Few, if any, historians have done more to unearth the truth about Israel than Ilan Pappe.
His 2006 book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine documents how the uprooting of more than 750,000 Palestinians was the direct consequence of a plan drawn up by Zionist leaders in 1947. It arguably remains the most serious study published yet of the Nakba (catastrophe), the violent expulsion of Palestinians leading to Israel’s formation the following year.
Pappe’s outspoken criticisms of Israel have resulted in him being isolated by many of his Israeli peers. When he supported a Palestinian-led campaign for an academic boycott of Israel in 2005, the president of Haifa University called on Pappe to resign his teaching post at that college. Since moving to the UK, Pappe has remained a prolific writer on both Israel’s past and present.
He spoke to The Electronic Intifada contributor Frank Barat. A longer version of this interview can be seen in the video above.
Frank Barat: You have written about how the first Palestinian intifada took place in the 1930s. Can you explain its significance?
Ilan Pappe: I think it is important to go back to even earlier than 1936 in order to understand it. You have to go back to the late nineteenth century when Zionism appeared as a movement. It had two noble objectives, one was to find a safe place for Jews who felt insecure in a growing atmosphere of anti-Semitism, and the other was that some Jews wanted to redefine themselves in a national group, not just as a religion.
The problem started when they chose Palestine as a territory in which to implement these two impulses. It was clear — because the land was inhabited — that you would have to do it by force and you had to contemplate the depopulation of the indigenous people. It took time for the Palestinian community to realize that this was the plan.
By 1936, you could already see the beginning of the real result of this strategy: Palestinians were evicted from land purchased by the Zionist movement; Palestinians lost their jobs because of Zionist strategy to take over the labor market. It was very clear that the European Jewish problem was going to be solved in Palestine.
All these three factors pushed Palestinians for the first time to say “we are going to do something about it,” and they tried to revolt. You needed the all might of the British Empire to crush that revolt as it did happen. It took them three years; they used the repertoire of actions against the Palestinians that were as bad as those that would be used later on by the Israelis to quell the Palestinian intifadas of 1987 and 2000.
FB: This revolt of 1936 was a very popular revolt; it was the peasants that took up arms.
IP: Absolutely. The Palestinian political elite lived in cities of Palestine, but the main victims of Zionism up to the 1930s were in the countryside. That’s why the revolt started there — but there were sections of the urban elite that joined them.
I pointed out in one of my books that the British killed or imprisoned most of those who belonged to the Palestinian political elite and military or potential military elite.
They created a Palestinian society that was quite defenseless in 1947 when the first Zionist actions — with the knowledge that the British Mandate came to an end — had commenced. I think it had an impact on the inability of the Palestinians to resist a year later, in 1948, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
FB: You moved to Exeter in the UK in 2007, but still go back to Israel very often. How has the situation evolved in Israel over the last few years
IP: The task of changing Jewish society from within is formidable. This society seems to be more and more entrenched on its positions.
If you compare Israel today with the Israel I left, or the Israel I grew up in, the trend is to become more chauvinistic, ethnocentric, intransigent — which makes us all feel that peace and reconciliation are very far away if we only rely on our hope that Jewish society will change from within.
FB: Should we, therefore, put all our energy on applying pressure from the outside or should we still try to make Israelis change their views?
IP: The reason why we are all debating this is because on the ground the machine of destruction does not stop for one day. We therefore don’t have the luxury to wait any longer. Time is not on our side.
We know that while we wait, many terrible things are happening. We also know there is a correlation between those terrible things happening and the realization of the Israelis that there is a price tag attached to what they are doing.
If they pay no price for what they are doing, they will even accelerate the strategy of ethnic cleansing. It’s therefore a mixture.
We urgently need to find a system by which you stop what is being done now, on the ground, and to also prevent what is about to happen. You need a powerful model of pressure from the outside.
As far as people from the outside are concerned, international civil society, I think the BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] movement is as good as it gets. Still, it can’t be the only model or factor.
There are two additional factors to make it a successful process. One is on the Palestinian side. The question of representation needs to be sorted [out]. You need a good solution.
Secondly, you need to have a kind of educational system, inside, that takes the time to educate the Israeli Jews about a different reality and the benefit it will bring to them.
If those factors all work well together, and we have a more holistic approach to the question of reconciliation, things could change.
IP: I think two things are taking place. One is the issue of Palestinian representation.
The people that claim to represent the Palestinians from the West Bank became the representatives of the whole Palestinian people. As far as the West Bank is concerned, you see why a two-state solution is attractive. It could mean the end of military control. One can understand this.
That’s one of the difficulties. You have certain groups of Palestinians that, in my opinion, wrongly, believe that this is the quickest way to end the occupation. I don’t think it is.
The second reason is that the two-state solution has a logical ring to it. It’s a very Western idea, a colonialist invention that was applied in India and Africa, this idea of partition.
It became a kind of religion to the extent that you do not question it anymore. You work out how best to get there. That is surprising. To my mind it makes very intelligent people take this as a religion of logic. If you question the rationality of it, you are criticized.
This is why a lot of people in the West stick to it. Nothing on the ground would ever change their mind.
Five minutes on the ground shows you that the one state is already there.
It’s a non-democratic regime, an apartheid regime. So you just need to think about how to change this regime. You do not need to think about a two-state solution. You need to think about how to change the relations between the communities, how to affect the power structure in place.
FB: The Palestinian intellectual Edward Said died ten years ago. You knew him well. Can you say why Palestinians looked up to him so much?
IP: We miss him very much. I don’t think only Palestinians looked up to him for inspiration. He was one of the greatest intellectuals of the second half of the 20th century. We all looked at him for inspiration on questions of knowledge, morality, activism, not only on Palestine. We are missing his holistic approach, his ability to see things from above in a more wholesome way.
When you lose someone like that, you have people that are taking the fragmentation that Israel imposes on the Palestinians and act as if this is a reality itself. What we need is to overcome the intellectual, physical and the cultural fragmentation that Israel imposes on us, Palestinians and Jews, and to strive to come back to something far more organic and integrated so that the third generation of Jewish settlers and indigenous native people of Palestine could have a future together.
Frank Barat presents Le Mur a des Oreilles, a monthly radio show focused on Palestine.