The Palestinian enclaves struggle: an interview with Ilan Pappé

The Editors
April 21, 2015
KR Interviews
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Professor Ilan Pappé is the director of the European Centre for  Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter, UK. He is the author of  fifteen books, among them The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. His newest book, written together with Noam Chomsky, is called On Palestine.


Professor Pappé, your field is history, but  your particular specialism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, is one whose  historical issues are still very much live today. What are your views on  the renewed violence in Gaza last summer?

Ilan Pappé:

The last Israeli attack on Gaza has to be  put in a longer historical context. It is just another point in a long  history that probably stretches back to the very beginning of the  Zionist project in Palestine in the late 19th century.  Zionism in essence is a settler colonialist project, very much in the  same mould as such projects in Africa, Australia and the Americas, the  only difference being that it has not as yet completed its ambitions.

The Zionist movement had two basic ambitions. One was a demographic  one. The basic Zionist assumption regarding demographics was that the  Jewish presence in Palestine can only be assured by safeguarding Jewish  exclusivity, or at least absolute majority, in the land—namely to have  Palestine with as few Palestinians as possible. What changed over the  years was the means for achieving this goal. The movement adapted itself  to changing historical circumstances in order to implement the Zionist  project on the land of Palestine.

The second ambition was geographical: to take over as much of the  land of Palestine as possible. This was fully achieved in 1967 when,  territorially, the Zionist movement took over the whole of historic  Palestine. But more territory undermined the demographic ambition. The  new greater Israel was left with the same demographic problem that  haunted the Zionist movement from its early inception—namely, there was  still a large number of Palestinians within this space which Zionism  designated as the Jewish homeland.

Ever since 1967, this conundrum preoccupies the Israeli policymakers  more than any other strategic question. In fact this has been a  preoccupation of the Zionist movement from very early on. The solution  it found to the problem in 1948 was to ethnically cleanse as many  Palestinians as possible (and indeed half of the population was kicked  out). But while the young Israel got rid of one million Palestinians in  1948, it incorporated another million and a half in 1967.

After 1967, the search was for a solution that would enable Israel to  keep the territorial achievement without undermining the demographic  one. The solution was the so called ‘peace process’. The peace process  was never meant to finalise any deal on the fate of the territories  Isreal occupied in 1967, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It was meant  to turn a temporary reality—by which Israel keeps the territories, but  does not grant any rights to the people living there—as a permanent  one.  As long as there were Palestinians supporting this process—and  there were—it won international legitimacy, and we are still there today  in 2015.

The basis of this process is the two-state solution, again an Israeli  idea supported by Palestinian leaders hoping this will end the Israeli  occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.  The supposedly tangible  possible end result of the process also gives it legitimacy and blinds  all concerned to the fact that Israel has not lost one moment ever since  1967, under the umbrella of the ‘peace process’, to unilaterally create  new realities on the ground. These realities included the colonisation  of half of the West Bank through the construction of Jewish settlements  and military bases and enclaving the Palestinians both in the West Bank  and in the Gaza Strip in gated communities with no connection to one  another and with heavy military presence on their boundaries. Israel  wants these enclaves to be the future Palestinian state—for this so far  they have found no Palestinian partner.

The Palestinian enclaves struggle in two different ways. The one in  the West Bank, led by the secular Fatah movement, lost faith in the  diplomatic process and is now attempting an appeal to international  tribunals that would force Israel to withdraw from the West Bank. The  one in the Gaza Strip, led by the Islamist group Hamas, believes it can  achieve the same through a military struggle. The different strategies  are not only the result of different ideological perceptions of reality.  The enclave in Gaza is the most densely populated area in the world,  where most of the people are refugees from 1948. There are no outlets  whatsoever and there is no countryside one can run to in times of  trouble. It is a ghetto.  And ever since 2006, when the people of Gaza  voted in favour of Hamas, since they lost faith both in the Fatah  leadership and the peace process, they were punished by Israel in a most  terrible way—slow strangulation. Israel controls the entry of food,  people, commodities and very little is allowed in or out.

Such a strangulation was imposed on the West Bank in 2002 in  operation Defence Shield, when Fatah attempted to resist the occuaption  by force. Then, as in Gaza, since 2006, Israel used all its military  might to punish those who attempted resistance. Its army employs tanks  and artillery, as well as the most updated and advanced lethal military  technology. The latter means are used also as a display of the latest  achievements of the Israeli military industry for prospective buyers.  And it uses them with a brutality that shocks the world for a while but  is usually soon forgotten.

What we saw last summer was yet another Israeli idea of how to deal  with the Palestinian resistance through the power of its military force.  It used more power than it had ever used before—hence the high number  of casualties [according to preliminary figures released by the UN  Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 1402 Palestinians civilians have been killed in the recent conflict].

There is one final additional dimension to the Israeli mode of action  I would like to add. Israel since 1948, and during 1948, was very  careful to try and depict its action as retaliation, and not an  initiation of violence. Hence, Israel repeatedly starts missions meant  to provoke a violent reaction from the Palestinians so as to justify a  larger operation against them. This was apparent once more in the events  that led to the 2014 attack on Gaza.  Three settlers were murdered in  the West Bank in an act of individual desperation that infrequently  happens in a tightly controlled and oppressed West Bank since 1967.   While it was known that they were killed, the army was sent to harass  the local population and arrest most of the Hamas leaders and activists  in the area. The Hamas retaliated symbolically from the Gaza Strip on  this crackdown on its support group in the West Bank. The Israeli  reaction was a genocidal attack on the Gaza strip.


What do you think is the endgame for the Israelis?


The endgame is still implementing the initial Zionist  programme of having as much of Palestine as possible with as few  Palestinians in it as possible. The main effort is to blur in the eyes  of the world the link between this ambition and the Israeli actions on  the ground. In the case of apartheid South Africa, the end of the regime  there was fated when the world recognised the connection between the  ideology of the regime and the brutality its security forces committed  on the ground. In practical terms, it means annexing area C (almost half  of the West Bank to Israel), increasing Jewish settlement in the north  and south of Israel, as well as in greater Jerusalem) and resisting any  attempt by the Palestinians to exit the enclaves built for them by  Israel. It may sound like a tactic, but in Israel this is a strategy if  not an ideology—namely part of life in a daily routine of continuing to  oppress the Palestinians.

The reason this can work, from within, is that policing another  people (six million within a population of twelve million) provides many  jobs and power to a lot of people. The number of Israelis employed  directly or indirectly is massive. This is a source of income for many,  many people in this country. Ultimately, it is not a state that has an  army and a police force; it is an army and police force that have a  state.


Do you think the plan is to keep a Jewish majority or to completely get rid of Palestinians?


There is a debate within Israel as to whether it is  necessary to get rid of the Palestinians in order to achieve the prime  goal of Zionism. You will find there are two Zionist approaches to this:  one pragmatic, believing the status quo should be maintained, and a  messianic one, wishing to alter dramatically the reality on the ground.

The pragmatic approach is represented by the Labour party and maybe  by certain important members of the present government. They think that  if you keep people in the enclaves I mentioned—or as others call them,  Bantustans— and don’t give them full rights, you almost achieve the same  goals as if you actually kick them out. They can stay in the country  but with no territorial integrity between them. Of course, whenever  these Palestinian communities seem to resist, then what surfaces are  ideas of more drastic action, like the one Israel took in 1948:  expelling the people from the country. I think for the time being  ‘pragmatic’ Israelis feel that they can continue with the Bantustan  approach to achieve the same goal they were aiming for ever since 1882  or at least since 1948.

The second approach wants to push the end nearer to our times and its  proponents are in this sense messianic Zionists. They believe that  regardless of public opinion or universal moral considerations, Israel  has the right and the might to complete the settler colonial project of  turning the whole of Palestine into a Jewish state. It used to be a  marginal point of view of the extreme right. It is much stronger and  more popular these days.

Both are tactics aiming at implementing the same endgame.  Given the  horrific events surrounding us in the Middle East, the growing  prominence of the second approach integrates Israel well into the  present day, harsh realities of the Middle East, where brutal force is  used in order to determine new facts on the ground.


The way you have presented your thesis makes  it seem focused on demography. But demography is a matter of how many  children each group has, child mortality, things of that sort. It is a  different subject. And the Palestinians are clearly ahead on demography.  Why would the Israelis take an approach that seems so doomed to fail?


Within historical Palestine, Jews are not a majority and  will be even less so within thirty or forty years. You have to bear in  mind that many Israelis are leaving because they are getting sick of the  place. But I think that is the whole issue: there is a conviction  behind those who make decisions in Israel, be they military men,  strategists or politicians, that they will have enough tools to deal  with what they call the ‘demographic threat’. If they were to feel that  demography is defeating them, you know, from different enclaves, that  would make them feel insecure. I don’t think they would hesitate to  implement mass expulsions, or any other drastic move. So, even the  ‘pragmatists’ are convinced they will win the demographic battle.

At the moment, the Israeli government still sees a long future ahead  in which the kind of structure they put in place is working. They can  play the charade of a democracy and the charade of the peace process  where, in reality, they imprison the Palestinians in Bantustans,  whenever it is needed. Given the way the Middle East is developing and  the way the world is viewing Islam, they think that they have a future  where they can get away with it. It is not even about Israel being the  only democracy in the Middle East or epitomising the Enlightenment any  more. They simply want to get away with their demographic policies  without losing their economic ties and their strategic alliances,  especially with the U.S. So long as they are convinced that these  alliances are not under danger, they will continue.

Should the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] campaign succeed  in affecting U.S. policy and the Israelis come to be regarded as a  liability or a pariah state, it would start to affect the country. Then I  think the society would have to decide whether it became a rogue state  that the world cannot tolerate anymore or if it wants to fundamentally  change its ideological view of the reality. At the moment, they are not  forced to make that decision, but there are indications already of what  the decision would be. When the Israeli public was asked whether they  would choose to be less of a democratic state but more of a  ethnic/racist state or more of a democratic state and less of an  ethnic/racist state, the majority voted for a Jewish, and not  democratic, state. These are the options.


It’s unclear why the two-state solution is  incompatible with the model you describe. If the Israelis, as you say,  have these goals, why shouldn’t they do everything in their power to  push for a two-state solution, to separate the Palestinians and the  Israelis?


Provided that the two-state solution doesn’t undermine  the territorial victory of 1967, of course. All it takes is to convince  the Palestinians that a Palestinian state is where the Palestinians  live. This means they will have no rule over the roads, the green lungs,  national parks or any non-inhabited space. It leaves them about 40  percent of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. However, even the most  domiciled Palestinians refuse to accept this.

The only two-state solution that does not undermine the demographic  obsession is one that envisions a Palestinian state made of a network of  Bantustans, connected to each other by tunnels. But the whole territory  would be controlled by Israel, a fake state. It is really a twisted  idea of a huge open prison. But we know that this idea was rejected even  by those Palestinians who were regarded as going too far for their wish  to collaborate with the Israelis.


But again, how does that serve the Israeli interest  in the model you describe? Why doesn’t the Israeli state just give the  Palestinians a real state, given that it would seem to further their  interests according to your view?


From their perspective, Israeli strategists cannot give up the land  (either because they believe without it the state is not strategically  viable or because ideologically they regard at least the West Bank as  the heart of ancient Israel). Moreover, they have used so much of the  land, through settlements, that it has become an integral part of the state.

Separating one Palestinian community from the other, in the  colonialist mode of ‘divide and rule’, is the only way a settler  colonial state like Israel can deal with the reality. Since 1967 Israel  has exploited the occupied territory. It has employed means of  ‘judeaisation’, or colonisation, to such a degree that what separates  one Palestinian community from another are Jewish communities and these  Jewish communities serve all kinds of purpose [Editors’ note: They use  the land for agriculture, industry, military training and building  Israeli infrastructure more generally (roads, settlements, walls). The  idea is to “create facts on the ground” and annex the West Bank one  day.]. The most important biblical parts of Israel were within the West  Bank. They found a way of offering impoverished Jewish people a better  standard of living within these colonies and at the end of the day the  aim is to change the demographic balance within the West Bank through  the capture of land. Ariel Sharon was connecting this strategy with a plan to make the Palestinians unwelcome so that they will move to Jordan.


When you speak of a fake state…


The fake state is the state envisaged by the Oslo  accord. The agreement divides the West Bank into three areas. Area C is  the area that Israel rules directly. Israel is now in the process of  annexing Area C, which makes up almost half of the West Bank, 10% of  historical Palestine (I’m leaving Gaza out for now). If you divide that  10% into ten different territories  —well, this is what Israel calls a state. The Palestinians are not  willing to accept this and the international community does not agree to  it either, but they don’t do anything to enforce a change in reality.  And the Israeli take on reality may be right: you can continue the  dialogue almost forever.


How does the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 fit in with this theory?


The Israelis thought they could run the Gaza strip like  they ran the West Bank, with an Israeli part and a Palestinian part. But  the settlers there were a constant target for Palestinian guerrilla  attacks and the occupation was very costly. There was a need to maintain  a strong military presence. Moreover, the presence of Jewish settlers  in the midst of the Palestinian population complicated the Bantustan  model of control I mentioned before. It limited the ability of the  Israelis to collectively punish the Palestinians, not just because the  collateral damage could have included Jews but because the  infrastructure usually targeted by Israel in such punitive actions also  served the settlers. It was a situation in which prison wardens were  living amongst the inmates. In such a situation you cannot really punish  the prisoners [Editors’ note: Because then you kill the wardens (i.e.  the settlers) too. Ever since settlers were removed, Palestinians in  Gaza get bombed once a year in “collective punishment”. This was  impossible when settlers were still present. Gaza, in Pappe’s analogy,  is the prison.].

There were other benefits to the disengagement programme. The trauma  manufactured in Israel around the eviction of Jews was helpful in  sending a message to the world that evicting settlers is something that  Israelis cannot undergo twice. It was also, for Sharon, a repeat of the  Menachem Begin Deal with Egypt in 1977 (Israel will give up the Sinai,  and Egypt will not pressure Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and  the Gaza Strip). The Gaza Strip for the West Bank is something Sharon  could live with, as would probably many others on the Israeli Right.

What this shows you is that the only credible solution that could  settle this in the interests of the native [Palestinian] people is a  one-state solution. The two-state approach was an Israeli invention, as  if you can somehow create an outlet for the Palestinian sense of  injustice, between Israel and the Arab world. All this is not going to  work anyway. It is just a tactic for dealing with one group of  Palestinians. There are other groups: among them the Palestinians inside  Israel, and the five and a half million refugees who are  internationally recognised.


You’ve spoken a lot about what the interests  and goals of the Israeli state might be. What do you think Hamas’ goals  are within the framework you describe?


Hamas comes at the situation from two  perspectives, the Islamic one and the Palestinian national one. These  two perspectives, when used together, say the following: we are not  going to solve the differences between us and the Zionists on the one  hand, nor can we hope to dislodge the Zionists; therefore we are willing  to give them a 30 year hudna [Islamic parlance], a kind of armistice, which could practically be equated with the two-state solution.

What Hamas suggested all along was to find a way to live with the  disagreement rather than looking to solve it. This is something the  Israelis cannot agree to. In their view, Hamas’ role is like that of the  Palestinian Authority: to listen and receive dictates, to have the kind  of reality they are willing to tolerate be dictated to them. Hamas  decided that it can use an armed struggle to try and bring Israelis to  that position, which I don’t think is going to work.

On top of that, Hamas’ reaction to the Israeli policy, the policy of  strangulation, is often only a reaction rather than a well-thought-out  strategy about the future. The response to the ghetto that Israelis  created is launching rockets, by showing your anger rather than  resisting because you believe you can defeat the Israelis. This creates confusion about the Hamas’ goals. The difference between a strategy and  an existential reaction is blurred. I think on the other hand what Hamas  has been doing since April 2014 is far more solid and sound, the  attempt to work with the Palestinian Authority to find a common  strategy. It seems to be quite successful as the Israelis would not otherwise have used such military force.


What do you say to the argument that the current  situation, including the recent violence in Gaza, actually suits Hamas’  interests? At the moment, they can take the moral high ground at no real  political cost.


At the end of the day, Hamas needs more than the moral  high ground. A moral high ground does not bring a family back to life. I  think they are navigating between the domestic support that they have,  which seems to be higher than the level of support that the Palestinian  Authority has. But they do not forget that they also have a duty to  cater to the elementary existential needs of their people. And you don’t  do that just by taking the moral high ground.

In the future, I think we will see a political force that will have  to find solutions for their own people’s survival and not just hide  behind moral posturing. After their work in the refugee camps, Fatah was  in a similar situation. But it also cared for the educational and  welfare needs of its people and without that it would have been totally delegitimised. Hamas also has to show its people its own vision of the  future: what the world will look like in the next 50, 60 years.


Your ideas focus quite strictly on the Israelis and,  in your research, the Zionists. But what about the context of the  policy of Hamas, which is based on violent attacks against civilians?


People who say this generally don’t regard the  act of invading and taking someone’s home as a violent act. Of course,  coming from this position the Palestinian response looks unreasonable.  The Palestinians resisted the idea, supported by Britain, that their  homeland is not their own, but belongs to people who came from Europe.  In turn, the colonialist powers respond to the violence with their own  violence. But nobody excused the anti-colonial movement for being the  source of the violence. It is the colonialist situation that produces  the violence. You need to decolonise Palestine. This can’t be done by  throwing the Jews back to the homeland, but by creating a political  outfit that respects most of their rights.


But even historically, there is a fairly consistent  strand of violence and anti-Semitism in the Arab policy towards the  Israelis. Before the formation of the state of Israel, there is the  famous example of the Mufti of Palestine, Haj Al Amin Al-Husseini, who  allied himself with the Nazis. Aren’t these factors relevant for  understanding the historical and current context?


I think this view is totally distorted. Before the  arrival of Zionism, Palestine was a country where all the religions  lived together. There was no anti-Semitism or a particular anti-Jewish  bias.

The Palestinian community became anti-Zionist, not anti-Semitic, when  they realised what the real aims of the colonialist movement were. They  sometimes blurred the terms Jews with Zionists, because the Zionists  insisted they were there on the name of Judaism and they colonised the  land as Jews.

Husayni as a leader underwent a similar transformation. But he took  it further. He understood that Britain was the key for saving the  Palestinians from the colonisation of Palestine. When he realised they  were supporting Zionism and not rejecting it, he looked for help from  their enemies, who were, on the eve of the Second World War, the  Italians and the Germans. So yes, at one moment, he flirted with the  Nazis. Neither he nor any other Palestinian took the Nazi ideology  seriously. None of these people had a problem with Jews. They had a  problem with a particular group of Jews who wanted to dislodge them.  They would sometimes call them ‘the Jews’ when they meant ‘the  Zionists’. They would use the word Jews. The problem that creates this  identification between Zionism and Judaism is because of Zionism: it  claims it represents all the Jews in the world. When it destroys a  village, it claims it does so in the name of Judaism. Unsurprisingly,  when not one Jewish voice says otherwise, this is the outcome. But  luckily, there are a lot of Jews who are not Zionists who do speak up  saying that they are not condoning it.

To sum up, not all Jews are Zionists, and not all the Zionists are  Jews. The heart of the problem is with Zionism as an ideology. Not  because of what it promises the Jews—it is a noble idea to create a safe  place, even a natural home, but it is a horrible idea when you think  the only way you can implement it is by destroying the homes of other  people. It’s not going to work in the 21st century. For the sake of the  Jews in Israel themselves they should seek a reconciliation with the  native people, who are still willing to compromise, and not continue the  act of ethnic cleansing, or else the Palestinians will always be  helpless.


How does the current political situation in  Israel—Netanyahu having just been re-elected—support or influence your  theses? How do you see things developing with the recent election?


Before the election, while everyone was confident  Netanyahu would lose, I predicted that those I call here the ‘messianic’  Zionists are getting stronger at the expense of the pragmatic ones. The  results of the elections reaffirm my conviction that this is the trend:  Israel becomes a state that does not feel the need to play the charade  of democracy or peace process and intends to unilaterally implement the  takeover of Palestine and deal with the Palestinians in the way I  described before. Either Palestinians accept life in Bantustans or they  will feel the strength of the military brutality if they resist.

Pressuring Israel from the outside through BDS, and a one state  solution, remain the only panacea for this illness called Zionism.

Editors’ note:

Haj Amin al-Husseini was the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem during the  Mandate era. He led the establishment of and subsequently chaired the  Arab Higher Committee, which came to be the central political organ of  the Arab community of Mandate Palestine. He collaborated with the German  Nazi and Italian fascist governments during World War II, including by  helping Germans to recruit Bosnian Muslims for the Waffen SS.


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