<<< Previous | Main | Tags | Next >>>

Recently read: The Iron Cage

[Originally published at the now defunct group blog explananda.com]

Posted on January 6, 2009
Tags: book_reviews

Rashid Khalidi. The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood

The story of Palestinian dispossession and statelessness begins in the transfer of Palestine from the Ottoman Empire to the British in the aftermath of World War I. The terms of the League of Nations mandate under which the British assumed responsibility for the territory encouraged the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” but in the same breath warned that “nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

How exactly these aspirations came to find expression in the space of a single sentence, let alone a single document purporting to articulate a workable plan for the territory, is not clear. In 1922 the Jewish population of Palestine was a little under 10% of the total. Even in the 1930s, after the waves of immigration to Palestine that followed Hitler’s rise, and the shutting of other borders around the world to Jews (including, to their eternal discredit, those of the U.S. and Canada), the Jewish share of the population remained about a third of the total. This move to establish a national home for a single minority was hardly welcome to what the terms of the Mandate delicately refer to as the “non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” And indeed, it was clear to less myopic Zionists that, given the natural resistance of the then current inhabitants of Palestine, the establishment of such a national home would eventually require the mass “transfer”—ethnic cleansing—of a significant portion of that population. This is exactly what later happened when war broke out in response to the founding of Israel after WW II.

The stage was set for tragedy early, then, with a mix of desperate Jewish refugees fleeing antisemitic persecution in Europe, in search of a national home for which there was now some plausible basis in international law; British colonialism, with all its stupidity, mismanagement, double dealing, and arrogance; and the growing nationalism of the Palestinian people out of the old political order of the Ottoman Empire.

Rashid Khalidi’s superb Iron Cage examines this tragedy, with a special focus on the many causes of enduring Palestinian statelessness, past and present. It is a remarkable work, characterized by moral sophistication and a refusal to settle for simplistic narratives. Khalidi is acutely aware that the Palestinians faced considerable odds from the start in their own struggle for national rights. The influence of the British, the Arab nations, and then later the U.S., as a staunch and deeply biased supporter of Israel, has deeply disadvantaged the Palestinians in their struggle for recognition as a people deserving a national home of their own. It is impossible to understand the Palestinian predicament without grasping the larger forces acting against them throughout their troubled history.

But Khalidi is also motivated by a respect for Palestinian agency, which means an insistence on treating the Palestinians as always more than passive victims of events that befall them. Although facing very long odds, Khalidi argues cogently, Palestinian leadership during the Mandate period failed, among other things, to develop the state or para-state capacities which would have served it well in the coming confrontation with Israel. Many of the failings of the Palestinian Authority after Oslo were continuous with this original failure to prepare in a serious way for the eventual responsibilities of statehood. Subsequent Palestinian responses to Israel were often incoherent on the uses and limitations of political violence, and deeply ambivalent about the shape of a final settlement that might be both plausible and acceptable. A discussion of the successes and failures of Arafat, and the dismal mess made of things by the Oslo Accords rounds out Khalidi’s remarkably balanced treatment of this subject.

A final word about the author might be in order. For those who have short memories, Rashid Khalidi was recently the target of some vicious rhetoric during John McCain’s recent Presidential bid. Having finally gotten around to reading Khalidi’s book, I now think that McCain couldn’t have chosen a less appropriate target in his attempt to smear Obama by association.


Author: Aaron
Date: 2009-01-06

Although facing very long odds, Khalidi argues cogently, Palestinian leadership during the Mandate period failed, among other things, to develop the state or para-state capacities which would have served it well in the coming confrontation with Israel.

At risk asking questions that will be answered if I read the book…. I was of the impression that during the mandate the British tried to keep the Palestinians out of the urban centers, which would diminish their exposure to the mechanics of a modern nation state. It’s not that hard to see how largely uneducated rural Palestinians who were used to living in a feudal society and, perhaps, organizing by village would not be positioned or inclined to develop “state or para-state capacities”. That said, no doubt, that was a long time ago and the track record of groups like the PLO/Fatah on nation building is not impressive.

Author: Chris
Date: 2009-01-07

I can’t recall if Khalidi discusses specifically trying to keep Palestinians out of urban centres. But he makes very clear that the British worked hard to prevent the emergence of state capacities in all kinds of ways (allowing political participation, including resistance to the mandate, only on the condition of accepting the terms of the mandate; refusing a representative parliament; co-opting notables from the community; etc.). But then again, the British worked hard to prevent the development of state capacities in India too, with somewhat less success. The question is not whether the Palestinians faced a deeply unfair set of obstacles to nationhood, but whether errors of their own contributed to making a bad situation worse.