Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Under Siege: P.L.O. Decisionmaking in the 1982 War, by Rashid Khalidi

Rashid Khalidi is an academic and author. He is a professor at Columbia University, and his works include "Palestinian Identity" (1998), "Resurrecting Empire" (2004), and most recently "The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood" (2006).

When examining the 1982 war in Lebanon, there are many different aspects that one can study. Books have been written explaining Israeli motives for the invasion, analyzing the international reaction, studying American intervention, and debating the war’s impact on Lebanese society. In writing Under Siege, Rashid Khalidi attempts to fill a gap in the scholarship by focusing on the P.L.O. Khalidi’s personal experience and sympathies are a part of his narrative – he lived in Beirut during the summer of 1982 as a witness to the siege. In describing the situation of the P.L.O., Khalidi utilizes and contributes to a narrative that juxtaposes victim and aggressor, and his sympathies clearly lie first with the Palestinian people and second with their sometimes misled liberation organization. In his preface, he dedicates his book to those who gave their lives in “defense of the cause of Palestine and the independence of Lebanon.”

The Israeli invasion and the siege of Beirut were a high-water mark of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and was a military, political, and diplomatic showdown between Israel and the P.L.O. In the introduction to his work, published in 1986, Rashid Khalidi states that “few Lebanese or Palestinians have had the chance to record their view of events in 1982.” These views, and Khalidi’s, reject the narrative that Israel invaded, surrounded, and forced the P.L.O. to flee Lebanon in something approximating a Palestinian surrender. “It is wrong to assume that… Israel’s defeat of their forces… [meant] that the P.L.O. was summarily forced to leave, with the only question ever at issue being when and how.” A large part of his work is devoted to showing the P.L.O. as an actor in the events, rather than a group that was acted upon.

The research done by Rashid Khalidi is important to understand, because he uses it in his attempt to exonerate the P.L.O. from failure. By relying on primary sources from within the P.L.O. and Beirut, he accomplishes two tasks: first, he portrays the Organization's internal discourse on the issues facing it; and second, he legitimizes the P.L.O. by offering a broadly uncritical view of their documentation. Using unpublished Palestinian material and asserting its credibility on par with other sources (and sometimes exceeding Israeli documentation in credibility), Khalidi places his own sympathies within the narrative provided by the P.L.O. documentation. His selective use of secondary sources, especially Israeli sources and others from the Israeli-American side, suggests that he may be more concerned with the credibility of the side, rather than the source.

This book’s success is its portrayal of the P.L.O. both as the Organization saw itself, and as it wished to be seen by the international community. Khalidi wrote this book in the aftermath of the 1982 war, at a time when Israel seemed ascendant and the Palestinians defeated; their movement in exile, their people massacred in camps. Under Siege: P.L.O. Decisionmaking During the 1982 War reads like an exoneration, and this seems almost intentionally ‘unintentional’: that when documenting an exiled, besieged, outnumbered and isolated revolutionary movement, one can’t help but come to their defense. Ultimately, Khalidi needs to convince people that history will deliver an apologia for the Palestinian movement, rather than an epilogue.


Zach said...

Thank you to Devi, who corrected my original post. I had mis-stated that Rashid Khalidi was on faculty at the University of Chicago.

John said...

Good stuff! A nice, critical piece. Somehow, Khalidi eludes all the kind of criticisms that other, non-Arab positivist type historians get for the way in which they relate to archival evidence. People were quick to criticze Benny Morris for not relying on Arab sources (which are in any case hardly accessible to researchers) and they rejected his reliance on the Israeli State archives and the IDF archives, but when Khalidi does the same thing using Palestinian records, it's ok. The man is a nationalist historian in the service of a cause - were he an Israeli or a Jew, no Middle Eastern Studies scholar would take him seriously.

BTW, I'm sure you know this, but there was a small omission in your opening paragraph. Khalidi was not only a witness to the siege in 1982 - he also happens to be the scion of a famous, Palestinian notable family from Jerusalem. His book Palestinian Identity is in fact a celebration of his ancestors and sanctifies them as early Palestinian nationalists.

Zach said...

Thanks John, I really appreciate the comment.
It's interesting that you compare Khalidi and Morris.
Morris' "Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem 1947-1949" is a landmark piece in its use of Israeli documentation to propose a new perspective on those formative years of the conflict. But unlike Khalidi, Morris wasn't writing an activist appeal to the world, rather he was writing an expose for Israelis themselves, who for too long langored in delusions and myths about the birth of their nation.

John said...

Well, yeah, that is definitely his thing: to bust illusions and myth making. To deflate fluff. It seems to make him pretty happy, too. He's actually my thesis advisor these days and, you're right, he is fundamentally averse to activist writing.