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Resisting Israel's occupation

Review by Aaron Hess | December 8, 2006 | Page 9

Rashid Khalidi, The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood. Beacon Press, 2006, 352 pages, 24.95.

ISRAEL'S WAR on the Palestinian people--fully backed by Washington--escalated to a terrifying new level after Palestinians voted for a new government last January.

The vote for Hamas to head the Palestinian legislature represented a rejection of a chimerical U.S.- and Israeli-controlled "peace process" that has led to greater Israeli power over Palestinians' land and lives.

More than half of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza today live in poverty, imprisoned by an elaborate matrix of Israeli control--curfews and checkpoints, "targeted" assassinations and jailings, house demolitions and bombardment. U.S.-backed international sanctions have crippled basic infrastructure.

The severity of the crisis has renewed debate among activists and scholars about the lessons to be learned from the history of the Palestinian struggle. Rashid Khalidi's new book, The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood, is an important contribution to this debate.

The strongest sections of the book demonstrate how powerful the forces opposed to the Palestinian statehood have always been. Khalidi rightly identifies Zionism--the ideology of an exclusivist Jewish state--as a form of "settler-colonialism." From its beginnings, the Zionist movement collaborated with imperial powers--first Britain, then the U.S.--to build a new nation-state aimed at displacing and excluding the Palestinian Arab majority.

The "iron cage" is an apt metaphor for the subjugation of Palestinians under settler-colonial rule. The first walls of the cage were built by Britain, which designed an international legal framework in 1922, the British Mandate, to control historic Palestine.

Racism was thoroughly imbedded in British plans for Palestine. Khalidi cites a 1919 memo written by British Foreign Secretary Balfour stating, "Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-old traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far greater import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit this ancient land."

The British empire brought its time-tested experience of colonial rule--in Ireland, India, Egypt and beyond--to bear in Palestine. The British strategy of divide-and-conquer included co-opting elite collaborators, including former nationalists like Hajj Amin al-Huysayni, to run communal and Islamic religious institutions with little or no precedent in Palestinian history.
"[T]hose leading Palestinian figures who accepted such posts were obliged to refrain from openly opposing the Mandate, its commitment to support a Jewish national home, and the concomitant denial of Palestinian self-determination," Khalidi explains.

But while the wealthy Palestinian elite tied their fate to British power, peasants and workers organized resistance in the 1920s and '30s. Khalidi discusses popular radical newspapers like Filastin ("Palestine" in Arabic), which argued that the anti-colonial struggle had to be built on revolt from below--publishing articles with titles like, "Whoever humiliates the worker, humiliates the nation."

In 1936, a massive general strike and campaign of armed resistance shook British rule to its core. Khalidi quotes a British military commander in August 1938: "The situation was such that civil administration of the country was, to all practical purposes, non-existent."

The revolt was only broken with massive violence, with Britain deploying 20,000 troops--"over 10 percent of the adult male population was killed, wounded, imprisoned or exiled," Khalidi writes. He also argues that this defeat was aided by the intervention of Arab states and Palestinian elites, who put themselves at the head of the struggle only to thwart its militancy.

The defeat of the 1936-39 revolt fragmented Palestinian society, weakening its ability to resist the Zionist militias' 1948 war of terror, which drove 750,000 Palestinians from their land and laid the basis for the foundation of Israel as an apartheid state.

The Iron Cage is not a primer on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but its focus on the politics and leadership of the Palestinian movement will be accessible to readers familiar with the conflict's basic history.

The last two chapters assess on the internal strengths and weaknesses of the Palestinian movement since the mid-1960s. Unfortunately, Khalidi's incisive critique of the role of elites in the pre-1948 struggle doesn't fully carry over to his discussion of Fatah and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

Khalidi rightly argues that widespread hopes in the PLO to win Palestinian statehood were misplaced, due to its failure to effectively confront the "rejectionist stand of Israel and the U.S." This failure culminated in the 1993 Oslo accords, which consigned the Palestinians to 22 percent of historic Palestine and tasked the PLO-led Palestinian Authority with policing Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza.

"[L]ong before Oslo," Khalidi writes, "indeed as early as the 1970s in Lebanon, the PLO had become bureaucratized, and in this process became more and more of a quasi-state and less and less of a national liberation movement."

Khalidi places the weight of his critique of the PLO on personalities, such as its former chair Yasser Arafat, and the tactical failures of their leadership. This emphasis overlooks the deeper class allegiances that led Fatah and the PLO to reject popular struggle, ally with Arab rulers and place the preservation of their own power above the liberation struggle.

Like the 1936-39 revolt, the Palestinian intifadas, or uprisings, of 1987 and 2000 demonstrated the potential of mass mobilization to shake the "iron cage" and challenge the PLO's strategy of compromise. But Khalidi's focus on the practicality of PLO leadership decisions leads him to ignore dissident left-wing currents in the movement and to endorse some of the PLO's key concessions, including the abandonment of a secular, democratic state in favor of a "two-state" solution--a solution he recognizes may now be impossible given the massive expansion of Israeli settlements.

The PLO's and Fatah's corruption, aversion to mass struggle and bureaucratized organization aren't incidental but are a result of their alignment with the Palestinian business elite and Arab rulers in neighboring countries. This has time and again isolated the movement from its real allies--the millions of Arab workers and peasants who identify the struggle with their own aspirations for democracy, workers' rights and land reform.

Khalidi's book demonstrates the resilience of the Palestinian struggle for liberation against formidable odds. Only a movement that bridges this struggle with that of workers and the poor across the Middle East can break the iron cage of imperialism and colonial dispossession.

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