Interview with Palestinian American Scholar Rashid Khalidi on Dynamics of Mideast Crisis
The following is an interview with Rashid Khalidi, published originally in the October 24, 2023, online edition of The Drift, a magazine of culture and politics. Conducted by the magazine’s editors Rebecca Panovka and Kiara Barrow, it appeared under the headline ‘A Desperate Situation Getting More Desperate’ | An Interview with Rashid Khalidi.
Khalidi, a Palestinian American, is a historian of modern Middle Eastern History. He has been an editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies since 2002. He is also the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University in New York. He has authored eight books, including, most recently, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine (2020). He served as an advisor to Palestinian negotiators during peace talks in the 1990s.
In the interview Khalidi lays bare Washington’s complicity and responsibility for the brutal war on Gaza, unleashed by Tel Aviv in response to the October 7 pogrom by Hamas. The war on Gaza, marked by increasingly genocidal death and destruction with no end in sight, has already claimed the lives of over 11,000 Palestinians, including more than 4,000 children.
Khalidi reviews the reaction to these events by the U.S. and other governments allied with Israel, as well as by the Arab states and others around the world. He expresses his views about the various Palestinian organizations, including Hamas, Fatah, and the Palestinian Authority.
Khalidi also delves into important questions debated by supporters and opponents of the Palestinian struggle for a homeland. This includes the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” For many supporters of the Palestinian national liberation struggle it is a rallying cry in demonstrations calling for an end to the Israeli onslaught in Gaza. It has also become a flashpoint of dispute in the U.S. Congress, on campuses, and elsewhere. The Israeli government and its allies in the United States and elsewhere are demonizing it as hateful and antisemitic.
On November 7, most Republicans and 22 Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives banded together to censure Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan. They formally admonished the only Palestinian American in Congress for her statements regarding the Israeli war on Gaza, including her support for the slogan “From the river to the sea.”
The official congressional rebuke claimed the phrase was “a genocidal call to violence to destroy the state of Israel and its people to replace it with a Palestinian state extending from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.” The top White House spokeswoman disavowed it too, stating it was “divisive,” and that many considered it hurtful and antisemitic. Tlaib has defended her support for this slogan as “an aspirational call for freedom, human rights and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction or hate.”
The popularity of “From the river to the sea” rose as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) dropped its demand for a democratic secular Palestine, which had been its program since the early 1970s. As Khalidi explains, “From the river to the sea” means different things to different people today.
For Hamas and those who support or adapt to its perspective, it means the expulsion of some 7 million Jews currently living in Israel, the destruction of the current state, and its replacement by an Islamist Palestinian state. This would be a theocratic state, with Islam — Hamas’s interpretation of Islam — replacing Judaism as the state religion. Hamas would likely rule such a state with the same iron fist it has used in Gaza since 2007. That’s when it violently expelled from Gaza supporters of the Palestinian Authority and Fatah, the main organization behind the authority.
There is absolutely no basis for the argument that this is what Tlaib is advocating. For her and many others who are marching in the streets around the world today calling for a ceasefire and respect for Palestinian rights, “From the river to the sea” has a different meaning. It expresses the desire for freedom for all Palestinians, in Gaza, the West Bank and inside Israel, and the possibility of Arabs and Jews living together on the same lands with equal rights.
During the 1970s and ’80s, the PLO advocated the replacement of Israel with a democratic, secular Palestine. In such a state, the PLO explained unambiguously, “All the Jews, Muslims and Christians living in Palestine or forcibly exiled from it will have the right to Palestinian citizenship.” But after setbacks in the liberation struggle and faced with Israeli intransigence, the PLO shifted its position and signed the Oslo Accords, recognizing Israel and accepting a two-state solution.
As Khalidi explains, “from the river to the sea” means different things depending on the context. “If that means absolute, exclusive rights for one people and the oppression of another people, then obviously that’s not acceptable,” he asserts. But “if it means the Palestinians are no longer oppressed, but don’t oppress Israelis, I would hope that would not be a problem.”
As Khalidi concluded in an October 15 New York Times opinion essay, “The only possible solution is one that ends the oppression of one people by another and guarantees absolutely equal rights and security for both peoples.”
We publish the interview for the information of our readers. One may not share all the views Khalidi outlines. But it’s indisputable that he offers valuable insight into the momentous events now unfolding in Palestine and Israel.
The introduction, headline, subheadings, and footnotes are by World-Outlook. Due to its length, we are publishing the interview in two parts, the first of which follows.
(This is the first of two parts. Part 2 can be found here.)
Recent events have been described in the mainstream discourse as unprecedented, and representative of a rupture with the past. To what extent is that the case? As you wrote in the Journal of Palestine Studies back in September, 2023 was already the bloodiest year for Palestinians in the West Bank in nearly two decades. Is what we’re seeing now an inevitable conflagration?
I don’t think anybody could have predicted what we’ve just seen in the past two weeks. I mean, the fact that the Israeli army, one of the largest in the world, with one of the best intelligence services in history, had absolutely no idea what was coming — and there will be commissions of inquiry and war-college studies of this intelligence failure well into the future — shows that nobody could have predicted it.
The only people who knew were the people who launched this attack. At the same time, anybody who had any sensitivity to the details of what was going on inside the occupied territories, and inside Israel, would have been able to assume that some kind of explosion was inevitable sooner or later.
Hamas is not just an operation in Gaza — Hamas is a Palestine-wide organization. They were extremely sensitive to the fact that, especially since this new government came into office, but also in the year preceding, the number of Palestinians being killed in the West Bank, the number of settler incursions, the number of attempts to organize Jewish worship in the Haram al-Sharif, around the Aqsa Mosque, were increasing. And the amount of land being stolen by settlers was also rising. Most recently, three small villages in the West Bank, largely nomadic populations, have been driven off their land.
Ethnic cleansing has been underway at a very low boil level, not high enough for the world to pay any attention. And burying the Palestine question, burying a political horizon for Palestinians, seemed to be the primary endeavor of Western countries and Israel, as well as some of Israel’s Arab allies. As far as the Israelis were concerned, this was the best of all possible worlds. We were going to have railway lines running from Mecca to Haifa; we were going to have Israeli raves in the Saudi desert; we were going to have love, friendship, peace and security arrangements forever and ever. And all of this was going to be done with the Palestinians under the boot of an Israeli occupation that would continue indefinitely.
Palestinians, all of them, saw that. Not everybody reacted the way Hamas did, obviously. But everybody saw that this was a desperate situation getting more desperate, and that their interests and rights were being completely ignored by all and sundry — not just Israel or the United States or its western client-allies, but also by Arab countries.
If you watch CNN, you’ll see Israeli generals being allowed to claim, without pushback, that Israel avoids civilian deaths (or is giving Palestinians the “chance to evacuate” out of a sense of humanitarianism), immediately after scenes of apartment buildings, university campuses, and the evacuation route being blown up in Gaza. The New York Times Editorial Board likewise wrote, “What Israel is fighting to defend is a society that values human life and the rule of law,” in the same pages as news reports that demonstrate that Israel has ordered the killing of thousands of people, against international law.
These mainstream accounts are confusing at face value, and profoundly alienating as referenda on the media’s ability to report on Israel honestly.
How have you been interpreting the mainstream coverage of this assault?
You know, I used to write about Soviet Middle East policy, and in those days, the only sources we had were Pravda, Izvestia, Krasnaya Zvezda, and so on. I feel today like I’m back in the Cold War and The New York Pravda Times and Washington Izvestia Post are mouthpieces for the Biden administration and its locked-at-the-hip ally Israel. I find, in most of the mainstream media, essentially wall-to-wall war propaganda.
We have a memory-free, history-free, fact-free sphere, in which, for example, it goes unnoticed that a retired army chief of staff who recently joined the Israeli cabinet, a man called Gadi Eisenkot, was Chief of Operations of the Israeli Army when they flattened Lebanon. And he said at the time that he had developed what he called the “Dahiya doctrine.” The Israeli Air Force flattened the whole neighborhood of Dahiya, and he said, “We will apply disproportionate force on it and cause great damage and destruction there. From our standpoint, these are not civilian villages, they are military bases.” He also promised that “what happened in the Dahiya quarter of Beirut in 2006 will happen in every village from which Israel is fired on.”
Eisenkot is now a minister. He’s one of the people planning this war. He has told you what he does: He does not respect international humanitarian law. I wrote an article in the Journal of Palestine Studies about this. Now, would I expect the average journalist to read the Journal of Palestine Studies? Unfortunately, not. The point is, even those who may know about those things are not able to do those kinds of stories. I talk to reporters all the time, and I know what kind of stories they’re asked to write by their bosses. Sometimes, occasionally, journalists push back.
We can see this happening across the government, too, where government employees, at the State Department and elsewhere, are angry at the position of the U.S. government. We see this across universities, where diktats are coming down from administrations. We see this in companies taking public positions. It’s like the United States is at war, and we must all toe the line and be in lockstep with Israel, behind which marches the president.
Tell us about the various Palestinian leadership groups (the P.A., the PLO, Hamas) and their origins. What does it mean to label Hamas as a “terrorist organization,” and equate it with ISIS, as official Israeli social media graphics have done?
The U.S. President — the highest voice in the land, not that he has much of a voice — has specifically compared Hamas to ISIS. So, we’ve had “unadulterated evil.” We’ve had “worse than ISIS.” We’ve had 9/11 comparisons. This is about as high as you can go on the apocalyptic scale. This fits an Israeli playbook, whereby Hamas is described as terrorist and nothing else. It was a government in Gaza. It was a political, social, cultural, religious organization.
Palestinian politics are in particularly dire straits right now. What used to be the largest rival of Hamas, Fatah, is in decline because of its association with a corrupt, inept Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. The Palestinian Authority has basically taken over for the PLO, something that Arafat started when he moved his operation into Palestine after the 1993 Oslo Accords.
Now the PLO is moribund, and Fatah is almost moribund. The P.A. has no strategy. It is committed, supposedly, to a diplomatic approach and nonviolence, but with almost no support among Palestinians, since they have seen this approach go nowhere for decades while settlements expand, and Palestinians are squeezed into less and less space. Many Palestinians hate the Palestinian Authority, because it does Israel’s bidding and is propped up from the outside.
This is a constant in Palestinian politics, going back to the ’30s: the interference of Arab countries and foreign powers that arrogate to themselves the right to speak for the Palestinians, or divide the Palestinians up, or weaken the Palestinians, or treat them as clients. Arab countries and other countries want to use the Palestinians or Palestinian organizations for their own aims.
The P.A. is propped up — at the same time as they kick the props out from under it — by Israel, by the United States and Europe and a number of Arab countries.
Hamas is supported by regional powers: Iran, obviously, but also Turkey and Qatar, and others. The Iranian regime, the Assad regime, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt all have their own objectives, and their own national interests.
Palestinians have overcome this in the past, and they have to overcome it if they’re ever going to get anywhere. But it’s not going to be easy. Where a new generation of leadership is going to come from, where a strategy that is going to move the Palestinians towards their goals is going to come from — I don’t know.
How should we situate the present dynamics in Palestine within the broader context of the region? Many U.S. pundits have speculated that Hamas was aiming to disrupt Israeli-Saudi normalization (while the label “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood” indicates, for instance, that this was a response to incursions at the Aqsa Mosque). How has the U.S.’s cultivation of Arab client states like Saudi Arabia altered the relationship of Palestinian liberation to pan-Arab politics?
You just have to read or listen to the statement made by the person who seems to have engineered this attack, Mohammed Deif, the military commander of Hamas. He said what the objectives were on the first day of this attack. He mentioned the attempts to turn the Haram al-Sharif, the area around the Aqsa Mosque, into a site of Jewish prayer.
I saw this when I was in Jerusalem in March: groups of Israeli settlers, religious settlers, escorted I think by border guards and police, entering from the Magharibah gate, the Moroccan Gate, and then praying in the southeastern corner of the haram, about twenty or thirty meters away from the Aqsa Mosque. Every day, they kick worshipers[sic] out after the morning prayers: Muslim worshippers, and young people, especially. They chase everybody away, and they allow these settler groups to come and pray. These groups have been growing larger and larger. During Sukkot, days before the attack it just happened that thousands of settlers came to have collective public prayers in the mosque compound.
Of course, the attack was apparently planned for two years, so the latest escalation of this process had nothing to do with it, but it was a rallying cry. So, whether they really mean it or whether it’s a ploy to win over Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim public opinion, is irrelevant. Clearly, that’s one motivation. And Deif went through a list of others, such as the siege of Gaza, the creeping colonization and annexation of the West Bank, and the fact that the Israeli government operates as if the Palestine question didn’t exist.
That was an indirect way of saying that normalization has been ongoing throughout the Arab world over many years, since Anwar Sadat went to Jerusalem in 1977. It has been topped recently by the flirtation between Israel and Saudi Arabia, with Israeli ministers going and praying in Saudi Arabia, and the Crown Prince saying that he was looking forward to Israeli-Saudi normalization happening at some stage. There were orgasmic Israeli responses to this.
Every ignorant pundit with no sense of history who talked about how unimportant the Palestine issue was to ordinary Arabs or to the Arab countries should never open their mouth again. Because what we have seen is demonstrations in Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Morocco, Bahrain. Some of these are jackboot dictatorships, where nobody’s allowed to demonstrate. Nobody’s allowed to express themselves. And yet, public opinion across the Arab world has erupted in support of Palestinians.
There have been monumental demonstrations. Yemen is a country devastated, a failed state. They have a civil war, they’ve been bombed by the Saudis and the Emiratis for years and years, and they’re out in the streets demonstrating for Palestine.
I’ve found some 400 newspaper articles published before 1914 in a dozen Arabic newspapers, from Cairo to Damascus to Aleppo, talking about Palestine and Zionism. People in the Arab World were concerned about this 110 years ago. They were concerned about this during the Arab Revolt of ’36-’39, and they were concerned about this during the Nakba, and they’ve been concerned about it ever since.
Have Arab governments represented that concern? Rarely. Never. Sometimes. But that’s not the point. These are undemocratic regimes — absolute monarchies or jackboot dictatorships, and they represent nobody and nothing except their own kleptocracies, the people who are being enriched by them, and the foreigners who keep them in power with weapons or diplomatic support.
This is not just the Arab world, or even the Muslim world. The Americans, the Europeans, the white settler colonial bubble, which produces a very large share of world GDP, and which has enormous media reach, enormous power — aircraft carriers, stock exchanges, media conglomerates — still think of themselves as the masters of the universe. They’re a tiny minority of the world’s population.
India, China, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Brazil: those are some of the world’s largest countries, and people there don’t have the same view of this at all. Here we have a sanitized worldview produced by a compliant corrupt media and the American and British governments, which have decided that support of Israel is a national interest. And then you have the world — the real world — which is on a completely different page. This deepens the gulf between the West and the rest.
I think the Ukraine War started this. In most of the world, nobody looks at the Ukraine War the way that the United States and its European allies do, which is visible in the way the General Assembly has reacted to it. It’s not that people are supportive of Russia, necessarily; it’s that they don’t see it in the same hysterical, hyperbolic fashion as the United States and its closest allies and — perfectly understandably — Ukrainians and Eastern Europeans do.
What’s happening now in Palestine is accentuating that and is going to diminish the power and the standing and security of the United States and its allies. Americans who talk about human rights and democracy are going to be treated as the most rank, nauseating hypocrites going forward. Nobody believes that rhetoric in the rest of the world, with good reason.
The word “occupation” does not exist in the American lexicon where Israel is concerned. The occupation is not an “obstacle to peace” — it’s an aggressive, violent imposition, which is designed to turn Palestine into the land of Israel, as Zionist leaders have been trying to do since Theodor Herzl. So, when the United States bleats about the occupation of Ukraine, and then links Hamas and Putin, as Biden attempted to do in his Oval Office address, nobody buys this stuff, except people in the Anglosphere who are either ignorant or brainwashed. But a CBS poll showed that a majority of Democrats and independents oppose military aid to Israel; most Americans are a lot more sensible than those who govern us.
(This was the first of two parts. Part 2 can be found here.)
 For more information see the sections subtitled “‘For a democratic secular Palestine’ – The history” and “The two-state solution” in the World-Outlook column Stop the War on Gaza Now! The Jewish Question and the Struggle for a Palestinian Homeland.
 Theodor Herzl (1860 – 1904) was an Austro-Hungarian Jew who was the father of modern Zionism. Herzl formed the Zionist Organization in 1897 and promoted Jewish colonization of Palestine to form a Jewish state. Although he died before Israel’s establishment, he is known in Hebrew as Chozeh HaMedinah (Visionary of the State). The Israeli Declaration of Independence specifically mentions Herzl, who is officially referred to as “the spiritual father of the Jewish State.” In 1949, his remains were brought to Israel and reinterred on Mount Herzl.