Rashid Khalidi is a leading historian of the Middle East. In an interview, he explains how the current war in Palestine is the product of decades of violent settler colonialism designed to drive the Palestinians from their land.

Palestinians sit near a destroyed building following the Israeli attacks on the al-Salam Neighborhood in Rafah, Gaza on May 5, 2024. (Abed Rahim Khatib / Anadolu via Getty Images)

The terrible injustices that were inherent in the dispossession of the Palestinians and the denial of their national existence have to be remedied. There’s no way around it.Professor Rashid Khalidi is a Palestinian American historian at Columbia University — and an authority on the Middle East conflict. In his book The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, he explores the deeper roots of a campaign of ethnic cleansing, which is today reaching new heights of violence.

In late April, Khalidi participated in the Bard College Berlin conference “Witnessing Atrocities: Dissent in the Wake of Gaza,” held at the Spore Initiative. At it, he spoke to Hanno Hauenstein about the antiwar protests in the United States, Israel’s actions in Gaza, and the current political climate in Germany, where his book was recently released in translation. This text based on their conversation is lightly edited for clarity.

Hanno Hauenstein

There are currently protests happening on campuses all over the United States, most notably at your own university, Columbia. Often, they are labeled “antisemitic.” How do you view those protests?

Rashid Khalidi

I’ve been following very closely what’s been happening since October 7, since our campus has been the scene of protests ever since. I don’t think the people who organize demonstrations are antisemites. In fact, a large proportion of them are Jews. So we are talking about a conflation between Jew-hatred, ergo antisemitism, and a critique of Israel and Zionism in response to a political phenomenon carried out by a state. Off campus, some of the groups that demonstrated may have included slogans that were antisemitic. In fact, the pro-Israel right-wing demonstrations led by people like the Proud Boys and Christian-nationalist groups are quite antisemitic. But the attempt to argue that using a term like “intifada” is antisemitic is simply absurd.

The attempt to argue that using a term like ‘intifada’ is antisemitic is simply absurd.

Hanno Hauenstein

How so?

Rashid Khalidi

Intifada simply means “uprising.” In the Palestinian case, an uprising against a fifty-six-year-old violent, illegal occupation. Now, if you believe that that Israeli occupation and control over the West Bank is God-given and that any opposition to it is antisemitic, that’s your problem. The occupier may as well be Danish, it really makes no difference. If persecuted, divinely inspired Danes were taking over Palestine, it certainly wouldn’t be anti-Christian to resist or to critique their settler-colonial project. But somehow it’s antisemitic to resist or to critique this settler-colonial project? This makes no sense.

Hanno Hauenstein

Yet, the Danes don’t exactly have any ancestral connection to the land of Palestine — or Israel, for that matter. There is, however, a point to make as to why Jewish people would regard the land as a place of belonging, historically, religiously.

Rashid Khalidi

That is, of course, correct. As I quote at the beginning of my book, when an ancestor of mine once wrote a letter to Theodor Herzl, he said: “You have an ancestral connection to this country.”

Christian and Muslim Palestinians believe in the Jewish people’s connection to this land. Does that give them a real estate deed? Do the Romans have the right to take over Libya and North Africa and Turkey because Rome controlled it once upon a time? Do the Muslims have the right to take back Spain because they controlled it once? Once upon a time, there was a Jewish minority in a part of Palestine. Does that give modern Israeli nationalists a real estate deed to the land? Of course not.

It’s a belief shared only by Israelis and, sadly, some evangelical Christians. It has weight in religious terms. Unfortunately, because of people like Arthur James Balfour as well as many American politicians, it does have political weight, as well. That’s a tragedy because it involves a violation of the rights of the indigenous population.

Hanno Hauenstein

Let’s talk about your book The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine. The account of Palestinian history you lay out in your book is one of colonization from the get-go, from the mandate period until today. Many will agree that what is happening in the West Bank is a process of settler colonialism. But defining the creation of the state of Israel in such terms is not exactly a consensus view. Given that you do, would you actually say that the creation of the Israeli state was historically legitimate?

Rashid Khalidi

Zionism is not just settler colonialism. Zionism is not just a result of the European persecution of the Jewish people. Zionism is not just a reflection of an age-long longing for return to the land of Israel. Zionism is all those things — combined. And: it is a movement that consciously, explicitly, from the beginning, saw itself as a settler-colonial project. The land purchase agency for the Zionist project was called the Jewish Colonization Agency. That’s not some antisemitic fantasy by a bigoted historian trying to slander a purist national movement with biblical roots. This movement saw itself as a colonial project from the beginning: that’s what Herzl said, that’s what [Ze’ev] Jabotinsky said, and that’s what [David] Ben-Gurion said. I don’t really understand how historians can dispute this.

Hanno Hauenstein

Critics might argue that Herzl’s state project wasn’t a settler-colonial project in the way that we understand it today.

Rashid Khalidi

It was a national project. Herzl was a national founder of a national movement whose means were explicitly settler-colonial. There is historical precedent. We have the United States of America. We have Canada. We have Australia. We have New Zealand. These are all settler-colonial projects that have become national projects.

Hanno Hauenstein

Encapsulated in this question is also a divide in how the so-called Global South has been looking at Palestinian history as opposed to people in the West. Who, in your eyes, mostly contends with the notion of Israeli settler colonialism?

Rashid Khalidi

It’s been something that Palestinians have argued for from the beginning. Up until World War II, Zionists themselves never contended with this notion. Only after World War II did Israel start marketing itself as an anti-colonial project because for a couple of years they fought with the British. One of the reasons that the decolonial and pristine nature of Israel and Zionism was accepted in the West was a sense of guilt and a conviction that the Zionist understanding of the biblical narrative was correct. There’s a reading of the Bible by many Evangelicals and Protestants that lent credence to this argument. This covered up the secular colonial aspect for many Westerners.

Hanno Hauenstein

What role do Israelis play in your understanding of Palestinian history?

Rashid Khalidi

You need to ask yourself: Is there an Israeli people, and do they have rights? Well, you have an American people. The American people’s rights are exercised at the expense of the indigenous population to this day, as happens in New Zealand and Canada and Australia. Those terrible injustices should be remedied. But there is, without any doubt, an American people. Today there is an Israeli people. The terrible injustices that were inherent in the dispossession of the Palestinians and the denial of their national existence have to be remedied. There’s no way around it.

The terrible injustices that were inherent in the dispossession of the Palestinians and the denial of their national existence have to be remedied. There’s no way around it.

Hanno Hauenstein

In The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, you divide the history of Palestine into six chapters — from the Mandate period and the Balfour Declaration over to the founding of Israel up to recent years. Does the assault on Gaza constitute a new chapter?

Rashid Khalidi

I do think that there is something new and unprecedented. There has never been anything on this scale in terms of displacement and killing. The number of Palestinians killed in 1948 was around fifteen thousand. The number of Palestinians killed in Lebanon in 1982, Palestinians and Lebanese people, was under twenty thousand. In Gaza, we’re talking probably over forty thousand people who are dead by now. And it will go much higher when all the thousands of missing are counted and buried. In many respects, this is unprecedented.

Hanno Hauenstein

What’s your perspective for a future in Israel-Palestine?

Rashid Khalidi

There has to be a fundamental reorganization of the Palestinian national movement. And there has to be a unified consensus among Palestinians. This is a Palestinian problem. Israel, on the other hand, has to overcome its obsession with force when dealing with the Palestinians. It has to overcome the idea that there’s only one people with a right to self-determination in Israel.

In 2018, the Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People law, passed by the Knesset with constitutional force, stated there is only one people in this land with a right to national self-determination, which is the Jewish people. If you do not deal with that, you will never have a resolution, simply more war and resistance.

Finally, there has to be change on the part of the West. American, Soviet, later French, British, as well as German support for Israel has been indispensable to the oppression of the Palestinian people. Without that support, none of the things we see today could happen.

Hanno Hauenstein

So, without international pressure, there will be no change?

Rashid Khalidi

The United States is delivering weapons to bomb Palestinians. As long as the United States is making war on the Palestinians with its F-15s and its F-16s and F-35s, Apache helicopters and 155mm howitzers, there will be no change there, and the war on the Palestinians will continue. It’s not even a matter of pressure. It’s a matter of obeying US law and ceasing to give Israel the means to carry out this war on the Palestinians.

Hanno Hauenstein

The West Bank is on fire, settler violence is running high as we speak. Many Palestinians have been killed there, too, in recent weeks. Gaza is the spotlight of the ongoing Israeli onslaught on Gaza. To what degree are these different forms of violence interconnected?

Rashid Khalidi

In fact, hundreds of Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank since October 7, 2023. I think these things are very closely connected. The link can be found in the statements of senior ministers in the current Israeli government like Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, but also many other ministers in Likud. They’ve made no bones about the fact that they hope to ethnically cleanse both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. They’ve made no bones about the fact that they want to expand the land controlled by settlers and to restrict the land controlled by Palestinians. They’ve even talked about resettling the Gaza Strip.

Hanno Hauenstein

Do you think that scenario — of resettling Gaza — is realistic?

Rashid Khalidi

I’m not suggesting it’s a realistic scenario, but if you want to understand what they’re doing and why, this is the logic behind it. Changing the demographic balance in Palestine in favor of settlers, at the expense of Palestinians, has always been the intention of the Zionist project — from Herzl, through [Chaim] Weizmann, up to Ben-Gvir — not to create a bi-national state. The conviction of those early Zionists was that Europe would not let them live in safety. Their vision of a Judenstaat required a demographic transformation. A process of ethnic cleansing, of squeezing the indigenous population into smaller and smaller areas, similar to what happened in Ireland under Oliver Cromwell or with the Indian reservations in North America. That’s what’s attempted here.

As long as the United States is making war on the Palestinians, there will be no change there and the war on the Palestinians will continue.

Hanno Hauenstein

Germany has a deep antisemitic history, culminating in the genocide that was the Holocaust. Today Germany derives from that history a deep commitment to Israel. In your view, what should German responsibility look like today?

Rashid Khalidi

I think that Germany and Western countries obviously bear a huge responsibility for the Holocaust and for the suffering of the Jewish people. And not only Germany. Before the “final solution” was decided in 1942, people could have escaped, but were often not able to do so because Western countries closed their doors. The United States and Britain with its enormous empire could have saved hundreds of thousands of people. France, too. But many Jews could not get into those countries because of racist, antisemitic immigration laws. There’s no reason why the Palestinians should suffer for the sins of Germany. They’re not the authors of the Holocaust. Today Germany and Western European countries, in different ways, seem to transfer their historical responsibility to Palestinians.

Hanno Hauenstein

How do you see this play out in public?

Rashid Khalidi

Mainly in the form of a virulently anti-Palestinian discourse. Germany is likely the most extreme example. But it’s essentially the same in the United States and many other Western countries. You hear this when mention is made of what happened on October 7 in connection to the Holocaust. It’s an invocation of the terrible suffering of the Jews in Germany and in Chişinău and the pogroms in the Russian empire as a comparison to what has happened in Palestine. But what happens in Palestine happens because of violent settler colonialism and because of resistance to it. That resistance was violent and created horrible atrocities. This is undebatable. But this is not a result of age-old European antisemitism.

Hanno Hauenstein

You’ve stated that the Israeli objective for its war in Gaza will not be met — Hamas will likely not be destroyed. Researchers like Tareq Baconi pointed to tendencies within Hamas. On the one hand, its 2017 charter indicates a readiness to make concessions of formerly Palestinian land, and to establish a Palestinian state within 1967 borders alongside Israel. On the other hand, there is talk of “liberation” — “from the river to the sea.” What does Hamas actually want?

Rashid Khalidi

Hamas rose because the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] moved away from armed struggle when it formally renounced violence, recognized Israel, and accepted to negotiate with it on the basis of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 beginning in the late 1980s. Hamas took up, in other words, the torch of armed struggle. If the PLO had achieved what it was trying to achieve, which was a Palestinian state on a tiny fraction of about 20 percent of Palestine, Hamas would not be with us today.

Hamas opposed this process, and it was successful in doing so, partly because under no circumstances could a fully independent, sovereign Palestinian state be realized under the Oslo process. This process led to a strengthening of Israeli occupation and colonization, an immiseration of the Palestinian people, a chopping of the West Bank into tiny little Bantustans. That’s what turned Hamas into a popular movement.

Hanno Hauenstein

Is Hamas as popular today among Palestinians as some polls suggest?

Rashid Khalidi

To determine how popular a group is, you can look at elections, of which there were only a couple, in 2005–6. In 2005, Hamas lost the presidential election. In 2006, they won the parliamentary election, with about 44 percent of the vote. They didn’t get a majority of the vote, but they got a majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council. Ever since, opinion polls have gone up and they’ve gone down.

Today we are talking about apartheid, genocide, settler colonialism, and accountability. Never in the history of this conflict have you had such an open debate.

Hanno Hauenstein

So, if I understand you correctly, you’re saying that dealing with Hamas might be inevitable in the future?

Rashid Khalidi

Continued occupation and continued colonization will inevitably produce continued resistance. Whether it’s armed and violent, whether it produces these kinds of atrocities that we’ve seen on October 7 or not, occupation and colonization will inevitably produce resistance. If this conflict is to be resolved, it will have to be resolved between whoever is in power on each side. I don’t get to say that I will not sit down with this Israeli government because this general or that minister have blood on their hands. This is the elected government of the state of Israel. Whoever the Palestinians end up deciding is their representative, hopefully democratically, are the ones that Israel and the world are going to have to deal with.

Hanno Hauenstein

Yet, Western countries like the US and Germany define Hamas as a terrorist organization.

Rashid Khalidi

The British and the Irish would never have come to terms if Britain had not agreed to negotiate with Sinn Féin in 1921, and with the Irish Republican Army [IRA] during the Good Friday peace process in the 1990s after the IRA killed hundreds of British soldiers and police and many civilians in Northern Ireland. The South African apartheid system would not have ended if South Africa had not negotiated with the African National Congress [ANC], an armed, violent group. The same is true of the French and the National Liberation Front [FLN] in Algeria. The Israelis and the Americans want to pick their own so-called representatives of the Palestinians and pretend that that’s a negotiation. That’s not a negotiation. That’s a diktat. And that’s not going to lead to a resolution.

Hanno Hauenstein

When you look at the discourse around Israel-Palestine in recent years, it was dominated by terms such as peace-building and stabilization. Today, in demonstrations on campuses, but to an extent also in newsrooms, there is more talk of terms such as “accountability.” Has the discourse shifted?

Rashid Khalidi

There has been a discursive shift, absolutely. Today we are talking about apartheid, genocide, settler colonialism, and accountability. Never in the history of this conflict have you had such an open debate. Might that be reversed? Sure, it could. There was a similar shift in 1982 because of what Israel was doing in Lebanon. Israelis managed, with supporters in the United States, to repair that. There was another shift during the First Intifada. Can the current shift be reversed? I don’t know.

There is certainly a ferocious effort to reverse it on the part of the Western politicians and media. I hope that in spite of these rearguard efforts of an unjust status quo, this discursive shift will lead to serious accountability and reflection on part of those Western countries whose support is so indispensable to these atrocities, to this genocide in Gaza. It could not happen without you, Europeans, and us, Americans. We are responsible. Not just the Israelis.

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