Why Is There an Israel-Palestine Conflict in the First Place?

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Today, we see children killed in Gaza by Israeli airstrikes, but anyone who gets their understanding of the Israel-Palestine conflict from news reports lacks the context necessary to make sense of the horrors they are seeing. To understand why there is an Israel-Palestine conflict today, we have to go back a hundred years to see what Palestine was like before the state of Israel was established and how things changed.

Joining us to explain the background of the conflict is one of the leading historians on the region, Professor Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University. He is the author of The Hundred Years' War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917–2017, edits the Journal of Palestine Studies, and in the 90s served as an advisor to the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid and Washington Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. Prof. Khalidi's book is essential reading for anyone who wants to know where modern-day Israel and Palestine came from in the first place.

Among topics discussed:

  • What Palestine was like in the early 1900s, when the Arab population of Palestine was about 95% and political Zionism was a long way from achieving its objective of establishing a state
  • How 19th and early 20th century Zionist leaders understood that establishing a Jewish state in Palestine would necessarily involve a project of ethnic cleansing, because of the region's overwhelming Arab majority
  • How Prof. Khalidi's own Palestinian great-great-great uncle, who served as mayor of Jerusalem, personally pleaded with Theodor Herzl (father of political Zionism) in the early 1900s to "leave Palestine alone" rather than establishing the Jewish state there
  • How Palestinian resistance to the original establishment of Israel is misunderstood to this day: it wasn't a product of irrational anti-Semitism, but a response to being dispossessed and not granted the right of self-determination
  • The myth that Palestinians have rejected fair offers of statehood and are the architects of their own misfortune
  • Golda Meir's infamous statement that there "was no such thing as Palestinians," and the argument that Palestinian national identity is a contemporary construct. In fact, both Palestinian and Israeli national identities are recent, as is the nation-state form itself
  • The project of "memoricide": Israel's deliberate efforts to erase the memory of what Palestine was like in the years prior to Zionist colonization and frame the Palestinian resistance to dispossession as aggressive and terroristic
  • Why the establishment of Israel was similar to (and different from) other kinds of colonialism, and the way colonial projects always treat indigenous populations as irrational, violent, backward, and in need of removal
  • How changes in U.S. political opinion are essential if Palestinians are ever going to receive the right to self-determination

The Israel-Palestine conflict is often treated as complicated. In fact, Prof. Khalidi argues, it is not very complicated at all: it is precisely the kind of conflict that can be expected to arise when a colonial project tries to displace a country's native inhabitants and denies them equal rights.

Prof. Khalidi mentions Nathan's experience at the Guardian, which is discussed here. Discussion of the shooting of peaceful Palestinian protesters in 2018 can be found here.

Map of Palestine before the project of expelling, dispossessing, and occupying Palestinians had succeeded, taken from Before Their Diaspora: A Photographic History of the Palestinians 1876-1948

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