Five questions for Israeli historian Ilan Pappé

Israeli historian Ilan Pappé has become a pariah in his own country. Pappé is one of Israel’s New Historians – a group of scholars who have started to rethink Israeli history after studying documents declassified by the Israeli government in the 1980s. For Pappé and his peers, these documents shed new light on the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and the establishment of the state of Israel. RA’EESA PATHER spoke with Pappé, who is in South Africa on a speaking tour.

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Click for the full interview, including Pappé’s views on Hamas and the role of the Arab states.

Many historians have rewritten Israel’s history differently. Why should people believe your version of history?

People can only believe what they can believe. It seems that what really matters is how the audience reacts to what you do, and how convincing you are through your evidence and through the facts, especially people who visit the place themselves. We’ve seen a very interesting shift from a point in time where the Zionist narrative was more accepted as the truth to where we are now today, where people regard the Zionist version as propaganda. I think it has to do with the fact that more people were able to visit, more people were willing to listen to Palestinian oral history, and more people were willing to read my work and the work of people like me, which is based on documentation in Israeli archives. I think it’s not a matter of why they should believe. It’s something that people are believing because it makes sense, especially because of what Israel is doing today – it stands to reason they have done it in the past.

Zionism is historically a secular ideology, but it is linked to the creation of a Jewish state. Isn’t this paradoxical?
It is, it’s one of the many paradoxes of Zionism. It’s a manipulation. You have a secular movement of a colonial settler community who, like many settler communities, were running away from persecution and hardship, and in order to justify the takeover of another land, in order to justify the dispossession of another people, they use religion even if they don’t themselves believe in that religion. It’s more of a manipulation than a contradiction.

Hamas had been identified as a terrorist organisation, and the Charter is often used as a justification to show that Hamas are anti-Semitic terrorists. If Hamas has changed its views, as they say they have, why hasn’t the organisation shunned the Charter?
I think it’s important to remember that the PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organization] had a similar charter.  The charter is part of your ammunition as long as the oppression and the occupation continues. All kinds of liberation movements used guerrilla warfare and had very extreme positions, and these changed once reconciliation began. I have very little doubt that if the Israelis would show, which they don’t, a genuine willingness to reconcile, then these more extreme positions would change and there would be a pragmatic stage where previous guerrilla movements would be more involved in running a place rather than fighting a regime.

You’ve said that the Zionist movement wants to “bantustan” the Palestinian people. How accurate are the comparisons between apartheid South Africa and Israeli apartheid?
Very much so, in every aspect. Historically it’s the same story of white settler colonialists taking someone’s land, using ethnic cleansing, segregation, and bantustanisation in order to control the indigenous people. Presently, the laws that Israel has passed against anyone who’s not Jewish, and the kind of regime it has opposed on people living in the West Bank, is very similar to the ones since 1948 that were imposed on both the African and the coloured population of South Africa. I think we have now a very rich body of literature that explores the similarities. Israel was very supportive of South Africa – they thought that they treated the problem that they have in the right way.

What is the endgame for Israel and the endgame for Palestine?
I think the Palestinians want normal life. They are the only people I know who haven’t had any normal existence in the last 100 years, so they really starve for normal life as normal citizens in their own state, in their own home country. This is a very tall objective because it’s going to be very difficult to achieve it.

Unfortunately, Zionism wants to have as much of Palestine as possible, with as few Palestinians in it as possible. I don’t think they will succeed. The question is only how many people will die before they fail.

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