Rashid Khalidi: ‘Destroying Hamas as a political institution, as an idea, is impossible’

The historian says that an Israeli reoccupation of the Gaza Strip would only incite more resistance

Guerra Israel Gaza
Rashid Khalidi in Madrid; May 2023.Santi Burgos
Óscar Gutiérrez Garrido

Rashid Khalidi, an American historian and writer with Palestinian-Lebanese roots, is an expert in the Middle East. Acknowledging the challenging times, he says it reminds him of his firsthand experience with the war in Lebanon during the 1970s. Khalidi, a professor at Columbia University in New York, says he has been personally affected by the current crisis, as he has lost contact with relatives in the Gaza Strip. He says he’s been swamped with media requests to comment on the escalating violence between Israel and Hamas, and also feels the mounting pressure against U.S.-based academics who have criticized Israel. “It reminds me a little of the worst days after September 11, [2001], when there was a great deal of Islamophobia,” Khalidi said with increasing vehemence. “I just feel like I’m in the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.” The historian’s most recent book is The Hundred Years War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917–2017 (Metropolitan Books, 2020).

Question. You closely follow what’s happening in Palestine and Israel — did you expect such a major escalation of violence?

Answer. To be frank, I did not. I was as surprised as the Israelis. I must admit that I am not an analyst of current events — I don’t follow things day-to-day. I was last there in March, but not in Gaza. I went to Jerusalem and the West Bank. But no, I did not expect anything on this scale at all.

Q. You and your family have lived through the Arab-Israeli wars since 1948, as well as the various conflicts in the Gaza Strip since 2006. Is this different?

A. It is different. Palestinians who remember the trauma of 1948 [the creation of the State of Israel and expulsion of Palestinians from their lands] that their parents or grandparents experienced see what is happening in Gaza as a new chapter in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. I hope those fears are not realized. I hope that people will not be forced to leave Palestine, and that they can eventually return to their homes. But more than half a million, maybe three-quarters of a million people have already been forced to move. We have relatives who have been forced to leave Gaza City, and I don’t know where they are now. That brings back memories of Palestinians being repeatedly forced to leave their homes, but especially in 1948.

Q. What did Hamas want to achieve with this attack in southern Israel?

A. I have no insight into the mindset of the people who made the decision to launch this attack. We have some information from the statement made by the military commander on the day of the attack. He talked about how Palestinians are ignored. He talked about Jerusalem. He talked about the siege of Gaza. He talked about prisoners. And he talked about Israeli settlements that are expanding with government support, harassment and attacks on Palestinians and the repression in the West Bank. I don’t know if those are the real reasons, but I think the first one — ignoring the Palestine question — seems obvious.

There has been a process of normalization and a complete absence of any political horizon for the Palestinians. What are they told to expect? More seizures and thefts of lands. More moving people out of their homes. More repression, fewer rights, no self-determination and no end to the occupation. This is what Israel offers. This is what the United States pays for and arms. So, I’m not sure that’s really their motivation because I just don’t know. And what happened in Jerusalem during the holiday that just ended? A thousand extremist religious settlers stormed into Haramah Shaddif — the mosque area in Jerusalem — to lead Jewish prayers. They want to transform the third-holiest site in Islam into a place of Jewish prayer. That’s what they say and it’s not just talk — they’re actually doing it.

A journalist asked me if Hamas was trying to stop the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. I think they’re trying to push Palestine back into the discussion. Did they achieve that? I don’t think so. Do they care? I’m not sure that they do. I mean, they’re now trying to walk back some of the atrocities that were committed, saying there was chaos. It wasn’t us — we didn’t mean to do it. Now they’re showing photos of fighters hugging babies. So they obviously realized something went wrong.

Q. Israel is saying that it wants to eradicate Hamas once and for all. Is that possible?

A. When Israel says that, they are using Hamas as a justification for killing over 3,500 Palestinians, most of them civilians. I think they would love to eradicate Hamas as an institution, as a political, religious and cultural structure, and as a military structure. I don’t think they can do the first two things. I don’t know who can govern Gaza, but I don’t think anyone else is likely to take it on. Whether they kill all their leaders, whether they kill all the armed militants, Hamas will remain as a political force, whether the Israelis occupy Gaza or leave. So, destroying Hamas as a political institution, destroying Hamas as an idea, is impossible. Destroying its military capabilities is possible, but only to a limited extent and period.

Q. Is the Palestinian National Authority a viable option in Gaza?

A. One of the great problems the Palestinians have is a lack of strategic thinking and young, innovative leadership. We have an old and corrupt leadership in Ramallah that is politically bankrupt — it has no ideas and continues to pursue a strategy that failed decades ago. It failed after the [1993] Oslo Accords. It failed before the Second Intifada. They have empty minds and most Palestinians hate them for being collaborators with Israel. They are not a viable alternative for the Palestinians. Israel wants the Palestinian National Authority, of course, because Israel and the United States created it.

That’s not what the Palestinians thought they were going to do, what [Yasir] Arafat and the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] intended. But that has been the outcome for the last 25 years or more. Hamas can sense it too. You dismantle a political alternative and turn it into a security subcontractor for Israel, while Israel seizes more land. Following the 2006 elections, Hamas joined a coalition government that was open to negotiations. Why did they join? Why did they propose a 100-year truce? If they wanted to kill Jews, how could they kill them in a 100-year truce?

That was a door that the United States, Europe and Israel slammed shut, and then did everything possible to break up that government. If you can’t go to the International Criminal Court or do a BDS [boycott of Israeli products], and you can’t protest nonviolently because you’re being shot at in the Gaza Strip or in Ramallah, then you pick up a gun. I mean, this doesn’t seem terribly hard to understand, but of course we want to ignore that history. We don’t want their bloodthirsty, murderous terrorists. They kill babies and women and children. They are unadulterated evil.

Q. It’s difficult to talk about history these days when the narratives are so harsh.

A. Impossible, yeah. How can you talk about context when you’re talking about unadulterated evil? You know this is a Manichaean worldview. It’s the inquisition against the heretics — good versus evil. There’s no conversation, no discussion, no background. No history can be brought to bear in that kind of black and white situation. And that is the narrative this [Biden] administration has created in the United States and Western governments are creating in the United Kingdom, France and elsewhere.

Historian Rashid Khalidi at the Casa Arabe in Madrid May 2023.
Historian Rashid Khalidi at the Casa Arabe in Madrid May 2023.Santi Burgos

Q. The U.S. has once again shown its strong support for Israel. Did you expect anything different from Biden?

A. I think that Biden — at least until October 7 — was one of the most pro-Israel presidents in U.S. history. He has always been driven, as American presidents always are, by electoral calculations. What will get me reelected? His unconditional commitment to Israel, his willingness to extend enormous advantages to Netanyahu who insulted him and who has alienated most of his own people and most American Jews... I was surprised by the degree to which he quickly adopted an Israeli narrative. I can try and speculate as to the reasons, but he went farther than even I expected he would.

Q. Did Biden achieve anything with his trip to Israel? Maybe delay the ground assault?

A. I think Biden’s trip was intended to accomplish two or three things. One is to ensure that there is no escalation involving Hezbollah and Iran. Biden cares about the next year’s election. If he’s held responsible for starting a war in the Middle East, he will lose the election and he knows it. Any escalation involving Iran or a major expansion of the conflict between Hezbollah and Lebanon will sink Biden in 2024. The second goal is to free the American hostages and, ideally, other hostages as well. And the third thing is to allow some humanitarian aid into Gaza.

Q. He seems to have achieved that.

A. Yeah, he got a promise from the Israelis. It may happen, maybe sometime in the future. I think he was also buying time for the Israelis because they can’t launch the offensive when the U.S. president is in Israel. And I don’t think they’re ready for that. I don’t think they know exactly what they want to do. I believe Biden’s visit might have been intended to influence those objectives, and that one aspect of the visit was primarily aimed at an American audience.

Q. If Israel ultimately reoccupies Gaza, what would it mean for the Palestinians?

A. It would just inflame the resistance. They can kill — they’ve already killed about 3,500 people. They will kill more. They will empty some of the northern Gaza Strip. But there will be resistance if they stay. That’s another thing Biden was trying to tell the Israelis — don’t occupy. He said it publicly before leaving. They don’t want it, unlike the Israelis, who are blinded by rage and the desire for revenge. The U.S. is trying to talk these people back down to Earth. What will you do after occupying Gaza? Did it go well the first time? Bring in five veterans of the Gaza occupation from 1967 to 2005, and let them tell you how that will go. It’ll be five times worse. I’m confident that, as is often the case, certain military and intelligence personnel on the Israeli side will align with the Americans instead of the politicians in the context of war.

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