Photo via Shutterstock
100 years of conflict in Israel-Palestine and the 40-year Saudi-Iran rivalry: Best-selling Mideast books for 2020

“History is a process of selection in terms of historical significance,” said British historian E.H. Carr in Cambridge University lectures in 1961 published as “What is History?”

All historians begin somewhere. Their choice of starting date reveals what they take as significant in explaining how we got to be where we are.

Rashid Khalidi begins “The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine,” his new account of Palestine-Israel, with the Ottomans’ demise in the First World War and the 1917 Balfour Declaration when Britain envisaged a “Jewish national home” in Palestine, which it would rule until May 1948 under a League of Nations mandate.

Beginning where he does, with Jews comprising 10 percent of Palestine’s population, Khalidi describes Zionism as colonialist. He shows common features with British rule elsewhere and charts British facilitation of Jewish immigration 1918-47 while natives were denied representation. He quotes Zionist leaders recognizing that a Jewish state required removing all or most natives, as happened in 1947-9 when 720,000 of 1.3 million Palestinians became refugees.

Khalidi sees no incompatibility between Zionism-as-colonialism and Jews creating a new nation, as did Europeans in Australia or South Africa. So, is this now a conflict of two nations or a civil war? Khalidi offers no definite conclusion on whether a two-state solution — embraced by the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1988 as an alternative to a single ‘secular’ state — has been doomed by Israeli control of Palestinian territories seized during the 1967 war and settlement there of 500,000 Jews.

“The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine” was conceived as a general introduction. In that, Khalidi has succeeded, while producing a stunning example of narrative history and academic rigor. Khalidi’s work is carefully footnoted, citing sources and exploring details. Anyone disputing his conclusions should have no difficulty pinpointing their disagreement by questioning either the evidence Khalidi cites or the logic leading to his conclusions.

This does not mean Khalidi is impartial. Far from it. Khalidi is from a leading Palestinian family. Introducing “The Hundred Years’ War,” he recalls research in the 1990s in old Jerusalem including his family library, one of the most extensive in Palestine not expropriated and logged as “abandoned property” in the National Library of Israel. Khalidi recently penned an introduction to “Exiled from Jerusalem,” the diaries of his uncle Hussein Fakhri al-Khalidi, mayor of Jerusalem before exiled in 1937 to Seychelles during the “Arab Revolt,” crushed by 100,000 British troops as 10 percent of Palestinian males were killed, wounded, imprisoned, or exiled.

Khalidi also recalls advising a Palestinian delegation in the 1991-3 talks in Madrid and Washington, talks sidelined in their “effort to envisage a transition…to independence” by an Oslo back-channel where the Israelis tempted PLO leaders with the chance to move their security forces into the Occupied Territories. As advisor and historian, Khalidi is alive to the realities of power and occupation across a century.

The power to shape the region lies for Kim Ghattas in the “Black Wave.” She begins her new book in 1979, notable for three events: the Iranian Revolution, the seizure of Mecca’s Grand Mosque by militants led by Juhayman al-Utaybi, and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. These all launched the “black wave”: Ghattas writes that her agent suggested the term but doesn’t explain what it means.

Presumably “black” signifies Islam, after the black banner (al-rayat al-sawda) among several flown by Prophet Mohammad but now associated with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Many readers will take “black wave” as something deeply sinister.

Ghattas follows Bernard Lewis in asking “What Went Wrong?” Her answer has the Middle East fashioned by two conflicting strands of politicized Islam — the Shia strain associated with the Iranian Revolution and the militant Sunnism spawned by the Wahabism of the Saudi ruling dynasty.

As was explained by Yaroslav Trofimov in his 2007 “The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam’s Holiest Shrine,” militants revolting against hypocritical Saudi rulers were subsequently deflected abroad as jihad in Afghanistan gave the “perfect opportunity to channel away the energies of Juhayman-type Islamic zealots.”

But beginning the story in 1979, we may forget that Iranian revolutionaries were enflamed by the Shah’s relationship with the U.S. going back to the 1953 U.S.-British organized coup that removed prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh after he tried to nationalize oil.

Ghattas fuels a sense that other actors — whether the U.S. or “secular” regional forces — merely react to the “black wave.” She claims Saddam Hussein was not “specifically sectarian” before 1991, neglecting to mention his forces killed 180,000 Kurds in the 1988-90 “Anfal” described as genocide. Had Saddam’s fear of Iraq’s disadvantaged Shia population played no role in his invasion of Iran in 1980? When Saddam ordered chemical weapons dropped at Halabja in 1987, the Kurdish forces allied at the time with “black wave” Iran were commanded by Nawsherwan Mustapha, who later led the reformist Goran movement.

“Black wave” suggests irrationality, even evil. Hence Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was an “irredeemable monster” and Imad MugHniyeh, Hezbollah security chief, was “devilish.”  Ghattas argues Iranian women gained many rights under the shah, including the right to vote. The Shah ruled a “Persian kingdom” with a “progressive” first lady, while the 1979 Revolution was “freezing the country in time.” Why mention that literacy among young women before the Revolution was only 42 percent (rising to 81 percent by 1990) or that woman have benefited from the massive expansion of health care since 1979?

Going back beyond 1979 might help. The appeal of political Islam had roots in the failure of nationalist Arab leaders in the 1967 war with Israel. Its egalitarianism was partly a reaction to rampant inequality, under the Shah and in Saudi.

Unlike Khalidi, Ghattas expresses no open partisanship. But her loose footnoting reflects wider problems of veracity.

Three claims caught my eye. In one, she suggests Mostafa Chamran, the Iranian revolutionary previously active in Lebanon, was “shot in the back” in 1981 during the Iraq war in a “campaign to eliminate Khomeini’s rivals.” This Ghattas sources to “rumors,” which are widely doubted. Ghattas’s claim that Khomeini or “those closest to Khomeini” were behind Gaddafi’s 1978 killing of Musa Sadr is sourced to two books drawn from former CIA officials: alive, Ghattas suggests, Sadr might have gone back to Iran and kept the Shah in power.

Mehrzad Boroujerdi, author of the encyclopedic “Postrevolutionary Iran: A Political Handbook,” finds the story “highly unlikely.” Boroujerdi explains: “Sadr was much better known in the Arab world than in Iran due to his [around 25 years] long absence. He lacked the standing to rival Khomeini or save the Shah.”

A third claim has Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, later Iran’s president (2005-13), also in the Beqaa. Ghattas sources this to Nicholas Blanford’s book “Warriors of God,” which cites villagers 25 years later remembering “a diminutive engineer in his late twenties with narrow eyes.”

Back in 2005 just before Ahmadinejad was elected president, I interviewed in Tehran Chamran’s brother, Mehdi, who knew Ahmadinejad well: neither he nor other associates I spoke to mentioned Ahmadinejad being in Lebanon. I turned today to Aurelie Daher, some of whose school-mates in the Beqaa later joined Hezbollah and whose “Hezbollah: Mobilisation and Power” is based on unrivalled interviews with party members. Daher asked around. “One well-informed contact said he had never heard of the story,” she reported, “and a second, more well-informed and well-linked to the Iranians, denies the story pure and simple.”

An Iranian source I reached indirectly found it “very unlikely” Ahmadinejad was in Lebanon but noted “many people have mistaken him with his elder brother Davoud, who died a few years ago.”

Retrospective sightings of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad multiplied — including as a hostage-taker in the American Tehran embassy in Tehran — as anti-Israeli rhetoric made him a Western bête noir. His presence in the Beqaa in 1980-82 presumably illustrates the regional “black wave” engulfing American troops and CIA operatives who arrived in Lebanon in 1982 “for peace” and later undermining the “relative calm” of the 1990s “Pax Americana.” The “black wave” had meanwhile perverted the “spirited soul of the Iranian nation” after in 1979 “disconnecting” Iran from the world (nothing to do with U.S. sanctions, it seems, even today as Iran’s health workers battle COVID-19).

Ghattas ends with an appeal for hope, tolerance and freedom of expression. Amen. But her warning that “extremist partisans” would find fault with her book suggests its pages were already closed.

More from Gareth Smyth