Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Dr. Ahmad Samih Khalidi discusses the Israel-Gaza conflict

Dr. Ahmad Samih Khalidi provides a Palestinian voice on the Israel-Gaza conflict
Ana Pietrewicz

On Tuesday, Oct. 24, the University of Massachusetts welcomed Dr. Ahmad Samih Khalidi, an associate fellow at the Global Fellowship Initiative of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, for a discussion titled “A Palestinian Perspective on the Israel-Gaza Conflict.”

The talk is the first of two discussions sponsored by the Judaic and Near East Studies department, “with the intent of providing thoughtful context that can facilitate understanding and dialogue around the current Israel-Gaza war.”

These talks are taking place in the midst of an ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, following an assault by the Gaza-based militant group on Oct. 7 that killed over 1,400 Israelis, and ensuing Israeli airstrikes that killed over 8,000 Palestinians.

The talk on Tuesday was conducted in a question-answer format, with David Mednicoff, the department chair of Middle Eastern Studies and a professor of public policy, moderating the first half. The second half of the discussion was opened to attendees as a general Q&A.

“I’m a Palestinian patriot… but I’m also a human being”

Dr. Khalidi, born in Beirut in 1948, began by describing his family’s 900-year history in Jerusalem’s Old City and their engagement in “defending Palestinian rights,” for the past century. He described the defeat of Arab armies in the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and a coalition of Arab states as a “moment of awakening,” for Palestinians including himself as a young man.

During his studies in England, Khalidi “came across various Jewish groups,” who helped inform his knowledge of the conflict. He later participated in talks with various Israeli, American, European and Jewish groups. This led him to join the delegation at the Madrid Conference in 1991.

Khalidi says his experience taught him that “talk is not enough,” without the political will of leaders, whom he feels have “failed with the people.”

Khalidi said he could not “offer any solace to those traumatized by the events or suggest that things are going to get much better in the near future.”

“I am a Palestinian and I believe I’m a Palestinian patriot… but I’m also a human being. And I’m a human being before being a Palestinian,” Khalidi said.

He continued, stating that “Hamas’ targeting and killing of civilians was wrong.” He described his unequivocal belief that the killing of innocent people is unjustifiable, regardless of what Israel has done, and that “this is not the right path to freedom and liberation.”

Khalidi questioned, however, whether the redress lies “in retribution and blind vengeance… At what point should one say that Israel has done enough in extracting the price for its loss? At what point does one say that 2,100 children killed so far by the Israeli assault balance the Israeli dead?”

“I really have no time for the mystic squabbles over proportionality or the laws of war,” Khalidi said. “Proportionality is not just a matter of law, it’s a matter of basic humanity.”

Khalidi pointed out others believe “that Palestinian Arab lives are of lesser value than others,” and that, as King Abdullah of Jordan stated, “the message that the Arab world is hearing is loud and clear… Palestinian lives matter less than other lives.”

The conflict’s impact beyond Gaza and Israel 

Khalidi characterized Gaza as “the incubator” of the conflict. He contextualized that 2.2 million people live in an area roughly the size of Detroit, in conditions characterized by collapsing infrastructure and scarcity of water and space. He said that 75 percent of residents are either refugees from the 1948 war or their descendants — 70 percent of whom are under 25 years-old.

In 1948, Nakba refugees from southern Palestinian villages and farms filled Gaza. Some of them later tried to reclaim their lands from the Israeli settlers who overtook them. According to Israeli historian Benny Morris, who Khalidi cited, about 5,000 of these refugees were killed by Israeli soldiers, who “felt bound to prevent any return of any Arabs to any part of Israel.”

Israel’s first occupation of Gaza in 1956 was met with widespread protests, and hundreds of Gazans were killed. Thousands were expelled after the 1967 occupation after the Six-Day War. Thousands have been killed since 2000, most of those civilians.

“Hamas are not the Palestinian people and the Palestinians did not begin resisting with Hamas,” he noted. The Fatah, the social democratic Palestinian nationalist party, also came out of those “searing experiences of 1948 and 1956.” Hamas was born out of the post-1967 occupation.

According to Khalidi, a lesson that “may have escaped Israelis,” is that the conditions in Gaza could produce a Palestinian Nationalist movement “more extreme” than Hamas.

 A path towards resolution

 When asked about a possible resolution to the current war, Khalidi expressed that there was “a great deal of confusion about what the endgame is,” and that it is not possible to begin a military offensive without identifying the end. He worried about the power vacuum uprooting Hamas might leave, saying it would be “counterproductive” to “leave the population destitute,” given the chance that “Hamas or someone else even worse than them will take over.”

He also acknowledged those who hold “extreme Israeli views see this as an opportunity to do away with the threat posed by Gaza once and for all.”

Khalidi spoke of the current debate in Israel, including proposals by Israeli strategists to cause enough damage to make Gaza “uninhabitable,” as well as the idea “to depopulate Gaza” and move Gazans elsewhere, perhaps to Sinai, which he stated was unlikely and “100 percent against the grain of Egypt’s national interest.”

Khalidi pointed out the ambiguity of commonly touted objectives and their potential ramifications.

“Hamas is a vast movement, it’s not just a military force,” he said. “It’s a social movement, it’s an ideology – how do you uproot an ideology?” He compared this to De-Ba’athification in Iraq, which led to insurgency and “ended up with ISIS.”

Although he acknowledged that there is little good news to share, he said that “there is hope – this is the last opportunity to revive the idea of a two-state solution,” referring to the notion of an independent state of Palestine coexisting with the state of Israel.

Historically, he said small steps have been made through things such as the Camp David and Oslo Accords, that were “the result of some cataclysm.”

“This is the way things happen in the region – large shocks tend to awaken and perhaps bring them to their senses,” Khalidi said.

He does not, however, envision a similar outcome for the current conflict.

“I don’t think we’re going to move in that direction,“ Khalidi said. “I don’t see any circumstance in which any Israeli government can feasibly sell to its people the notion of withdrawal from the West Bank.”

The United States’ relationship with the region

Khalidi noted the “great deal of time and effort” the Biden administration has invested in managing the conflict. This includes military aid to Israel, continued pushes for normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia and messages to Hezbollah to keep Iran out of the war.

He offered words of caution against this pattern. “You fix it, you own it,” Khalidi said. “The more you try to fix it, the more it becomes your responsibility to ensure that it remains fixed.”

“I think the United States has no other option but to be involved in this conflict,” Khalidi said. He stated that the “profound” nature of the relationship between Israel and the United States would make it hard to ask Americans to “disengage” from the conflict.

“On the other hand,” Khalidi said, “I think America is also trapped in this. It’s not just Palestine or Gaza or Israel… it’s part of a regional chessboard.” Khalidi noted the importance of considering America’s broader interest in the region.

Khalidi also speculated on the presence of the Iranian militant group, Hezbollah, and how “once Israeli troops are committed on the ground, the pressure on Hezbollah to do something would be enormous.” It is also one reason the United States sent forces to the region, stated Khalidi. It is “sending a message to Iran that if anything happens, [if] Hezbollah joins the fight, we’re going to take you on as well.”

He concluded his response by observing the enormous potential of a regional conflict.

“This is a kind of a Sarajevo moment,” Khalidi said. “It’s a moment where one spark can set off a chain reaction.”

Hope for the future

Khalidi described his lasting desire for a two-state solution, particularly after the PLO’s adoption of the stance in 1988. Recently he has “been convinced that the two-state solution is not going to happen…” Khalidi said. “What we have on the ground is that one state dominates, in every single way, the whole of the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.”

In light of that domination, he saw an eventual path to a single state with equal rights for all, but expressed uncertainty about the ability to foster “a sense of brotherhood between Arabs and Jews.”

“But I haven’t lost hope.”

The moderated question-answer segment was followed by an open-forum discussion, where audience members were given the opportunity to ask questions.

One member of the audience referenced the recent talk given by Dr. Norman Finkelstein at UMass, where Finkelstein drew parallels to the Nat Turner slave rebellion and echoed the response published by William Lloyd Garrison. Finkelstein stated that like the revolt, the attack should neither be condemned nor condoned.

In response to the comparison, Khalidi reiterated that “the sense of aggrievement, anger… of oppression that’s been building up for decades exploded on Oct. 7,” but there remains no justification “to murder innocent civilians.” He continued, stating that “this is not the way to try and build a new society in Palestine,” regardless of the resistance facade that Hamas has built.

Khalidi also noted the distinction between Hamas, which “represents around 15 to 20 percent of the Palestinian people, in political and social terms,” and Palestinians who generally are like “most Middle Eastern societies — are religious and conservative — but they’re not Islamists.”

The Jihadist factions among them, he continued, are “very very small. They always have been. One of the great virtues of the Palestinian national movement [of the ‘60s and ‘70s] was that it had everybody in it. It wasn’t Islamist, it wasn’t communist, it wasn’t capitalist, it wasn’t anything in particular, it was nationalist.

“Fatah, which represented that, no longer has the coherence [it once did] the Palestinians generally still embody that spirit.”

Another student questioned what, in Khalidi’s perspective, would “an appropriate and just response have been to this atrocity.”

“I don’t think it is up to me to decide what a just response for the Israelis was,” Khalidi said. Israelis suffered “a terrible blow” but he questioned if “this [response is] going to make Israel safer? Is it really going to promote the notion of peace between the Arab people and Israel?”

Khalidi was also asked if he believed the level of violence “perpetuated against the Palestinian people qualifies as a genocide?”

“Finding a title for it is not very useful,” Khalidi said. “The scale of the war, the amount of suffering it is causing, the degree to which this is destabilizing is the real point at hand. How you want to frame them is another issue altogether.”

Mednicoff then concluded the talk by thanking the audience for their patience and civility, and for asking “hard questions” in the spirit of discussion. 

“Universities have a responsibility to connect to the broader world,” he noted. Mednicoff hoped that these discussions “can at least do what we do at a university well, which is to ask hard questions and give people critical tools to answer.”

“It’s hard to push for dialogue. There has to be recognition of pain, there has to be empathy,” Mednicoff said.

Addie Padhi can be reached at [email protected] and Alex Rowe can be reached at [email protected].

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All Massachusetts Daily Collegian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *