Interview: Ilan Pappé

Interview: Ilan Pappé

With Israel approving new settlements in Palestine for the first time in twenty years, an unprecedented foreign policy in the White House, and significant political shifts in the US and Europe, 2017 is poised to be a significant year in the troubled history of Israel and Palestine. To help analyze these developments, Ezra Max spoke with prominent Israeli academic and historian Ilan Pappé.

Currently Professor of History and Director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter, Pappé is the author of over a dozen books, including The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, A History of Modern Palestine, and, with coauthor Noam Chomsky, Gaza in Crisis. He is a frequent contributor to Chicago-based Electronic Intifada, has been featured on news and television programs such as Democracy Now! and the BBC’s World News, and his forthcoming book Ten Myths about Israel is scheduled for release in May 2017.

Ezra Max interviewed Professor Pappé by email in April.

Ezra: In mainstream portrayals, the Nakba [expulsion of Palestinians from Israel in 1948]—if discussed at all—is presented as an unfortunate byproduct of the Palestine War. As you show quite convincingly in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, though, this was not true—the Nakba was in fact an outcome that the Zionists pursued and implemented. Could you take us through some of the key facts that undercut the “popular” view of the events of 1948 and lead to this conclusion?

Ilan Pappé: The first and most important one is the fact that hundreds of thousands of Palestinian were driven out, mainly from the urban space in Palestine, before the war began on May 15, 1948. So, only half of those who became refugees lost their homes during, and because of, the fighting.

Second, as was clear from the diaries and minutes of the Zionist leadership, they—and in particular David Ben Gurion—regarded a Jewish state without a Jewish majority as a suicidal track. So, they were highly motivated to downsize the number of Palestinians in any future state. Thirdly, by March 1948, it was very clear from the orders sent to the Jewish troops prepared to be thrown into the campaign that their mission was to ethnically cleanse any village or neighbourhood they would occupy. And finally, the Israelis refused to allow any refugee from returning to their homes as part of their official policy.

Ezra: We sometimes forget those living in Palestine before this occurred. You wrote a book [The Rise and Fall of a Palestinian Dynasty] about the Husaynis, who were a leading Palestinian family until Israeli statehood and the events of 1948. What can their story tell us about Palestinian life before and during occupation?

Ilan Pappé: I think the book refutes, first of all, the myth of the “land without people.” But more importantly, it shows that the measured way in which the Palestinian society engaged with modernization and nationalism was disrupted by the Zionist colonization, to such an extent that normal life and progress was impossible. It also challenges common images of the Palestinians as primitive, underdeveloped people. There was a vibrant urban elite and life in Palestine.

Ezra: Another frequently, but superficially, discussed event in the history of Israel is the Six-Day War. What were Israel’s goals in the conflict, and how did it achieve them?

Ilan Pappé: For that we have to go back to 1948. There was a clear lobby in Israel that regretted the decision not to occupy the West Bank in the 1948 war (this was due to a prior agreement with Jordan). The West Bank in their eyes was the heart of ancient Israel. This lobby was waiting for the opportunity to occupy the West Bank. Several times, in particular in 1958 and 1960, they nearly succeeded in convincing the government to do so, but David Ben Gurion objected to it. The opportunity came when Gamal Abdul Nasser, together with the Syrian government in 1967, tried to face the Israeli plans to divert the waters of the River Jordan to its use and [Israel’s] threats to topple what it called radical Arab regimes. Nasser pursued an embrimkmentship policy, which was cleverly used by Israel not only to occupy the West Bank but also the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula.

Ezra: You’ve said before that while academic discourse has started to recognize Israeli policy toward Palestine during and after 1948 as a crime against humanity, Western news media, particularly American news media, still fails to accept this. What forces are responsible for distorting journalistic and popular views of Israel in the West, even as superb and thorough academic work like your own has proliferated, and what potential exists to bring media narratives into alignment with historical fact and global and academic consensus?

Ilan Pappé: The simple answer would be the Israeli lobby (both AIPAC and the Christian Zionist one). But probably it goes deeper than that. It is a kind of hidden anti-Semitism. Israel, and by extension the Jewish Zionist lobby in America, are viewed as omnipotent on the one hand (and they are not) so you do not dare to question their narrative, and secondly there is an uneasiness about past anti-Semitism and in particular American indifference in the Holocaust. Moreover, there is no effective Palestinian lobby in the USA. In fact, the best way of making voices like mine be heard is to tackle both issues: the hidden anti-Semitism and a more effective lobby on behalf of Palestine.

Ezra: The BDS is probably the best-known instance of public activism trying to change Israeli policy today, particularly in the US. Yet even among those who take seriously ending the occupation of Palestine, some, like Norman Finkelstein, have been quite skeptical of BDS tactics. What, in your opinion, is BDS’s role in resolving and correcting the current injustices in Palestine, and what can it do to better achieve these goals?

Ilan Pappé: First of all, it does not matter what I or Norman think about it. This is a call by the Palestinian civil society for help and solidarity that was well received in the global civil society. It is too early to judge its success. What we do have is a very serious Israeli attempt to kill the movement by violent non-democratic means that drill the last nail into the coffin of the “only democracy in the Middle East.” It is an effective movement for two reasons: [first,] the international impotence in the face of the cruel Israeli policies on the ground and second, as it gives an orientation of solidarity at the time of the absence of a united and authentic empowered Palestinian leadership.

Ezra: To discuss Palestinian leadership: many US commentators still see Hamas as an illegitimate or even terrorist organization. Can you comment on the rift between Hamas and Fatah, why the West tends to view only the latter as a legitimate political force, and why this narrative fails to accurately capture the situation?

Ilan Pappé: The problem is the way the Palestinian struggle is associated with what one can call Political Islam, or more precisely, Jihadi Islam. Whereas the right context for discussing it is within anti-colonialist struggle. Whether this struggle is carried out by secular or religious forces is of less importance. It was very convenient to delegitimize the more active of the Palestinian factions after Oslo by associating it with the “war on terror” rather than a force that struggled against a 50-year occupation.

As for the rift itself, it is of course very unfortunate and relates to first a more general problem in the Middle East caused by the accelerated modernization occurring after the Second World War that left many people in the Middle East behind, while destroying traditional networks of protection and solidarity. Hence the issue is not political but more social, and like the rest the world only a multicultural solution of continued dialogue can bridge over the different perceptions of reality. Moreover, there is a sense among a younger generation of Palestinians that both Fatah and Hamas belong to a chapter that is about to end. There is a search for new formations and institutions that would help to redefine the project of the liberation of Palestine in a way that fits the 21st century.

Ezra: Your coauthor Noam Chomsky attributes the pro-Israeli policies of the United States, Canada, and Australia to these countries’ identities as settler-colonial societies with histories similar to Israel’s. Do you feel this cultural explanation makes sense, how reasonable is it to compare these four nations’ policies in occupation and ethnic cleansing?

Ilan Pappé: I do think this is a very valid comparative approach. Settler colonialism is indeed very different from classical colonialism and all these case studies have much in common. First of all, the settlers are Europeans who were persecuted in one way or another in Europe and therefore left with no intention to come back. They were searching not only for a home but also a homeland. Secondly, all these movements confronted the presence of an indigenous society which they regarded as the main obstacle for their success, and therefore worked to remove it by all means possible, quite often by genocide. As Partick Wolfe taught us, settler colonialism is not an event but a structure, which means that we understand much better what motivated Israel and Zionism in the past, and what motivates it today, by applying this paradigm.

Ezra: Before 2016, US support for Israel was built on a reliable formula, a mix of Christian Zionism, Neocon orthodoxy, and Jewish groups. In what ways has the election of Donald Trump, who represented a peculiar intersection of political entities ranging from Alt-Right Neo-Nazis to the Modern-Orthodox Kushner family, potentially changed this calculus? What might this change mean for US-Israeli policy in the short term and medium term?

Ilan Pappé: Hard to say, and maybe too early. Basically, we should remember that American presidents are not the only factor determining the policy towards Israel/Palestine. Especially if the President does not take a particular interest in the topic, which may be the case with Trump. Then, Congress and the lobbies, and the industrial-military complex is playing a much more major part. I really do not think much is going to change in the sense that also the more active administrations, such as the Clinton and Obama ones, allowed Israeli unilaterally to do what it wants in Palestine.  

Ezra: John Wight has called Israel a rogue state, and some in the US express concern that the Trump presidency will lead to similar political isolation for America. If these trends continue, and the US and Israel find themselves increasingly alone on the question of Palestine, do you feel this will allow for more effective pressure on their policies, or will it remove the chance to bring these countries to a more reasonable outlook?

Ilan Pappé: If this is the trend, which is quite possible, then indeed this is a positive development as the international system is changing and the US is not the only power. In a curious way, Brexit may turn, at least on the question of Palestine, the EU into a more effective player (Britain had a negative impact on any possible EU pressure on Israel).

Photo: Yazeed Kamaldien.