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 second of which follows.
(This is the second of two parts. Part 1 can be found here.)
Zionism is a settler-colonial project, but Israel became a state in a postcolonial era. How do you think about that history, and how it continues to inflect the current situation?
Tony Judt wrote that Israel “arrived too late” and was an anachronism. The point is that had it been launched in the 18th century it might have succeeded. It would have been in keeping with the spirit of the times, which was that white Europeans had rights that nonwhite non-Europeans didn’t, and that they could arrogate to themselves any area of land and do anything they wanted with it and with the indigenous population. That was the rule of the jungle from Columbus right up to the twentieth century, really to World War I.
Zionism was never ashamed, in its early decades, of describing itself as a colonial project. It was and is a national project. It also was and is a spoiled stepchild of imperialism. Why was Herzl going to the Kaiser? Why was the first president of Israel, Chaim Weizmann, going to the British? These were not disinterested, neutral, Switzerland-like powers — these were the great imperial powers of the age, which were going to do the dirty work for the Zionist project. Were these people colonists and settlers? They called themselves colonists and settlers.
The “Jewish Colonization Association” is not some antisemitic slur — it’s what this important body called itself. Of course, all of this has been airbrushed out. Saying “settler colonialism” is a terrible, terrible thing today, even when describing what’s happening in the West Bank, which is the most American-frontier-like dispossession imaginable in the 21st century.
That brings me to what the United States has just done or tried to do. The United States government apparently was complicit with an Israeli plan to remove a part or all of the population from the Gaza Strip to Egypt, and possibly to other places. There’s no question that Antony Blinken was doing that — collaborating with Israel to remove the Palestinians in completion of the ethnic cleansing that was started in 1948.
This is a demographic war. Everybody in the Zionist movement, in Palestine, and in the Arab world, from the ’20s and ’30s onwards, understood that you replace Arabs with Jews, and you get a Jewish majority; if you don’t do that, you have an Arab majority. Reducing those numbers was and is a prime Zionist objective. That the United States is lending itself to this, besides possibly being a war crime, is monstrous — absolutely immoral.
Nobody who’s kicked out is ever allowed to return. Every Arab, every Palestinian knows that. Nobody driven into Egypt will ever come back to Gaza or any other part of Palestine. Most of these people, of course, have already been displaced. They’re the population of southern Palestine who were driven out in 1948 and have been penned up in the Gaza Strip for the last 75 years. Moving them again would be criminal. And our government has participated in trying to do that.
Now, for various reasons — some of them savory, and some of them unsavory — the Egyptian government has refused, backed by the Saudis and everybody else in the Arab world: “We should become complicit in your ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Are you insane? You really want us to lose our thrones and our fortunes? You really want us to be overthrown by our own people for being agents of Israel and the United States?” I don’t think that’s what Egyptian president Abdel el-Sisi actually said to Blinken, or what the Crown Prince actually said to Blinken. They refused to even meet with Biden.
These are regimes I am opposed to without exception, but I have to say, they did the right thing in refusing to meet the president. And they did the right thing by giving Blinken two well deserved slaps across the face. The Crown Prince kept him waiting for ten hours, Sisi upbraided him in a public press conference. That’s a sign of what’s changing in the region.
How should we look back on the Oslo Accords and related efforts? Has there ever been a legitimate attempt to make peace?
There have been attempts, but I would argue none of them ever really grasped the nettle. And the nettle is, how do you have a sovereign majority Jewish state in a majority Arab country. There has never been a solution — in Madrid or Washington or Oslo or Camp David — that respects the fact that this was a settler colonial process, or the fact that you now have two peoples there, one of which has all the rights and the other almost no rights.
There were attempts to come closer to it, but I think you can go back to what former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said in the Knesset in October 1995, before he was killed for going too far even with that, which was that any Palestinian entity created through Oslo would be “less than a state.” It was always an assumption of the United States that Israel would continue to have security control over Israel and Palestine. It was always assumed that the Palestinian state would be less than sovereign, and that it would be a fragment of a fragment of historic Palestine — in other words, not even the 22 percent that was left at the end of the 1948 War, but even less than that.
From the time Rabin came to power in ’92 until his assassination in ’95 and then through the rest of the so-called Oslo decade, Israel was expanding settlements at a breakneck pace, taking over more Palestinian land and making a mockery of the Oslo Accords, and was hemming in Palestinians in little Bantustans, all of which have been shut down now.
Anybody who says “oh, the Palestinians rejected a generous peace plan” is not looking at what really was happening on the ground. Israelis had other objectives, one of which was the permanent settlement of most of the occupied territories, another of which was permanent control over all of Israel-Palestine, neither of which is compatible with sovereignty, or statehood — even reduced statehood. Again, you simply have to read Rabin’s last Knesset speech to see that.
A common Zionist framing is that pro-Palestinian activism or advocacy denies the right of the State of Israel to exist and that slogans like “from the river to the sea” are themselves genocidal. How do you read this?
There are a lot of Palestinians who don’t believe that Israel has a right to exist. There are a lot of Palestinians who don’t believe that there’s such a thing as Israeli peoplehood, which there manifestly, obviously is. Israelis are a people. A lot of Palestinians don’t realize that many settler colonial projects have created peoples.
We live in a settler colonial project in the United States. Anybody who’s not part of the original indigenous population is a settler. But as Mahmood Mamdani’s book Neither Settler nor Native asks, when do the settlers become natives? It’s a thorny question politically, because even if you accept that there’s an Israeli people, and if you say peoples have the right to self-determination, this is coming on top of a process of denial of Palestinian identity and national rights, dispossession, expulsion, and ethnic cleansing. All of those things have to be understood and addressed before you’re going to be able to figure out how these two peoples come to terms.
What I’ve just said is not something you can fit into a slogan or the kind of heated propagandistic claims that you just mentioned. I personally have no problem with people seeing the Land of Israel stretching from the river to the sea or wherever else they think it may stretch. The question is, what political and other consequences flow from that? If that means absolute, exclusive rights for one people and the oppression of another people, then obviously that’s not acceptable.
And the same would be true of Palestine. “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” What does that mean? Well, if it means the Palestinians are no longer oppressed, but don’t oppress Israelis, I would hope that would not be a problem. But, again, different Palestinians have different views on this. And I think that the heightened repression and offensive actions taken by Israeli governments over many years have driven Palestinians from where they were in the Oslo period, when they were willing to accept a manifestly unjust two-state solution, as long as it ended up involving real Palestinian sovereignty and statehood, to wherever they are today.
In recent years, progressives in the U.S. have focused on the possibility of a one-state solution as opposed to a two-state solution. In light of the situation now, should we be changing our tack? In a moment of complete despair, is there a reason to hope for either solution at all?
I’m pessimistic that either of these two solutions is currently possible. Israel and the United States have in practice worked feverishly ever since 1967 to ensure permanent Israeli control over the Occupied Territories, to settle them to a greater and greater degree, and to make sure that under no circumstances can an independent Palestinian state or any other non-Israeli sovereignty ever operate anywhere in the territories Israel took over in 1967. And they have done everything they can to cement over the West Bank and turn it into Israel. Everything. They tried to settle Gaza as well, but they gave up on that in 2005.
The United States government pays for this and arms this process. It talks out of one side of its mouth about a two-state solution, but it allows Israeli settler groups to be 501(c)(3)s and funnel hundreds of millions of tax-free dollars to the settlement project. It arms the Israelis who prevent Palestinians from doing anything about this and enforces the occupation by giving diplomatic support and veto after veto in the Security Council to this ongoing bulldozing, absorption, annexation, and destruction of Palestine.
Most of those talking about a “two-state solution” don’t really mean it. They don’t mean an independent, sovereign Palestinian state on the territories occupied in 1967. They mean some simulacrum, some Potemkin state. That’s what they mean. And they’re doing everything possible to prevent even that.
So how do you get these two people to live together in one state after the blood that has been shed? And it will, I’m afraid, continue to be shed. I don’t know. I don’t think that in the short term, there’s any particular reason for optimism about any solution.
On the other hand, everybody thought, until the seventh of October, that the Arab world was moribund and didn’t give a hoot about Palestine. Things changed very, very quickly. The Israeli public is bent on revenge, out of its rage and grief and anger — in particular, over the civilian casualties, but also over the collapse of every doctrine that the Israeli military has ever promulgated about security. Clearly, the Israeli people are not secure. Clearly, everything everybody thought was wrong, not just about Hamas but also about Israeli military capabilities.
So right now, you’re not going to get a swing towards peace among Israelis. The mourning is going to go on for a very long time. And if Israelis are grieving and enraged, so are Palestinians. These are huge Palestinian civilian casualty numbers now, and we still don’t know the final tally. It’ll take a long time to get over. But that too might change in the future.
But one hopes that someone somewhere is going to begin to say that Israel’s political approach is completely bankrupt. You cannot continue to hammer the Palestinians with violence without expecting a violent response. This is not to justify anything, it’s simply to explain that if you apply that kind of pressure to an oppressed population, it will rise up in ways that may be horrible, in ways that may be politically wrong or morally wrong. If you apply intense, unceasing pressure, there are going to be explosions.
What do you make of the conversation within the American left — the elected left, the activist left, the left media? Is there history the left is missing or leaving out?
Well, that’s a hard question for me to answer because all I am directly in contact with are student activists. I think that young people are in the process of educating themselves, and they’re not yet fully educated, or politically mature in their views.
For example, an argument that I see among some student activists is that all Israelis are settlers, and therefore there are no civilians. You can’t say that if you have any respect for international humanitarian law. Israel’s being the result of a settler colonial process does not mean that every Israeli grandmother and every Israeli baby is a settler and therefore not a civilian.
Technically, in some sense, we Americans are all settlers, but that does not mean that a Native American liberation movement would be justified in killing white American settler babies or white American settler grandmothers. Yes, people in the settlements in the Occupied Territories who are armed have to be seen as combatants. The ones who are unarmed are not combatants. That’s an example of the kind of distinction people have to develop.
I’ve been criticized for saying that it has been the case historically that liberation movements have not been careful in avoiding targeting civilians. In the Battle of Algiers, Zohra Drif and Djamila Bouhired put bombs in cafes and bars. They were tried and convicted and spent years in jail and were ultimately liberated. They’re national heroes in Algeria and they’re both vigorously supporting democracy against the military junta which still rules Algeria.
You can talk about what the IRA did against civilians, and you can talk about what the ANC did.
There’s a very significant debate around this issue to be held among people involved in national liberation. I follow the situation in Ireland closely and people are questioning those things today. They are able to do so because, since 1998, people are not killing one another at anything like the same pace, thank god. It’s hard to do in the middle of a situation like Palestinians are in right now, but activists have to think carefully about those things.
The other thing I would say to student activists is you have to understand what your political objectives are. If you believe that this is a settler colonial project, then you are in the metropole of that colony, here in the United States or in Western Europe, and national liberation movements have won not only — sometimes not primarily — by winning on the battlefield in the colony.
The Vietnamese were at a stalemate with the Americans. The Algerians were actually losing on the battlefield. The IRA was almost at the end of its tether, militarily, in 1921. They won, in part, because they won over the metropole. The English finally said, we just don’t want to fight this war. We can’t fight this war.
Same thing happened with the French in Algeria. It wasn’t only the fighters up in the mountains who won the war. I’m not saying that wasn’t a crucial element in the liberation of Algeria, indeed the sine qua non for it, but if the French had continued to want to kill Algerians, the war could have gone on forever. French people didn’t want to continue because they didn’t want to take more losses. Same thing with South Africa. They did not win only in the townships; the ANC won because in the United States and Britain, they won over public opinion.
If you believe this theoretical construct — the colony and the metropole — then what activists do here in the metropole counts. You have to win people over. You can’t just show that you are the most pure or the most revolutionary or can say the most extreme things and demonstrate your revolutionary credentials. You have to be doing something toward a clear political end.
(This was the second of two parts. Part 1 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.
 The recent World-Outlook column, Stop the War on Gaza Now! The Jewish Question and the Struggle for a Palestinian Homeland, outlined the view of Nelson Mandela, the central leader of the ANC, on the revolutionary attitude toward civilians during a national liberation struggle.
“We reject the idea that revolutionaries in the United States or elsewhere should not condemn the targeting of Israeli civilians, including children, and their cold-blooded murder — a method of the oppressors,” the World-Outlook column said. “We believe that view was shared by South African revolutionary Nelson Mandela when he led the African National Congress (ANC) to initiate Umkhonto We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) to lead armed actions against the racist apartheid regime. Mandela never targeted civilians. Nor did he believe that such armed actions could substitute for the organization and mass mobilization of all those fighting for liberation.
“Speaking to a conference of Umkhonto We Sizwe on August 9, 1991, Mandela declared, ‘Victory in the national liberation struggle is dependent upon the active and conscious participation of the masses of the oppressed people, determining their own destiny through struggle… It was always our view… that the armed liberation struggle was based on and grew out of the mass political struggles waged by the oppressed.’”