Tuesday, 16 May 2017

A Review of Rashid Khalidi’s Book ‘The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood’

Given the current visit of President Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine to India and him getting a ceremonial welcome from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Pranab Mukherjee with President Abbas hoping that India can help resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict given its good relations with both Israel and Palestine, it may be useful to view the conflict through a Palestinian prism but with a sense of objectivity, as Rashid Khalidi’s book The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood does. Before reviewing the book, let's take a cursory glance at the implications of this conflict for India and how it is perceived in India.

It must be noted that the Middle East is a region which is very strategically important for India (given energy security, counter-terror and even diaspora concerns), and indeed, India is one of the few countries that has good relations with both Israel and Palestine. No Indian concerned about national security and India’s economic progress can underscore the importance of Indo-Israeli friendship, given Israel’s cooperation in the sphere of intelligence-sharing and even support to India in the Indo-Pak wars in 1965, 1971 and 1999 (as you can see herehere and here, and India also helped Israel in the war in 1967, as you can see here). Those who talk of Indo-Pak friendship at an interstate level at all costs and insist on viewing Pakistan only through the prism of its regular citizens, despite the Pakistani state’s occupation of and human rights violations in Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan and sponsorship of terrorism in India, Afghanistan and Iran (as for those offering conspiracy theories about the same, see this articlethis onethis one and this one), especially have absolutely no moral credibility to oppose Indo-Israeli friendship, though they are usually indeed the loudest to do so (and they distort the history of the Indo-Pak war over Kashmir in 1947-48 and the UN resolutions on Kashmir, as I have discussed in some detail here), despite many ordinary Israeli Jewish citizens being critical of their state policies.

On the other hand, India, given its own history of undergoing a partition on religious lines, has an ideological commitment to the rights of the Palestinian people, and it is in India’s interest for its economic and strategic interests to have good relations with the Arab states. Those who don’t realise this in India are anti-Muslim bigots. To the anti-Muslim bigots in India seeking to validate their bigotry by citing *developed America* voting Trump (though not every Trump-voter in America, like not every Modi-voter in India, is an anti-Muslim bigot), I’d like to point out that the same developed America also voted to power George W. Bush who took his country to a state of recession and whose war in Iraq based on false claims on weapons of mass destruction created the instability in Iraq that paved the way for the rise of the ISIS. And yes, Barack Hussein Obama, whom these anti-Muslim bigots hated so much, was the one who oversaw the end of Osama and helped bring the US economy to normalcy with his bailout packages. And even Trump has been taking pains to clarify that he doesn’t stand for bigotry towards Muslims in general, which would only be counterproductive, clarifying that his 90-day ban is only for seven terror-infested countries and his making arrangements for Arab refugees to be accommodated in the Middle East, as you can see here and hereAs for Indian foreign policy, it must be noted that Afghanistan is a better ally of India’s than Nepal, the former taking a hard line against Pakistan and a provincial governor of which risked his own life to protect Indians in Mazar-e-Sharif, while Nepal has been cosying up to Pakistan, and so, viewing geopolitics solely through the prism of religion is foolish and unproductive.

Terrorism, and even terrorism citing a theological basis, is not a Muslim monopoly. As you can see here, very many instances of terrorism globally, even in the name of religion, have been carried out by those identifying themselves as Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus and even Buddhists, the victims of the acts of terrorists from each of these religious groupings not always being Muslims. However, just like most people of these religious groupings are not terrorists or supporters of terrorism, and they do not believe that their religion preaches terrorism, the same is the case with most Muslims (and not supporting terrorism applies to even most of those Muslims with other regressive and not-so-liberal attitudes on issues like gender and homosexuality).

It is possible to quote any scripture (allegedly out of context according to its liberal adherents) to justify malpractices, like some verses in the Bible namely Deuteronomy 13:12-15, Samuel 15:3, Leviticus 24:16 and Matthew 10:34 seemingly advocate violence against “non-believers” and the Purusha Sukta of the Rigved, an ancient Hindu scripture, is taken by some to justify caste discrimination, but these verses do not define the entire religion. This article mentioning an anecdote from the British parliament does make an interesting read in this regard, as does this video make an interesting watch in this connection. There are Quranic verses like 2:2565:25:85:326:1086:15110:9949:1360:8 and 109:6 preaching peace, religious tolerance and human brotherhood, as does the letter from Prophet Muhammad to the Christian monks of St Catherine’s monastery and there are episodes from Prophet Muhammad’s life, as per Islamic lore, indicative of such an approach too, such as his allowing a woman to throw garbage at him daily and his succeeding in ideologically, winning over her by way of humanitarian affection. Those suggesting that peaceful verses in the Quran are superseded by violent verses (which the vast majority of practising Muslims globally regard as contextual) would do well to note that verse 109:6 appears towards the end of the book, and preaches nothing but peace, and the Quran and Hadiths devote considerable space to talking about honesty (there’s an anecdote of Prophet Muhammad punishing a Muslim for stealing from a Jewish gentleman’s house), kindness, forgiveness, humility and striving for socioeconomic egalitarianism.

Very many mainstream Muslims do indeed believe that Islam is the only religion that can lead to God since the advent of Prophet Muhammad, as mainstream Christians believe the same for Christianity since the advent of Jesus, but that doesn’t entail intolerance towards those of other faiths. To explain this with an analogy, if a certain coaching centre (analogous to Islam or Christianity, going by the mainstream interpretation) claims it is the only one that can get students admitted into say, IIT (analogous to heaven), and even encourages its students to get students of other coaching centres and those not taking any coaching to join that particular coaching centre, it cannot be equated with forcing others to join their institute or killing those not willing to do so. In fact, both the Bible and the Quran preach the message of peaceful coexistence with other religious groups (the relevant verses in the context of the Quran have already been cited, and  Rom. 12:18 and 1 Tim 2:2  may be cited in the context of the Bible).

Speaking of apostates of Islam (“ex-Muslims”) criticising their former religion, there is a fairly well-known website run by an apostate and basher of Islam who has even offered a cash prize to anyone who can disprove his allegations against Prophet Muhammad (but there are books by apostates of other religions criticizing their former religions too, the most famous one being ‘Why I Am Not a Christian’ by Bertrand Russell, and there’s also ‘Why I am Not a Hindu’ by Kancha Ilaiah, levelling very strong allegations), but practically, he is the judge of the debate, or to go by what he is saying, the “readership” of the website, a rather non-defined entity. In fact, he has acknowledged that he came across a Muslim who “intelligently argued his case and never descended to logical fallacies or insults” and while that Islam-basher “did not manage to convince him to leave Islam”, that Muslim earned his “utmost respect”, which implies that practically, the Islam-basher is the judge of the debate. Likewise, that Islam-basher has mentioned with reference to a scholar of Islam he debated with, that the latter was “a learned man, a moderate Muslim and a good human being” and someone he (the Islam-basher) has “utmost respect for”. So, that Islam-basher’s critique of Islam, whether valid or invalid, has no relevance in terms of making blanket stereotypes about the people we know as Muslims or even practising Muslims. By the way, that Islam-basher bashes Judaism too. And it is worth mentioning that I have encountered several practising Muslims on discussion groups on the social media, who have, in a very calm and composed fashion, logically refuted the allegations against Islam on such websites. Indeed, as you can see here and here, there are several other apostates of Islam who have stated that while they personally left Islam thinking that the extremist interpretations are correct and moderate ones wrong (as is the case with apostates of many other religions), they have equally explicitly emphasized that that does not in the least mean that they believe that most people identifying themselves as practising Muslims support violence against innocent people.

And in fact, even speaking of the West, a report submitted by Europol, the criminal intelligence agency of the European Union, showed that only 3 out of the 249 terrorist attacks (amounting to about 1.2%) carried out in Europe in 2010 were carried out by Muslims. Even in the United States, most terrorist attacks from 1980 to 2005 were not carried out by Muslims. And no, I am not in the least seeking to undermine the heinousness of the crimes committed by some in the name of Islam by pointing to others having committed similar crimes under other ideological banners, for a more highlighted wrongdoing is no less of a wrongdoing than a less highlighted wrongdoing, but only to point out that viewing only Muslims as villains, and that too, all or even most of them, would indeed be grossly incorrect. However, despite jihadist terrorists being a microscopic minority of Muslims, Islamist terrorism has become a bigger global threat for its well-coordinated international network since the 1990s, with the US-backed Islamist resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan having signalled its rise. And, let us not forget that when we had the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, the victims included Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim police officer who died fighting the terrorists (and by the way, there are more French Muslims in the local police, including those who have died fighting jihadist terrorists, than in the Al Qaeda unit in their country), Mustapha Ourad, a Muslim who was one of the magazine staff members killed in that attack and there was Lassana Bathily, a Muslim shopkeeper who gave sanctuary to many innocent civilians during the hostage crisis in Paris that followed. Even in the context of the more recent attacks in Paris, a Muslim security guard Zouheir, risking his own life, prevented one suicide bomber from entering a packed football stadium. More recently, Kenyan Muslims very laudably protected fellow bus commuters, who were Christians, from jihadist terrorists, and Kurdish, Emirati, Iraqi and Syrian Muslims have also been fighting the ISIS.  In India too, most of the terrorism is not by Muslims, as you can see here and here.

It is not as though communalists under any banner, except arguably those actually resorting to killing innocent civilians, should be dehumanized or can never be logically made to modify their views, as the must-watch movie Road to Sangam, based on a true story, demonstrates, and to draw an analogy, you can see this video of a Muslim who initially wanted to become a terrorist wanting to blow up Jewish civilians but changed his standpoint about Israel for the better after visiting that country. It is also not as though Muslims are another species  that can’t be rationally engaged with, the way some extreme anti-Muslim rightists almost make them out to be, portraying Muslims in general as cruel, slimy, backstabbing and aggressive (many Muslims whom the non-Muslim readers would know personally would not exhibit such traits if the non-Muslim readers were to analyze dispassionately, rather than making baseless presumptions, and indeed, most Indian Muslims are of Hindu ancestry and so, they share the same genes as the Hindus – Hindu religious lore also refers to treacherous human beings like the Kauravas wanting to burn the Pandavas in a wax palace; so, treachery was not unknown to India before the advent of Islam, as royal family feuds among the Nanda and Gupta rulers also demonstrate, and some of the worst atrocities in history have been committed by the likes of Hitler and Stalin, who were not Muslims, nor was Chengiz Khan who was an animist), but like many people in other communities in different contexts, some (not all) Muslims are in the stranglehold of anachronistic ideas like a global pan-Muslim fraternity and the upholding of Islamic law, other than having prejudiced notions in the form of an exaggerated sense of victimhood, and I have dealt with how to ideologically combat Muslim extremism in some depth in this article.

Sacrificing animals as a religious ritual is indeed not exclusive to Muslims, and ‘bali’ has existed among Hindus too, something Gautam Buddha (who lived centuries before Jesus and Muhammad) had opposed (and even Emperor Ashok the Great consumed meat of peacocks, which he stopped after embracing Buddhism, though interestingly, Buddhists in China, Japan, Bhutan, Vietnam etc. do consume meat, as do most Sikhs, Christians, Jews and Parsis, and what is halal for Muslims in terms of dietary regulations and the mode of slaughtering some animals is identical to what is kosher for Jews and several sects of Christians, and that is true for the practice of circumcision for males as well, which even has health benefits), and still continues in many Hindu temples across India, especially in West Bengal during the Navratri season. Also, it may interest some to know that the story of Prophet Abraham associated with Id-ul-Zuha is found in the Old Testament of the Bible too, which the Jews and Christians also believe in (those regarded as prophets by the Jews are regarded as prophets by the Christians too, with the addition of Jesus, and those regarded as prophets by the Christians are regarded as prophets by the Muslims as well, with the addition of Muhammad). And obviously, not all of Arab cuisine is non-vegetarian either, with Arab vegetarian dishes like strained yogurt using labneh cheese and sweet dishes like zlabia, popular in South Asia as jalebi!

And for those suggesting any marriage between a Hindu boy and Muslim girl as amounting to “love jihad”, they may note that many Muslim women too have married Hindu men, like Katrina Kaif, Sussanne Khan, Zohra Sehgal (formerly Zohra Khan), Neelima Azim (Pankaj Kapoor’s wife), Nargis and leading Mumbai cyclist Firoza, and some have even converted to Hinduism upon marriage, like famous sitarist Annapurna Devi (formerly Roshanara Khan), fashion model Nalini Patel (formerly Nayyara Mirza), Maharashtra politician Asha Gawli (formerly Zubeida Mujawar), South Indian actress Khushboo Sundar (formerly Nakhat Khan) and Bollywood actress Zubeida.

Not too long ago, even the Modi sarkar conceded that there is no evidence whatsoever to justify the Hindu rightist conspiracy theory of the Taj Mahal having been a temple of Lord Shiv. And yes, historically, while many (not all) Muslim rulers have a historical record of intolerance to Hindus, so do many ancient Hindu rulers like Mihirakula and Pushyamitra Shunga have a historical record of intolerance to Buddhists (of course, there can be a debate on the historicity of these allegations, but the point is that religious intolerance wasn’t unheard of even in pre-Islamic times in India). One may add in this context that there is this totally incorrect notion that Muslims are the only ones who stop non-Muslims from entering some of their holiest places of worship like the Kaba in Mecca, but actually, several Hindu temples, like the Pashupati Nath temple in Nepal, too bar non-Hindus from entering them, while many mosques and Sufi shrines have absolutely no problem with non-Muslims visiting them or even praying there. Also, the conspiracy theory about the Kaba being a Shiv temple have their basis in the writings of one Mr. Oak, who was not even a historian, and he is actually not even taken seriously even by those historians, Indian or of other nationalities, who have saffron or other religious right-wing leanings, and in fact, some votaries of this theory claim that Lord Shiv has been ‘imprisoned’ by Muslims, which refutes the logic that God is all powerful! Oak also said that Christianity is Krishna-Neeti (though ‘Christianity’ as a term does not exist in Hebrew, and came about much later in history!) and many other such ludicrous things! There are websites making claims about non-existent Arabic texts to prove their point. While such propaganda (except the bit about Lord Shiv being ‘imprisoned’!) may please the Hindu chauvinist who desperately wishes to imagine ancient India to be the only centre of human civilization, impartially speaking, one ought to thoroughly dissect it before taking it seriously. These are just completely baseless rants being circulated on the social media that don’t have the backing of any serious historian, not even the most right-wing ones. These conspiracy theories are typical of loony religious rightists, including Muslim rightists in Pakistan attributing 26/11 to RAW and many genuine liberal Muslim intellectuals in Pakistan are dismissed by conspiracy theorists as agents of the CIA, RAW and/or Mossad!

There are also misplaced notions of Muslims potentially outnumbering Hindus in India, though the Muslim population growth rate is declining (not the population itself, which cannot decline usually for any community), and the population growth rate of Keralite Muslims is less than UPite Hindus, for instance, and yes, even otherwise, if someone sees Muslims potentially outnumbering Hindus in India as a real problem, they should appeal to the Indian government to legally impose a two-child norm for all Indian citizens, irrespective of religion, rather than just generate unnecessary hatred for an entire community and divide the nation. Many Hindus criticize Muslims for having many children because they practise polygamy as permitted by their faith (though census reports have established that Hindus are more polygamous than Muslims, even though it is illegal for the former, and I myself know a Hindu electrician in Delhi who has engaged in bigamy), even though that actually doesn’t make a difference to the number of children as long as the number of reproductive women remains the same. Four women would respectively give birth to the number of children they would, irrespective of whether they are married to one man or four different men! In fact, polygamy is not prohibited by Hinduism as a faith (and, in fact, it was outlawed for Hindus only after independence, and Nehru faced stern opposition for the same from orthodox Hindus). The Puranic lore is full of multiple marriages by a single man – to quote some prominent examples, Krishna had thousands of wives, prominent among whom were Rukmini, Satyabhama and Jambvati; his father Vasudev had two wives, Devki (Krishna‘s mother) and Rohini (Balram‘s mother) and Ram‘s father Dashrath had three wives, besides even Bheem having a wife other than Draupadi (Gatodkach‘s mother) and Arjun too had several, including Krishna‘s sister Subhadra. In fact, the law mandating monogamy for Hindus was introduced only after independence! Also, Islam mandates a limit of four wives and a responsibility of the husband to look after his multiple wives (if he has multiple wives in the first place) equally well, though I do agree that even this is anachronistic today. As for harems, these too have not been a monopoly of Muslim rulers, and the practice has existed among Hindu rulers too, such as in South India, and even among Buddhist rulers in Sri Lanka. And there are indeed many Hindus too, particularly in rural areas and in several cases, even among the urban educated class, who have several children even if they are monogamous. Many educated Hindus who have been public figures, like former president V.V. Giri, former prime minister Narasimha Rao and our very own Lalu Prasad Yadav have all had many children, and even Narendra Modi is the third of his parents‘ six children.

Also, there are some who accuse Muslims of being the only community that carries out inter-cousin marriages, but that is true for Parsis as well and Hindu lore mentions Abhimanyu marrying his maternal uncle Balram‘s daughter (though this is a South Indian folk adaptation not to be found in the Puranic lore, it shows that the idea hasn‘t always been abhorrent in Hindu societies) and Rajasthani folklore has it that Prithviraj Chauhan too eloped with his cousin and while even this is contested by historians, he has never been looked down upon for the same, and even today, this practice exists in South Indian Hindu societies.

An allegation often leveled against Islam and Muslim societies is sexism. It should be noted that Prophet Muhammad’s wife Khadijah was a successful businesswoman, and the world’s oldest existing university, which is in Morocco and dates back to 859 AD, was set up by Fatima al Fihri, a well-educated Muslim woman. Prophet Muhammad is even believed to have mandated education for all, irrespective of gender, as you can see here and here, and in fact, the education cutting across gender lines even includes physical education. Interestingly, Prophet Muhammad himself is believed to have said that children (he did not specify only boys) must be taught archery, horse-riding and swimming. In fact, a woman, Nusaybah bint Ka’ab, fought in his army, just as Hindu lore refers to Arjun’s wife Chitrangada as an ace fighter and how Kaikeyi and Madri were ace charioteers. This article discusses in some detail the freedoms accorded to women by Islam and early Muslim societies, and how they partook in war, diplomacy, business and several other fields of life, and how the veil came in later as a norm in Muslim history.  Currently, many Kurdish Muslim women are bravely fighting the ISIS, and there was news of an Iraqi Kurdish woman, Rehana, killing over a hundred ISIS terrorists. Major Mariam Al Mansouri, a female fighter pilot from the UAE, has also been involved in anti-ISIS operations. While one would not assert that Islam or any other major global religion (and in this, we include the oriental faiths as much as the Abrahamic religions) is completely free from patriarchy (with all due respect to everyone’s religious sentiments), this mindset of prohibiting girls’ education represents a deeply patriarchal mindset among these ultra-conservative terrorists hailing from tribal Pashtun communities in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but has no basis in Islamic theology, and very many people across the globe who have identified themselves as Muslims have educated their daughters.

No Muslim-majority country (but for parts of them ruled by militias like the Taliban and ISIS), not even Saudi Arabia, has legally imposed wearing burqas (though only Iran has imposed headscarves; however, as regards wearing burqas, it must be noted that the Quran does not ordain it, nor do quotations attributed to Prophet Muhammad of undisputed authenticity), or prohibited women from driving (though only Saudi Arabia, other than militia-ruled regions, has imposed a ban on women driving, but a Saudi cleric also declared that there was nothing in the Islamic texts that prohibits women from driving. In Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, another Islamic state which largely follows the same Wahabi sect of Islam as Saudi Arabia, there are women-run family taxis, and Laleh Seddigh, an Iranian Muslim woman, is among the best car-racers globally, competing with men.

This delicate balance of good relations with both Israel and Palestine has been maintained by India quite well, even with supposedly Hindu right-wing governments in power. Under the current dispensation headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India voted in a favour of a UNHRC resolution criticising the Israeli state for human rights violations in July 2014 and more recently, in March 2016, against Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. It has also been involved in giving aid to the Palestinians, such as in October 2016 for setting up a techno park in Ramallah. India under Modi has reiterated its support to the idea of an independent Palestinian state.

The Israel-Palestine conflict, which dates back to 1948, is indeed one of the most significant geopolitical conflicts. It has had a very direct bearing on the human rights situation of the Palestinian people as also the physical security of the Israeli people. The conflict is rooted in competing nationalist claims over the same territories, which have increasingly acquired a radicalised religious colour.

On the surface, the Israel-Palestine conflict seems to be about territory and it is certainly a territorial dispute, but unlike many other territorial disputes wherein two countries stake claim to only a certain piece of land, here, both Israelis and Palestinians have elements that seek to completely deny each other any legal claim over the entire territory they inhabit, based on competing ideological claims often grounded in religion. To understand this further, a basic understanding of the genesis of the conflict and how it has panned out would be necessary. For those readers ignorant of the Israel-Palestine conflict or having strongly one-sided views on it (whichever way), I would request them to first read this other article by me.

In The Iron Cage, Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian-American professor of history and international politics at the Columbia University, delves into the nature and logic of the Israel-Palestine conflict from the point of view of a Palestinian. Stated very clearly early in the book, this is the focus of Khalidi. The central idea of the book is to examine the suffering of the Palestinian people owing to the injustices inflicted upon them by the Zionist movement, neighbouring Arab states and Western powers, but also not in the least, the blunders committed by the Palestinian people themselves. As for the Arab leaders who acted with their vested interests in mind, which included being stooges of Western powers (which complicates the oversimplified ‘West vs. Muslims’ narrative offered by Muslim and anti-Muslim rightists), here’s what Khalidi has to say-

“(T)here were the seven newly independent Arab states, all of them relatively weak and heavily influenced by the Western powers; these states acted in ways that frequently excluded the interests of the Palestinians, and sometimes contradicted them.”

It is pertinent to understand that the book was written in 2007, a year after the war between Israel and Lebanon and the democratic election of the Hamas into power in Gaza, and when 9/11 was fresh in public memory. Since the Palestinian issue has also become intertwined with the global jihadist narrative, Khalidi makes some pertinent observations regarding how 9/11 was a product of misplaced American foreign policy in feeding Muslim extremism (not in the least the American policy to back radical jihadist groups like the Taliban and Al Qaeda against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, before which global jihadist terrorism as a phenomenon did not exist, and there were local terror groups in different parts of the world, like Palestinian terror outfits, Irish Republicans who were Catholic fanatics, ultra-leftist groups and separatist groups without a clear religious mandate like the LTTE) as it is about certain schools of Islamic thought with a very narrow and controversial interpretation of Islam. To quote Khalidi on this point-

“Of course, there is an indigenous, local aspect to Bin Laden and al-Qa‘ida’s specific variety of the terrorism engendered by illegal, covert warfare that has nothing to do with the United States or its policies. (…) Moreover, Wahhabism was a potent religious and political force before the American Constitution was adopted. Certainly, the specific forms that extreme Islamic radicalism took at the end of the twentieth century were shaped by aspects of the Islamic heritage, and by the narrow vision of Islam propagated in the eighteenth century by Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab and by later radical Islamic revivalists like Hassan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb, and other leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is true also that the violent extremists of al-Qa‘ida are in some measure products of their societies and of certain strands of the Islamic heritage. But it takes an extraordinary degree of self-interested blindness to ignore that they were also significantly shaped by the policies of the United States and its closest allies in the Middle East and South Asia in the last decades of the Cold War, and that the most virulent strains of this witches’ brew came into existence in the hell’s kitchen of the savage Afghan war. Indeed, the very term ‘al-Qa‘ida,’ meaning ‘base,’ is short for ‘qa‘ida ma‘lumatiyya,’ or database, originally a reference to the database developed by Usama Bin Laden during the Afghan war to keep track of the various Islamist factions allied with the United States in the Afghan ‘jihad’.”

He further points out that he doesn’t agree with those extremist “strands of Islamic heritage” as being true to the spirit of Islam as he understands it, pointing out that Islam was a force of immense reformative power that “had built one of the greatest civilizations the world has known centuries before western Europe had climbed out of the Dark Ages”, referring to a liberal period of early Islam wherein poetry, music, science etc. flourished with tolerance to Jews and Christians, and when Arab Muslims were willing to learn from the Hindu, pre-Islamic Persian and Greco-Roman civilizations. Also, the US ally in South Asia critically referred to by Khalidi is quite obviously, Pakistan.

To quote further on what he has to say about global jihadist terrorism-

“(There has been) the long, involved, and often close relationship of the U.S. government with some of the villains of the tragedy of 9/11, a relationship far more complex than Americans have generally been led to believe. Delineating these ties would of course in no way mitigate the full and terrible responsibility of those who had planned and perpetrated the atrocious murders of thousands of innocent Americans. Nevertheless, it would show that these individuals did not materialize out of a vacuum, and that they were not in fact as utterly alien as they appeared to be, or were made to appear by the government, the media, and assorted self proclaimed experts. To show this, it would be necessary to explain how for many decades the United States fostered or allied itself with some of the reactionary, obscurantist, and illiberal Islamic tendencies that, metastasizing over many years, engendered the individuals and groups who carried out the attacks of September 11. It would also be necessary to explain to Americans—many of whom hold the belief that their country acts only for good in the world—that various actions of their government over several decades have had disastrous consequences in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and elsewhere in the Arab and Islamic worlds.”

“(I)t is an undeniable fact that many of those who planned and carried out the attacks of September 11, or those who guided, led, taught, and supported them, were not so very long ago the welcome allies of the United States and various Middle Eastern regimes to which it is closely linked. This is true whether these individuals belonged to one of the radical offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian Islamist political party founded in 1928, or adhered to some extremist version of the Wahhabi doctrine, which represents religious orthodoxy in Saudi Arabia, or aided the Afghan mujahideen during the war against the Soviet occupation during the 1980s. Specifically, the masterminds of 9/11, and their intellectual forebears and spiritual guides, were frequently the ardent and devoted foot-soldiers of the United States and its allies in the murky covert struggles against the Soviet Union and other opponents in the Middle East from the mid-1950s until the early 1990s.

American and allied policymakers supported them against such identified enemy forces as Arab nationalism, Pan-Arabism, local communist parties, radical regimes, Palestinian nationalism, and later the Soviets in Afghanistan.

All of this exceedingly germane history, some of it quite recent, has been obliterated or forgotten. Over the past few years, the intellectual progeny of these U.S. clients, their successors, and in a few cases the very same individuals (figures such as Shaykh ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Rahman, convicted in connection with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the late Shaykh Ahmad Yasin, founder of Hamas, Salman al-‘Awda and Safar al-Hawla, both Saudi clerics, and the two top leaders of al-Qa‘ida, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Usama Bin Laden) who once were allies, fellow travelers, or salaried agents of the United States and the Middle Eastern governments it supports, came to regard the United States and its allies in the region as their enemies. Another example would be the transformation of the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and its offspring, Hamas, from the protégés of the Israeli occupation into Israel’s fierce enemy. One hears little about this history in the United States today, perhaps out of deference to the individuals and institutions that directed and executed American policy during the Cold War.”

“This situation is deeply problematic for American policymakers, especially those in the Bush administration, who claim that the United States always acts in the name of freedom and democracy. Yet if most people in Middle Eastern countries could freely express their opinion, they would likely be opposed to U.S. policy on all of these issues, from Palestine and Iraq to the presence of U.S. military introduction bases, and including the propping up of unpopular autocracies. On the other hand, long-standing domestic opponents of American Middle East policies find it discomforting to hear Usama Bin Laden or other such radical figures attack these policies. The last thing they want, after years of being virtually ostracized for criticizing America’s actions in the Middle East, is to be identified in any way, even indirectly, with the people who killed thousands of innocent Americans on September 11, 2001. The task of policy critics thereafter became even harder as media self-censorship intensified, and as an especially problematic form of political correctness took hold in some quarters, one that implied that any critique of past policies amounted to treason in the ‘global war on terror.’ In reflecting on these considerations, I realized that there is a link between these pressing current issues of terrorism, war in Iraq, United States policy, and the seemingly unconnected question of the Palestinians’ failure to achieve independence. It lies in a striking continuity of Western policies in Palestine and elsewhere in the Middle East—most especially a carryover from the policies of the once-dominant power, Great Britain, to those of the current hegemon, the United States. Both have tended to favor outcomes that fit distorted accounts of the situation in Palestine (notably, the Zionist vision of Palestine as ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’). Both have favored outcomes that were politically convenient domestically, over what was in keeping with the actual realities of the situation on the ground and with the principles of self-determination and international law. Long before there was an American position on the Palestine question, driven primarily by domestic political concerns, there was a British position, similarly driven by concerns almost entirely external to Palestine. For reasons of self-interest, strategy, ideology, and domestic politics, both powers consistently privileged the interests of the country’s Jewish population over those of its Arab residents (and, after about half of them were made into refugees, former residents). And facing both was a weak and ineffective Palestinian leadership that seemed to grasp only dimly, if at all, the strategic challenge facing their people, the actual balance of forces in the field, the exact nature of the relationship between the great power of the day and its local Zionist allies, the way politics functioned in London and Washington, and how best to use the meager resources at their disposal to overcome these long odds.”

“In a 1998 lecture, one year before his death and three years before 9/11, the distinguished Pakistani scholar Iqbal Ahmad described his own first meeting with Usama Bin Laden and warned prophetically against the danger to the United States of covert alliances with Islamic radicals:

Covert operations and low-intensity warfare . . . are the breeding grounds of terror and drugs. . . . This fellow [Bin Laden] was an ally. He remained an ally. He turns at a particular moment: in 1990, when the U.S. goes into Saudi Arabia with its forces [a reference to the basing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait]. . . . For him, America had broken its word: the loyal friend has betrayed. The one to whom you swore blood loyalty has betrayed you. They’re going to go for you. They’re going to do a lot more. These are the chickens of the Afghanistan war coming home to roost. This is why I said to stop covert operations. There is a price attached to them that the American people cannot calculate, and that people like Kissinger do not know, that they do not have the history to know it.”

The title of the book signifies the special condition of existence of the Palestinians. The iron cage symbolises the various structural reasons for the depravity of the Palestinians. Rashid Khalidi seems to suggest that the iron cage was originally installed by the British as a result of the Sykes-Picot Agreement after the First World War. The colonisation of Palestine, the zest to control the destiny of the people belonging to the land, and the fulfilment of the Zionist project inscribed the cage into the fate of the Palestinians. Khalidi also concedes that there were other powers who contributed to the transformation of the Palestinians as a people that have been caged. But the iron cage would not have been stronger had the Palestinians also not contributed to this over the years. So, the iron cage imagery is primarily a symbol of despair and pessimism that they may not ever get out of it; and much of it would be their own doing.

The Israel-Palestine conflict has indeed always been a contest of narratives - the facts have been distorted and suppressed to make a case for either side. Palestinians blame it on the American foreign policy and other such Western interventions in the region and Israeli authorities generally resort to the ‘terrorism’ argument in order to justify their actions in the West Bank and the Gaza strip. The book is an attempt at objectivity in exposing the sufferings of the Palestinians evoking empathy from readers  but without whipping up emotional frenzy or exhibiting any kind of prejudice towards Jews or even Zionists as a collectivity. In fact, appreciating the valuable work done by various revisionist and impartial Israeli historians, he likewise calls for dispelling myths in the historical narratives of the Palestinians, in the following words-

“This is not to say that there are not many myths worth debunking in the Palestinian version of the events: there are indeed, particularly ideas related to the Zionist movement and Israel and their connections with the Western powers, the relation of Zionism to the course of modern Jewish history, particularly the central place of the Holocaust in this history, and the reductionist view of Zionism as no more than a colonial enterprise. This enterprise was and is colonial in terms of its relationship to the Arab population Palestine; Palestinians fail to understand, or refuse to recognize, however, that Zionism also served as the national movement of the nascent Israeli polity being constructed at their expense. There is no reason why both positions cannot be true: there are multiple examples of national movements, indeed nations that were colonial in their origins, not least of them the United States. Deconstructing these ideas will be crucially important to an eventual reconciliation of the two peoples.”

Khalidi has amply blamed the foreign powers involved in the conflict, including the British colonialists for creating fissures in the Palestinian society, as they had done in other colonies like India and Egypt, as also for trying to ignore anti-Semitism (anti-Jewish bigotry) in Britain itself and elsewhere in Europe but exclusively pushing for a national home solely for the Jews in Palestine without, for long, recognising the political and national rights of the Arabs residing in Palestine. Khalidi has also blamed the Arab powers, the neighbouring states that have acted mainly along the lines of their own vested interests for the continuation of this violent saga. But the most important concern for Khalidi in the book has been to implicate the Palestinians for their own failures, in order to give the Palestinians agency, rather than treat them as some kind of inferior people who cannot be ascribed any responsibility for their own fate.

Gross human rights violations from both sides mark the history of the conflict and this book comes after the 2006 face-off between the Hamas and the Fateh, with Fateh also insinuating that if the peace process is stalled and opposed by the Hamas, then it may also dissolve the Hamas-led cabinet. The conflict between the Hamas and the Fateh is symptomatic of a larger malaise of egocentric and hot-headed politics by the Palestinian leaders in handling the joint issue of statehood and violence. The most prominent factor working against Palestinian interests in the early decades of the 20th century was the incompetence of the Palestinian leaders themselves. A lot of space in the book is devoted to exposing the conflict of interests and jealousies among the Palestinian leadership in place and the unwillingness to solve the conflict through the strategic use of the opportunities presented to them. He points out, for instance-

“To escape the fiendish iron cage devised for them by the British, should the Palestinians have accepted the national aspirations of the Jewish people - most of whom, the Europeans among them, they saw as foreigners and intruders - in exchange for recognition of their national rights? Could they have done so, given that at the time most of them (and many others, including many Jews) saw Judaism as a religion and not as the basis for a nationality, and thus did not accept the core premises of political Zionism?”

Could the Palestinians have improved their situation by accepting some British proposals, whether for a legislative council or an Arab Agency?

Given the low ceiling that would have been imposed by the British in view of the terms of the Mandate, and that necessarily would have obliged the mandatory government to act in support of the Zionist project, any such body, irrespective of its makeup, would undoubtedly have had little impact on changing the nature of the pro-Zionist policies followed by the British in Palestine. Moreover, it would have given tacit Palestinian approbation to the idea of a Jewish national home in Palestine, and indeed of the subordination of their rights to those of a Jewish majority, both of which were naturally anathema to the Palestinians.

Nevertheless, any elected representation, no matter how hemmed in by restrictions, or how limited in proportion to the absolute Palestinian majority of the population, would have given the elected Palestinian representatives an uncontestable legitimacy, and an unparalleled platform from which to make their case. The Congress Party in India used state assemblies to just this end in the late 1930s. As with some limited form of acceptance of a Jewish national home, in the end this would probably have had at best only diplomatic or propaganda value. And there is no guarantee that the Palestinians would ever have been granted even sham representative institutions, given the ferocious opposition of the Zionist movement to anything that gave the Arabs a recognized, official, representative voice, and of British officials and politicians to anything that would have weakened the terms of the Mandate. But in view of the glaring weaknesses of the Palestinians in just these realms of diplomacy and public relations, acceptance of such proposals might conceivably have slowed the slide of their country into the hands of the Zionist movement.”

He has also blamed the Palestinians for failing to throw up a modern-minded, non-patriarchal, united and progressive leadership to engage with the British the way the Indians had produced the Indian National Congress (which would fit these labels to quite an extent) to this end, and also draws parallels between the Indian and Palestinian colonial experiences.

“Another area where there are profound continuities between the British Mandate period and today is in the interrelation between indigenous Palestinian leaderships and outside forces. One constant has been the frequent incapacity and weakness of these leaderships vis-à-vis the great imperial powers of the day. Another less visible continuity lies in the way in which this interrelation contributed to the genesis of political Islam in the interwar period and again in recent decades. The British Mandate government from the outset assiduously fostered the creation and development of ostensibly ‘traditional,’ but in fact newly created, ‘Islamic’ institutions such as the post of ‘Grand Mufti of Palestine’ and the Supreme Muslim Council. At the same time, the British authorities assiduously denied legitimacy to Palestinian national bodies and prevented the establishment of Palestinian representative institutions. The British gave these Islamic institutions—‘invented traditions’ in every sense of this term—full control of extensive public revenues (those of the public religious foundations, or awqaf ‘amma) and broad patronage powers. For nearly two decades, until the spontaneously initiated popular revolt of 1936, this policy served its intended purpose of dividing the traditional leadership and providing a counterweight to the Palestinian national movement. By giving a crucial portion of the Palestinian elite both some control over resources and a measure of prestige, but no access to real state power, these institutions successfully distracted many Palestinians from a unified focus on anticolonial national objectives, including the control of the mandatory state, and building an effective nationalist para-state body to rival that state.

There is a parallel between this policy and the decades-long U.S. fostering of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamically oriented groups throughout the Middle East as counterweights to what were perceived as radical, nationalist, anti-American forces. Conservative Arab regimes allied with the United States, like those of Jordan and Saudi Arabia followed a similar policy. For well over two decades after the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, Israel did much the same thing with the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoot Hamas in Gaza as a counterweight to the nationalist Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). This reached the point where the Israeli military occupation encouraged Brotherhood thugs to intimidate PLO supporters.”

Thus the core problem was the failure of the Palestinians to create national structures that perhaps might have enabled them to wage a more coherent struggle before the 1936–39 revolt, to weather the repression that accompanied it, and to extract a better outcome from the 1939 negotiations in London, not what happened later. Comparisons with the more successful Indian effort in precisely the same period are of relevance here. Thus, to explain why Palestinian society fell apart with such rapidity in 1947–49, one must go back to well before the fighting of those years. Only thus can one fully explain the striking lack of organization, cohesion, and unanimity in the Palestinian polity in the years immediately preceding 1948, particularly in view of the marked contrast with the improving situation of the yishuv in the same period.”

“These differences were largely a result of the fact that the terms of all the other mandates, and the positions of the colonial powers in most other Arab countries (again, with the notable exceptions of Libya and Algeria), and indeed even the position of Britain in many of its colonies such as India, were predicated on the assumption that in each of these countries there was a people either already in existence or ‘in emergence,’ with the eventual right to independence and statehood. This was held to be true even though in some cases independence was envisaged by the colonial power as taking place in the distant future.”

“Although the Egyptians and Indians faced completely different (and no doubt less daunting) challenges, creation of an alternative structure was done with no little success by the Egyptian national movement through the Wafd Party during the years after 1919 and until Egypt gained its nominal independence in 1922. The Indian independence movement did it even more successfully via the Congress Party during the same period and afterward. Denied access to the levers of state power, and denied full representative government, both national movements broke decisively with the British and created alternative sources of legitimacy. In both cases, this approach was successful in achieving major concessions, including aspects of representative government and commitments to self-determination.

This is a crucial question, to which we will return as part of an analysis of Palestinian critiques in the late 1920s and early 1930s of the approach followed by the Palestinian leadership, which was dominated by traditional elites, or notables, of refusing to separate themselves from the British until they had no choice, and by then it was probably too late. There is ample illustration of this tendency in the minutes of the many meetings between Palestinian delegations and British officials. A plaintive, almost piteous, tone emerges from the statements of Palestinian representatives. Their legalistic arguments for independence, sovereignty, and representative government, often grounded in Article 4 of the League of Nations Covenant, which referred to Palestine as ‘independent,’ were constantly tuned aside by patronizing British officials. In spite of facing this unyielding stonewall of British rejection of their national claims, and indeed of their national existence, these Palestinian notables were for far too long unable to find a means to disentangle themselves and their people from the legal and constitutional constraints that Great Britain had forged for them. They could never get out of the iron cage fashioned by their British masters.”

“The British colonial undertaking in Palestine did not begin from a tabula rasa, even if the unique ingredient of Zionism made it an unprecedented experiment of sorts. Very little that Great Britain did in Palestine, or in any other colony, mandate, possession, or sphere of influence, was without a referent to its rich colonial heritage, notably in India and Ireland. In particular, the colonial practices that British officials brought to bear in the different parts of the far-flung empire they controlled were profoundly inflected by hundreds of years of experience accumulated by the British governing classes in ruling over the Irish and the Indians. Historian Roger Owen has deftly shown how the regime Lord Cromer imposed from the early 1880s onward on one of Britain’s most important possessions, Egypt, was patterned largely on the system he had earlier helped run in India as an assistant to his cousin, the viceroy Lord Northbrook, and a later viceroy, Lord Ripon. The same was true for Palestine, mutatis mutandis, and there are plentiful examples of similar borrowings elsewhere in the British imperial experience, such as replication of some of the forms of indirect rule practiced in some parts of the British Indian empire in the Persian/Arabian Gulf region and in British West Africa.

Similarly, in dealing with nationalist movements among the Indians, the Palestinians, and others, British politicians and officials were deeply imbued with what they took to be the lessons of their lengthy and unpleasant experiences with Irish nationalism (needless to say, these experiences were mutually unpleasant, and indeed undoubtedly more unpleasant for the Irish).”

“Certain Palestinian and Egyptian nationalists, for example, saw the Indian Congress Party as an exemplar during the interwar period, and there was often cooperation between nationalists from different colonial possessions abroad.

The cases of Ireland, India, and Palestine, three countries ruled by Britain and which all ultimately suffered bloody twentieth century partitions heavy with consequences for their later history, furnish a number of general lessons about how colonial powers maintained control of populations characterized by deep internal divisions. These examples provide a particularly illuminating comparative perspective on the history not only of countries that were colonized by Great Britain, but also of those ruled by other colonial powers. Notably, the other great colonial power of this period, France, assiduously applied lessons learned in its North and West African and Southeast Asian colonies, protectorates, and possessions before World War I to the mandates that it acquired after the war in Syria and Lebanon. As elsewhere in its colonial empire, French rule in the latter two possessions was based on a reductive representation of the colonized societies as primitive or backward, but especially their representation in religious terms, and their control through the manipulation, modification, and often even construction of religious, ethnic, and other identities.

One of the most notable results of the manipulation of religious identities was the creation of ‘Greater Lebanon,’ which became the modern state of Lebanon, out of Mount Lebanon and its environs. Mount Lebanon had a long history of the involvement of Western powers, notably France and Britain, in support of the latter’s local clients. Over time, its mainly Maronite (a mainly Lebanese Christian sect in communion with Rome) ruling strata became eager to create a larger entity centered on Mount Lebanon that would include many non-Maronite areas, and would be intimately linked to France. The Sunni and Shi‘ite Muslims, Greek Orthodox, and Druze who formed the bulk of the areas thereby annexed were largely unfavorable to being included in the new Greater Lebanon, and the resulting inter communal tensions dominated much of the history of Lebanon for the rest of the twentieth century. These tensions neatly served the divide-and-rule purposes of the French colonial party. Variants of this approach were utilized with considerably less success in Syria. As we shall see, a similar approach, used extensively throughout the British Empire, was crucial to the effort in Palestine.

It is now well established that in the colonial era, one of the most crucial forms of control developed by Britain for maintaining hegemony over a vast empire with relatively modest military forces was the management, and sometimes the encouragement, or even the creation, of religious and ethnic difference. The British did this in a manner not at all dissimilar to that followed by the French in Lebanon and elsewhere. This process was often grounded in existing distinctions within the societies the British ruled over, but it frequently involved the development and refinement of these existing differences, and sometimes even the production of new ones.

Another form of imperial control involved a reliance on indigenous elites, and sometimes other social strata, to participate in structures of indirect rule. This device relieved Britain of some of its more onerous duties and responsibilities, while distributing a limited amount of power, as well as a significant degree of prestige and status. These elites could be existing aristocracies, as in the princely states in India, or invented aristocracies, as in many of the Gulf principalities. On another level, these groups could be segments of the dominated society chosen by the British for specific tasks, but rigorously restricted to those tasks and otherwise kept strictly in their place. One example was the ‘martial races’ that were utilized to help fight Britain’s wars for the empire. These included the Sikhs and Pathans of India’s North-West Frontier, the Gurkhas of Nepal, the Bedouin of the Arabian and Syrian deserts, and other groups deemed ‘virile’ enough to serve their British colonial masters in this way.”

“While refusing the notables any official standing, and frustrating their national aspirations along with those of the rest of the Palestinians, the British nevertheless treated them with a certain ostensible deference, and were careful to allow them a limited role as intermediaries for the rest of Palestinian society, as well as certain other prerequisites. This was in line with the well-established British predilection, already mentioned (and seen most spectacularly in India, but also elsewhere in the British Empire), for developing privileged relations with real or invented aristocratic elites, rather than political formations rooted in the middle classes or the mass of the people. Among the most successful means for achieving this end in Palestine was the establishment and empowering by Britain of refashioned, as well as entirely new, Islamic institutions dominated by some of these traditional notables: institutions like the shari‘a court system, the network of public charitable foundations, and the administration of Muslim holy places in Palestine.”

“Those who created the institutions of the new mandatory regime felt that as a non-Muslim power, it would be inappropriate for Britain to be seen to usurp directly these functions of the Islamic Ottoman state. So, making a virtue of necessity, they resorted to the principle of indirect rule borrowed from India, and already being implemented in other parts of the Arab world that had just come under their control, around the turn of the twentieth century and at the end of World War I. In so doing, the British architects of the mandatory regime in Palestine were operating on the basis of a worldview rooted in their earlier colonial experiences, notably in Ireland and India, with a crucial Egyptian admixture. This was a worldview that almost invariably perceived colonized societies in religious and communitarian rather than in national terms, and as profoundly divided internally rather than as potentially unified. In many ways, the most relevant parallel is to the way the British and other European observers saw Egypt. Indeed, the Egyptian example was drawn upon liberally by several of the earliest British administrators of Palestine, including Sir Ronald Storrs, Brig. Gen. Sir Gilbert Clayton, and Col. Sir Wyndham Deedes, all of whom had served extensively in Egypt, whether in the Arab Bureau, in military intelligence, or in other branches of the British regime there.”

“Indeed, at times efforts to refashion these institutions in such a manner appeared halfhearted, partly because of the inability or unwillingness of the notable leaders of the Palestinian national movement to create mass-based political groupings, along the lines of the Wafd Party in Egypt and others in the Arab countries, India, and elsewhere in the colonized world. Beyond this there was the unremitting hostility of the mufti to any institution or any individual that threatened to challenge the power and prestige of the extensive religious institutions he controlled.”

“Another problem all too rarely addressed in the literature is that beyond the generalized racism already mentioned, most contemporary British and Zionist observers, as well as other Europeans, revealed an attitude of superiority toward Arabs of all classes, ranging from casual condescension to outright contempt. In a typical example, the British colonial secretary, the haughty former viceroy of
India, Lord Curzon, is described in 1921 by the French ambassador to London as ‘admitting [later Iraqi King] Faysal’s mischievousness, but considers it common to all Orientals and thus of no importance.’

The consequence of such widespread prejudice is that what purports to be political analysis often amounts to no more than uninformed gossip. Thus a French diplomat in 1932 flatly describes ‘all the Muslim politicians in Palestine’ as venal, unprincipled, anti- European, anti-Jewish, and anti-Christian, and ready to sell both their lands and themselves at the first opportunity. While some of these accusations may have been true of some Palestinian leaders, they were certainly not true of all of them. Nevertheless, this comment gives an indication of the mind-set of many European observers, who were ignorant of the local language and remained outsiders in the societies they described, but on whose observations we are obliged in some measure to rely as sources. Finally, beyond what may have resulted from prejudice or ignorance, there was always the possibility of perfectly innocent behavior being misinterpreted, whether unintentionally or willfully, in the sources produced by these British, Zionist, and other European observers, who themselves were often active participants in the events they record.

In dealing with materials from European and Zionist archives, and generally with the observations of Europeans in this era, their conviction of Arab ‘venality’ was so strong, and the general distaste for ‘Orientals’ (a category that often included Jews) so prevalent, that one must use them with care when there is any reason to doubt a given observer’s judgment on this score. Nevertheless, such sources often contain material of great reliability and significant value.”

“The first was the growth of more radical forms of opposition to the British, based in new groupings, parties, and forms of association, such as boy-scout and other youth organizations with a nationalist or religious political orientation, the Young Men’s Muslim Association, labor unions, and professional associations. Some of these groups called for boycotting the British entirely, taking the successful tactics of the Congress Party in India as their example and demanding immediate independence.”

“The Palestinian Istiqlal Party aspired to be a mass-based political formation (although it never grew very large) that advocated an adamant anti-British and Pan-Arab stance and rejected the conciliatory approach followed by the Palestinian national movement until that point. Beyond that, according to the historian Weldon Matthews, ‘It was . . . the first Arab party in Palestine to attempt mass, public organization.’ In addition to its declaratory policy, the Istiqlal Party called for specific radical measures, such as a nationwide boycott of the mandatory administration, noncooperation with the colonial authorities, and sometimes noncompliance with their laws, along the lines advocated by the Indian Congress Party, which was a source of inspiration for it. Short-lived though it was (the party effectively ceased to exist in 1934), Istiqlal was in fact one of the only true Palestinian political parties in the full sense of that term, meaning having a clear ideology, a broad membership, and a national rather than a regional, local, or family base, which was the case of virtually all the other Palestinian parties formed in the 1930s. The party’s formation was a clear sign of the dissatisfaction of many educated young people with the uninspired and unsuccessful forms of struggle that were unvaryingly employed by the national movement’s notable leadership. Paradoxically, although ‘Abd al-Hadi, the paramount leader of the Istiqlal Party, was himself an eminent notable figure, the formation of the party constituted an expression of a social, educational, and generational divide. This divide separated most of the older Palestinian notable leaders, educated and trained under Ottomans, and who for the most part wore the red tarbush (the ‘fez’) that denoted a certain generation and class background, and a respectable status in society, from many of their younger, less-well-off followers.

The latter were brought up under the British Mandate, had received a modern education and had often learned English, were impatient with the tactics of their elders, and were at least as scornful of this earlier generation’s corruption, self-serving maneuvers, and ineffectiveness as were many outside observers. By contrast, ‘Abd al-Hadi was older, had an Ottoman education, spoke French in preference to English (though he knew both), and was in every way a patrician. His age (he was born in 1882), his training as a lawyer, his consequent involvement in business affairs, and his diffident, aloof manner, all marked him off from the younger, more radical, lower-middle- and middle-class core of the party’s membership. As we shall see, ‘Abd al-Hadi’s work as a lawyer was ultimately to expose him to damaging accusations, which in turn gravely harmed the image of the party he headed.”

Khalidi, while dealing with the issue of the French involvement in the region, has delved into the inter-war period to bring out the cultivated agency of the French in stopping funds from flowing from the North African countries to Palestine. But this was not restricted to the disallowing of funds. Even the political rivalry between the Nashashibi and the mufti of Jerusalem was capitalized on by France to influence the political scenario in Palestine. The rivalry between the two great powers - Britain and France, is one of the weakly dealt subjects in the book. As has been rightly pointed out by one reviewer (who otherwise just delivers a very pro-Israel rant in his review), the subsequent decades saw France siding with the Palestinians, something Khalidi just forgets to mention.

Citing Shaul Mishal, Avraham Sela and Richard Sale, Khalidi has also indicated how the Israel had supported the Hamas at one point, because it was a faction of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine who could weaken the peace process that the PLO was trying to initiate. While radicalism among sections of Palestinians had been there right from the outset of the conflict, as not only Khalidi’s book but even this well-researched article in the Wall Street Journal points out, the Israeli state did blunder by strengthening the radicals among the Palestinian Muslims against the moderates among them to divide the Palestinian resistance, despite warnings even from moderate Islamic clerics against the same.

The PLO, on the other hand, was led by an egocentric individual, Yasir Arafat who did not contend weakening his own position vis-à-vis the liberation movement. Khalidi gives the credit that is due to Arafat, when he united the Palestinian diaspora which numbered in millions and tried to struggle with the Arab states and gave credibility to the liberation movement after the 1967 war. Khalidi also squarely blames the PLO for its involvement in Lebanon and Iraq, where the PLO decided to side with Iraq with disastrous consequences.

The language of the book has seldom been provocative although it is a highly charged commentary into the heart of the Israel-Palestine conflict. It is appropriate that the book gives agency to the Palestinians after such a long while, which they were desperately in need of. The Iron Cage is not only the illustration of the struggle that the Palestinians have had to face, but an act of solidarity, other than highlighting that there have indeed been grave mistakes and acts of violence on the part of the Palestinians, and the book evocates how these acts have not transformed their fate and have pushed them further into a corner where they can claim no right to be free.  As Khalidi says-

“It seems clear that in the decades since 1948 the Palestinians have been plagued by some of the same problems that afflicted them before that date. It is an open question whether examining past failures might help to prevent future ones, on the theory that there is a link between those structures and forces, internal and external that operated in the past to hinder Palestinian self-determination, and those at work today. Either way—whether external forces or internal Palestinian weaknesses (or a combination of both) have prevented the establishment of an independent Palestinian state—a final question remains: Is statehood the destined outcome for a people who, since the early part of the twentieth century had a clearly defined national identity but who have been unable to develop lasting, viable structural forms for it, or to control a national territory in which it can be exercised?”

Khalidi also suggests that the change of regimes and political representatives alone will not bring about a change in the fate of the Palestinians, nor will resorting to violence against innocent Israeli civilians.

The political structures Arafat was largely responsible for creating, while they mirrored aspects of other patriarchal regimes and political movements in the modern Arab world, also closely reflected his personal characteristics, notably in terms of his indomitable desire to be in charge.”

“A linked failure was the inability of the PLO leadership to understand the limits of violence. This produced the strategic incoherence that resulted from, on the one hand, accepting a two-state solution and renouncing violence in 1988, but not, on the other, drawing the logical conclusion that what was necessary was the reeducation of the Palestinians away from armed struggle and toward a whole new approach of unarmed mass popular struggle.”

“Whatever the case, there was at the very least a lack of clarity in the Fateh/PLO/PA camp about the limits of violence, and in consequence a strategic incoherence in the Palestinian position: if the Palestinians wanted to make peace with Israel within its 1967 frontiers, why were militant Palestinian groups killing Israeli civilians within these borders? If the problem was the occupation (and not the existence of Israel itself) why was the occupation itself not the sole target of Palestinian attacks? One did not have to be aiming at discrediting the Palestinians to ask such questions, and indeed they were increasingly asked by Palestinians as the intifada wore on and produced significantly more devastating results for Palestinian society than for Israel. This popular dissatisfaction played a considerable role in persuading all the Palestinian militant groups to radically scale down their attacks inside Israel proper from late 2004 onward, and in pushing Hamas, ever sensitive to the popular mood, to accept joining in the PA electoral process that it had always spurned. The question remained: why was it that it took popular disapproval in the wake of ferocious repression to convince those leading the armed struggle to desist? Where were Palestinian leaders when they were most needed? These are questions that have recurred in modern Palestinian history, in the late 1930s, the 1970s and 1980s, and now at the beginning of the twenty-first century. They bespeak serious structural problems in the Palestinian national movement that clearly are still unresolved.”

“It is hoped that these forms (the new political alternatives) will be more imaginative, more comprehensive, and more effective than those that have gone before, and that they will produce a more successful leadership.”

Unfortunately, by still refusing to recognise Israel (even if accepting the 1967 borders for the time-being), the Hamas refuses to meet the aspirations of Khalidi and other progressive, peace-loving Palestinians. The Israeli state too continues to disappoint with its policy of settlements. Interestingly, even President Donald Trump of the United States has joined his predecessors in condemning this Israeli policy of settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories (though less strongly and despite his having appointed a personally pro-settlement person as US ambassador to Israel), as has, as mentioned earlier, the Modi government in India. Atal Behari Vajpayee, when he was foreign minister, had also condemned this policy in a landmark speech in the United Nations.

Karmanye Thadani

The author would like to thank his friend Suvankur Sukul for his inputs. The views expressed, however, are to be attributed only to the author.

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