My first trip to Israel was in 1988, near the beginning of the first intifada. I had the good fortune to befriend many young Israelis who were quite upset at this latest Palestinian uprising. They enlightened me as to the history of Israel, of which I knew basically nothing. I began to read Israeli authors and became a supporter of the Israeli cause. But over the years, I began to sense an imbalance in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Things weren’t as straightforward as they first seemed. With the onset of the current siege of Gaza, I wanted to learn more from the Palestinian perspective and picked up Rashid Khalidi’s 2020 book “The Hundred Years' War on Palestine: A History of Settler-Colonial Conquest and Resistance, 1917-2017.”
Khalidi begins in the late 1800s with the formation of the concept of Zionism, which can briefly be defined as “a movement for the re-establishment, development and protection of a Jewish nation in what is now Israel.” Khalidi provides many examples of how the original Zionist leaders consistently dismissed “as insignificant the interests, and sometimes the very existence, of the indigenous population,” as did European and American leaders. Khalidi’s primary argument in the book is that “the modern history of Palestine can best be understood in these terms: as a colonial war waged against the indigenous population, by a variety of parties, to force them to relinquish their homeland to another people against their will.” Khalidi provides extensive arguments as to how the colonialization of Palestine by Israel was similar to that of other lands by European powers, including America. Disparaging attitudes exhibited toward Native Americans were replicated against Palestinian natives, and Palestinian rights were persistently dismissed.
After World War I, Palestine was under British control. In 1917, Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, which expressed British support for a new Jewish state within Palestine. In reading the history of this period, multiple dynamics stand out. First, Palestinian (and broader Arab) resistance to Britain was disorganized and ineffective, whereas the Jewish lobby for the creation of Israel was coordinated and highly productive. Jewish immigration to Palestine exploded. Palestinian resistance was brutally put down by the British, with “14 to 17 percent of the adult male Arab population killed, wounded, imprisoned, or exiled.” The copious killing of Palestinian people is a common theme in this history.
Khalidi's history moves to 1948, when the new state of Israel was created. Again, U.S. and European leaders supported this action. In the process, “at least 720,000 of the 1.3 million Palestinians were made refugees.” Palestinians refer to this event as the Nakba, or the Catastrophe, and Khalidi provides extensive details into what he labels “the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.” Israel’s already mighty military faced little resistance from their weak and disorganized Arab enemies. Over the coming years, Israel expanded its tactic of ferociously responding to any Palestinian resistance, killing at rates of forty or fifty Palestinians - mostly civilian - to each Israeli killed.
Khalidi next details the 1967 Six-Day War, in which “the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian air forces had been wiped out in a first strike by Israel,” a preemptive strike that was given the “green light” by the U.S. government. Over the following years, Palestinians engaged in extensive political efforts toward reestablishing Palestine, all of which failed. Palestinian leaders remained weak and had minimal influence in America, whereas Israeli influence in Washington, DC, became dominant. Also, Israel regularly assassinated Palestinian leaders, which Khalidi describes as “a central element in Israel’s ambition to transform the entire country, from the river to the sea, from an Arab to a Jewish one.” Key in this was Israel’s continual demonization of Palestinian leaders as “terrorists,” thus justifying their eradication.
Khalidi then moves on to Israel’s devastation of Lebanon in 1982. Israel formally declared almost all of the 300,000 Palestinians living in Lebanon, including women and children, as terrorists, thus marking them as fair military targets. With Israel formally instituting a policy of targeting civilian areas, “nearly fifty thousand people were killed or wounded in Beirut and the rest of Lebanon.” In contrast, Israel lost 364 soldiers during the conflict. America’s response to this imbalance was to again increase military aid to Israel.
By the time the first intifada began, in 1987, Israeli “occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip had been in place for two decades,” and younger Palestinians had only known a life of apartheid under military occupation. “The iconic image from this period was of a small Palestinian boy hurling a stone at a huge Israeli tank.” As always, Israeli response was “heavy-handed and disproportionate,” with Israeli troops and settlers killing 1,422 Palestinians during this conflict as punishment for 175 Israeli deaths. Khalidi describes how this first intifada finally began to generate global public support for Palestinians, but efforts failed to influence the US government, which continued its full support of security only for Israel.
By the turn of the century, Israeli restrictions were fully strangling the Palestinian economy. Inequality between Palestinians and Jews was staggering, with Gaza effectively turning into an open-air prison. This gave rise to the second intifada and suicide bombers. This tactic of killing oneself in an attempt to reign terror on your enemy succeeded in terrorizing Israelis, but it also horrified the world. Support for the Palestinian cause deteriorated. And, as always, Israel’s response was overwhelming force, killing approximately 15 Palestinians for every Israeli killed, as well as incarcerating over 400,000 Palestinians.
After losing confidence in their leaders, in 2006, Palestinians voted in Hamas to lead Gaza. Khalidi readily admits that the “crude antisemitism” of Hamas’s charter violates international law but argues, “Hamas’s record paled next to the massive toll of Palestinian civilian casualties inflicted by Israel and its elaborate structures of legal discrimination and military rule.” Today, over five million Palestinians live without any rights under Israel’s military regime in the Occupied Territories. As Khalidi puts it, these people “suffer from one major defect: they were not born Jews.”
In more recent history, Israel has accelerated new illegal settlements on Palestinian land, the Israeli government has taken an even harder turn to the right and the U.S., under Donald Trump, dropped any semblance of recognition of Palestinian rights. Then history repeats itself. In October 2023, Hamas lashed out with violence, and, as always, Israel responded with overwhelming military force, once again killing Palestinian civilians at rates many, many times higher than Israeli deaths, under the full support of the American government and largely paid for by the American taxpayer.
After reading Khalidi’s book, a few hard questions stood out for me. First, do Palestinian lives matter? Second, is there any realistic outcome in this conflict other than Israel’s full colonization of Palestine? Third, are losers in a colonial war ever anything but terrorists? And, lastly, does my reading Khalidi’s book to broaden my understanding and challenge my historically pro-Israel view, and then writing this review of the book, make me antisemitic? I fear that for many Americans, the answer to the last question is “yes.”
Read more of the Jan. 17–24, 2024 issue.