The Israel-Palestine Conflict Isn’t a “Clash of Cultures.” It’s About Colonialism.

Palestine has been battered for over a century, yet the narrative of a “tragic clash” of two peoples with claims to the same territory still prevails. That framing is wrong — Palestine's miseries are the product of settler-colonial conquest.

Israeli soldiers take positions as Palestinians gathered for the March of Return on April 13, 2018. Lior Mizrahi / Getty Images

Imperial historians know what colonialism looks like. The history of modern Israel clearly fits that category. That’s why leftists, who have always been in the forefront of the international anti-colonial struggle, are more likely to support the Palestinians in the present dire conflict between them and the Israeli state. It has nothing to do with “antisemitism” in the proper sense of the word.

Rashid Khalidi’s new book, part history, part politics, part personal reminiscence — he was involved in many of the later events described here — recounts the story of the century-long conflict between Arabs and Zionists since 1917. It’s a story told not exactly impartially, as it’s delivered from a Palestinian point of view, but fairly in view of the overwhelmingly pro-Israeli narrative that has generally prevailed until recently, and which has needed to be counterbalanced, especially in Israel’s patron-state, the United States.

“Colonialism” is the theme that runs right through the book, prompting parallels between Zionism and many of the now notorious European examples of the phenomenon in Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. Of course, these weren’t quite so notorious when they happened, which was precisely when the idea of European Jews “colonizing” Palestine first took hold, with Zionists unembarrassed about using that word for it.

It is only later that colonialism fell out of favor, which is why Israel now prefers a narrative that places Jews as the original indigènes of the country (with their title granted by God, no less), and the Arabs as the invaders. Either that, or it sees the whole country as having been essentially empty of anyone but wandering tribes and savages: a terra nullius, therefore, like pre-settlement Australia or North America, which the Jews could “raise in civilisation” (a common imperialist trope). Zionism could never recognize the “nation” that many Palestinian Arabs claimed. The first part of this book contains plenty of evidence for those wanting to dispute either of these views.

The rest of Khalidi’s book is an account of the one-sided “war” between modern Palestinian nationalists on the one hand, and Jewish Zionists and their powerful allies — first Britain, then the United States — on the other. Most of this history is pretty well known by those who have managed to free themselves from the Hollywood Exodus image of the creation of the state of Israel, but is given added immediacy by the personal experiences of the Khalidi family, recounted in the book.

Along with the Zionists who took over Palestine for their new, ethnically based state, Khalidi includes a discussion of the original British mandatories, the successive US governments which backed them, and the neighboring Arab autocracies which, for reasons of their own, were — Khalidi maintains — almost equally complicit. The Palestinians should have expected more help from them. But their own leaders were equally culpable, due to their fratricidal divisions, personal failings, and lack of diplomatic and propagandist skill, which the Israeli side possessed in abundance. As an American citizen — he is presently the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia — Rashid Khalidi is well aware of the discrepancy of support and funding between the Israeli and Palestinian causes.

It could also be that the sheer ruthlessness of the Israeli armed and intelligence forces cowed them, as it was intended to: indiscriminate shootings and bombings, planned assassinations of Palestinian leaders, torture, mass imprisonment, exile, many of them recounted here; and their clever spread of disinformation in the West.

Two forms of the latter were the overidentification of the Palestinian cause with wider phenomenon of Islamicist “terrorism,” in order to discredit it; and the deliberate confusion of anti-Zionism with the stain of antisemitism, which of course no one on the Left wanted to be tarred with. The Palestinian cause had nothing like the expertise or the money that the American pro-Israeli lobby could draw on.

By way of conclusion, Khalidi expresses the hope that the tide of opinion might now be beginning to turn in a Palestinian direction, at least among young Americans and Israelis — he cites the “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions” (BDS) movement in American universities as evidence. Widely publicised Israeli atrocities in Gaza and the West Bank will have had much to do with this shift in opinion, contributing to the remarkable transformation of Israel in many people’s esteem over the past thirty or so years.

Maybe simply acknowledging these would help; as Khalidi himself fully recognises the Jews’ sufferings in the past as a powerful reason for their wanting a nation of their own, and Israel’s present fears of its neighbors, though he believes these are exaggerated. Nonetheless he thinks Israel must abandon full-throated Zionism — the ultra-colonialist Eretz Yisrael, which is clearly still Netanyahu’s ultimate dream, for example — and recognize that the Palestinians constitute a genuine “nation” too.

That would pave a way to the “two-state” solution that Israel has always disdained, but which the PLO came round to accepting relatively recently. It would also however require that the Palestinians recognize, on their side, the reality of Israel’s “national” credentials, in spite of their having less credible historical roots — unless you’re a Bible fundamentalist — than are often claimed for them. As Khalidi points out, no one disputes this in the cases of other comparatively recent settler states, like Canada and Australia.

The United States nonetheless remains a problem for Palestinian nationhood. Quite apart from the powerful Israel Lobby, which one hardly dares to mention these days for fear of being labelled antisemitic, Khalidi makes the interesting suggestion that the American celebration of its own colonial history might play into its support for expansion of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories.

For these and other reasons, Palestinians should stop regarding the United States as a potential mediator, and instead treat it “as an extension of Israel … which would represent its real position at least since 1967.” All previous agreements should be scrapped, and negotiations begin de novo. By that time, with the balance of the world changing as it seems to be doing now, we may reach a position in which other rising powers, more favorable to the Palestinians, will have more clout in Middle Eastern affairs: Khalidi suggests India and China.

“Perhaps,” Khalidi concludes, “such changes will allow Palestinians, together with Israelis and others worldwide who wish for peace and stability with justice in Palestine, to craft a different trajectory than that of oppression of one people by another. Only such a path based on equality and justice is capable of concluding the hundred years’ war on Palestine with a lasting peace, one that brings with it the liberation that the Palestinian people deserve.” That would make a happier conclusion to this distinctive episode in the history of European colonialism, than any of the hoped- and feared-for alternatives.

For those who want to learn about the course of the Israel-Palestine conflict up till now, and are open-minded: read this book. It comes over as a brilliant synthesis of high scholarship and experience, fair-minded despite its overtly Palestinian leanings, and highly readable. Americans and Israelis especially should read it, including the younger, more liberal ones, into whose hands the fates of both of the legitimate nations in this region must now pass. Please don’t let this go on for another hundred years.