In chapter one of The Iron Cage, Rashid Khalidi sets the stage for the premise of his book, by examining the conflicting evidence of the Palestinians’ plight. In order to do so, the narrative begins in 1948, following the eviction of more than half of the Arab Palestinian population as a result of the Arab – Israel conflict of that year. Khalidi goes on to enumerate a few of the respective differing Arab and Israel accounts of how it was that a people that once constituted the majority of the population of a land, became the minority.
Revisionist Israeli historians have attempted to debunk traditional accounts that absolve Israel of any wrongdoing, such as the notion that Palestinians attacked the yishuv first, by looking at the newly opened Israeli, American, and British archives. Although Khalidi is appreciative of the latest attempts of objectivity, the author goes on to claim that Israeli revisionists continue to provide shortsighted narratives, because of an inability to incorporate Arab sources to the reinterpretations.
Furthermore, Khalidi castigates Arab interpretations of the conflict as well, by noting the over emphasis they put on external causes, such as the superiority of the Israeli armed forces, or the alliance between Israel and Transjordan. Although Khalidi noticeably acknowledges many of the claims from both sides, his conclusion is nevertheless, that not enough attention has been paid to the internal reasons why Palestine as a nation has failed. The waning pages of the first chapter moreover, are devoted to discrediting attempts to compare Palestinians and Israelis on an even keel.
The reader is presented with factual evidence that makes the case that the yishuv, because of external backing from Zionists and the British, held a comparative advantage over Palestinians. Subsequently, Palestinians whom by and large resided in sporadic settlements, developed weaker and less cohesive military and economic structures then their nascent counterparts. Khalidi ends the chapter by stating that in spite of the striking inequalities between the Palestinians and Israelis, Palestinians were by and large better positioned to succeed as a nation, than many of their fellow neighboring Arab countries.
Thus, in chapter one, Khalidi gears the reader to find out how weak political and social mobilization was the downfall of the Palestinian people. Chapter two of the Iron Cage gives the reader a glimpse of the immediate aftermath following World War I. Great Britain in concordance with the League of Nations, issued the Mandate for Palestine, which essentially carved up most of the Middle East into the states that make up the region today. Included in the Mandate was the vitally important Balfour Declaration, effectively pronouncing the creation of a “national home” for Jewish people in Palestine.
Consequently, the declaration to the detriment of the Palestinians, denied the people the rights to self-determination and political representation. To add insult to injury, Palestinian leadership, during its various attempts to negotiate for autonomy, was forced to acquiesce to Israeli/Zionist hegemony, before negotiation could even begin. The fact that a Jewish population constituting only 10% of the total population, could reign over an overwhelming majority (90 %), struck dissenters as both blatantly undemocratic, and in direct contrast to the self-determination clause of article 4 of the Covenant of League of Nations.
Great Britain realized that some form of social and state control would be necessary to calm the Palestinians, and so reverted to colonial pseudo-structures to ease the opposition. Novel institutions, such as the Grand Mufti and the Supreme Muslim Council were subsequently created. Clerics became figureheads in the community giving the Palestinians the appearance that they were in fact being represented. Unfortunately for most Palestinians, the people positioned in power served as a facade, because people such as Hajj Amin al-Husayni served the interests of the British and Zionists first and foremost, and thereafter Palestinian needs.
Eventually, even al-Husayni could not ignore the disaffection of the situation, and he too dissented, by joining the ranks of dissidents opposing the British backed Zionist regime. Khalidi appropriately begins chapter three, by picking up where chapter two left off- highlighting the infectiveness of the Palestinian leadership. Early on in the chapter, the importance of factionalism within the leadership takes precedence, and the two prominent groups of the time are denoted: al-Husayni and al-Nashashibi.
Khalidi goes onto give background on the two competing factions, and the reader learns that both parties had previous ties to the ruling political apparatus of the former Ottoman Empire. Unabashedly, both parties vied for power, because of their inherent belief of superiority to that of the average Palestinian. Playing right into the British and Zionist hands, the divide can conquer technique of pinning the leadership against each other, denied an effective campaign to be waged that could counter the status quo.
Safe to say, the leaders of the Palestinian opposition were riddled by bribes and back room deals, which essentially made them quintessential puppets that could easily be controlled. Furthermore, Palestinian leadership largely functioned under a modus operandi, based upon wishful thinking, believing the British/Zionist movement would suddenly come to its senses and return the land to Palestinians. The failure of the Palestinian leadership, due to its inane top down approach, eventually sparked a reaction that ignited the rise of grass-root dissident groups like the Istiqlal Party.
Although ultimately ineffective, the Istiqlal party was the first consorted Palestinian political group to provide a beacon of hope for the masses. In Chapter four, Khalidi emphasizes the significance of both the 1936-39 revolts, and the war that took place in 1948. In 1936 a Palestinian led strike took place, which boycotted “British and Zionist-controlled parts of the economy. ” The strike was followed by an armed revolt that accomplished British withdrawal from important cities. The initial Palestinian victories however were short lived, because yet again, Palestinians lacked strong political and military structures.
The Arab resistance brought with it harsh repercussions, because British forces retaliated by “blowing up homes, destroying crops, and executions. ” Moreover, Palestinian leadership was thrown into further disarray, because of deaths and formed splits, among those committed to continuing the fight, and others who wanted to submit. The Jewish minority emboldened by the fragile Arab position, took advantage by expanding the “Jewish economic sector, as well as strengthening Zionist military formations. The British despite repelling the threat, realized that a change in Palestinian policy was perhaps necessary, and so opted to negotiate. The issuance of a document known as the White Paper, said to give concessions to the Palestinians was offered, yet the Mufti ultimately rejected it. Khalidi notes the significance of the rejection, as perhaps being the last chance for the negotiation of a reasonable settlement. The Decade that ensued brought with it an increased Israeli sovereignty. Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies increased Jewish migration to Palestine, and emboldened the Zionist movement even further.
Realizing that Great Britain was an Empire on its way down, Zionist’s like David Ben-Gurion began alignments with the ascending empire- the United States. Proceeding Great Brittan’s release from responsibility of the Palestine land, U. N Resolution 181 was passed, which officially tipped the favor in Israel’s hands. Legitimated by the U. S. Russia, and the other major victors of WWII, the state of Israel was born. The 1948 war shortly ensued, when Palestinians Arabs feeling wronged by the decision, revolted and attacked the Jews.
For the same reasons reiterated throughout the paper (weak political and military leadership), Palestinian Arabs lost the fight, and this time were displaced into refugee camps throughout the aggregate Middle East. The war with Israel by and large eclipsed the last of the old Palestinian vanguard, and the only solace that can be taken, is that from the displaced diaspora, the leadership for the next generation emerged. Chapter five hones in on the new leadership that arose following the Arab-Israel War of 1948. Special emphasis is put on the renowned former leader of the Palestinian people Yasser Arafat.
Arafat changed the face of Palestinian politics by moving away from the former power structure that centered on older men in traditional attire, to a younger militant leadership dressed in short sleeved shirts. Khalidi characterized Arafat as an indomitable man, whose life was centered around politics until his death in 2004. Arafat’s success was linked to his ability to establish himself as the unequivocal leader of the Palestinians. Arafat’s preeminence as a politician was so monolithic, that even during old age, he “possessed superior political skills then his colleagues in Fateh, PLO, and PA leaderships.
Ironically enough, despite Arafat’s efforts to bring a cohesive voice to the plight of the Palestinians, like so many of his predecessors, Arafat fell short. Khalidi points out that Fateh and the PLO alike, were just as “rudderless” as the leadership that had come before them. Furthermore, Arafat and the PLO’s base of opposition were relegated to foreign soils, which further hindered an interconnected struggle. Khalidi puts weight on this notion as possibly being the reason why the leadership remained inherently weak.
Yasser Arafat for example, a man who lived most of his life in exile, jumped from one country to another, setting up sporadic pockets of resistance, but hardly ever any sort of consolidated effort. The ill effects of not having a solid base were showcased during times of formal negotiations (Oslo), when Palestinians’ inability to negotiate properly were made obvious. Khalidi notes that despite years of the Palestinian leadership claiming the right of a Palestinian state, when given chances to argue the claim, the leadership proved incompetent at doing so.
Again, Khalidi drives home the point that Palestinians were unable to successfully exercise their agency. The final chapter of the Iron Cage is basically a reiteration on everything the preceding five chapters touched on. Khalidi culminates his argument, by restating how the Palestinians lack of strong leadership; coupled with the inability to build up state structures, were their Achilles heels. The author goes back and breaks down the significant events that paved the way for the current crisis; beginning with the advent of the British and Zionists.
Interestingly enough, prior to their arrival, native inhabitants of Palestine (including Jews) had “little interest in what state ruled over them. ” The latter statement is there foretelling telling, because it signifies that inculcation for the necessity of a Jewish state, was a recent phenomenon implemented by the Zionists. Unfortunately, Arab Palestinians failed to see the idea as an imminent threat, and thus how their predicament began. Khalidi then goes onto mention the importance of adopting the two-state solution.
After years of Palestinians holding onto the unrealistic belief that ridding the Jewish Zionist state (especially once it had already formally become a state) was a possibility, they wisely conceded the popular alternative measure. Unfortunately, even when the Palestinians compromised their beliefs, they still came away with very little. The Oslo Accords illustrate the case in point, by exemplifying how when negotiations were taking place, Israel simultaneously put in place laws and structures that added to their control of the occupied areas.
Lastly, the final theme Khalidi touched on was the growing notion of a one state solution. Because a two state solution arguably contradicts the idea of the Jewish homeland, the only alternative is for the states to some how live harmoniously side-by-side. A farfetched notion offhand, Khalidi nevertheless suggests that the rising Palestinian population is not going to diminish anytime soon, and therefore it is in Israel’s best interest to do so. After reading the Iron Cage, I found myself more in tuned with a conflict that makes headline news on an almost daily basis.
The suffering of the Palestinians when put under the context of Khalidi’s thesis, made the book that much more of an interesting read- because of the ability to disperse culpability to both sides involved. Unfortunately however, once reality sets in, one often becomes compelled to pick one side over the other. Therefore, with the latter said in mind, my final judgment is that even though Palestinians have proven to fail miserably as statesmen, it does not justify the plunders inflicted upon them, by the more dominant powers that have taken, and continue to take advantage over them.