I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

The Wars on Palestine


On May 22nd last, Professor Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University gave a talk at Maynooth University (and at Trinity College the next day) entitled ‘The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine’. Khalidi, who is Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia, is a highly distinguished historian of the Middle East, with many books to his name, including The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, first published in 2020. Conor McCarthy, who organised the Maynooth talk, here introduces Khalidi’s main points, which warrant wide circulation:

The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine is maybe the best history of twentieth-century Palestine in a single short volume accessible to the general reader. But the book’s being pitched to a wide readership has not stopped its author from approaching his topic in an innovative manner. As Khalidi made clear, the book was motivated in part by what Edward Said famously called in Orientalism ‘the personal dimension’ to scholarship. Quoting Gramsci, Said argued that the development of ‘critical consciousness’ demanded that the scholar seek to ‘know himself’ by assembling an ‘inventory’ of the multitude of traces laid down in him by the historical process up to the point of writing. Accordingly, Rashid Khalidi, born in 1948, weaves his own family history into the embattled and at times fragmentary history of Palestine. But this autobiographical element is only one aspect of the original character of the book.

Many interested non-specialists in the history of Israel/Palestine will find their understanding of the region structured around various ‘wars’ ‑ most obviously, those of 1948, 1967 and 1982. But Khalidi widens the scope of this vision. Inverting Clausewitz’s maxim that war is diplomacy by other means, Khalidi suggests that war has been made on Palestine by means much broader than merely armed aggression. Rejecting models which see the struggle in Palestine as one between rival nationalisms, Palestinian and Israeli, he argues trenchantly that Palestine has suffered a succession of ‘declarations of war’. These came from multiple sources – the imperial powers (Britain, chiefly), the newer superpowers of the Cold War (the United States pre-eminently) as well as from Zionism and the state which it created. Khalidi notes how pre-1948 leaders of Zionism, especially those on the political right – he quotes Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the intellectual father of the Likud party now led by Binyamin Netanyahu ‑ were never less than clear that Zionism came to Palestine as a settler-colonial movement whose goal was the total transformation of Palestine into Eretz Israel.

The declarations of war of which Khalidi writes began with the Balfour Declaration, when in 1917, British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour wrote to Lord Rothschild telling him and the Zionist movement that Britain looked with favour on the creation of a ‘national home in Palestine for the Jewish people’. The Declaration had, in fact, been negotiated over months, with Rothschild and Chaim Weizmann invited by the British government to produce a draft proposal. Accordingly, and as Khalidi points out, we should not be surprised to find that the Declaration nowhere refers to Palestinians and can conceive of national rights in Palestine only for Jews. Khalidi reminds us that almost in parallel with the Balfour Declaration, British troops entered Palestine for the first time in 1917, and the path was prepared, as the First World War came to an end and the Ottoman empire was broken up, for Britain to achieve the League of Nations Mandate for the territory. Any illusions that the Mandate was to prepare for Arab self-determination in Palestine were debatable under the terms of the McMahon-Hussein correspondence, and were finally shattered by the incorporation of the Declaration into the preamble of the Mandate.

In other words, the Mandate was already a colonial apparatus, where Britain provided the ‘Iron Wall’(Jabotinsky’s formulation) behind which Jewish immigration to Palestine could take place and where the institutions of the nascent Jewish state – the Jewish Agency, the Jewish National Fund, the Histadrut, the various Zionist militias – could take form under British protection. When Palestinians rebelled against this process – in the 1920s and crucially in 1936-1939 – Britan beat them down with 100,000 troops and policemen, including cadres from the Auxiliaries and Black and Tans who had recently fought in the Irish War of Independence. Not merely this but under the Mandate, Britain trained Jewish militias to take part in counter-insurgency. Orde Wingate, with the permission of General Wavell, and in co-operation with the leaders of the Jewish Agency and of the Haganah, organised the Special Night Squads, which took part in the suppressions of the 1936 Palestinian revolt and whose members fed expertise back into the Zionist militias which would give them the advantage in the 1947-1949 war to come. Wingate was a pioneer in the dubious practices of late-colonial repression. He was also a mentor to Frank Kitson, expert on ‘low intensity warfare’ and often held to be the British army officer responsible for the Ballymurphy massacre of 1971. It is estimated that Britain killed, injured, imprisoned or exiled 17 per cent of the male Palestinian population during the Mandate years.

If the Balfour Declaration was a ‘declaration of war’ then so also, for Khalidi, was the UN General Assembly partition resolution, passed in November 1947. Palestinian rejection of the partition plan was then used by Israel as an excuse for ethnic cleansing in 1948 and to justify the assault on Palestine ever since. But the proposed plan was deeply imbalanced and unfair. By 1947, when the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine made its proposals, Jews still constituted only 33 per cent of the population of Palestine. In 1945 they owned only 6 per cent of the land. Yet the plan envisaged creating a Jewish state which would be allotted 55 per cent of the territory, and a Palestinian state with 45 per cent. Furthermore, the Jewish state was to have a massive and unstable Palestinian minority of 45%. An international regime was proposed for Jerusalem. Khalidi points out that the organisations of the Yishuv, such as the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund, were consulted by UNSCOP, whereas Palestinian groups were not.

Resolution 181 was a ‘declaration of war’, since it clearly breached the principle of national self-determination codified in the new UN Charter. Any hope of Palestinian self-determination was fatally compromised by the Resolution. At the November vote in the General Assembly, the United States persuaded, bribed and bullied its junior allies into support. The USSR supported the Resolution too, as it believed that a ‘socialist’ Israel would be a bastion against the British empire in the Middle East. Britain abstained on the vote. The stage was thereby set for the 1947-1949 war, with fighting breaking out between Zionist and Palestinian militias within weeks of the UN vote. In March 1948, the Jewish guerillas went on the offensive, and Palestinian society and resistance largely collapsed. Three-quarters of a million Palestinians fled their homes, forced or intimidated out. Those who like to think that the Palestinian refugees left because of the intervention by the Arab states in May 1948 need to remember that 250,000 had been ethnically cleansed before any Arab regular forces were involved in the war.

Khalidi argues forcefully that ‘declarations of war’ were issued against Palestine also in 1967 and in 1982 – the Six Day War and the Lebanon war. In each case, he points out, Israeli offensives – the overwhelmingly successful and devastating destruction of the air forces and armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria in June 1967, and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon to destroy the Palestinian guerilla movements once and for all – were ‘greenlit’ by American political guidance. This is not to mention the fact that most later wars fought by Israel have been equipped by massive American military aid, often in contravention of American law, which stipulates that exported weapons can only be used for defensive purposes. The United States has become ever more clearly the metropole to which the Israel colonial movement is tied.

Looking for hints of hope, Khalidi is cautious. He notes the closeness of Israel to the United States just mentioned. He notes that Israeli society has moved further and further to the right since the accession of the Likud to power in 1977, and with the growth of the settler movement. Israel has never accepted the ‘two-state solution’, so beloved of Western leaders, and the population of illegal settlers continues to expand. He is equally clear-eyed about the fragmentation, disunity and lack of vision in the Palestinian leaderships, whether of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority under Abu Mazen, or of Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.  Meanwhile those same Western leaders are mostly content to witness Palestinian disorganisation.

One area of hope lies in the fact that public opinion about Palestine in the United States is shifting, particularly among young Democrats and young American Jews, who are much more open to the Palestinian story than their parents’ generation was. This change in attitudes in the main metropole to Israel’s colonial project offers a hint of change to come, as the US might follow its own interests in the Middle East in a more realist fashion. Whether this change in attitudes is enough to override American great power manoeuvring remains to be seen.