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The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine

Allan C. Brownfeld
June 2020

The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine  
In 1899, Yusuf Diya al-Khalidi, former mayor of Jerusalem, alarmed by the  
Zionist call to transform Palestine into a Jewish state, wrote a letter  
aimed at Theodor Herzl, the leading Zionist of the 19th century. In this  
letter he pointed out that Palestine had an indigenous population who would  
not easily accept their own displacement. He warned of the perils ahead,  
ending his note, “In the name of God, leave Palestine alone.”  
In this book, Rashid Khalidi, al-Khalidi’s grandnephew and professor of  
Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, presents the first general  
account of the conflict told from an explicitly Palestinian perspective.  
Traditional interpretations of the conflict tend to describe a clash between  
two peoples with claims to the same land. Drawing on archival materials and  
the reports of generations of family members—-judges, scholars, diplomats  
and writers—-who were present at key events, this book argues that the  
conflict has always been colonial in nature, waged against the native  
population, first by the Zionist movement, then by Israel, backed first by  
Britain then by the United States. Khalidi highlights crucial episodes in  
what he views as a long colonial campaign, from the Balfour Declaration in  
1917, to the destruction of Palestine in 1948, to the war of 1967 and  
Herzl’s Response  
In Herzl’s response to Yusuf Diya, the Zionist leader assured him that the  
arrival of European Jews in Palestine would improve life for the indigenous  
population because of Jewish “intelligence” and financial acumen. He  
declared, “No one can doubt that the well-being of the entire country would  
be the happy result.” Herzl’s response concealed Zionism’s real intentions.  
Khalidi writes: “Most revealingly, the letter addresses a consideration  
Yusuf Diya had not even raised. ‘You see another difficulty, Excellency, in  
the existence of the non-Jewish population in Palestine. But who would think  
of sending them away?’” In fact, Herzl wrote in his diary of his plan to  
“spirit” the country’s population “discreetly” across the borders.  
It is clear, writes Khalidi, that “Herzl grasped the importance of  
‘disappearing’ the native population of Palestine in order for Zionism to  
succeed. Moreover, the 1901 charter that he co-drafted for the Jewish-  
Ottoman Land Company includes the same principle of the removal of the  
inhabitants of Palestine to ‘other provinces and territories of the Ottoman  
Empire.’ ...With the smug self-assurance so common to nineteenth century  
Europeans, Herzl offered the preposterous inducement, that the occupation,  
and ultimately the usurpation of their land by strangers would benefit the  
people of that country. Herzl’s thinking...appears to have been based on the  
assumption that the Arabs could ultimately be bribed or fooled into ignoring  
what the Zionist movement actually intended for Palestine.”  
The existing Jewish population in Palestine was ultra-Orthodox and were not  
in any way supportive of Zionism. Khalidi describes them: “...a large  
proportion of Jews living in Palestine were still culturally quite similar  
to and lived reasonably comfortably alongside city-dwelling Muslims and  
Christians. They were mostly ultra-Orthodox and non-Zionist mizrahi  
(eastern) or Sephardic (descendants of Jews expelled from Spain), urbanites  
of Middle Eastern origin who often spoke Arabic or Turkish...in spite of  
marked religious differences between them and their neighbors, they were not  
foreigners, nor were they Europeans or settlers: they were, they saw  
themselves, and were seen as Jews who were part of the indigenous Muslim  
majority society. Moreover, some young European Ashkenazi Jews who settled  
in Palestine at this time, including such ardent Zionists as David Ben-  
Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi (one became prime minister and the other the  
president of Israel) even took Ottoman nationality, studied in Istanbul, and  
learned Arabic and Turkish.”  
Zionism and European Colonialism  
Zionism has many characteristics of European colonialism, but there are also  
important differences, which has caused the conflict to be viewed by many as  
one between two national entities. In this connection, Khalidi notes that,  
“Underlying this feature...was the profound resonance for Jews, and also for  
many Christians, of their biblical connection to the historic land of  
Israel. Expertly woven into modern political Zionism, this resonance has  
become integral to it. A late-nineteenth century colonial-national movement  
thus adorned itself with a biblical coat that was powerfully attractive to  
Bible-reading Protestants in Great Britain and the United States, blinding  
them to the modernity of Zionism and to its colonial nature...”  
In Khalidi’s view, “There is no reason that what has happened in Palestine  
for over a century cannot be understood as both and a national conflict. But  
our concern here is its colonial nature, as this aspect has been as  
underappreciated as it is central, even though those qualities, typical of  
other colonial campaigns are everywhere in the modern history of Palestine.  
...As in North America, the colonization of Palestine —-like that of South  
Africa, Australia, Algeria and parts of East Africa—-was meant to yield a  
white European settler colony.”  
The basic thesis of this book is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is  
best understood as a war of colonial conquest, similar to those of other  
settlement movements of the nineteenth century. Khalidi points to the early  
Zionist slogan, “A land without people for a people without a land” which  
discounted the presence of the estimated 700,000 Palestinians already there.  
Consolidating this colonial settler paradigm was the 1948 Israeli war of  
Independence—-or the. “Nakba” (Catastrophe) as viewed by Palestinians.  
Israel seized control of nearly 80 per cent of the land that constituted the  
British Mandate. This was followed by the expulsion or flight of a similar  
percentage of its indigenous Arab population. Khalidi argues that Israeli  
settlers were emulating the model of earlier settler groups. After the 1967  
war and the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, things got even  
worse for Palestinians.  
Displaced Palestinians  
Khalidi contends that vital to the “settler-colonial enterprise has been an  
Israeli effort to sever the link of displaced Palestinians to their  
homeland. “the comforting idea,” he writes, “that the old will die and the  
young will forget”—-a remark attributed to David Ben-Gurion...expresses one  
of the deepest aspirations of Israeli leaders after 1948.”  
In the years after 1948, Khalidi points out, Israel has regularly  
characterized the Palestinian opponents of their displacement as  
“terrorists. The world, he notes, has largely ignored the Zionist terrorism  
which led to the creation of Israel. There was a regular assassination of  
British officials by the Stern gang, such as the 1944 murder of Lord Moyne,  
the resident minister in Egypt, and was followed by a sustained campaign of  
violence against British troops and administrators in Palestine. This  
culminated in the 1946 blowing up of the British headquarters in the King  
David Hotel in Jerusalem with the loss of 96 lives.  
Among those displaced in 1948 were, Khalidi writes, “...my grandparents, who  
had to leave their Atallah al-Rish home where my father and most of his  
siblings were born. Initially my grandfather, now eighty five years old and  
frail, stubbornly refused to leave the house. After his sons took most of  
the family to shelter in Jerusalem and Nablus, he remained there alone for  
several weeks. Fearing for his safety, a family friend from Jaffa ventured  
to the house during a lull in the fighting to retrieve him. He left  
unwillingly, lamenting that he could not take his books with him. Neither he  
nor his children ever saw their home again. The ruins of my grandfather’s  
large stone house still stand abandoned on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.”  
Palestine is Transformed  
The 1948 war, notes Khalidi, “transformed most of Palestine from what it had  
been for well over a millennium—-a majority Arab country—-into a new state  
that had a substantial Jewish majority. This transformation was the result  
of two processes: the systematic ethnic cleansing of the Arab-inhabited  
areas of the country seized during the war; and the theft of Palestinian  
land and property left behind by the refugees as well as much of that owned  
by those Arabs who remained in Israel. There would have been no other way to  
achieve a Jewish majority, the explicit aim of political Zionism from its  
Those Palestinians who managed to remain Israel after 1948 became second  
class citizens. Until 1966, most Palestinians lived under strict martial law  
and much of their land was seized, along with that of those who had been  
forced from the country and were now refugees. Khalidi makes the case that,  
“This stolen land, an expropriation deemed legal by the Israeli state,  
including the bulk of the country’s arable areas, was given to Jewish  
settlements or the Israel Lands Authority, or placed under the control of  
the Jewish National Fund, whose discriminatory charter prescribed that such  
property could only be used ‘for the benefit of the Jewish people.’ This  
provision meant that dispossessed Arab owners could neither buy back nor  
lease what had once been their property, nor could any other non-Jew. “  
These moves, Khalidi points out, “...were crucial to the transformation of  
Palestine from an Arab country to a Jewish one, since only about 6 per cent  
of Palestinian land had been Jewish-owned prior to 1948. The Arab population  
inside Israel, isolated by military and travel restrictions, was also cut  
off from other Palestinians and from the rest of the Arab world. Accustomed  
to being a substantial majority in their own country and region, they  
suddenly had to make their way as a despised minority in a hostile  
environment as subjects of a Jewish polity that never defined itself as a  
state of all its citizens. ...Most significantly, the martial regime under  
which the Palestinians lived, granted the Israeli military near-unlimited  
authority to control the minutiae of their lives.”  
U.N. Resolution 242  
After the 1967 war, the United Nations passed Resolution 242, demanding that  
Israel return to its pre-war borders. Khalidi points out that while SC42 is  
generally regarded as the basis for future Arab-Israeli peace talks, for the  
Palestinians it was more complex. Nowhere in the resolution are they  
referred to by name—-they are merely ‘refugees’—-while a return to the 1967  
borders meant the world was accepting their 1948 expulsion. Khalidi argues  
that each subsequent diplomatic “breakthrough” in the region has served to  
further marginalize the Palestinians. The 1979 Camp David peace treaty  
between Israel and Egypt meant that the Palestinians had lost a key ally in  
the region. The 1993 0slo Accords, he states, served to co-opt the  
Palestinian leadership—-of whom he is highly critical—-and confine the  
Palestinians into small enclaves under Israeli control.  
There is much in this book about Khalidi’s role as an adviser to  
Palestinians during the Madrid Conference of 1991 that led to the Oslo  
Accords. He was originally skeptical of the peace process and now regards it  
as an illusion. He describes meetings he had with Yasser Arafat in which he  
warned about Israeli control of the occupied territories. He characterizes  
leading American peace processors as biased in behalf of Israel and has  
urged the Palestinians to stop regarding the United States as an honest  
broker in negotiations.  
In 1917, he writes, “Arthur James Balfour stated that in Palestine, the  
British government did not ‘propose even to go through the form of  
consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country.’ The great  
powers were committed to Zionism, he continued, ‘and Zionism, be it right or  
wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in  
future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of  
the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.’ One hundred years  
later, President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital,  
saying, ‘We took Jerusalem off the table, so we don’t have to talk about it  
anymore.’ Trump told Benjamin Netanyahu, ‘You won one point, and you’ll give  
up some points later on in the negotiations, if it ever takes place.’ I  
don’t know that it will ever take place.’ The center of the Palestinians’  
history, identity, culture, and worship was thus summarily disposed of  
without even the pretense of consulting their wishes.”  
Colonialism in a Post-Colonial Age  
The U.S., Khalidi declares, has been “trying to do the impossible: impose a  
colonial reality on Palestine in a post-colonial age. Eqbal Ahmad summed it  
up: ‘August 1947 marked the beginning of decolonization, when British rule  
in India ended. It was in those days of hope and fulfillment that the  
colonization of Palestine occurred. Thus, at the dawn of decolonization, we  
were returned to the earliest, most intense form of colonial  
menace...exclusivist settler colonialism.’ In other circumstances or in  
another era, replacing the indigenous population might have been feasible,  
especially in light of the long-standing and deep religious link felt by  
Jews to the land in question—-if this were the eighteenth or nineteenth  
century, if the Palestinians were as few as the Zionist settlers or as fully  
decimated as the native peoples of Australasia and North America. The  
longevity of the Palestinians’ resistance to their dispossession, however,  
indicates that the Zionist movement, in the words of the late historian Tony  
Judt, ‘arrived too late’. as it ‘imported a characteristically late  
nineteenth century separatist project into a world that has moved on.  
Many prominent Israelis, Khalidi points out, are concerned about Israel’s  
mistreatment of Palestinians and are dubious about its claim that it can be  
both “Jewish” and “democratic.” Imagining scholars looking back one hundred  
years from now, historian Zeev Sternhell asked: “When exactly did the  
Israelis understand that their cruelty toward the non-Jews in their grip in  
the Occupied Territories, their determination to break the Palestinians’  
hopes for independence, or their refusal to offer asylum to African refugees  
began to undermine the moral legitimacy of their national existence.”  
“Deal of the Century”  
Today, Palestinians confront circumstances more daunting than perhaps any  
time since 1917. “With his election,” writes Khalidi, “Donald Trump began  
pursuit of what he called ‘the deal of the century,’ purportedly aimed at a  
conclusive resolution of the conflict. Closing the deal has so far involved  
dispensing with decades of bedrock U.S. policies, outsourcing strategic  
planning to Israel, and pouring contempt on the Palestinians.  
Inauspiciously, Trump’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman (his bankruptcy  
lawyer and a longtime financial supporter of the Jewish settler movement),  
spoke of an ‘alleged occupation’ and demanded that the State Department stop  
using the term. In one interview, he declared that Israel has the ‘right’ to  
annex “some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank.’ Jason Greenblatt, for over  
two years envoy for Israel-Palestine negotiations (previously Trump’s real  
estate lawyer and also a donor to Israeli right-wing causes). Stated the  
West Bank settlements ‘are not an obstacle to peace,’ rejected the use of  
the term ‘occupation’ in a meeting with EU envoys and endorsed Friedman’s  
views regarding annexation.”  
With these two pronouncements, the Trump Administration unilaterally took  
issues, such as the status of Jerusalem, which Israel is treaty bound to  
negotiate with the Palestinians, off the table. As well as reversing decades  
of American policy, the Trump Administration rejected an entire body of  
international law. What Trump has done, Khalidi argues, is fully accept  
“Israel’s stand on the vital issue of Jerusalem and did so without any quid  
pro quo from Israel and without any acknowledgement of Palestinian demands  
for recognition of the city as the capital of Palestine. Equally important,  
by implication, Trump endorsed Israel’s expansive definition of ‘unified  
Jerusalem,’ including the extensive Arab areas in and around the city  
appropriated by Israel since 1967. Although the administration stated that  
actual borders were still to be negotiated, its proclamation meant in effect  
that there was nothing left to negotiate.”  
Money in Return For Derogation of Rights  
What the future holds for Israel and the Palestinians is difficult to  
predict. There are, however, some examples from history that may be  
relevant, Khalidi provides this assessment: “With the establishment of  
Israel, Zionism did succeed in fashioning a potent national movement and a  
thriving new people in Palestine. But it could not fully supplant the  
country’s original population, which is what would have been necessary for  
the ultimate triumph of Zionism. Settler-colonial confrontations with  
indigenous peoples have only ended in one of three ways: with the  
elimination or full subjugation of the native population, as in North  
America; with the defeat or expulsion of the colonizer, as in Algeria, which  
is extremely rare; or with the abandonment of colonial supremacy, in the  
context of compromise and reconciliation, as in South Africa, Zimbabwe and  
American public opinion, Khalidi shows, is moving away from Israel as a  
result of its more than 50-year occupation and plans for annexation. A poll  
released by the Brookings Institution in December 2016 showed that 60 per  
cent of Democrats and 46 per cent of all Americans supported sanctions  
against Israel over its construction of illegal Jewish settlements in the  
West Bank. Most Democrats (55 per cent) believed Israel “has too much  
influence on U.S. politics and policies and is a strategic burden.”  
Subsequent polls show Americans continuing to move in this direction. There  
is, however, a deep partisan divide, with Republicans, particularly  
Evangelicals, supporting Israel’s maximalist demands. Thus far, there has  
been little apparent change in the formulation of U.S. policy.  
Evidence For A Re-Evaluation of Western Views  
This book combines scholarship, personal and family experience and an  
appreciation of the concerns of the contending parties. It puts Zionism in  
the context of other colonial-settler movements, something which many  
Americans may not have previously considered. The Israeli historian Avi  
Shlaim declares that Rashid Khalidi “presents compelling evidence for a re-  
evaluation of the conventional Western view of the subject.” The Israeli  
understanding of the events which led to the establishment of the state are  
well known to Americans. Now, Rashid Khalidi has provided another  
perspective which is much needed if we are to understand what has really  
happened in Palestine during the past hundred years.*  

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