One state is in place – the issue is to change power relations
Revisiting the Palestine question: An interview with Ilan Pappe
By Paul Weinberg, rabble.ca
Israeli historian Ilan Pappe begins a speaking tour across Canada tonight in Montreal. The theme of his talk is “The False Paradigm of Peace: Revisiting the Palestine Question.”
Based currently at the University of Exeter in the UK, Pappe will be discussing the history of failed negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. He is the author of nine books including The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, which is the definitive account of the expulsion of close to 800,000 Palestinians in 1948 upon the founding of the state of Israel.
Pappe’s tour is sponsored by the Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME). Freelance journalist Paul Weinberg interviewed Ilan Pappe for rabble.ca about some of the topics he will address on his tour. These questions and answers were conducted by email, just before Pappe boarded his flight to Canada.
Paul Weinberg: Do historians understand the entire story behind the events in 1948 involving the expulsion of the Palestinian residents from what now constitutes Israel? How open are the archives in Israel?
Historians understand in different ways such a contested chapter in history. Much depends on their location of the ongoing conflict, because these events are part of our contemporary reality in Israel and Palestine. There were two basic conflicting understandings of the conflict: one Zionist and one Palestinian. What happened in the last 20 to 25 years is that most of the professional historians and with them large segments of the public tend to regard the Zionist understanding as a false attempt to cover for a crime committed against the Palestinians in 1948 when half of them were expelled by force from their homeland.
The most interesting development in this is the fact that quite a few Zionist historians, unlike their predecessors in the Zionist historiographical establishment, accept that half of Palestine’s native population was expelled, but they see this is a justified act of self defence. So the final stage in the historiographical attempt to understand, as you put it, is a moral debate of whether in the name of a perceived threat ethnic cleansing and massacres can be justified.
The archives in Israel used to be quite accessible. Material which is now considered as potentially damaging to the state’s image is now far more difficult to access. But there is still, for the time being, enough there to substantiate a better understanding of the 1948 situation and beyond.
PW: What are you working on now in your academic research?
I’m working on several projects. One of them is called “the Idea of Israel”. This is a history of power and knowledge in Israel, and another is the early history of the 1967 occupation.
PW: Why are you living in the UK rather than Israel? Is it dangerous for you to live in Israel under the current political circumstances?
I try and live both places in fact, but I have to work in the UK as I was ousted from the Israeli academia. I do not think the danger for people like me depends on where we are, but rather on how desperate the Israelis and their supporters inside and outside are and how far have they given up the charade of democracy.
PW: How do you envision a one-state solution? Is it possible for two hostile nations to live inside a single state? I speak of this as a Canadian living in a bi-national state that works by hook and crook.
There is already a one-state solution in place – there is only one state and one regime controlling the land between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean. So the question is not getting hostile nations to live together but convincing oppressors to end the oppression. So one has to look for a combination of an outside pressure on the oppressor and an educational effort from within to change the power relations in the already existing one state.
PW: Norman Finklestein says that a two-state solution is still do-able under international law even with the huge number of Jewish settlers on Palestinian land. He also suggests that the boycott and divestment campaign against Israel hasn’t really worked. What is your response?
I think the two-states solutions are dead. Only someone who has not been for a while in the occupied territories can still think there is the ability to create a state of any kind there, even if the international will to impose this solution on Israel would have existed. If anything there is no such international will because the political elites are reluctant to do this. So the reality is of a one-state as I pointed out. The political elites in the west are also reluctant to stop the oppression on the ground, as they were in the heydays of apartheid in South Africa.
So you needed then, and you need now, a strong pressure from the civil society on the political elites to change course. And this is the essential role the BDS movement play and will play. The only real worry, and indeed the only remaining asset the Palestinians can still have vis-à-vis the Israelis is giving the presence of the Jews in Palestine moral and international legitimacy.
The BDS movement highlights that despite all its power, Israel will never receive legitimacy as long as the Palestinians do no grant it to them (this was understood very well by Netanyahu when he demanded that even the shamble of leadership of the PA would provide the state recognition as a Jewish State). Apart from the new efforts of Palestinian unity and re-arranging the issue of representation (resurrecting the PLO), the BDS is the most important development in Palestine in the last decade.
Paul Weinberg is a Toronto-based freelance writer and journalist. His websit is www.paulweinberg.ca
There is already a one-state solution in place – there is only one state and one regime controlling the land between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean. So the question is not getting hostile nations to live together but convincing oppressors to end the oppression.
The Israeli historian, Ilan Pappe, tells Chris Arnot that speaking out for the Palestinians turned him into a pariah
Chris Arnot, The Guardian
For an academic to describe himself as “feeling for a while like public enemy No 1″ suggests either an inflated ego or an incurable case of paranoia. Professor Ilan Pappe gives every appearance of suffering from neither. He is an amiable character with an engaging grin. By his own admission, he “likes to be liked”. Not a natural rebel then? “Certainly not,” he says.
Yet in 2005 and 2006, this Israeli son of German-Jewish emigrants found himself in the eye of a storm that would lead him to leave the country of his birth and seek sanctuary in the English west country. He has been chair in the history department at Exeter University for the last 18 months. By the time he left the University of Haifa, he had been condemned in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset; the minister of education had publicly called for him to be sacked; and his pictures had appeared in the country’s biggest-selling newspaper at the centre of a target. Next to it, a popular columnist addressed his readers thus: “I’m not telling you to kill this person, but I shouldn’t be surprised if someone did.”
The death threats had already been arriving by post, email and phone since Pappe, 54, had been asked on national radio whether he was going to take his complaints about the treatment of Palestinians to the UN security council. “I had to point out that I was not a politician or a diplomat,” he says, “I was an academic.” Albeit an academic who had recently published a book called The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. A somewhat provocative title, I suggest.
“It was,” he concedes. “I thought long and hard before using it, and my publisher [Oneworld Publications] hesitated. But I don’t think that the military and political elite has given up on the policy of ethnic cleansing. They think that the survival, and certainly the prosperity, of the Jewish state is connected to its ability to minimise the numbers of Palestinians living within its borders – although it has not yet decided where those borders should be.”
In 2005, Pappe and two friends wrote a warning online that Israeli settlers were being moved out of Gaza to allow government forces a free hand to bomb the residents of that overcrowded strip of land. When the current bombardment began at the end of last year, the Israeli government argued that it was trying to protect its citizens from rocket attacks by Hamas. But, says Pappe: “Those rocket attacks didn’t start until afterIsrael had blockaded Gaza.”
The conflict seems a million miles from where we’re sitting, overlooking a peaceful river valley in an idyllic part of Devon. Pappe did his PhD at Oxford in 1984 and remains a self-confessed Anglophile, despite reservations about the food and the weather. He has rented a property not far from Exeter for himself, his partner and two sons, aged 11 and 14. Fear for their safety was one reason why he felt impelled to leave Haifa. “The other reason was that I felt stifled as an intellectual.”
Having backed down from dismissing him through a disciplinary court, the university authorities in Haifa barred him from participating in seminars or conferences. “One of my colleagues was rung up and told: ‘You were seen having coffee with Ilan Pappe. Is that wise?’,” he says.
All the same, he says, he continued to receive support from some colleagues and many students, particularly Palestinian ones. There was external support, too, including from what was then the Association of University Teachers (AUT) in the UK. “I think my worst crime had been to back the academic and cultural boycott on Israel to end the occupation of Palestinian lands,” he says. “When the AUT approached me to ask whether I thought they were morally justified in doing it, I said yes. Only strong external pressure will stop the Israeli policy of destroying the Palestinian people.”
Since then, the AUT has evolved into the University and College Union (UCU)and, faced with legal action, has dropped proposals for a collective boycott.
“I think what’s really important,” says Pappe, diplomatically, “is that a growing number of individual academics feel they can no longer tolerate co-operating with their Israeli counterparts, except for those who oppose current government policies.”
Revulsion in the UK at the carnage in Gaza is likely to have strained relations even further. Any temptation by Pappe to claim that he saw this coming has been overwhelmed by outrage, tinged with considerable sadness, at the media images of civilian victims. “For me these figures are not anonymous,” he says. “I fear for people I know personally.” He speaks Arabic and socialises with Arab as well as Jewish friends and colleagues. “The Israeli government may find it difficult to justify its butchery to the rest of the world, but they can still rely on widespread support internally,” Pappe says. “Loyalty to the state and Zionist ideology supersedes anything else.”
Can he not, I wonder, understand the siege mentality of people who feel themselves under threat from growing Islamic militancy?
“Yes, I can,” Pappe replies. “There are genuine collective fears that have to do with past and present dangers. But I think those fears are manipulated through the education system and the media to seem worse than the reality suggests. And Israelis don’t seem to realise that their behaviour is contributing to those dangers. Anyone who endorses a militantly aggressive policy towards Israel can only have benefited from what’s been going on in Gaza.”
Facing the Syrians
When Pappe was 19, he found himself on the Golan Heights facing the Syrians in the Yom Kippur war of 1973. “I remember the sergeant major telling us that we should kill Arabs young or they’ll grow up to kill us,” he says. “And that attitude is widespread. That’s why tank drivers, F16 pilots or artillery commanders will kill civilians without hesitation. They’ve been taught to dehumanise them all their lives.”
Pappe’s parents, like many others, fled Germany in the 1930s because they could see that Jews would be treated as less than human. Members of both their families perished in the subsequent genocide. “My mother had seven sisters, and only three survived,” Pappe says. “There were similar stories on my father’s side. They saw Palestine and, later, the state of Israel as a safe haven. And that’s the part of me that can’t totally condemn Zionism. Had it not been for the Zionist movement, my parents and many like them would not have escaped.
“I’ve never underestimated those achievements. But my parents could never see that setting up a Jewish state was done by dispossessing Palestinians. They turned a blind eye, in the same way that many Germans did in the 30s and 40s.”
Neither parent is still alive. “My brother and sister don’t share my politics, but we still get on,” he adds. “Some relatives in the wider family find it difficult to talk to me. To my mind, though, I belonged to a society that was doing terrible things to Palestinians. I felt it was my duty to protest, even if that made me a pariah.”
The best way to protest in exile is to write, he feels. Right now, he has three books on the go. One is to be called The Forgotten Palestinians (“those living in Israel”); another The Bureaucracy of Evil, an examination of the way Israeli officials have managed day-to-day life in those territories beyond the country’s original borders that the state has occupied since 1967. He is also editing a collection of essays from scholars around the world comparing the Zionist system and ideology with the government of apartheid South Africa. “There’s plenty to compare,” he insists.
Ilan Pappe may not be a natural rebel, but nobody could accuse him of settling for a quiet life in the west country.
Job Chair in the history department at University of Exeter
Before that Senior lecturer in political science at University of Haifa and president of Israeli Association for Multicultural Education
Likes 19th-century English novels, cinema, classical music, Liverpool FC
Dislikes systemised state injustice