valuable insight into the evolving support for the Palestinian cause.

More than 100 days into the latest Gaza war, do you perceive any shift in the position of Western powers regarding the Palestinian cause compared to the perspectives outlined in your book?

Throughout the ongoing war, contradictory developments have surfaced, including the persistent support of the West as a military, political, economic, and diplomatic base — referred to as the ‘metropole’ in my book — for the Zionist project.

This support remains a crucial element in endorsing Israel’s aggressions, evident in this unwavering backing that we have seen throughout the war.

In my book, I argue that the war in Palestine transcends a simple confrontation between the Palestinian people and the Zionist movement, between the Palestinians and Israel, or between the Arabs and Israel.

I think this analysis is still relevant. It is instead a complex war involving external powers aligned with the Zionist movement and Israel on one side and the Palestinian people and their allies on the other.

Despite the evolving dynamics of the current situation, I see no grounds to alter my conviction. That said, the West is witnessing unprecedented transformations and changes that stand unparalleled in history.

From US President Woodrow Wilson (in power from 1913-21), the Balfour Declaration in 1917, and the establishment of the Zionist movement in 1897, support for the Palestinian people in the West has never reached current levels.

Read more: Examining the evolution of US-Israeli relations

The West is witnessing unprecedented transformations. Support for the Palestinian people has never reached current levels.

Dr Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian-American historian

When I was a university student in the US, I recall a demonstration against former Prime Minister of Israel Golda Meir, who came to my university. Only four of us protested while hundreds supported her.

Today, it would be the complete reverse.

There is a substantial shift in sentiment. On campus, in votes on the divestment from or boycott of companies supporting the Israeli occupation, pro-Palestinian students prevail.

You see this at Columbia, Brown, Michigan, universities where substantial majorities support Palestinian rights. This is unprecedented in the history of the conflict.

The US media often overlooks these developments, but it is also noteworthy that major unions like the auto workers, nurses, electricians, and postal workers unions now endorse a ceasefire in Gaza, at odds with the official position of the White House and Israel's government.

On the one hand, Western elites in politics, economics, media, and diplomacy still maintain support for Israel, but at the grassroots level, substantial changes are occurring.

While it may be premature to fully assess the impact, a more accurate evaluation may be possible in a year or so to determine whether these shifting attitudes were sustained.

I was born in 1948, during the Nakba. I grew up in the US and lived in various places. I can attest that what I see today is unlike anything I have experienced.

Supporters of Israel often seek to undermine Palestinian rights, and we are seeing this in relation to the mass protests, about which they seem to be in a state of denial.

Movements in support of Palestine are often portrayed as 'Islamic', not as having arisen from a universal sense of human conscience. Do you believe that this denial achieves its goal?

Accusations by Zionists and their allies are notably unsuccessful. They primarily assert that these movements are of Islamic origin and that they are antisemitic and anti-Jewish, with no connection to human rights or the Palestinian cause.

The first accusation is inherently flawed. The majority of demonstrators are neither Muslim nor well-versed in Islamic principles. Protesters have been diverse, including black, Hispanic, white, and Jewish voices.

In US universities, much less than half the pro-Palestinian protesters are of Arab origin. Many are Jewish or other minorities. Also, could the postal workers' union or the auto workers' union really be characterised as mainly Muslim? Clearly, the claim is false.

The accusation that anti-Israel movements are inherently antisemitic is also unfounded. Unfortunately, despite this, it finds some support in certain media and political circles.

Polls show that supporters of Israel (in the US) tend to be older, wealthier, white, and male. In contrast, supporters of Palestine are more likely to be younger, less wealthy, women, and motivated by justice and human rights unrelated to race or religion.

The accusation that anti-Israel movements are inherently antisemitic is unfounded. Despite this, it finds support in certain media and political circles. 

Dr Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian-American historian

When examining the ownership of the US economy, it is evident that these individuals, whether Jewish or not, often support Israel. This association is not rooted in religion but rather in factors such as wealth, age, gender, race, and other considerations.

Supporters of Israel hide behind the accusation of antisemitism. There is indeed antisemitism in the West; it is a Western creation. It is important to understand that antisemitism has its historical roots in Europe.

The expulsion of Jews from England in the 12th century, from France in the 13th century, and from Spain and Portugal in the 15th century were perpetrated by European Christian monarchs, not by Muslims.

So, while antisemitism exists and persists, the pro-Palestine movement is fundamentally distinct from this historical context.

The significance of university movements in support of Palestine is both new and noteworthy, having sparked discussions on academic freedom and antisemitism.

However, opponents of these movements appear to have had some success, with university presidents resigning and mounting pressure on students and staff. How would you characterise these developments?

This represents a significant and perilous shift. The current situation reflects a counterattack by those in power, including business leaders, politicians, party leaderships, and those exercising control over universities.

In the US, private universities are owned by and run by boards of trustees. This raises important questions about the composition of these boards, typically composed of donors representing the wealthier segments of US society.

People march as they gather to protest the banning of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) at Columbia University on 20 November 2023 in New York City.

Read more: US universities face mounting pressure to silence pro-Palestinian voices

Looking at their profiles, we find a raft of elderly, wealthy males on these boards who wield influence across various societal and economic sectors, including universities and museums.

In recent months, they have launched an unprecedented counterattack against this wave of pro-Palestinian sentiment unprecedented in US history.

Indeed, they have secured temporary victories on campus, such as by suppressing demonstrations, expelling pro-Palestinian students, and intimidating professors and student activists.

As colleges resume after the public holidays, the effectiveness of this counterattack will become more apparent. I do not believe that students and professors will remain silent.

The essence of a university lies in its students and professors, not in the wealthy donors who seek to impose their reactionary views.

Supporters of Israel have had victories on campus, with pro-Palestine demonstrations suppressed, students expelled, and professors intimidated. 

Dr Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian-American historian

We are entering a protracted struggle in which the protagonists on the other side of the argument are not only the legal owners of universities but also the politicians and journalists who pander to them.

It is important to note that in some fields of study, there may be differing opinions, particularly in professional schools such as law, medicine, business and engineering, where both faculty and many students voice support for Israel.

Yet it remains true that many humanities professors are sympathetic towards Palestinian rights.

The history of recent US anti-war movements, from Vietnam to Iraq, shows that such movements often find their roots in universities.

This is the beginning of a long-term conflict. US support for Israel is extensive and will continue for the foreseeable future. Still, for the first time, we see important groups among supporters of Palestinian rights opposing those who control politics, media, and the economy.

Many young people, including university graduates, may not know the full details of the Palestinian cause.

This suggests that a portion of the support for the cause is rooted in a broader commitment to social justice and an opposition to oppression rather than a deep political understanding of the historical complexities of the conflict.

How do you interpret this phenomenon?

This is a well-founded analysis. It is true that there can be limited knowledge of the historical and political intricacies of the Palestinian cause among many students and supporters of Palestinian rights. 

Demonstrators march during the 'Palestine to Africa - Palestinian Liberation is Black Liberation' protest in New York on 5 November 2023.

As you mentioned, most of this support stems from a passion for justice, particularly among the young. They see the conflict as inherently unjust, marked by oppression and inequity.

Some view it through an ethnic lens, seeing Europeans and whites as oppressing a vulnerable Arab population. For instance, the Black community in the US may draw parallels.

One of my friends linked his experience in Palestine to the American South during the Jim Crow era in the 1950s, where certain people had rights that others did not.

While the comparison may not be entirely accurate, it reflects the perspective of many who see similarities. A love for justice drives the youth. This constitutes the primary motivation for their support for the Palestinian cause.

At the same time, the young of today are certainly open to learning about the history of Palestine. There is a remarkable desire for knowledge, as evidenced by the recent sales of my book and those of colleagues working on the Palestinian cause.

A love for justice drives the youth. This constitutes the primary motivation for their support for the Palestinian cause.

Dr Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian-American historian

Even older texts like Edward Said's The Question of Palestine and Ilan Pappe's books continue to generate substantial demand. There is also a significant interest in lectures, seminars, and interviews.

Personally, I have been unable to accommodate all the requests that I have received — a situation shared by others who are known for their understanding of the Palestinian cause. This shows that students want to know the history and hear the arguments.

This demand for knowledge extends not only to young people but also to the elderly. This unprecedented thirst for knowledge across all ages is highly encouraging.

It is true that, at times, there is a lack of political awareness among some young people, which has occasionally led to mistakes.

Palestine Legal is an NGO that defends young people (similar organisations exist in Europe, Canada, and elsewhere). Lawyers working there sometimes have to defend students who make unreasonable, antisemitic, or ill-considered statements in support of Palestinian rights. This often evidences a lack of understanding, not necessarily bad intent.

Nevertheless, what remains evident is the love and thirst for knowledge among these young people. 

It is notable that many Palestinian supporters actively involved today, both in Palestine and the diaspora, were born after the Oslo Accords. What would be your explanation for this phenomenon?

I believe this generation serves as a witness to the shortcomings of the Palestinian National Movement in achieving significant goals for the Palestinian people.

It reflects the failure of Arab states or regimes to provide effective support to the Palestinians and underscores the unwavering support of the West for the Israeli project.

The younger generation's commitment to justice and human rights propels them to support the Palestinian cause.

Palestinian youth — both within their homeland and in the diaspora — have come to recognise that my generation and those preceding it have not succeeded in realising the national aspirations of the Palestinian people.

The unprecedented thirst for knowledge across all ages is highly encouraging. The younger generation's commitment to justice propels them to support the Palestinian cause.

Dr Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian-American historian

They sense the need for a fresh start.

While I cannot predict when or if this breakthrough will occur, I sincerely hope it happens soon. We find ourselves in a political and strategic impasse, largely influenced by the traditional leaders of the Palestinian people.

My generation acknowledges this and understands its failure, but the younger generation feels this more intensely. We, the older generation of Palestinians and other Arabs, have seen our era come to an end, acknowledging our failures.

The younger generation, however, will bear the weight of our shortcomings for many years. This reality troubles them; they have every right to feel that way.

After everything that has happened, do you think the Palestinians are closer to a state? Also, how do you explain the United States' failure to articulate a definitive stance on ending the occupation as a crucial step towards a solution?

I currently cannot see any Israeli government or political coalition that would be willing to accept a just solution to the Palestinian issue, which would lead to an end to war and the hostilities against the Palestinian people.

Moreover, I do not foresee a substantial change in the US position in the coming years, one that would end its current unwavering support for Israel.

Unfortunately, the Palestinians lack leaders who are capable of uniting the Palestinian factions and presenting a cohesive and clear strategy.

The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) era witnessed a certain degree of unity and consensus on strategy, but that era has ended. Without this, discussing the establishment of a Palestinian state and an end to the occupation seems implausible, either for now or for the foreseeable future.

I share your optimism, particularly regarding the groundswell of support for Palestinians in the Arab world, from Morocco to Bahrain, despite their governments' stance.

After years of relative quiet, the resurgence of demonstrations in places like Bahrain and Egypt in support of Palestine is a significant testament to the enduring support from Arab populations.

This is a historical trend that any historian can attest to.

As early as 1910, newspapers extensively covered Zionism, with around 400 articles in Arab newspapers in Beirut, Damascus, Cairo, and elsewhere discussing Zionism and Palestine, even before World War I.

The Arab people also rallied behind the Palestinians during the 1936 revolution. For example, in Hama, there was a museum dedicated to Syrians who sacrificed their lives during the 1936-1939 revolution.

Sheikh Izz ad-Din al-Qassam himself is Syrian...

Your analysis of the historical context and the current shifts in Western support for Israel is insightful.

The comparison to the 1948 war and the recognition of the emerging movement against unequivocal government support for Israel highlights the significance of these trends.

The only opposition to the Balfour Declaration in Lloyd George's government in 1917 came from Edwin Montagu, a Jewish cabinet minister who was Secretary of State for India.

He believed that Zionism – which he called a "mischievous political creed" – was unhelpful for Jews. All other ministers were in favour.

From then until now, there has been no real opposition to the absolute support for Israel and the Zionist idea. However, today, there is significant opposition in Congress, among groups, unions, churches, and within the Jewish community.

This holds paramount significance because, if we consider this a settlement project, it is theoretically implausible for it to lack a foundation or 'metropole', with the US and Europe serving as the 'metropole.

Until now, there has been no real political opposition in the US to absolute support for Israel. Today, there is significant opposition.

Dr Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian-American historian

Any wavering of support for Israel within the metropole would reverberate within Israel itself, as witnessed today. The Israeli press has certainly picked up on it, mindful that absolute US support cannot be relied upon indefinitely, given the groundswell.

This poses a threat to the US-Israel relationship. A shift may not occur today or tomorrow, nor during the tenure of Biden or Trump, but it may transpire in subsequent administrations because the young of today are the leaders of tomorrow.

As regards Europe, I am uncertain. A significant shift appears to be underway there, albeit to a lesser extent than that seen in the US. All the signs indicate the potential for change.

Despite the absence of explicit support for an immediate end to the occupation from US political leaders (whether Democratic or Republican), you are right to highlight the positive development of Senators and Representatives who, to some extent, support Palestinian rights. This has rarely been evident in Congress in the past.

The potential for a just solution in Palestine seems to hinge on the continuation of this transformative trend, although its sustainability remains uncertain. The swift unfolding of events, propelled by non-traditional media and the enthusiasm of the young, hints at the potential for change.

Regrettably, we may still have to wait for this.

You advised the Palestinian delegation during the Oslo negotiations. With hindsight, would you endorse the Oslo option if you could go back in time?

I served as an advisor to the Palestinian delegation that engaged in negotiations first in Madrid and later in Washington, aiming for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

Initially hopeful, our optimism waned by June 1993, a few months before the Oslo Accords were unveiled. It became evident that the negotiations were at an impasse, primarily due to the positions taken by the US and Israel.

Reflecting on this, I acknowledge my misjudgment in 1991 when I believed that the first intifada had a profound impact on Israelis and Americans, influencing public opinion against the continuation of the occupation.

Regrettably, we failed to capitalise on potential opportunities due to errors within the Palestinian leadership and other factors I have extensively addressed in my writings.

In a New York Times article published after the announcement of the Oslo Accords in September 1993, I expressed scepticism about them, asserting that negotiations based on the Oslo framework would likely perpetuate the occupation and settlements.

Read more: 30 years later, Oslo's real objectives are clear

I firmly advocate for a fresh approach. It requires Palestinian unity, Arab support, and a clear strategy outlining our objectives. Around the world, we have support. It is imperative that we have a clear idea of what we want.

Within our community, there are advocates of complete liberation, supporters of a two-state solution, those content with the current status quo in Ramallah, and everyone in between. Those in Ramallah with salaries and special treatment live comfortably.

The need for a new strategy prompts questions about whether to rely on armed resistance, civil disobedience, or political means.

Israel is mindful that absolute US support cannot be relied upon indefinitely.  A shift may not occur during the tenure of Biden or Trump, but it may transpire in subsequent administrations.

Dr Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian-American historian

Drawing from historical examples such as the Irish struggle in 1921, Indian independence in 1947, and Algerian independence in 1962, success often requires a multifaceted approach, encompassing both military and political strategies.

The Irish opposed the English militarily and embraced non-military strategies, such as withdrawing their representatives from the British Parliament and establishing one in Dublin.

They faced arrest and persecution, but ultimately, this played a role in legitimising Ireland's quest for independence, as did Irish diplomacy in the US and Britain, even while Irish operatives sought to assassinate English intelligence officers.

Each movement employs diverse means. This choice would rest with the Palestinian people. It is imperative, however, that there is a comprehensive strategy and profound contemplation about our collective aspirations.

Protesters join the Ireland - Palestine Solidarity Campaign demonstration in Dublin.

While Palestinians' connection to the broader Arab world is an advantage, it can also be used against them, such as when Israelis portray Palestinians as Arabs who do not belong to this land. How do you address this issue?

The concept of Palestinian identity and the development of Palestinian national thought have not existed indefinitely. For instance, my great-grandfather did not solely identify as a Palestinian.

He would say: "I am a Muslim, a Jerusalemite, an Arab, an Ottoman, and I live in Palestine, the land of Mi'raj." It shows the multifaceted nature of Palestinian identity.

The emergence of nationalist thought in the 19th and 20th centuries is undeniable, not only among Palestinians but elsewhere, too.

Fundamentally, Palestinians are Arabs. I have relatives spread across five Arab countries. One of my cousins is married to an Egyptian, another to a Syrian. I have family members married to Jordanians, and half of my extended family is married to people from Lebanon.

Despite this, we still identify as Palestinians. Whether in Lebanon, Egypt, or Syria, I feel a sense of belonging among my own people, yet I am not Lebanese, Egyptian, or Syrian. Our identity has endured over time and cannot be easily dismissed.

We acknowledge distinctions among Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon, and elsewhere, yet we all share a common Palestinian identity. Despite awareness of familial ties in Jordan or the Levant, we maintain a strong connection to Palestine.

If this connection were not deeply ingrained, the repercussions of displacement and migration resulting from the Nakba would have likely led to assimilation in host nations.

Every Arab, from the Maghreb to the Gulf, feels a connection to the Palestinian people, but our connection is more profound because they are our people.

Dr Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian-American historian

In Syria, Palestinians enjoy all rights but cannot get a passport. Like others in Syria, they face oppression from the regime. In terms of rights, it is a similar situation in Jordan, where Palestinians have citizenship and have assimilated but still consider themselves Palestinian.

To say that Palestinians are solely Arabs is a Zionist claim. While we are indeed Arabs, sharing language and cuisine, at the same time, we are also Palestinians. It is perfectly possible to be both.

The reality is that successive shocks, ongoing catastrophes, and the displacement of millions of Palestinians in Gaza reinforce this sense of belonging.

Every Arab, from the Maghreb to the Gulf, feels a connection to the people of Palestine, but our connection is more profound because they are our people.

Moroccans, Kuwaitis, and others share in our feelings, even if they do not have relatives facing arrests and destruction like we do. This sense of belonging remains steadfast and coexists with our Arab identity.

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