Review: Escaping the Iron Cage

Against the Current, No. 128, May/June 2007

Dianne Feeley

The Iron Cage
The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood
by Rashid Khalidi
Boston: Beacon Press, 2006, $24.95 hardcover.

SINCE BRITISH FIELD Marshall Edmund Allenby’s troops captured Jerusalem in December 1917 the Arab population of Palestine has been trapped in an iron cage. This vivid image is the central metaphor Rashid Khalidi uses to examine nearly a century of desire for an independent Palestinian state. His book, completed last summer as Israel bombed Lebanon and laid seize to Gaza, focuses on Palestinian agency within the constraints imposed.

Recognizing that the reader might think it odd to focus on the victim, not on the powerful forces that thwarted Palestinian self-determination, Khalidi, a Palestinian-American who teaches at Columbia University, explains that The Iron Cage is an outgrowth of his 1997 Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness. In that book Khalidi compares Palestinians at the beginning of the 20th century with Arabs in other territories ruled by the Ottoman Empire. As he points out, “unlike most of the other peoples in the Middle East, the Palestinians have never achieved any form of national independence in their own homeland.” (PI, 10)

Why should the reader be interested in such a comparison? Khalidi points out that otherwise Palestinians seem doomed — as if they did not possess the preconditions for a successful nation state. Yet in most ways, they are similar to the Arabs who were able to build nation states in the surrounding territories. His concern for comparison recalls Malcolm X’s desire to learn about African history as a tool for the dispossessed, a way of insisting that people with a past have a present and can forge a future.

What Palestinians lacked in comparison with their Arab neighbors, Khalidi notes, is “neither a sense of identity nor a vibrant economy and civil society” but “the capacity for social and political mobilization sufficient to overcome the challenges they faced, and the support for this process that a state or para-state structures would have provided.” (30)

Khalidi sees Palestinian society fragmented by social, political and economic cleavages, but it seems to me that every society has these. Given the level of obstacles the Palestinians faced, however, the level of unity undoubtedly had to be much higher.

Imperial Carveups

Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, laying out the basis for U.S. participation in the settlement coming out of World War I, called for “autonomous development” for nationalities in the former Ottoman Empire. Arab nationalists in the Middle East felt the moment was right for the creation of an Arab regional federation. The Balfour Declaration, however, signed at the end of 1917, pledged the British government to support the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, and therefore excluded Palestinian statehood.

As it turned out there was another complication: a secret agreement between France and Britain to divide up the Arab territories into spheres of influences and zones of direct control. The Sykes-Picot Accords came to light only after the November 1917 Russian Revolution, when the Bolsheviks published all secret treaties signed by the allied forces.

Federation was stillborn, with the Arab territories chopped up into Class A Mandates under the “guidance” of Britain or France for what was described as being a brief transitional period. Ultimately every mandate won statehood, except for Palestine (Iraq in 1932; Lebanon and Syria, 1943; Transjordan, 1946; even Israel in 1948.)

At the time of the Balfour Declaration, Zionists were only 10% of the country’s population. Yet the language of the declaration was specifically incorporated into the Mandate’s mission. Khalidi notes that Palestinians were not cited by name, “whether as Palestinians or as Arabs, and were referred to only as ‘non-Jewish communities,’ possessing solely civil and religious rights; their national and political rights were mentioned in neither.” (32)

Consequently Palestinian leaders throughout the Mandate period repeatedly pressed Britain for national rights and a representative government, claiming these rights on the basis of Woodrow Wilson’s points. But each time they were told they must “accept the terms of the Mandate as a precondition for any change in their constitutional position….(but) Acceptance of the Mandate by the Palestinians would thus have meant their recognition of the privileged national rights of the Jewish community in what they saw as their own country, and formal acceptance of their own legally subordinate position, indeed of their nonexistence as a people.” (33)

Palestine: Aspirations Ignored

Khalidi describes British policy as racist: where Jews are seen as people with significance, Palestinian Arabs are ignored. He quotes British Foreign Secretary Balfour in a confidential memo:

“Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far greater import than the desires and prejudices of 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.” (36)

In order to carry out the Mandate’s plan it was necessary for the British to effectively disenfranchise the majority, keeping the reins of authority completely under their control. On the other hand they allowed the Zionist community internal autonomy, diplomatic representation for its Jewish Agency, and other forms of self-government.

This situation meant that Palestinian Arabs had two enemies: the Zionist movement, which wanted Palestine as their homeland, and the British. Every time Palestinians attempted to take on the British, they found themselves isolated, repressed or outmaneuvered.

The most telling example is the 1936-39 strike and armed struggle against the British. Palestinian Arabs launched a general strike in 1936 that involved work stoppages and boycotts of the British-controlled and Zionist-controlled economy. Probably the longest anti-colonial strike ever, it generated tremendous sympathy in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless the elites of those countries intervened to pressure Palestinians to suspend their strike — without any concessions from the British.

The following year Palestinians launched an armed revolt that caught the British off-guard. Briefly losing control over much of the country, the British mounted a massive campaign of repression and eventually “restored order.” By the end of the decade, with 5,000 dead, 10,000 wounded, 2,000 homes destroyed and over 10% of the adult male population killed, wounded or forced into exile, Palestinians were significantly weakened.

Zionists, on the other hand, had been strengthened. The boycott provided the Jewish-controlled sector to expand. Zionists also “joined in the fight against the Palestinian revolt, extending support to British repressive efforts. More Jewish policemen were recruited, trained, and armed, and existing Zionist military formations were expanded and strengthened, receiving British training and eventually acquiring valuable combat experience against the Palestinian rebels.” (109)

Limited Options

Given this iron cage, what were the possibilities that could have been pursued? Khalidi examines a number of scenarios, but in the end suggests that only had the revolt occurred in the 1920s could there have been a chance of success.

With World War II looming, Britain could not let go of this strategic region. Additionally, the Nazi persecution of the Jews and the closure of western ports to Jewish refugees meant that more than 61,000 immigrated to Palestine in 1935 alone. Zionist leaders now believed that a Jewish majority in Palestine was within reach.

After World War II, Khalidi reminds us, out of a population of two million in the British Mandate, Arabs were 1.4 million and owned 90% of the land. Under the 1947 UN partition plan Israel was to take control of 55% of the land. Zionist paramilitary forces moved in immediately following the plan’s passage. In the first six months of the ensuing war Zionist militias operated under a central command and organized a regular army of over 50,000 while the 10,000 Arab irregulars fought without a centralized command structure.

By May 15, 1948, the sunset of the British Mandate, the state of Israel was proclaimed. Several major cities had fallen to the Zionists and already 350,000 Palestinians had fled their homes. Through force or threat, 400 out of 500 Arab villages in what became Israel were emptied out and the population forbidden to return. Israel soon controlled 78% of the land.

Khalidi explains the various factors that caused Palestinian society to crumble. A major one is that they had not yet recovered from the repression of 1936-39. As he remarks in passing, Palestinian society was headless at the beginning of World War II. Another disadvantage was the lack of a para-state governmental structure similar to the Jewish Agency. So important was this agency that with the birth of Israel it became the backbone of the Israeli government.
Ironically, it was to take the catastrophe (al-Nakba) of 1948 to bring Palestinians closer together in terms of having a collective experience that became “a potent source of shared beliefs and values,” yet dispersed them throughout the world. (PI, 22)

Today there are over 10 million Palestinians: 1.2 million living inside the state of Israel, representing 20% of that country’s population; one-quarter million living in East Jerusalem, which has been illegally incorporated into Israel; 1.3 million in the Gaza Strip; 2 million in the West Bank; and 4-6 million outside the country (50% of whom live in Jordan).

New Generation’s Struggles

The Iron Cage skips over the two decades between 1948, when Palestinians basically lost agency over their lives, and the formation of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964. For Khalidi the new leadership is distinctly different from the pre-Nakba world: youthful, more militant, more likely to come from the lower-middle class, and often origined in refugee camps.

Khalidi outlines how the PLO leadership attempted to come to grips with the problems they faced at both strategic and practical levels. He shows how the PLO’s strength was also its weakness. For example, successful in maneuvering with Arab leaders, the PLO’s strength in threading its way through those perilous waters set the stage for its lack of transparency.

As late as the end of the 1960s Golda Meir was able to announce to the press with a straight face that “there never was a Palestinian people. They did not exist.” Khalidi sees the most important success of the PLO the placing of Palestinians back on the political map. The PLO also won recognition as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, first within the Arab League and the United Nations, but eventually even Tel Aviv and Washington were forced to recognize its role. Its third most important success was that it recognized the “ultimate futility of exile politics” and “made the difficult decision to shift its center of gravity” to the Occupied Territories. (169)

Even if Khalidi admits the execution was flawed, he sees the PLO’s successes as creative attempts to overcome the problems of the previous period. He spends a great deal of time explaining the importance of making the Occupied Territories the focus of Palestinian politics, and, flowing from that, its altering the demand for one secular state to a two-state solution. This also meant abandoning “the illusion that military pressure on Israel from bases in Lebanon could effect any positive change in the unfavorable strategic balance” (170) and constructing a democratic system of governance.

While Khalidi considers a number of accusations against the PLO, he sticks to three he considers most important:

1) “The failure to develop the organs of the PLO into the framework for a full-fledged Palestinian state.” (175) The institutions that were created were not particularly efficient or democratic. On the one hand there was cronyism, on the other, a lack of discipline.

2) The PLO suffered from a strategic lack of coherence. It might alter its strategy but it seemed unable to articulate what new approach flowed from that decision.

3) The PLO, through accepting the negotiating formula imposed by James Baker at Madrid (1991), effectively abandoned the majority of Palestinians who live outside of Palestine. This, he maintains, was caused by “the inability of the Palestinian leadership to act on the principle that the Palestinians are a single people all of whom suffered from their collective dispossession, and that consequently the amelioration of the lot of those under occupation was only part of the resolution of the Palestinian problem.” (180)

This chapter is a provocative one, and the author freely admits others have drawn different balance sheets on the PLO. The final chapter is equally provocative: Khalidi believes it is absolutely necessary to reevaluate Zionism. Yes, it is a colonial movement that has displaced the Palestinians. But even though Zionism is a national movement that entrenched itself at the expense of the Palestinian nation, he believes fresh thinking is required. He poses the questions: Isn’t it possible that Zionism is both a colonial movement and a national movement? And if that is so, what solution could that suggest?

Regaining Agency and Initiative

The concluding chapter of The Iron Cage attempts to summarize Israel’s growing matrix of control in the West Bank, as more settlements and bypass roads cut through Palestinian territory.

Khalidi points to the Wall that is being built and to the checkpoints and pass system that make it more difficult for Palestinians to travel even within the West Bank. He mentions that some believe the tipping point has occurred and it is no longer possible to have a viable Palestinian state given those “facts on the ground.”

Yet within the tightening of bars on the iron cage, Khalidi continues to call for Palestinian agency. He states that what politicians have done can be undone. He maintains that sooner or later Israelis will realize “that the way to deal with the hostility of the colonized is not to repress it, but to dismantle the structures of colonialism and repression that originally engendered it.” (216)

Even for those who do not agree with all of his conclusions, Khalidi has summarized a masterful historical narrative in The Iron Cage. It’s clear that the author has his eyes wide open. He sees the dangers of the Israeli/U.S. alliance, and in fact even refers to Bush’s April 2004 letter — in which Bush finds it “unrealistic to expect that the outcome of the final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949,” commits the United States to being “strongly committed to Israel’s security and well-being as a Jewish state” — as today’s Balfour Declaration.

Certainly the U.S. reader will notice the parallel between British insistence that Palestinians recognize the Zionists’ national rights under the Mandate — while their own were being denied — and today’s controversy over “recognizing” Israel before the Palestinian Authority is allowed to sit at the negotiating table.

ATC 128, May-June 2007