Israeli History through Palestinian Eyes

Rashid Khalidi (2020) The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine

A Review by Howard Adelman – Part XI: The Consequence of 1967

Rashid Khalidi characterizes the century-old war between the Zionists and the Palestinians in terms of stages of increasing disaster for the cause of Palestinian self-determination, beginning with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the disastrous consequences of the 1937-38 Uprising, the 1947-1948 war, and the most disastrous of all, the 1967 war. For Khalidi, two other stages would make matters even worse, if that were at all possible: the Oslo Accords, the second intifada and the aftermath of the latter, although he claims the First Intifada was a success.

United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 (UNSC242 or SC242) in 1967 set the grounds for the future. Not only did it make the definition of the conflict a state-to-state matter that sidelined the Palestinians, in the English version, it required Israel to withdraw from territories captured in the Six Day War and not from all the territories captured. By making withdrawal conditional upon Israel having both secure and recognizable borders, the resolution explicitly allowed for enlarged Israeli borders. “[B]y linking Israel’s withdrawal from Occupied Territories to the creation of secure and recognized boundaries, SC242 allowed for the possibility of enlarged Israeli borders to meet the criterion of security as defined by Israel.”

Further, by taking the Armistice line of 1948 as the territorial reference for boundaries, SC242 effectively sanctioned the acquisition of territory that Israel captured in the 1948 war. The armistice lines were legitimated as the borders of Israel not subject to further revision except to ensure Israeli security. As Khalidi summarized it, “Thanks in large part to SC242, a whole new layer of forgetting, of erasure and myth-making, was added to the induced amnesia that obscured the colonial origins of the conflict between Palestinians and the Zionist settlers.” SC242 both reified past errors and exacerbated them by ignoring the many dimensions of the Palestinian suffering at the hands of the Zionists at the core of the conflict.

The result – Israeli settlements in the Golan, East Jerusalem and the West Bank and the annexation of both the Golan and East Jerusalem which, because of failure to effectively countermand such moves, meant “tacit international acceptance of them.” The post-1967 period had another consequence – moving the United States from a position of a true intermediary as it had been under Eisenhower to an alignment with Israel. Thirdly, it meant that Israel could now deal with captured territory as a bilateral matter and splinter the union of Arabs in support of Palestinian self-determination.

“Even the Palestinians, represented by the PLO [and initially beholden to the Egyptian intelligence services] , eventually traveled down the path laid out in SC242 …and the bilateral approach as a basis for a resolution of the conflict.” But SC242 was also the spark for the revival of the Palestinian national movement marking “an extraordinary resurgence of Palestinian national consciousness and resistance to Israel’s negation of Palestinian identity.” But why the erasure if Israeli Palestinians remained Palestinian? Why if Israel ended up negotiating with the Palestinians by the nineties? How was that an erasure of their identity? Or was this simply a mantra that followed defining Israel as a colonial settler state rather than even the empirical conclusions even Khalidi finds in the historical evidence? As becomes clear, erasure means the cancellation of the prospect of Palestinians possessing self-determination in a sovereign state of their own. Fot Khalidi, the self-interested bickering Arab states was equally to blame since, after 1948, they too were engaged in an erasure of Palestinian identity.

It is certainly true that Khalidi found a Palestinian cultural renaissance that gave voice to a national revival when he returned from America to spend his summers in Lebanon. Ghassan Kanafini (Return from Haifa) and Emile Habibi (The Pessoptimist) are particular heroes of Khalidi. In spite of his literary talent, personal modesty, intelligence and self-deprecating humour, Kanafini was assassinated in a car bomb, allegedly by the Mossad, in July 1972. He was an active supporter of the Marxist PFLP founded in 1967 after the disastrous performance of Egypt, Syria and Transjordan in the Six Day War. He supported the use of violence against Israel but though he justified thee Lod massacre, he had begun to question the use of indiscriminate violence.

Khalidi found the killing of an intellectual unconscionable but does not mention that it was in response to the Lod Airport massacre by the Japanese Red Army and that Kanafini was the spokesperson for the PFLP, had consorted with the Japanese terrorists and accepted responsibility for the Lod attack. The likelihood that Abu Ahmed Tunis planted the bomb in Kanafini’s car is not mentioned either; he was murdered by the PFLP as an Israeli agent in 1981.

Khalidi has a romantic image of armed military resistance, especially its effect in heightening a sense of national identity. How the martyrs are characterized and memorialized adds to that national self-image. But they needed an intellectual leader who gave all their efforts theoretical and historical depth. Khalidi cast Constantin Zureiq (The Meaning of Catastrophe), a Palestinian Princeton-trained historian and intellectual based at the American University in Beirut, in this role.

However, the largest nationalist organization to grow out of the conflict was not PFLP but Fatah, first founded by Yasser Arafat in Kuwait in 1959 with its call “for direct and immediate action by Palestinians [which it launched on 1 January 1965], as well as its broad-tent nonideological stance.” The National Charter adopted by the PLO in 1964 “stated that Palestine was an Arab country where national rights belonged only to those residing there before 1917 and their descendants.” The PLO’s romantic militant efforts, though not very effective in strategic terms, were very effective in arousing the support in the street throughout the Arab world and certainly among the Palestinians, especially in the refugee camps, much to the consternation of Arab political leaders, especially in 1970 when it threatened their political status in Jordan or when those actions provoked an Israeli military reprisal. The Charter, on the other hand, alienated most of the rest of the world.

Basically, and it is hard to refute, Khalidi’s thesis claims that the nationalist surge and the growth of the PLO received its greatest boost as a result of Israel’s victory in the 1967 war. However, there is a complementary thesis. Violence may have no tactical advantage, may indeed have a tactical cost, but if it boosts the international profile of the Palestinian cause, it is worth it. I would argue that the First and Second Intifadas proved the opposite to be true. Fighting battles primarily for public relations purposes was eventually self-defeating in the longer run for such action undercut state support in Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan, both for domestic as well as international reasons. As we shall see, Khalidi splits the difference, defending the First Intifada as positive but the Second as very negative.

However, since, for Khalidi, the major battle was the Zionist hard-line position of replacing Palestine by Israel, the cost was worth it. Erasure had to be erased as a possibility. The Palestinians after 1967supercededd its original charter by accepting all Jews living in Palestine, both Jews and Arabs, as equal citizens, but retaining the erasure of Jewish nationalism and opposition to Zionism.

The core conflict was, therefore, discursive and rhetorical, advancing Edward Said’s “permission to narrate,” rather than the facts on the ground. And this view deeply entrenched in the Palestinian psyche entails fighting a war primarily in the air of international public opinion.  However, there is a great deal of evidence that this thesis may be false and Khalidi gives those arguments scant attention. Such a position may feed the voice and positions of the hardline Israelis fixated on a Greater Israel.

On one side, the effort was to identify Palestinian nationalism with the pursuit of justice. On the other side, the effort was to identify the Palestinian cause with terrorism. Both efforts were successful thereby transferring the intractable nature of the conflict to the international arena and, in particular, domestic politics in the USA. Today, there is thus a significant progressive presence in the Democratic Party allied with the justice of the Palestinian cause while opposed by both liberal Democrats who see Israel primarily as a just state and Republicans who give Israel a messianic mantle.

For Khalidi, the fight over the narrative depended in part on military successes on the ground, such as the set back to the Israeli army when it invaded Jordan to eliminate a militant Palestinian force at Karameh. But Khlaidi leaves out the fact that Karameh also played a dual role within Jordan, emboldening the Palestinian resistance and arousing the fears of the regime of the Palestinian militants. This came to a head in Black September between the 16th and 27th 1970 culminating in the expulsion of the PLO from Jordan by July of 1971, the first of a series of expulsions of Palestinian centres of resistance from Arab states. Expulsion from Lebanon in 1982 would be the next step. (Khalidi has an extended discussion of the long Lebanese civil war in which the Palestinians played a significant part in chapters 3 and 4, but I have omitted that discussion in this commentary; also see his volume Under Seige.) Khalidi grants that the Palestinians were never able to develop a successful guerilla war strategy (say, compared to the Viet Kong) in confronting the far superior experienced, well-trained and best-equipped military in the world though, against all odds, for a time they did dominate Lebanon.

However, Ariel Sharon’s war against Lebanon in 1982 was not only meant to dislodge the PLO politically and militarily from Lebanon and get rid of this military menace from the north, but had a deeper reason, limiting the PLO’s leadership in Jerusalem and the Occupied Territories in order to advance Israel’s larger imperial ambitions for the rest of Palestine. I happened to be in Beirut at the same time as Khalidi when the air and artillery bombardments of the Palestinian refugee camps, Sabra and Shatila, began when I was interviewing Palestinians there. That is where the slaughter of 1,300 civilians – men, women and children – took place at the hands of the Phalangist militias while Ariel Sharon deliberately averted his eyes. The Israeli Supreme Court found Begin, Sharon and the senior commanders directly and indirectly responsible for the massacre to the revulsion of most Israelis.  It is worth reading this book if only for the strong indictment that Khalidi summarizes of the Israeli political and military leadership who, in their attempts to defend their actions, sound like Donald Trump and his total disrespect for facts.

My own account is somewhat different. From my perspective as I retreated from Beirut, the traffic and the construction in the city seemed to continue unabated at the same time as the Israeli assault leveled the Palestinian areas of the city. I did not witness a bombardment of all of Beirut but only of a section, an observation confirmed by Khalidi himself whose Zarif neighbourhood where he lived with his wife and two children was very largely spared. But the objective was not just military targets, but Palestinian population residential and administrative centres. So, while not indiscriminate in one sense, the term Thomas Friedman initially used, was appropriate in another sense in terms of the targeted areas and the goal of driving Palestinians out of Lebanon. Khalid’s first-hand descriptions are both gripping and terrifying.

Khalidi observed, as I did, that the Lebanese had developed a deep resentment against the Palestinians because of the collateral damage they suffered and the often undisciplined behaviour of Palestinian militias towards Lebanese civilians. Even in the arena of diplomacy where Khalidi claimed widespread victories, even though he often criticizes the EU for ineffective political follow up in actual practice, Khalidi does not examine the actual shallowness of these widespread diplomatic victories, or, more importantly, probe why this is the case. Granting Arafat a chance to address the UN General Assembly or getting a resolution passed that Zionism is racism proved to be pyrrhic victories. Khalidi credited the success with national liberation movements, now a past stage in history, and the failure with inadequate attention “to diplomacy and information.” Of course, the latter is an argument that might be expected of an historian, but in an era in which the rationality of decision-making has been assaulted by the revelations of the social sciences, particularly psychology, perhaps imagery may be much more important in the world of public opinion than facts. Instead, Khalidi cited a 1984 meeting between a group of illustrious Palestinian intellectuals, including himself, where Arafat listened briefly. Arafat was unable to heed their advice to understand America and direct its diplomacy and public relations exercise there. The intellectuals were dismissed in favour of meeting with a small militant resistance group backed by Iraq. The argument for a well thought out discursive war had been lost.

Essentially, this historical narrative is a critical part of the importance of that discursive war as Khalidi sees it and the need to characterize the Israeli-Palestinian war as an effort to erase the Palestinian national identity and thus characterize it as an act of genocide, though Khalidi is careful not to apply such an explosive terminology at this time. But erasure is genocide. And erasure is the fundamental thesis that Khalidi is putting forth to replace the narrative of two nationalist movements in conflict.

How does Khalidi reconcile his romanticization of Palestinian violence with his critique of its excesses, its lack of an overall strategic vision, its heedless alienation of the support of Arab states and its undermining of Palestinian diplomatic initiatives. The answer is the same. The overall strategy needed to be more coherent, the specific moves had to be made in terms of this strategy and the attention had to be placed on more public relations, particularly aimed at the United States as the greatest superpower. But what if America is withdrawing from the world, what if America is replacing worldwide military supremacy with powerful regional partners, what if China is the new rising power that is extending its influence largely through infrastructure partnerships that require a control of territory of strategic value? How then does Khalidi’s strategic thesis as the complement or even underlying drive for his historical thesis survive. There are no answers found in this historical account.

There are other I believe more historical lapses. According to Khalidi, the Egyptian outreach to Israel culminating in 1978 was a result of American wheeling and dealing to win Egypt back into the Western camp away from the Soviet sphere of influence. However, other historians argue that the Sadat initiative went ahead against and in spite of American suspicions and domestic questioning. There is no adjudication of this debate in this history, perhaps because it distracts from the fundamental thesis of the importance of winning over America and a discursive thesis focused primarily of what many would regard as a myth of the goal of erasure by Zionists. The PLO had already abandoned its goal of erasure of Israel to all practical purposes when the US under President Jimmy Carter abandoned its push for a comprehensive agreement, one to include the Palestinians, in favour of bilateral talks, the eventual Camp David process and the separate Israel-Egyptian peace agreement in 1979.

The Palestinians shifted positions, from the goal of a Palestinian state in all of Palestine to the objective of a nation-state in all of the captured territory in 1967 including Jerusalem as the capital. The erasure of Israel and Zionism was bracketed. But many saw this as a feint, as simply an interim goal. Part of the reason for this is that the Palestinians projected onto the Zionists their own vision, even though it had only been true is small part – at least until the latter part of the 1970s when the Likud and the right-wing with its enormous distrust of the Arabs came to power.

While the Arab League in the Khartoum summit in 1967 promulgated the doctrine of the three nos – no peace, no recognition and no negotiations with Israel  – the Likud was beginning to advance its vision of a Zionist state is a much larger area of mandatory Palestine, not just a larger share, with the possibility of sovereignty over it all. In contrast, “Most (Palestinians) felt no sense that there were now two nations in Palestine, each with national rights; to them, Israelis were no more than settlers, foreign immigrants to their country.” In good part, this was because those responsible for creating the discursive agenda propagated the myth of Zionism as a colonial settler project.

The fact was, there was an asymmetry. Most Israelis did not believe in erasure and did not support policies that advanced such a position. Hence the caution of the Likud government when it came to power. Khalidi claims that, “the Palestinian position of erasure “mirrored that of most Israelis for whom there was only one people with national rights in Eretz Yisrael.” But most Zionists had long ago abandoned such a position in the face of international power politics and adopted more modest goals. The Palestinians reinforced their nationalist unilateralism until the facts on the ground convinced them that this was no longer tenable as a practical political position. However, in the meanwhile the strength of the right in Israel had solidified and strengthened so that support for a Palestinian nation weakened at the same time as its possibility came closer. At the same time, the neighbouring states, especially Egypt and Jordan, made the creation of secure borders, both for their own states and Israel, a major priority.

Begin’s vision now dominated the future – that is restricting negotiations with the Palestinians to self-rule, exclusion of any discussion of sovereignty, statehood, Jerusalem or refugee return. After the expulsion of the PLO from Jordan, the abandonment of any substantive support for the Palestinian cause with the separate Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement, the expulsion of the PLO from Lebanon in 1982 and then the ultimate blow, the peace agreement between Jordan and Israel with the abandonment of any claims by Jordan for the West Bank but with no provisions for a successor polity, the PLO was forced more and more into a corner and “a long, slow process of shifting away from a maximalist position of a unitary state in all of Palestine” to a two-state solution at the same time as the Right-wing in Israel became the rising dominant power and one far less sympathetic to a two-state solution. However, Khalidi clung to the conviction that Israel’s ambition had consistently been “to transform the entire country, from the river to the sea, from an Arab to a Jewish one” in an historical politicide if not – the unmentionable – a genocide – that is, “elimination of the Palestinian reality, demographically, ideationally and politically.”  

If that was the consistent goal, why Oslo?


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