Rashid Khalidi’s telling of the story of the loss of his homeland and its gradual invasion is a deeply personal one, and is unlike other more detached accounts I have read. The author hails from a prominent family in the traditional Palestinian elite in the city of Jerusalem. He breaks down the history of Palestine’s colonisation uniquely by conveying the sense of a century-long war in which a number of enemies and invaders are involved.
Starting with the 1917 Balfour Declaration issued by the eponymous British foreign secretary, he takes us through Britain’s occupation of Palestine from the end of World War One, which facilitated the Zionist plan to “establish a national home for the Jewish people” there. The Palestinian struggle to prevent the Zionist takeover started slowly as the indigenous people woke up to the plans backed by Britain to increase Jewish migration to Palestine while international financiers pumped huge sums of money into an independent Jewish economy. As far as Khalidi is concerned, the Balfour Declaration was the first stage of his titular “hundred years’ war on Palestine”.
The stage was then set for the “declarations of war” in the form of the 1947 UN Partition Plan; UN Security Council Resolution 242; the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon; the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and Israeli leader Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Noble Sanctuary of Al-Aqsa (also known as the Temple Mount) in 2000, which essentially represented Israel’s domination over the holy city at a location central to the Palestinian cause.
Khalidi’s latest book explains how the Palestinians became the perpetual victims of one foreign power after another, and sometimes of multiple powers simultaneously, none of which ever truly had the best interests of the indigenous population at heart. At best, they would allow the Palestinians to possess a fragment of political representation while paying lip service to the concept of Palestinian statehood; at worst they gave up on the idea completely and enabled Israel’s occupation to spread ever further into Palestine while blaming the Palestinian leadership for not really wanting peace.
An important point that Khalidi addresses in the first two chapters is that the Zionist occupation began decades before the UN Partition Plan and the 1948 Nakba, when Israel was created. Even, in fact, before 1917, with Zionist settlers buying Palestinian land and the establishment of an independent economy. The author lays to rest the myth that the Palestinian struggle against occupation began with Israel’s “declaration of independence”.
Such groundwork prepared the way for the Zionist project, as did the initial lack of awareness among the Palestinians of what was happening. This was coupled with the strengthening of Zionist institutions compared with the weakness or lack of Palestinian equivalents, and gave the Israeli state a head start before it was even created. Compounding this was the total lack of foreign support for the Palestinians, whereas the Zionist movement enjoyed the backing of Britain and international financiers.
Khalidi sums up the predicament thus: “They entered this fateful contest woefully unprepared both politically and militarily, and with a fragmented and dispersed leadership. Moreover, they had little external support except from the deeply divided and unstable Arab states, still under the influence of the old colonial powers, and which had poor and largely illiterate populations. This was in stark contrast to the international standing and the strong, modern para-state built up by the Zionist movement over several decades.”
The book outlines the repeated undermining of the Palestinian cause and the frequent defeats of Arab military attempts to stop the Israeli advance. It also acknowledges that a major factor in the success of the Zionist project has been the internal division from which the Palestinian leadership has suffered. Initially provoked by the British, divisions in the leadership began with the enmity between the Mufti of Jerusalem and his political opponents, and has continued up to the contemporary division between Fatah and Hamas.
Throughout much of the book, Khalidi shares his own experiences and those of his family. He recounts, for example, the role of his great-great-great Uncle Yusuf Diya Al-Din Pasha Al-Khalidi in detecting the danger of the Balfour Declaration and attempting to counter the Zionist leadership. His uncles were also involved in the early Palestinian leadership, and his father, Ismail Raghib Al-Khalidi, was told by Transjordan’s King Abdullah that, “You Palestinians have refused my offer. You deserve what happens to you.” Abdullah — the current Jordanian monarch’s great-grandfather — sought to take control of the area of Palestine set aside by the UN for an Arab state.
Working for the UN, Khalidi’s father also participated in the Security Council meeting about a ceasefire in the 1967 Six Day War, a meeting which the young Khalidi also witnessed.
Through his family’s direct historical and political involvement in the Palestinian cause and the loss of their homeland, Rashid Khalidi provides a unique perspective making this a book which is very different to those of other authors.
After reading it, the feeling I had was one of helplessness with regards to the Palestinians, particularly when I realised that their cause was doomed from the very beginning by the Zionists and their project.
Hope remains, however, because the Palestinian have survived and shown great patience and resilience over many very difficult decades. Khalidi also wonders at this fortitude. Although Zionism has been broadly successful in its aims, he suggests, it has still been unable to completely dominate the indigenous population and wipe them out to the extent that other victims of settler-colonialism have been destroyed throughout history.