Shaun de Waal interviews leading Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, who is visiting South Africa.
Ilan Pappé, most famously author of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006), is speaking at events related to the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) campaign as a guest of Cape Town publication Muslim Views.
Pappé taught at the University of Haifa (where he was born) until 2008, when he left Israel because, he says, the authorities had made his life increasingly difficult. He now teaches at the University of Exeter in Britain, where he heads one of only three Palestine studies units in the world.
He was a leading member of the Israeli party Hadash – the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality – standing twice for the Knesset.
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You characterise Israel as a settler-colonialist state, and you speak of the difference between colonialism and settler-colonialism.
Basically, in settler-colonialism, the settler doesn’t go home, right? This is what we South Africans have called “colonialism of a special type”.
Yes! Early Zionism used the word “colonialism” to describe what Zionism was all about, because the image of colonialism in the late 19th century was very good. They were proud to brand Zionism as a successful colonial project.
Then, in the 1930s, and after the founding of the state of Israel, they found that the image of colonialism had changed.
The early scholars of Zionism invented a new word – I can’t even say it, a kind of misspelling of “colonisation” in Hebrew – to show that this project was unique.
Zionism began to speak instead of the return to an ancient homeland, the redemption of an empty land. This meant you could not describe the Palestinian anticolonialist movement as such, but rather as terrorists trying to destroy a modern democratic state.
Israel and its supporters use the argument that Israel is a beacon of democracy – the only democratic state in the region.
There are two Israels – the nonoccupied Israel, which is a democracy, and then there is Israel plus a temporary occupation. It’s as though Israel says: “You can’t judge us according to that occupation, because it’s temporary.” But it has been going on since 1967! And, of course, Arabs in Israel were subject to military rule until 1967, then that military rule was extended to the occupied territories.
Israel defeats any definition of a democratic society, just by its attitude to the indigenous people. This argument that it is a democracy didn’t work for apartheid South Africa, so why should it work for Israel?
You know, there was a moment in the Arab Spring when it looked very promising, very democratic, but this was most worrying for Israel – as was reflected in the Israeli media. The possibility that there could be an alternative democracy or a real democracy in the Middle East seemed to shake the strategic foundation of the state of Israel.
Israel also points out that Hamas, which is now the governing party in Gaza, says in its charter that it wants to wipe out the state of Israel. This is a powerful ideological weapon for Zionists mobilising support for Israel, because it can accuse Hamas of wanting another Holocaust.
Yes, I see that. But you can’t use human rights to assess anticolonialist movements at the height of their struggles against colonialism. Hamas is a certain Palestinian reaction to a specific historic moment. I can’t go to the people of Gaza, strangulated as they are by Israel, and tell them stop launching rockets into Israel – to just die there in Gaza. I need to have a meaningful conversation with them, in an environment that will allow them to see the options.
This is why the BDS movement is so important. You need to give people an option. As I often say to my friends who propose more radical action against Israel, 100 000 missiles from Gaza would not have the effect of one government in the world that would be willing to sever relations with Israel.
This would be far more effective, and it would be nonviolent. It would enable us to build something new, without the legacy of violence in the background. I say to my Palestinian friends: the age of nationalism is over. We have to galvanise around human rights.
The Israeli government did not have emergency meetings on the occupation for many years – until it seemed the BDS movement was having some successes. And this is why the South African government’s reaction to the latest crisis in Gaza has been so disappointing. It could at least have asked the Israeli ambassador to go home.
The founder of Hamas, who was assassinated by Israel, said that if his oppressor was a Muslim or an Arab or even a Palestinian, he would have fought them in the same way.
The Fatah Charter used to say that Jews who arrived after 1918 should go back to their home countries. But the moment Fatah thought there was a chance of dialogue, at the time of Oslo, they admitted this was absurd. They said they wouldn’t even demand that the Russians go home – the Russians who arrived yesterday.
I’m not a Hamas person, but we need a long dialogue between people of different faiths and backgrounds, because eventually we will find a dialogic state. I’m dying to start this journey with my Muslim friends.
And what of the recent American initiative led by Secretary of State John Kerry?
The two-state solution has been dead for years. The body is in the morgue. Every now and then you get an enthusiastic American secretary of state who takes the body out of the morgue and resuscitates it and pretends that it is alive. But when it doesn’t work, he returns the body to the morgue. I think we should have the funeral already.
I don’t think we yet have an idea of how we could develop a new state of Israel-Palestine, but we can’t even begin this dialogue if everyone is captivated by a false paradigm.
The two-state solution shrinks what is Palestine to 20% of the land. You can’t say Palestine is only the West Bank and Gaza. And you can’t shrink the Palestinian people into the people in Gaza and the West Bank. If you’re not going to cater for 5.5-million refugees, how ever you work it out, the two-state solution will be hot air.
Political elites are much more creatures of inertia than they admit. A paradigm shift requires study and learning, and they are lazy. It means risking popularity. It brings with it a lot of uncertainty.
We need this paradigm shift, and we have to prepare the ground for that moment.