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“This Is a Colonial War”: Historian Rashid Khalidi on Israel, Gaza & the Future of Palestine

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Historian Rashid Khalidi discusses the pending United Nations Security Council vote on suspending fighting in Gaza to allow the entry of humanitarian aid, and the future of Palestine. The Biden administration reportedly delayed the U.N. vote and pushed other countries to water down the language. This comes as Israel and Hamas leaders have signaled they are open to another truce and hostage exchange. Israel’s relentless assault on Gaza has now killed nearly 20,000 Palestinians and displaced over 90% of the Gaza Strip’s 2.3 million people. “The situation in Gaza is unspeakable,” says Khalidi, the Edward Said professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia University. “We are talking about traumatic events that are going to scar generations to come.” He also discusses how the Gaza war risks sparking a regional conflict, ways to pressure Israel, and how U.S. leaders are prompting anger from “whole generations” in the Arab world and beyond.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The head of Hamas’s political wing, Ismail Haniyeh, has arrived in Cairo, Egypt, for talks as hopes grow that a new deal could be reached for a ceasefire and the release of more hostages. Israel’s bombardment of Gaza began 75 days ago, on October 7th, just hours after Hamas’s attack on Israel. Health authorities in Gaza say at least 19,600 Palestinians have been killed so far. Thousands are feared to be still trapped under the rubble.

Just before this broadcast, Israel struck residential buildings in the southern city of Rafah near the Kuwaiti Special Hospital. A reporter from Al Jazeera, Hani Mahmoud, was on the air when the attack occurred.

HANI MAHMOUD: As we’re getting into — ooh! Oh my god! Did you hear that?

ANCHOR: Yes. Yes, we did, Hani.

HANI MAHMOUD: Oh my god! Oh, that’s the hospital! That’s the hospital! That’s the hospital! Oh my god! Are you guys hearing this?

ANCHOR: Yes, we are. We are hearing that, Hani. Are you — are you OK?

HANI MAHMOUD: Are you hearing that? All the debris.

ANCHOR: Are you — are you in a safe place to continue to talk to us?

HANI MAHMOUD: Why? Why? Why?

AMY GOODMAN: “Why? Why?” Hani Mahmoud asks, the Al Jazeera reporter. Al Jazeera reports the Israeli attack destroyed a large mosque in Rafah, as well as two residential homes. Israeli drones had been seen in the sky just before the strikes. Earlier, an Israeli attack on the Jabaliya refugee camp killed at least 46 Palestinians and wounded dozens.

The United Nations Security Council is expected to vote on a new Gaza resolution today. The vote was postponed Tuesday after the United States voiced opposition to a draft of the resolution. On December 8th, the United States vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for ceasefire.

This all comes as tension is growing in the Red Sea. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has announced the U.S. will lead a new military task force to protect ships in the Red Sea following a number of attacks by Houthi forces from Yemen.

We’re joined now by Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia University here in New York. He’s the author of several books, including his latest, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine. His recent opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times is headlined “How the U.S. has fueled Israel’s decades-long war on Palestinians.”

Professor Khalidi, I’m wondering if you can start off by just talking about the situation overall in Gaza? Your family is from the West Bank. You also have family in Gaza. And I want to just point out that I particularly talked about, named the journalist with Al Jazeera, Hani Mahmoud, because it has been so horrifying to only name journalists after they have been killed, and so many scores of them have died. Hani Mahmoud’s bravery is astounding as we watch him through the Gaza Strip and today in the midst of this attack. Take it from there, Professor Khalidi.

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, he’s very fortunate that he’s still alive. Over 90 journalists have been killed in Gaza since — we’re now in the 11th week of this war. Two hundred and eighty-three healthcare workers have been killed. A hundred and thirty-five United Nations workers have been killed. It’s the highest death toll the United Nations has ever suffered in its entire history. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. You cited a number of 20,000 people earlier, apparently having been killed. Probably the number is much higher, because there are so many thousands of people buried under the rubble or missing. And we will probably not know the final death toll until many, many months from now, when operations to remove the ruins of the buildings that have been destroyed are completed.

The situation in Gaza is unspeakable. What we hear from my niece’s family there is — I can’t describe it. It’s beyond belief. People are scrambling for the basic necessities of life and are sometimes not finding them — firewood to heat water and cook, enough water for everybody to have sufficient water to drink, let alone wash. I could go on. It is unspeakable. It is intolerable.

And the tragic thing about it is that this is clearly intended. Neither our government nor the Israeli government recognize the fact that what is happening there is causing this immiseration of over 2 million people. And this could easily be stopped, and should be stopped. I can’t — I can’t — I can’t understand how this country can allow this to continue. The idea that going after Hamas entails the destruction of more than half of the housing in Gaza, the idea that going after Hamas entails the wounding of 50,000 people and the killing of 20,000, is just — it’s incomprehensible to me that our government can be so callous and can be so determined not to separate itself from Israel, as far as this basic — the basic nature of this war, which is really directed against the people of Gaza. Over 2 million people have been forced to leave their homes. This is the largest displacement in Palestinian history. The killing of 20,000 people, almost half of whom are children, is unprecedented in Palestinian history. So we are talking about traumatic events that are going to scar generations to come. And this doesn’t seem to be a matter of concern to our government, let alone the government of Israel.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Professor Khalidi, we’ve seen massive, unprecedented demonstrations in support of the Palestinians throughout the world. A majority of governments in the General Assembly, overwhelming majority, have called for a ceasefire, yet the Security Council continues to be a roadblock, especially the United States. Can you talk about what this is doing to the legitimacy of the U.N. itself?

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, I think it’s harming the United Nations, but I think it’s also harming the legitimacy of the United States’ position. It’s not the Security Council that’s blocking action. It’s the U.S. government that’s blocking action. There was one abstention, 13 votes in favor last time that a ceasefire resolution was before the Security Council. And they spent three days trying to get a resolution which involves not a ceasefire, but a humanitarian pause, and the United States has been obstructing that, as I’ve said, for three days. So, I think this is going to harm not just the United Nations, because it’s manifestly helpless in the face of this catastrophe; it’s harming the United States.

There is overwhelming support the world over for ending this. There is overwhelming support, sympathy, the world over for the Palestinians. There is — I think the polls show very strong support even in the United States for ending this war, and at the very least for stopping what’s going on so that humanitarian aid can get in. And the administration is clearly impervious to all of this. And I think the mainstream media, frankly, are complicit in this. Nobody knows that four major trade unions have come out for a ceasefire: the United Auto Workers, the nurses, the electricians and the postal workers. The New York Times, for example, has not deigned to mentioned that. Well, that’s a large chunk of labor. We’re talking about a great deal of anger and opposition to the Biden administration’s policy among wide swaths of the American people. And they just plow on as if none of this mattered. I find it very hard to explain, frankly.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about — there have been numerous media reports of attacks on U.S. troops in Syria and Iraq, that are threatening to expand the conflict beyond just the Occupied Territories and Gaza. But what the heck are U.S. troops still doing in those two countries? Has Congress authorized their presence there? Do the governments of those countries even want them there?

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, the government of Syria, the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, certainly doesn’t want them there. And the pretext for their being in Syria [inaudible] against the Islamic State. I don’t think there is any authorization for their being there. The troops that are in Iraq are supposedly engaged in training the Iraqi army but there’s a great deal of opposition in Iraq, even though the Iraqi government has accepted their presence there. There’s a great deal of opposition in the Iraqi parliament to the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq.

And I think what we’re seeing are attacks, whether from Yemen on shipping or firing missiles at Israel or attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq or in Syria, which are a response to what Israel is doing in Gaza. And the same is true, obviously, of the fighting that’s going on between Hezbollah and the Israeli army along Israel’s northern frontiers. The fear is that this will — that this could possibly be expanded, that this could become a regional war. So far, we are now in the 11th week of this war, since the 7th of October. And so far, that fear has been — or, that possibility has been contained. But it is always there. And it would lead to, I think, possibly terrible consequences, were the war to expand beyond its already quite horrific level in Gaza and were that to spark a further increase of fighting on the Lebanese border, in Syria, Iraq or out of Yemen.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about also what’s happening in the Red Sea? You have a dozen corporations who say they won’t ship their goods through the Red Sea. You have U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announcing a 10-nation coalition to protect trading interests there, including Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the U.K., the Seychelles; Houthi officials saying that their drone and missile attacks will continue as long as Israel bombards Gaza.

RASHID KHALIDI: There is enormous anger in the Arab world about what is happening in Gaza. Things that Americans don’t see, or don’t see enough of, the scenes of what is actually happening in Gaza, are being watched all over the Arab world, and across much of the world. And the anger that people have and their frustration at the unwillingness of their governments to do more to try and stop this is palpable. In Saudi Arabia, people can’t demonstrate. In some countries, they can demonstrate. But you talk to anybody in any of these countries, and public opinion is boiling. And the passivity of Arab governments in the face of this, their unwillingness to actually take action, I think, is — contrasts with Hezbollah, militias in Iraq and Syria, and the Houthis in Yemen actually engaging militarily in doing something.

And I think it is really time for countries that want to have to ceasefire to begin to group together, whether Arab countries or European countries or countries in the Global South, to group together and say there will be X, Y, Z sanctions if this doesn’t stop. At the very least, if sufficient humanitarian aid, if sufficient field hospitals, if sufficient water and food and so forth are not allowed into Gaza, this and this and this will be done to Israel, which is responsible. And I think that there are countries that could do this, including Arab countries. Jordan has recalled its ambassador. Well, that’s not going to affect Israel very much. But stopping the transportation of food from the Gulf to Israel — apparently the Emiratis are shipping food to Israel — would actually affect Israel. Doing things that threaten diplomatic relations would have an impact. Now, that, in and of itself, is not enough, but I think a lot more has to be done.

The United Nations, as we can see, is paralyzed by the U.N. veto — by the U.S., I should say, veto. The General Assembly has done what it could, 153 to 10. You can’t have a more lopsided vote than that. I think more has to be done to bring home to people in Washington, in particular, that this is unacceptable and actually unsustainable, that the possibility of this overflowing into regional conflagration, which is always there, is only part of the damage that is being done. Whole generations are being brought up angry at the United States, enraged at Israel, all over the region. And Israel is going to have to deal with this for decades to come. The United States is going to have to deal with this for decades to come. We are seen as complicit. These are American artillery shells, American bombs, American rockets, American planes, American helicopters, American artillery that are being used in this war. Twenty thousand people have been killed mainly with American weapons, mostly civilians, in Gaza. And people are not going to forget that, unfortunately. And I don’t see a sense of the impact of this in Washington. I don’t — I really think they live in some kind of a bubble, in some kind of a vacuum, in some kind of a fact-free space, where they don’t seem to understand the impact of all of this. What they are thinking and why they are thinking that is actually beyond me, as I’ve said.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you, Rashid Khalidi, about the Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, in Egypt to discuss a possible new truce, The Wall Street Journal reporting Hamas is also in discussions with Palestinian rivals, like Fatah, about a possible joint scenario for ruling the West Bank and Gaza afterwards. Of course, Netanyahu is completely against this. If you can talk about the discussion of the hostage negotiations, where we have seen reports of possibly Marwan Barghouti — and if you can explain his significance — being released for a number of Israeli soldiers released? Talk about all of this that’s going on right now, so people can understand what’s next.

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, that’s a big — that’s a big — that’s a big number — that’s a large number of questions.

I think the first thing, the hostage issue. There has been a huge problem around the hostages, because what Hamas has been demanding up until now is essentially an all-for-all exchange, all of the prisoners and hostages. I mean, some of the hostages are military, and many of them are civilians. And what they’ve been saying, apparently, from what we can tell from press reports, is that if you want all of the hostages, you’re going to have to release all of the prisoners. And that is one possibility, I think unlikely. And one of the prisoners who could, therefore, be released is Marwan Barghouti, who’s a senior Fatah leader who was convicted of multiple murders, by an Israeli military court that he never recognized, and who might well be a candidate for president who could win a majority of Palestinian votes.

I think the other issue — and there are other possibilities as far as hostages are concerned — for example, release of all the civilian hostages in exchange for a certain number of prisoners. And I have no idea where that negotiation is going. Some Israeli press reports indicate that the Israeli government is talking about progress, when there hasn’t actually been progress, in order to decrease the pressure of hostage families, who are demanding the release of Palestinian prisoners in order to get their loved ones home. I think the broader question is —

AMY GOODMAN: Especially after Israel killed three of the hostages from Israel.

RASHID KHALIDI: Accidentally, exactly, yes. And many others apparently have been killed in the bombing. And released hostages have said, “We were terrified for our lives because of the bombing that was going on.” I’ve read accounts in the Israeli press from released hostages, who’ve talked about how — the kind of danger that they were in, not so much from their captors as from the possibility that they would be killed by the Israeli bombardments.

The other aspect of this is the political aspect. Hamas has a position in Palestinian politics that is not going to be eradicated, no matter what Israel does in Gaza. If Israel entirely defeats Hamas’s entire military network, infrastructure, if it kills every single fighter — these are, of course, probably unrealistic, but even assuming that they can do that, Hamas continues as a political movement. Hamas continues to have support among Palestinians — not majority support, according to almost every poll I’ve ever seen, but a certain amount of support. If the — when and if the Palestinians manage to put together a government — and, you know, everybody else is going to try and do it for them. The United States is going to try and impose its intentions on them. The Israeli government will undoubtedly try and do the same. And the Europeans, in their colonial way, will probably try and do the same, telling the Palestinians what’s good for them and telling them who they can have and not have in their government. But when and if the Palestinians can get their own act together and form some kind of, for example, reformed PLO, there is no way to exclude Hamas from that. This idea that Hamas, because of what it did on October 7th, is completely excluded from Palestinian governance is a fantasy, an Israeli, American, European fantasy.

You do not negotiate with the people who have already agreed to your terms. You couldn’t do that in Ireland; you had to bring the IRA in. You couldn’t do that in South Africa; you had to bring the ANC in. You couldn’t do that in Algeria; you had to bring the FLN in. These are groups that had carried out horrific attacks, in many cases, on civilians. These are groups that were described by the colonial power in South Africa, in Algeria, in Ireland as terrorists or bandits, or they had different terms at different times. But the only people you really need to negotiate with are the people with the guns, after all. And until that fact gets through the thick skulls of people in Washington and in Paris and London, we’re not going anywhere. They can pick quislings. They can pick technocrats. They can select the Palestinians who are acceptable to them, who meet whatever tests, who get down on their knees and condemn Hamas, or whatever litmus test is imposed, and those people will represent nobody, will have no credibility, will have no legitimacy and will have no control over the situation.

And so, you are looking — barring an acceptance that you have to eventually deal with your real enemies, you are looking at a situation of unending Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip, direct or indirect. You are looking at a situation which implies unending resistance to that occupation. How many people can they kill? If Israel claims that there are 25,000 or 30,000 militants, armed militants, in Hamas, how many of them can they kill? Ten, 12, 11, 15? There will eventually be others, people who are still there. And that means that an imposed solution, with Israel continuing to operate in the Gaza Strip, which it has said it intends to do, will provoke continued resistance. So, nothing will be solved.

And the reconstruction and the end of the misery of the people of Gaza can’t take place until those kinds of changes, from occupation to some kind of Palestinian governance, takes place. And I don’t see — you read The Washington Post, David Ignatius. The idea that Arab countries are going to go in and do Israel and the United States’s dirty work for them is a fantasy. The Emiratis and the Saudis and the Egyptians and the Jordanians will not go in and govern on behalf of Israel. It is not going to happen. There has to be Palestinian governance of Palestinian territories.

And that is going to have to, one way or another, involve all the groups within the Palestinian political spectrum. The Palestinians have been divided by their own, you know, for reasons that have to do with Palestinian dysfunction, but they’ve also been divided by the divide-and-rule policies of the United States, Israel and the Europeans. As long as that continues, this festering sore will continue, and there will be violence. And it will not only be violence caused by hard men in Hamas. It will be violence caused by the horrors visited on the Palestinians by 56 years of occupation, by 75 years of colonialism, and the fact that people, inevitably, necessarily, resist occupation. You have to — they have to come to terms, sooner or later, with the fact — in Washington and in Israel, with the fact that Palestinian governance is a matter to be decided by Palestinians. And that is simply not in the mindset, if you read what comes out of Washington or what comes out of Israel, of our government or the Israeli government or many European governments.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Professor, we only have a couple of minutes left, but I wanted to ask you — you’ve said that there’s an unquestionable connection of Judaism and the Jewish people to the Holy Land, and yet that Israel — the Israeli state is a settler colonial project. And in your L.A. Times piece recently, you called it, the assault on Gaza, “the last colonial war of the modern age.” Could you elaborate?

RASHID KHALIDI: Right. Sure. I mean, this goes back to the nature of Zionism. Zionism is a national project, which distinguishes it from every other settler colonial movement, project. But at the same time, it was a self-identified colonial project. I mean, the Jewish Colonization Agency, the Palestinian Jewish Colonization Agency, is the term that that organization, which existed until 1958, applied to itself. That was something that was accepted by early Zionist leaders. They argued they had a claim to the Holy Land, there’s a connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. All of this is true, that there is such an attachment and such a connection, but Zionism is a European colonial project, backed by imperialism, British imperialism, and which intended to replace an Indigenous population with a Jewish population. As Ze’ev Jabotinsky said, “We want to transform Palestine into the land of Israel.” And that meant a demographic transformation, and that meant dispossession of the population and theft of their land, as happens in every settler colonial scenario. So, Israel is both the result of a national project, Zionism, and the result of a settler colonial project. There’s no — you can walk and chew gum at the same time. There’s actually no contradiction between it.

And it’s unique, in that it was not just an extension of a mother country’s population and sovereignty. It had its own independent ambitions: to establish a Jewish state, not a British state — came in under the protection of Britain, but it had its own aims, separate, independent aims. So, it’s a unique — it’s a unique phenomenon in the modern world. And it learned everything it did from the British. The Israeli army’s earliest leaders were trained by British colonial counterinsurgency specialists, to blow up houses over the heads of their residents, to shoot prisoners, to attack villages at night. This is British counterinsurgency, which was transmitted to Israeli — members of the Palmach and the Haganah in the 1930s in order for them to help the British fight the Palestinians. And those are the founders of the Israeli army. Moshe Dayan was trained by British counterinsurgency specialists. Yigal Allon, Yitzhak Sadeh, many of the leading figures in what became the Israeli army have that training. And Israel is using the laws left over, the 1945 Defense (Emergency) Regulations, under which people are put in administrative detention, no indictment, no trial, no conviction, nothing. They’re just put in jail and kept there. That’s a British 1945 emergency regulation. That’s a typical colonial instrument.

So, this is a colonial war, fought in order to maintain the supremacy of this group, which has taken the country over, at the expense of the Indigenous Palestinian population. The connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is, in my view, incontrovertible. But that, in and of itself, doesn’t justify the colonial methods that have been used in the establishment and the maintenance of Israel’s supremacy over now the entirety of Palestine, from the river to the sea.

AMY GOODMAN: Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia University, author of a number of books, including The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine. We’ll link to your opinion piece for the L.A. Times, headlined “How the U.S. has fueled Israel’s decades-long war on Palestinians.”

Coming up, we look at how a group of Palestinian Christians are trapped in the Holy Family Church in Gaza, where a mother and daughter were shot dead this weekend by an Israeli sniper. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Keep On Keepin’ On” by Len Chandler. The song, by the folk singer who passed away this year, was later quoted in a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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