Ilan Pappé: The full interview

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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Many people have argued that a Palestinian land or state never existed. Historically, was there ever a land called Palestine?
Palestine existed as a land for ages. A state is a modern idea and there were no states in the Middle East until the First World War. Up to then, most of the areas, including Palestine, were part of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years. So, definitely Palestine, as a geo-political unit, existed for many centuries.

Zionists say they have a right to return to their homeland and defend themselves. You believe that the Zionist objective is to eradicate Palestinian people through ethnic cleansing. How do you come to that conclusion?
I’m a professional historian, so my assumptions or conclusions are based on my research, and the research shows very clearly that Zionism was a colonialist movement, and like many colonialist movements, of course they claimed that the land they had colonised belonged to them – either because God had sent them there or because they did not regard the indigenous people as people who had any rights.

So, the fact that the Zionists said that a land that was inhabited by another people is theirs is not the problem.  The problem is when you say this land is mine and then you expel the people. When you expel the people in order to make a place for yourself, in modern international law, this is an act of ethnic cleansing.

A group of many professional historians have looked into the [Israeli] archives, into the documents and the evidence is very clear. What is not clear is why people are still believing in the fabrication that the land was empty or that the Palestinians had no right. The question is not whether the Jews feel they have a right to the land or not. That’s not the problem. The problem is what you do if you think you have that right. You may have a right to a land, but you have no right to expel people from the land, and that’s the issue.

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.

Hamas is accused of not accepting a ceasefire. How is the world supposed to understand their position?
They have a very reasonable position. They don’t accept a ceasefire that would keep the situation as it is now. The world has asked Hamas to accept a ceasefire when Israel is halfway through the Gaza Strip. The siege, the horrible siege, will continue forever and all these people who Israel has arrested in the West Bank will not be released. Hamas says a ceasefire that includes the release of the people who were arrested, removing the siege, is a precondition for sitting together and thinking further about the solution.

I think the word “ceasefire” is not a positive word by itself. The word  is a manipulation that is meant to achieve the same goal that the military operation was meant to do, but through other means.

What about the fact that the longer there is no ceasefire, the more Palestinians are killed?
That’s a good point.  What Hamas is saying, and I think there’s some resonance to that, is that people were dying even without the fighting.  So they are taking a desperate stance to stop the strangulation, and the incremental deaths that they were going through, the ghetto-isation of the Gaza Strip. That’s why they are taking such a desperate means, and they still believe that, if they stop struggling, even worse things will happen to the Palestinians. So the world has to pressure Israel to stop the fighting, to accept the idea that Gaza cannot be treated like a maximum security prison, and ask the sides to sit together and think about the future rather than allowing Israel to continue the dispossession of the Palestinian people.

The main issue in Gaza is that Israel doesn’t know what to do with the 2 million Palestinians there, and it opted for the worst kind of solution to that problem, which one can only call genocide.

The Arab nations have been silent. What is their role?
Their role was, as you say, being silent, not doing enough, either using the conflict of the Palestinians as a pretext for not solving their own problems, or clandestinely working with Israel to advance their own interests. I think their solidarity with the Palestinians is very clear, and part of what we call the Arab Spring – which is not in a very good stage now, but it’s a long historical process and I don’t think we’ve seen even the beginning of it – will be democractisation of the Arab world, and with democratisation, the really very genuine solidarity Arab people feel for Palestine will be reflected in future leaderships.

There have been signs of protests in Israel. What role do Israelis have in ending what is happening?
They have a moral role to pressure their own government to end this carnage. Unfortunately the number of Israeli Jews who are willing to take such a brave and bold disposition is very, very small, so I don’t think they will have enough influence. We depend much more on international pressure for changing the Israeli position. We cannot wait for the internal dynamics to work because it would take too long.

Realistically, what sort of solution will be agreeable to all parties?
When you say all parties, it’s like saying what would be the right resolution for apartheid South Africa, and you want to include also those that believe in apartheid. It doesn’t work. You could only have a solution for South Africa if you took apartheid out of the equation, and I think the only solution in Israel-Palestine is taking Zionism out of the equation, because it’s a racist ideology. Once you take that away, there’s a very good chance of creating a democratic state for all. But the world has to accept, first of all, the logic of this and even some of the Palestinian leaders have to accept the logic of this, and then we have a chance.

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.

Israel supported apartheid South Africa, and today, South Africa still has diplomatic ties with Israel. What impact does this have on Palestinian people?
I think many of them would like to have seen a tougher South Africa. I don’t know if to the point of severing diplomatic ties altogether, but, for instance we may have expected the South African government to do what Argentina and Brazil did by returning their ambassadors, which is the highest diplomatic outrage.

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.


– Image via Wikimedia Commons