Pappe: 'Israel must be treated as South Africa was'

From the archive (legacy material)

Interview by Nick Everett | Green Left Weekly | 1 September 2004

Dr Ilan Pappe is one of Israel’s most prominent “new historians”. In May 2002, Pappe was threatened with expulsion from his university, the University of Haifa, for supporting a Jewish graduate student whose dissertation documented an massacre of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers. The expulsion proceedings were suspended due to a protest by international academics. Green Left Weekly’s Nick Everett spoke with Pappe during his recent visit to Australia.
What brought about the current intifada (uprising) in Palestine, and what is the Israeli government’s policy towards it?
The intifada is the result of Palestinians’ frustration [with] the intolerable gap between the discourse of peace and reconciliation and the actual reality on the ground. While the diplomats involved in the 1993 Oslo accords were talking about peace and independence, on the ground the occupation continued. In fact, it became worse — more settlements were built, more roadblocks were introduced and the Israeli policy in general became harsher and more cruel.
Ever since the outbreak of the second intifada, the Israeli politicians and generals are using it as a pretext for trying to affect by force their own idea of how the Palestine question should be solved. It is wrong to look at the Israeli government as an “aberration”, as a dramatic shift in Israeli policies. The government led by PM Ariel Sharon epitomises Israeli policies rather than deviates from them.
[Sharon has] also learned something that he failed to understand in his first government — if you employ words such as withdrawal, Palestinian state and “peace”, you … can present your own middle way — annexing parts of the West Bank to Israel in a way that does not sound fanatical or extreme, but is the only way to peace.
And this is [why] the UN and of course the US and the EU are supporting Sharon’s “peace plan”. And the Sharon peace plan is very clear — he was very honest about this — he does not want the Gaza settlements, he wants only half of the West Bank.
The Labor Party has found the rationalisation to explain why most of its members are now supporting the Sharon government, with a huge demonstration in Tel Aviv supporting Sharon. The peace camp came to the big demonstration in Tel Aviv to support Sharon. This is unbelievable. But the reason is because [Sharon] succeeded in mesmerizing them as well with the words of “peace”, “withdrawal” and “Palestinian state”.
There is a consensus within the Israeli political centre about what this settlement should be: which is mainly taking over as much of Palestine as possible and moving Palestinians off it. Which means that the Israelis are building walls on what they see as the borders of Israel, which will leave the Palestinians only 10-15% of original Palestine. They would divide what is left of the original Palestine into two areas — the West Bank and the Gaza Strip — and put on it walls and barriers. It would amount to two prison camps.
I don’t think the Israelis mind calling these two Bantustans — or prison camps — Palestine and claiming this is the solution. I think that the Israeli government feels that it has a window of opportunity now with the US government [of President George Bush] and it may not have such a window of opportunity in the future. This is why I think that the present policies are directed at solidifying such a “solution” or settlement.
Another problem [for the Israeli government] is that … it feels that it has lost the demographic battle. In other words, it doesn’t matter how it shapes the border — whether 1%, 2% or 10% of the West Bank is annexed — the demographic balance, which obsesses [Israeli leaders], is going to change rapidly.
If you compare the growth of both populations, you can see that in 10 or 15 years, the Israelis are going to lose their majority. [They realise that] however you juggle; however you play with all this power, at the end of the day [the Israeli government is going to represent] a minority.
Once, talk about transfer and expulsion was the property of extreme right-wing politicians and was taboo. It has moved to the centre. Distinguished scholars, politicians talk openly about the need to expel Palestinians. They argue that that is the only way for Israel to survive.
We have an Israeli government that is not going to negotiate with the Palestinians a final settlement, but is going to dictate by force what is Israel and what is Palestine.
What is your reading of the mood amongst the Palestinian people and their response to this policy?
Two agendas are very important here. One is [because of] the total collapse of the social, political and economic infrastructure of the Palestinian territories under occupation. This means that there is a need for non-government organisations and civil society to rebuild society from below. It is being done, but it is being done under occupation — an almost impossible task. That is one very serious challenge.
The second agenda is democratising the institutions that would allow the refugee communities to take a major role in the decision making in the future. The Oslo accords totally excluded the Palestinian refugee community — almost half of the Palestinian people — from any say in their future.
What is the present impact of the international volunteers in Israel, coordinated by organisations like the International Solidarity Movement (ISM)? Are there prospects of a renewed peace movement in Israel and what kind of international solidarity can we offer?
The ISM is a very important movement, especially in the role [of] making people outside Israel and Palestine aware of what is going on. I don’t think it can stop the occupation, nor is it having a great deal of effect on Israeli public opinion.
We need to have a stronger political edge with regard to Israel’s position in the world; much of the effort should be directed to exerting pressure on Israel. The hope for a peace movement from within [Israel] to change things is admirable, but is not very feasible. The dangers facing the Palestinians are so serious and so grave that it would be helpful if some energy would go towards helping exert pressure on [Israel] from outside world.
There are two agendas that should be put forward by activists around the world, and also inside Israel. I don’t want to confuse the two agendas.
The first agenda is not a peace agenda. If you are in the business of protecting the cause of Palestine you are not just on the business of peace — you have a much more urgent agenda, which is saving the Palestinians in Palestine. I’m not sure that you can prevent the Israeli government from taking its next steps in its policies of destruction and expulsion by talking about dialogues for peace.
I think you should start thinking about what an activist group can do to create an atmosphere in which Israel is a pariah state as long as these policies continue. Talk about sanctions, talk about boycotts, talk about anything that drives home the message that enough is enough, that such behaviour cannot be tolerated from a state that claims to be part of the family of civilized countries.
This is an agenda that requires a lot of coordination and thinking. There is an impressive movement of disinvestment now in the US that has been gathering momentum and which should be looked at as one possible model. The boycott on South Africa started in an Irish supermarket, where [an employee] refused to do the bill for shoppers who had South African goods in their trolleys.
The second agenda is the agenda of the long-term solution in Palestine. It is important to rethink the whole idea. Whether we like the idea of a two-state solution, or whether we don’t like the idea, I think the reality on the ground in a few months is going to prove that the two-state solution is not feasible anymore.
What does it mean? How do we go forward? We need to work on the right of return [for Palestinian refugees to Israel] as a symbolic idea and as a practical idea. You cannot have a solution to the question of Palestine if the refugees are not part of it. And you cannot have a solution if the Palestinians in Israel are not part of it.
What do you see as the significance of the hunger strike of Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails?
The hunger strike of the political prisoners in Israeli jails — following the example of Irish hunger strikers in British jails — is a very important development. First of all, it is a Palestinian strategy of non-violence. It is very difficult to practice non-violent tactics in Israel. I am very fearful of the Israeli reaction to this hunger strike. The Internal Security Minister, Tzahi Hanegbi, has said, “They can strike until death”.
Israel is being let off for policies that no other country in the Western world could do. [The hunger strike] is not enough, but it is a move in the right direction. I don’t think suicide bombs are the right way, either militarily or politically. As a non-violent strategy it is the right way to go, but it has no chance unless we create an international atmosphere in which Israel is treated as South Africa was.
[Pappe has written numerous books, few of which have been translated into Hebrew. His latest is A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples.]