Rashid Khalidi: “We Are Seeing a Horrifying Attempt to Shut Down Speech Around Palestine”

Rashid Khalidi

Palestinian-American historian Rashid Khalidi spoke to Jacobin about the horrific human cost of Israel’s war on Gaza, the growing protests in solidarity with Palestinians, and the effort by Israel’s supporters to shut down free discussion.

Thousands of pro-Palestinian protesters march by the Washington Monument during a demonstration calling for a cease-fire in Gaza on October 21, 2023, in Washington, DC. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

Interview by
Daniel Finn

Rashid Khalidi is one of the leading historians of modern Palestine. He spoke to Jacobin on October 30 about the human cost of Israel’s war on Gaza so far, the wider regional context in which events are unfolding, and what is likely to happen next. He also discussed the growing protests in solidarity with the Palestinian people that have been organized in the United States and Europe as well as the McCarthyite efforts by Israel’s supporters to shut down free discussion about Palestine. This is an edited transcript from Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the interview here.

Daniel Finn

What has been the material impact so far of the Israeli offensive on the people of Gaza, along with the parallel developments unfolding in the West Bank?

Rashid Khalidi

We’re hampered by the information blackout that Israel has imposed on the Gaza Strip. They haven’t allowed journalists in, and they’ve halted electricity supplies and fuel shipments. Some of the journalists who were there have been killed by Israeli bombardment and those who are still alive are very much hampered in their reporting. We have much less information than we should have about what’s happening.

We know the death toll had reached 8,300 by October 30, of whom about 3,500 are children. The number of people injured is probably much, much higher than the number that has been reported. The reported number is well over 10,000, but a lot of people are not able to get to hospitals and there’s no way to tabulate statistics.

The number of dead is undoubtedly much higher than the estimated figures because there are many destroyed buildings that probably contain bodies that won’t be reachable and therefore countable until heavy machinery can remove the rubble. Over a million people have been displaced from their homes — probably close now to a million and a half, but we don’t know for sure. The human impact has been dreadful and the uncertainty and trauma for children must be quite horrible.

The situation in the West Bank is not quite as dire, but Israel has been carrying out multiple nightly raids on towns, villages, and especially refugee camps, and they’ve killed at least 120 people. There have also been settler attacks on Palestinians, which were ongoing before October 7, but which have ramped up since. Some small communities have been displaced by settler violence in isolated parts of the West Bank.

All of this comes against the background of not only US support for and supply of munitions to the Israeli offensive, but also Joe Biden himself casting doubt on the Palestinian casualty figures. The Ministry of Health in Gaza issued a list of almost 7,000 people identified up to that point with their name, age, gender, and ID number, showing that the US president was a liar and that there was no reason to doubt those numbers.

I think that Biden’s statement was despicable. It demeaned and diminished the dead, and I think it perfectly represents the outlook of this administration, which is sadly more Israeli than the Israelis themselves, on many issues at least.

Daniel Finn

Do you believe that Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies have developed a coherent plan for how they intend to fight this war, let alone for what they intend to do in the aftermath? How much of a factor in all of this is Netanyahu’s own desire for political self-preservation?

Rashid Khalidi

It’s impossible to answer the second part of that question, Netanyahu has never been much of a strategist. He’s a political survivor. Somebody said to me the other day that he is one of the great charlatans in modern history, fooling the Israeli people. I think they’ve actually discovered that they’ve been fooled and whatever efforts he may be making for political survival, my sense is that the Israelis have probably had enough of it, but that’s a matter for after the war.

As to whether Israel has war plans or plans for what follows, it’s clear that they have finally developed some kind of plan for the bombing and invasion of the Gaza Strip, and they’re carrying it out methodically. They’ve dropped more bombs in a few weeks than the United States would drop on Afghanistan in a year, on a territory a fraction the size of Afghanistan.

They appear to have developed some kind of plan for a ground operation, and they currently seem to be attempting to encircle Gaza City. In other words, they’re moving in from the north, they’re moving down along the coast, and they seem to be moving on an east-west axis, so they have Gaza City, which is the largest agglomeration in the Gaza Strip, surrounded.

Do they have a plan for the day after? I don’t think they do. There are plans that have been published — one of which came from the Intelligence Ministry, if it’s reliable — for expelling a large part of the population to the Sinai Peninsula. Is that the policy of the Israeli government? We don’t know. This particular ministry doesn’t have much authority, but this may be what they will try to do eventually.

There is evidence that this is what the United States was trying to persuade Arab countries to accept. There’s also the possibility that they’ll try to keep hold of a large part of the Gaza Strip, emptying the population and forcing them into a smaller area. This, after all, has been their policy in the West Bank — the creation of Bantustans in which the Palestinians are more and more shut up, along with the dispossession and ethnic cleansing of other areas. The long-term strategy is to take as much of the land as they can and push the Palestinians into the smallest area possible.

They may adopt that strategy in the Gaza Strip. Does that mean they have an idea of what they will do on the day after? I don’t think so. Netanyahu’s close ally, the strategic affairs minister Ron Dermer, spoke this morning and said, “When the war’s over, we will decide.” That may actually be the way they look at it. There may be various options that they’re considering, but I’m not sure that they’ve decided on one yet.

Daniel Finn

We’ve seen a major escalation over the past few days, beginning with the communications blackout imposed on Gaza last Friday, [October 27], followed by one of the heaviest nights of bombardment to date and the deployment of ground forces in the Gaza Strip.

Does this represent the opening stages of a full-scale ground war, which according to some Israeli spokesmen would be expected to unfold over the space of months rather than weeks? If that is the case, what would its impact be on the civilian population of Gaza, and could it even succeed on its own terms in the stated Israeli goal of ousting Hamas from Gaza?

Rashid Khalidi

Let me start from the end of that question. Hamas is a political movement with a military wing. It has cultural, religious, and ideological elements to it, some of which are impossible to extirpate. You can say that there’s a military wing and Israel might try to destroy that military wing entirely, but you can’t destroy or eliminate Hamas per se.

It was a movement that won an election in 2006. We’re talking about a plurality rather than a majority, but a lot of people voted for it. It has a huge network of social services, political branches, and so forth.

It also represents an idea of resistance and an idea of some kind of Islamic society. You can’t extirpate that without killing hundreds of thousands of people. Could Israel defeat the military wing of Hamas? Possibly. Could they completely eliminate Hamas from the Gaza Strip? No.

What does this ground operation represent? Is it the opening stage of something else? I think it’s impossible to say at this stage. It would appear from the very limited data that I’ve seen that they intend to carry out a large-scale operation in the northern part of the Gaza Strip. I think they intend to encircle and possibly to enter all of those areas.

Will that be successful? Will they eliminate the entirety of Hamas’s military infrastructure in those areas? I don’t know. Will this have a horrific impact on the civilian population who have remained in Gaza City and the areas to the north and east of it? Yes, it will have a horrific impact on whoever is still there.

My niece’s in-laws moved from their home in the neighborhood on the western side of Gaza toward the sea to southern Gaza. But they came back, first of all because they were being bombarded in the south, and second because there was no food and no shelter. They returned a few days ago.

We were cut off from them during the communications blackout before hearing from them again on Sunday. Now I don’t know what’s happening, because the Israelis are moving down the coast and that’s where the neighborhood in which they live is located. According to reports coming out of Israel, Israeli armor was moving down the coastline.

There will be awful consequences for the many people left inside Gaza City and the northern parts of Gaza. Apparently over a million people have left. But my guess is there are several hundred thousand people still there.

Daniel Finn

Looking at the international reaction to what has happened so far, let’s begin with the reaction from governments in Europe and the US. We have yet to see any major Western state calling for a cease-fire. There have been visits to Israel from Joe Biden, Rishi Sunak, Emmanuel Macron, and Olaf Scholz, not to mention the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, all pledging their support for Israel.

How does this compare to the response that we saw to previous Israeli wars, from the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 to the previous offensives against Gaza over the past fifteen years?

Rashid Khalidi

I think that the full-throated support for Israel by the US and West European countries is partly a function of Joe Biden’s intense ideological commitment to Israel. We’re talking about a politician who has been supportive of Israel for forty years or so. I think it’s also a response to the very large number of Israeli civilians who were killed on October 7.

If you think back, every war that Israel has fought since 1948 has been fought on Arab soil. Those wars have been fought inside Gaza and the West Bank, or inside Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon. All of the fighting and most of the civilian casualties have been on Arab soil and among Arab civilians in every war Israel has fought for over seventy-five years. This is the first time that Israeli territory has been subjected to this kind of attack and the first time that Israeli civilians have been targets to this extent.

Israeli civilians have been killed many times in the past, whether by rocket fire from Lebanon and Gaza or attacks by commando groups, going back to the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. But in those cases, we are talking about casualties in the single digits or the low double digits, with nothing like the emotional or psychological impact of what followed the October 7 attack. That has been — I’m trying to find the right word here — displayed on a world stage by a public relations machine that has no rival in history.

What was being displayed were horrific scenes, which had a particular resonance from Western audiences for multiple reasons. First, because people in many Western societies could relate to the people who had been killed. There were people who knew or were related to the people who were killed.

Second, because they were like us — in other words, this was a Western society that was being attacked. Similar scenes of atrocities perpetrated against Palestinians would not have had the same impact except among immigrant communities and minorities in the West, for whom those people are like us.

You are talking about a huge shock — because this war was taken into Israel; because Israel, which was seen as invincible, had been defeated militarily; finally, and most importantly, because of the way in which these civilian deaths were amplified and given resonance in the Western media. They affected Western politicians in a way that no amount of atrocious Arab deaths has ever affected them. I have never seen tens of thousands of Iraqi deaths or Syrian deaths or Afghan deaths — or the more than 8,000 Palestinian deaths so far in Gaza — producing any notable reaction in these Western capitals or among their media outlets. There’s obviously a double standard at work here.

Those are all of the reasons, I think, that you have had this incredible outpouring of support for Israel on the part of politicians, the media, and corporations. Public opinion is in a different place in most countries, including the United States.

Daniel Finn

On that point, we have seen very substantial public support for a cease-fire in the US revealed in opinion surveys, particularly among supporters of the Democrats, as well as countries like Britain. We’ve also seen major protests in the US and a number of European countries — the largest, I believe, taking place in London last Saturday, [October 28]. What do you think is the significance of that gap between government policy in Europe and the US and dissenting views among the population of those countries?

Rashid Khalidi

First of all, I think there is a generation gap. Younger people are not as susceptible to the myths and fabrications that influenced so many of their elders over the course of many decades. They are completely indifferent to and contemptuous of the mainstream media. They get their information from other sources.

I was on CNN recently, and after I mentioned the sympathy of young people for the Palestinians in this conflict, the anchor referred to a survey which said that in the eighteen to thirty-five age group, just 10 percent supported the Biden administration’s policy on Gaza. The remaining 90 percent were either opposed to it or had no view. That’s quite extraordinary.

The second aspect is that we live in increasingly diverse societies and for important elements of American society, what is happening to the Palestinians has a resonance. I’ve talked to African Americans, and they say that if you go to Palestine, it’s like Jim Crow. They can relate to this situation: separate roads for separate people; some people have the vote, while others don’t.

It’s not exactly the same as their experience in the US, but they can relate to it. I think that’s true for many other minorities in the United States as well. They see brown people suffering and they can relate to it, whereas others are indifferent, especially older people in some Western societies.

I think there has been a shift over time in the willingness to at least consider that there is a Palestinian narrative. No Palestinian narrative was admitted to the public space fifty years ago. It didn’t exist so far as people were concerned: it existed, but nobody knew about it.

That’s not true anymore. More and more people know that such a narrative exists, and sometimes they set it alongside other narratives. Sometimes they disregard part of it, but at least it’s there in the public space.

This is no thanks to mainstream corporate media or the major political parties — the Democrats and the Republicans in the US, Labour and the Conservatives in Britain. They read from an Israeli playbook morning, noon, and night, whether we’re talking about Keir Starmer or Rishi Sunak, Donald Trump or Joe Biden.

But the grassroots are in a very different place, at least when it comes to the Democratic Party in the US. Even among Republicans, there’s an interesting generational divide. Republicans are much more supportive of Israel generally, but older Republicans considerably more so than younger ones.

Another thing we’re seeing is that the same people who buy and sell our politicians and contribute to political parties also contribute to private universities and are partners in hedge funds, law firms, and so on. They dominate corporations like NBCUniversal, which runs MSNBC, or the investment firm of Jeff Bezos, which owns the Washington Post. The multibillionaire class is mostly on one side in this conflict, and they have enormous influence on politicians and the media.

You basically have on one side the capitalist class, older white people, and the major political party leaderships, while on the other side, you have much of the grassroots of those parties, young people, and a very diverse coalition, including a very large part of the younger generation in the US Jewish community. Some of the big demonstrations in New York were led by Jewish organizations. They shut down Grand Central station the other day.

Again, that’s partly a generational divide, but it’s a deep divide that didn’t exist twenty years ago within the Jewish community. I think what’s happening on college campuses reveals both a generational divide and the fact that even among faculty, there’s an openness in many cases to sympathy with the Palestinians and to understanding that there’s a Palestinian narrative that simply didn’t exist a generation or more ago.

Daniel Finn

Looking now at the Middle East, again, you have a disjunction between state-level opinion and popular opinion, albeit in a context where the majority of those states are authoritarian and not directly accountable to their own citizens. How much pressure, despite that authoritarian framework, is there on Arab rulers from popular opinion in their own states?

To be more specific, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are probably the two most important countries in the regional equation. Would it be possible for the Saudi kingdom to pick up again with its normalization efforts with Israel after what’s happened over the past few weeks? In relation to Egypt, despite the rhetoric that Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has come out with recently, could he nonetheless be induced by the US to cooperate with a program of ethnic cleansing and forcible displacement from Gaza?

Rashid Khalidi

Let me take your question by going back three weeks ago. The conventional wisdom among the American policymaking elite and among almost every think tanker who dealt with the Middle East was that Palestine doesn’t count in Arab politics. It’s not an important issue. They thought that normalization was an inexorable process, and that Israel would be integrated into the region sooner or later, with a new era of prosperity and regional integration on the doorstep.

That was the sense coming out of Saudi Arabia, out of the Israeli government, and out of the US administration. It seemed like a major plank of Biden’s foreign policy was to achieve normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Well, it turned out that they were all wrong, as anybody with the slightest knowledge of history would have told them. But that knowledge was clearly absent from the consciousness of leaders and policymakers.

Anyone who studies this issue knows that there was already concern about Zionism across the Arab world before WWI. In the 1920s and ’30s, there was widespread Arab support for the Palestinians. In the 1940s, the Arab regimes were dragged unwillingly into war with Israel by Arab public opinion. They were terrified of the Israelis and had no desire to enter the war. Their armies were not ready, and they knew it, but they were forced by public opinion to go to war.

Arab public opinion is not represented by the undemocratic regimes that blight most of the Arab world. Especially after the suppression of the uprisings of the 2010s, those regimes were confident in their ability to control public opinion, suppress dissent, and govern as they pleased, doing the bidding of the US when necessary and cozying up to Israel without any possible downside. That whole illusion has been shattered, starting on October 7.

You’ve seen the biggest demonstrations in some Arab countries for a decade or more. In the case of Egypt, I think there has been the first public demonstration since the 2013 coup that brought down the first and only democratically elected Egyptian government. You’ve seen similar huge demonstrations in Yemen and Iraq as well as countries like Morocco, Algeria, and Turkey, which is outside the Arab world. That is quite extraordinary, and I think it has put the fear of God into Arab governments.

Will that change what I think is a set policy of the Saudi regime of trying to normalize its relations with Israel over the long term? Maybe not. They may resume trying to do that afterward, when whatever horrors we still have to experience in Gaza are past.

Will the Egyptian regime accept the blandishments of Washington? There has been a lot of reporting on the offers that are being made to cancel half of Egypt’s $160 billion debt. Will they continue to resist those enticements? I don’t know. But there are reasons to think they might not succumb. One is that Sisi has called a presidential election for December this year, and I’m not sure he wants to run on a platform of having facilitated the completion of the ethnic cleansing of Gaza.

There are other reasons for the Egyptian regime not going along with this. One is the fact that Palestinians have never once been allowed to return after having been displaced from Palestine. If you accept Gazan refugees that Israel forces into Sinai, they’re going to be there forever, which means an infringement on Egyptian sovereignty and a long-term security problem.

I don’t know what will happen. The Egyptian regime has talked very firmly about this. But I’ve seen reporting that indicates that when these blandishments were being offered, there was at least some consideration of it before a decision was apparently taken that for whatever reason — whether on account of the reasons I’ve cited or for other reasons — this would be a very bad idea.

I think that the reaction was also coordinated. I believe that similar suggestions were made to Jordan, and I believe that Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, may have asked the Saudis to endorse or bankroll such ethnic cleansing during his visit to Saudi Arabia. The rebuff from Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia was absolutely resolute, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it had been coordinated.

Daniel Finn

I know that this is a very difficult question to address at this time, when the situation is changing from one day to the next, but could you perhaps say something about what you think the long-term implications might be of what has been happening over the past month for the Palestinian movement for self-determination. Is it possible, even in a time as difficult as the present, to identify strategies that could help advance the Palestinian cause?

Rashid Khalidi

That is an extremely difficult question to answer in the middle of a war whose outcome is impossible to foresee, and in a situation where we may see another chapter in the historic process of dispossession and expulsion of Palestinians. A lot will depend on the outcome of the war and on how various parties interpret the outcome.

A lot will also depend on what happens to the people of Gaza. Will Israel succeed, as some Israeli plans have indicated they want to do, in expelling a proportion of the population of Gaza from historic Palestine? Much will depend on how Arab countries react.

It doesn’t have to be in collaboration with those countries. It can be done forcibly. In 1967, they kicked 300,000 people out. They just took them to the bridge and forced them to cross. Heaven forbid that something similar is attempted now.

It’s also a hard question to answer because the Palestinian national movement is in a state of fragmentation. I’m not sure that what we’re seeing now is going to clarify the questions about a unified strategy for Palestinian liberation, which existed before October 7.

Does this reinforce a commitment to resistance and armed struggle? I can see a scenario in which this is perceived as a victory for Hamas. I can also see a scenario in which this is perceived as a tragedy for the Palestinians for which Hamas is blamed. Between those two extreme scenarios lie all kinds of questions and possibilities for strategy.

If you look at a lot of young Palestinians right now, I’m sure they’ve been encouraged in believing that Palestinians have no alternative, and that armed struggle is the only course of action available to them. I am also sure that there are other Palestinians who are looking at the devastation of Gaza and are afraid of what may come next in terms of another Nakba. They will say this was brought on our heads by the strategy of Hamas.

It’s very hard to see a strategy that leads to political change, if you accept a settler-colonial paradigm, in the metropole or in the colony — and more importantly in the metropole. If you look at the wars of independence in Ireland, Algeria, and Vietnam, or the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, what was happening on the battlefield was part of a larger political strategy that also included the metropole.

For example, it meant convincing popular opinion in Britain and the US that Irish independence was a worthy and achievable aim — or at least in the case of England, that it was a war not worth fighting. The Irish Republican Army won, I think, in Manchester, Birmingham, London, New York, and Boston as much as it won in Cork. They were on the back foot in military terms by the middle of 1921. But the British decided that they couldn’t sustain the war any longer.

It was the same with Algeria, Vietnam, and South Africa. Without the battle of Algiers or the Tet Offensive or the struggle in the townships, those liberation movements would not have won. But without the demonstrations in the US, you wouldn’t have had the US government deciding that it couldn’t win the war in Vietnam.

The same was true when it came to France in Algeria. When Charles de Gaulle said that they couldn’t win in Algeria, it wasn’t because their army was losing on the ground. That wider strategic element has to be thought of, and I’m not sure that everybody is considering it.

Much also depends on whether there is a political horizon on offer at the end of this. If, as has been the case for the last fifteen or twenty years, Israel and the powers that be offer Palestinians absolutely no political horizon, then you will have more resistance. Whether it’s on this level or on another level, that’s axiomatic: no political horizon — no alternative — means resistance, as sure as night follows day.

We are seeing a horrifying attempt to shut down the space for freedom of speech in Western societies around Palestine. They are not just shutting down people who support Hamas. They are shutting down people who say anything positive about Palestine in American universities or in the media. It’s happening at a frightening pace.

The McCarthyite repression that is beginning to come down, at least in this country, is intended to create a situation where you’re not allowed to talk about Palestine anymore. For decades, you couldn’t talk about it, then the space was opening for a while, and now there’s an attempt to close it again. I’m not sure how far that attempt will go or whether it’ll succeed.

The point is, if you shut down the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, deny people the ability to demonstrate or go to the International Court of Justice, and refuse to negotiate with the Palestinians — all of which has been the position of the Israeli and US governments for fifteen or more years — then you leave the field open to people who say there’s no alternative but armed struggle: “We either surrender or we fight.” A lot will depend on whether there are political options or whether people who feel there is no alternative will choose violence.