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Interview with Ilan Pappe

The Israeli historian and human rights activist Ilan Pappe came to prominence in the early 1990s, a few years after Israel declassified documents that shed new light on the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 and the events leading up to the establishment of the State of Israel. With a group of scholars who came to be known as the New Historians, much of Pappe’s work has sought to recognise and revisit this historical moment – what is known as the Palestinian Catastrophe or Nakbah – and to construct a historical narrative in opposition to the prevailing view.

 

One of Pappe’s most important and controversial books, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006), traces the beginnings of the Zionist ideology in the early twentieth century and offers a detailed account of the systematic expulsion of more than 700,000 Palestinians in 1948. According to Pappe, this event cannot be understood as a spontaneous act of war. Rather, it was the result of a premeditated strategy that amounts to ethnic cleansing; a strategy which, Pappe argues, continues to guide Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. His many other books and articles constitute attempts to develop this argument from the inception of Zionism to the present day.

 

Pappe’s writings have been met with acclaim, criticism and violent denunciations. He has received death threats, been denounced by the Knesset, and was forced to leave his post at the University of Haifa, Israel, in 2008. He is currently Professor of History at the University of Exeter and Director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies.

 

While this interview took place, Israel had already begun its ground invasion of Gaza. The civilian death-toll mounted daily, and Israel consistently ignored calls for restraint. On 24 July, the United Nations Human Rights Council voted to launch an international inquiry into possible Israeli war crimes, with the US opposing the decision and seventeen countries abstaining.

 

Pappe was, at the time of this interview, in Israel. The following was conducted between 21 and 26 July 2014 by email.

 

Q

The White Review

— You have argued that the establishment of the Israeli State in 1948 formed part of a plan to ‘ethnically cleanse’ the indigenous population of Palestine. You have also argued that this plan remains one of Israel’s fundamental policies today. What historical evidence pushed you to come to these conclusions?

A

Ilan Pappe

— The Israeli archives function like the British ones. They disclose political documents after thirty years and military documents after fifty years. These documents reveal very clearly a systematic and premeditated strategy for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. The strategy began to take shape in 1947 when the British Mandate of Palestine was close to expiring and it became clear that the British were going to withdraw.

 

These Israeli documents substantiated oral testimonies given over the years by Palestinian refugees all over the world. The archives of the United Nations offered further corroboration. They were mined successfully by the historian Michael Palumbo, who was the first to notice the archival evidence for the extent of the expulsion and the methods employed. Israeli veterans completed the picture for us, first through fictional works, most notably Khirbet Khizeh (1949), a novella by the writer and politician S. Yizhar, and later in testimonies.

Q

The White Review

— What is the relation between your work and that of the New Historians?

A

Ilan Pappe

— In the late 1980s we were three historians: myself, Avi Shlaim and Benny Morris. The latter described us as a new school of historians because of our interpretations of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. We did share many things in common, although we did not form a school. We jointly and independently debunked the Israeli mythology surrounding these events and accepted major chapters in the Palestinian narrative.

Q

The White Review

— Benny Morris has since disclaimed you and your work in vehement terms.

A

Ilan Pappe

— I am really not interested in the reasons behind his personal attack. I am only interested in debating evidence, analysis and conclusions. He refuses to do this and opted for a personal diatribe. I have no time to deal with his personal problems.

Q

The White Review

— Your writings pay close attention to the voices of those whom history often forgets: the histories of women and children, for instance, or oral histories more generally. Could you talk about this in the wider context of the relationship between narrative discourse and historical representation?

A

Ilan Pappe

— From very early on in my career as a professional historian I have been interested in non-elite history. In fact, most of the theoretical and methodological literature I read focused on the ability of the historian to reconstruct a people’s history that was either not documented in writing or was distorted by the writings of the social elite. The motive behind this decision was to find out how exploitative and abusive the writing of history can be, the extent to which it can oppress minorities, marginal groups and whoever does not fit into, or endangers, the social elite’s worldview. That is why the history of women, children, workers, farmers, colonized communities and immigrants attracted my attention and energy.

 

What is most valuable about this approach became clear to me only when I attempted to apply it to the history of modern Palestine. Before 1948, Palestine enjoyed a history of sharing that stretched back to the mid-seventeenth century, when various social groups and individuals co-existed. This harmony was disrupted and in many ways destroyed by the arrival of Zionism and the rise of nationalism across the Middle East. These theories and methods enabled me to assess in a profound way the impact of national politics on the lives of people in areas of conflict.

Q

The White Review

— Several Zionist myths continue to be propagated today, most notably the notion that Palestine was empty and that settlers ‘made the desert bloom’. From your perspective, what are the ideological underpinnings of this sometimes wilful amnesia?

A

Ilan Pappe

— Zionism was born out of two very reasonable impulses: the wish to avert catastrophe in Europe and the desire to reinvent Judaism as nationalism. In practice, this meant a search for a Jewish nation state. Various places were considered, but eventually Palestine was given precedence, not least because of the pressure exerted by British politicians. When a land full of people is targeted at a time of national awakening, the only way to settle is by occupation and colonization. The Zionist movement was too weak to do it by itself. It needed the might of the British Empire on its side. This was achieved when the Balfour Declaration was signed in 1917. It supported the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. The Jewish community in Palestine became a typical settler-colonialist society, one that could only survive through genocide, as in the Americas, Australia and New Zealand, or by ethnically cleansing the indigenous population, as in South Africa.

Q

The White Review

— How do you justify your use of provocative expressions such as ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘incremental genocide’ to describe Israeli policies, both then and now?

A

Ilan Pappe

— I see nothing provocative in my use of these terms. It is an attempt to call a spade a spade. The first term, by the way, is now widely accepted. It cannot be considered provocative anymore. And in the last ten years it seems that the killing fields of Gaza have provided ample evidence for the validity of the second term.

 

I chose the most conservative definition of ethnic cleansing to test my hypothesis, the one adopted by the United States Department of State (first adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in Paris on December 9, 1948). According to Article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, genocide means any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group:

 

(1) Killing members of the group;

 

(2) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

 

(3) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

 

(4) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

 

(5) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

 

(Source: 9 FAM 40.35(b) N3.3 Intent to Commit Genocide)

 

This definition fits perfectly with the events that took place in 1948 and those that are taking place today.

 

Interestingly, from the point of view of the United States Department of State, even if people flee and are not forcefully expelled, but are prevented from returning to their lands, the aggressive power stands accused of ethnic cleansing, which is a crime against humanity. Israelis and Palestinians now agree on the basic account of what took place in 1948. The question, in the words of historians such as Benny Morris and Ari Shavit, is whether or not there is such a thing as a ‘justified’ ethnic cleansing when it is perpetrated by people who pretend to represent the victims of the Nazis.

 

As for incremental genocide, I read and re-read the international conventions against Genocide. They clearly state that the mass killing of people based on who they are, and not on what they did in a time of war, does not need to take place in one drastic go. It can be partial and happen over time. Since 2005, Israel has locked 1.8 million people in Gaza. In such a reality, any punitive action, such as the one we are witnessing today, can in the long run only be an act of genocide, even if it is coupled by ‘peaceful’ periods in which people are denied the most basic requirements of human life.

Q

The White Review

— How do you respond to criticism of your work as anti-Semitic?

A

Ilan Pappe

— I am a Jew, so at best I could be a self-hating Jew. But for all my sins I do not hate myself.

Q

The White Review

— To turn to the present situation, the Israeli government claims that the abduction of three Israeli teenagers necessitated and justified the recent bombardment and subsequent invasion of Gaza. To my knowledge, Hamas has neither claimed nor denied responsibility for the kidnappings, though the political organisation is being held responsible. What is your view of these events?

A

Ilan Pappe

— Hamas has not claimed responsibility. Israel is keen to destroy Hamas, especially after the prospects of a unity government with Fatah. It was looking for a pretext to abolish Hamas’s influence in the West Bank and to destroy its presence in the Gaza Strip.

Q

The White Review

— So in your opinion events were engineered in this way because Israel did not want a legitimate government to negotiate with? Even the U.S. seemed willing to start a dialogue.

A

Ilan Pappe

— Israel has demanded and has so far succeeded in imposing unilaterally its will on the Palestinians. It is not interested in taking into account the Palestinian point of view.

Q

The White Review

Haaretz recently reported that the Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon proposed that Israel’s response to the murder of the three teenagers include ‘a wave of settlement construction and the establishment of a new settlement in memory of them’. It is surely no coincidence that Israel put forward plans to construct a further 1500 settlements in the West Bank only one week prior to the abduction of said teenagers. Could you comment on these proposed settlements and Israel’s expansionist policies?

A

Ilan Pappe

— There is nothing new here. There is no use in pretending that a new wave of settlements is a response to terror. The plans for settlements, or their expansion, have been prepared over a long period of time and have involved various governmental agencies. When the state is ready to expand, the pretext is invented. It could be a remark made by Mahmoud Abbas, a demonstration or indeed an attack on settlers or soldiers. The master plan for where and how to settle is an old one. It demarcates very clearly which parts of the West Bank can be left for the Palestinians to live in, either as ghettos should they resist, or as Bantustans should they reconcile with their fate. There were two Israeli plans for colonizing the West Bank. The official one was to Judaize only areas which were not densely populated by Palestinians, but the Zionist settlers’ movement used a biblical map that included densely populated areas. Their colonization was approved as a fait accompli by the Israelis. The result was dozens of small Palestinians enclaves cut by settlements, military camps and no-go areas for Palestinians.

Q

The White Review

— In your opinion, why does the international community do no more than condemn the settlements?

A

Ilan Pappe

— In the case of Europe, it is still the unclosed chapter of the Holocaust. There is a reluctance to deal with the issue of Israel because it means reviewing the entire treatment of the European Jewish problem after the Holocaust. Europe was willing for the Palestinians to be sacrificed so that it would not have to deal with its past. In relation to America’s support for Israel, it is a combination of Christian Zionism, a strong Jewish lobby and the interests of the military-industrial complex.

Q

The White Review

— It is true that the United States has been the largest sponsor of Israel, supplying billions of dollars of advanced military hardware every year, though it is worth noting in this context that the European Union also offers large subsidies to Israel through its research programmes. Yet recent events suggest that Israel no longer needs the green light from the U.S. Indeed, several Israeli hardliners have even wanted to stop U.S. aid altogether. How do you assess this relationship and how has it changed?

A

Ilan Pappe

— As I said, there are historical reasons for it. But the point is that, as long as Israel does not interfere in American policies in the Middle East, it will receive a carte blanche for its policies in Palestine. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s critique of President Obama’s policies towards Iran and Syria was a breach of this understanding. So long as Capitol Hill has the last say on the relationship with Israel, its unconditional support will continue. But society is changing its attitude, including parts of the Jewish community, and it may eventually impact the policy makers.

Q

The White Review

— On that subject, how is the current invasion of Gaza related to the situation in the Middle East, particularly in Iran, which Netanyahu has recently called ‘the preeminent terrorist empire of our time’?

A

Ilan Pappe

— Netanyahu failed – for how long time will tell – to galvanize the world under his manufactured paranoia about Iran. It was meant to distract attention from the Palestinian question and the social and economic problems faced by Israel. But now he has to deal with both. He prefers the first issue, since he understands the nationalist and racist nature of his own society. He is incapable of dealing with the second issue, both because of his neo-liberal approach to Israel’s social problems and because of his inability to see the connection between these problems and the ideological nature of the state.

Q

The White Review

— I am interested in your perspective on Hamas. Its 2006 electoral victory was rejected by Israel and the United States on the grounds that it would endanger stability and the peace process. The historian Sara Roy has argued that Hamas’s appeal has little to do with an activist Islamic agenda, however, but has more to do with the practical needs of everyday life. Why, in your opinion, does Hamas continue to have significant popular support?

A

Ilan Pappe

— I agree with Sara Roy. For example, in 1994 the Israelis decided to cordon off part of the Gaza Strip. They encircled it with a barbed wire fence and created a Jewish enclave populated by settlers. Already then, life for the Palestinians in one of the most densely populated areas in the world was unbearable. The scarce water resources were now taken by the settlers and life became akin to being locked in a mega-prison. The Palestinian Authority was unable to change this reality. In the end it was the struggle of Hamas that made Israel remove the settlers.

 

But, as we know, the alternative was worse: a hermetically sealed ghetto that is always under siege, its food monitored and controlled, like most of its infrastructure. Not accepting this way of life is fully understandable and so far only Hamas has attempted to struggle against it. Of course, the best strategy remains a struggle for a free Israel and Palestine: free from Zionism, free from fanaticism, colonialism and oppression.

Q

The White Review

— Could you comment on the portrayal of Hamas in the mainstream media?

A

Ilan Pappe

— It is a very one-dimensional portrait. A social and political movement has been portrayed as a purely terroristic organization, one that is not different from al-Qaeda or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). From its inception in around 1920, the Palestinian anti-colonialist struggle was sometimes led by political Islamic groups and personalities, such as the Muslim preacher Izz ad-Din al-Qassam in 1935. Yet, more often than not, it was led by secular, socialist and national forces. In all these struggles, Christians played a similar role to that of Muslims. This form of resistance is not religious in nature but political and social.

Q

The White Review

— In your opinion, what does Hamas want from the present conflict? Its armed wing seems resolute in its decision to continue firing rockets into Israel. Does this suggest that Hamas might have wanted to incite a limited Israeli ground incursion into Gaza in the belief that a continued conflict could somehow reinforce its negotiating position?

A

Ilan Pappe

— First and foremost, Hamas wants an end to the siege. When the siege ends it can attend to the economic and social conditions on the ground. It is willing to do this within a unity government with Fatah. I do not think Hamas wanted to provoke an Israeli incursion, but it was certainly prepared for one.

 

But its future strategy does not depend on what it wants alone. Should there be an opening for an end to the oppression in Palestine, many within Hamas would want to be part of the reconstruction of a new Palestine, with their own particular input. What Hamas does not want is to surrender and it believes, rightly or wrongly, time will tell, that in Gaza most people still support its stance, and quite a sizeable number of Palestinians elsewhere feel the same.

Q

The White Review

— What are your views on violence as a form of resistance? In certain conditions it does not feel right that the state should have a monopoly on violence.

A

Ilan Pappe

— I wish state and non-state actors would find non-violent solutions to problems. I do concede that, if pre-emptive actions to limit criminal behaviour by individuals or states have not been sufficient, there is justification for using force in a limited and constrained way. I suppose that by violence we mean force used in an appropriate manner, and in this you are right, we are too quick to judge those who use violence against states, and less ready to oppose the use of violence by the state.

Q

The White Review

— You are a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which has been criticised by both Noam Chomsky and Norman Finklestein, among others, the latter going so far as to describe it as a ‘cult’. What are your reasons for supporting it?

A

Ilan Pappe

— I wonder whether this is a question any more after the current Israeli atrocities in Gaza. Can Chomsky and Finklestein offer us an alternative strategy apart from repeating the overused mantra of the ‘Two-State Solution’? This is the only way forward given Israeli brutality and the balance of power on the ground.

Q

The White Review

— Could you specify your difficulties with the ‘Two-State Solution’?

A

Ilan Pappe

— It is a solution for only a part of the Palestinians and for only a part of Palestine. The Palestinians in Israel (one in every five citizens in Israel is a Palestinian) and the refugees have been left out of this arrangement, and they constitute fifty per cent of the Palestinian people. The whole body is ill and we offer to treat only one hand. Secondly, the only Palestinian state Israel can agree to will have no sovereignty for the Palestinians and no territorial integrity. Finally, the Israelis have colonised the West Bank to such an extent that there is no way of finding a reasonable space for such a state.

Q

The White Review

— On what grounds do you support a ‘One State Solution’?

A

Ilan Pappe

— Firstly, because it is the only solution that will enable the Palestinian refugees of 1948 to return, which for me is a precondition for peace. Secondly, it will also bring an end to the Apartheid experienced by Palestinians inside Israel. And, finally, the facts established by Israel in the last forty-five years are far more important than those established in the first twenty years of the occupation. There is no room for a viable mini-state of Palestine and there is no reason to assume that such a state will end the conflict.

Q

The White Review

— Would you support the right of return for all refugees, which might number close to 5 million?

A

Ilan Pappe

— Yes, I think it is a precondition for peace. I do not think that all the 5 million would return, but there should be room for whoever wishes to. This is also important for the stability of the region as a whole at this moment in time.

Q

The White Review

— For many the ‘One State Solution’ and the right to return would spell the end of the Israeli state and would threaten the Jewish population, which numbers 6 million. Do you think Israel would even accept this?

A

Ilan Pappe

— White South Africa also rejected the idea of a non-apartheid state. Both Palestinians and Israelis will have to decide upon a single democratic state for all rather than an endless conflict. We are talking about a regime change – from a racist to a democratic one – which is the only safe future for both people on the land.

Q

The White Review

— Are there other forms of struggle that you see as carrying an emancipatory potential?

A

Ilan Pappe

— Yes, a popular rebellion like the one that took place in the first Intifada would be effective, although this time the Israeli reaction will be very brutal. One would hope the BDS movement will help soften the blow.

Q

The White Review

— A United Nations report on the Gaza Strip has claimed that the area ‘will not be liveable by 2020.’ In your opinion, how long can the occupation go on?
A

Ilan Pappe

— I think in many ways we are at the beginning of a new Intifada. If it does not explode now, it will explode in a few years. So the occupation will not go on forever. The question is at what price and will the international community intervene to stop it.
 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Rye Dag Holmboe is a writer and PhD candidate in History of Art at University College, London. He has recently co-authored and co-edited the book JocJonJosch: Hand in Foot, published by the Sion Art Museum, Switzerland (2013). He has recently edited Jolene, an artist's book which brings together the works of the poet Rachael Allen and the photographer Guy Gormley, which will be published later this year. His writings have appeared in The White Review, Art Licks and in academic journals.


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