Interview with Ilan Pappé – Democratic Socialists of America

By Evan Heitkamp Boucher

Over two weeks from April 7 to April 21, Evan Heitkamp Boucher conducted an email interview with Ilan Pappé, eminent historian of Israel-Palestine, regarding the recent nonviolent protest movement in the Gaza Strip and its place within the nation’s history and the Palestinian struggle.









The Gaza Strip is one of two territories, along with the West Bank, ostensibly reserved for Palestinians in the “two-state solution” for the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In contrast to the one-state solution, in which Palestinians and Israelis would live in the same geographic area, most supporters of the two-state solution largely advocate for independent national sovereignty for Israelis and Palestinians in two different spaces. Through negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization in the early 1990s, the Palestinian Authority was created to oversee a future Palestinian state in today’s Gaza and West Bank with final aspects to be negotiated throughout the mid to late 1990s.

Both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip remain occupied by Israel, albeit in different ways. The Gaza Strip—a territory approximately twenty-five miles long by six to twelve miles wide, containing 1.8 million people who lack the resources to sustain themselves—is currently under an air, sea, and land blockade. This blockade has imposed enormous human costs, including drastically reducing access to clean, drinkable water within the Gaza Strip through limits on fuel to operate sewage systems and desalination facilities (although even desalinated water can pose a health hazard). At present, residents of Gaza currently face a situation in which less than 4% of fresh water is drinkable. Simultaneously, Israeli officials have severely curtailed Palestinian access to so-called “dual use” materials that are essential to rebuilding Gaza’s economy and environment back to a livable standard after years of intermittent Israeli bombing.

In response to the continued human rights abuses, organizers in the Gaza Strip planned a six-week nonviolent protest dubbed the “March of Return” that began on March 30 and ends on May 15, al-Nakba, which literally means “the catastrophe” in Arabic, and commemorates the Palestinian exodus during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The protest remains overwhelmingly nonviolent, despite Israeli responses to unarmed protesters ranging from sniper fire to teargas lobbed from behind the safety of a fence. At the time of writing, thirty-nine Palestinians have been killed since the beginning of the protests.

DSA‘s editorial team decided to reach out to historian Ilan Pappé. Dr. Pappé’s research has focused on evaluating the veracity of Israeli national myths and narratives pertaining to the intentionality and systematization of Israel’s land acquisitions and Palestinian displacement in the wars of 1948 and 1967. His 2006 work, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, asserted that the displacement of Palestinians from what later became the borders of Israel was not incidental, but planned and systematic. He is a vocal supporter of the one-state solution and a democratic, binational state.


Evan Heitkamp Boucher: Foreign Policy magazine’s recent headline, "The Nonviolent Violence of Hamas: The unarmed protests at the Gaza-Israel border are a desperate bid to provoke a crisis," seems emblematic of a broader understanding of Palestinian political movements. Given the current Israeli government’s attitude towards avowed nonviolent protest in Gaza today, what are sincerely considered appropriate methods for Palestinians to engage politically? Is there a meaningful distinction on this matter between the current government and a credible electoral opposition?

Ilan Pappé: The Israeli take is that Palestinians should not be active at all. They should comply and reconcile with the reality or else, so any Palestinian resistance is deemed by the policymakers there as a potential terrorist activity.

More broadly, I believe that means emanate from vision and strategies and not the other way around. There is not clear definition of the Palestinian liberation project (which includes not only the liberation of the Gaza Strip from oppression) but the whole of Palestine (and Israel) and the solution for the Palestinian refugee problem. It is obvious that lack of unity disables the Palestinians to project clearly their vision into the future through authentic and representative bodies. I think this will happen eventually and will be based on a one-state solution demand that includes the return of the refugees. So, in the meantime, the non-violent demonstrations and resistance will continue but will be not be sufficient as a transformative force until its is adopted as part of [a] clear strategic vision of the future.

EHB: During my times living in the region throughout the last eight years, I often noticed near-encyclopedic references by almost every Palestinian and Israeli to different international organizations’ views and decisions that have been folded into the language of dispute. Do international law and its institutions have a salutary role to play in creating a structural solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

IP: They do, but the lose their relevance and ability to impact reality. International law is a negative term and concept in the eyes of most Israelis, and Palestinians have learned a long time ago that international law is used by the West to promote its own interests and not the values it pretends to serve. So, alongside the appeals to international law (in order to demand justice for Palestinian’s systematic abuse by Israel), more powerful means of pressure are needed to change Israel’s policy.

EHB: As best as I can tell, the American foreign policy community is almost wholly at a loss to articulate a holistic and theoretically grounded alternative foreign policy to the currently hegemonic neoconservatism, other than a sort of knee-jerk anti-interventionism. On a broad policy and philosophical level, how can developed wealthy states positively impact outcomes around international human rights and democratic movements?

IP: The only way they can become constructive in their involvement is through an adherence to principle of parity and uniformity in the way they approach such questions. The Western intervention in the human rights’ catastrophe in Syria can only be effective if the decisive condemnation and willingness to act will be echoed in the treatment of such catastrophes in the Yemen and Libya and, in particular, in Palestine.

EHB: You have spent a sizable portion of your career analyzing the historical development of Israel and specifically the institutional policies that led to and affected al-Nakba. Your work has been criticized for its focus on the subject of the extent to which ethnic cleansing was a coordinated policy and at what level it was ordered. Why does this remain such a galvanizing topic seventy years later?

IP: I think there is a profound change in the way my findings are treated nowadays in Israel. As long as the establishment and the regime belonged to the same ideological stream as that which committed the 1948 crimes I wrote about, then the allegation of a systematic ethnic cleansing in 1948 was strongly denied as at least we (myself and my critics) shared the same value system that regarded ethnic cleansing as a crime. The politicians and their associates in the local academia and media denied my finding because they were ashamed of them. The present regime comes from a different approach. It has no problem with ethnic cleansing and is willing to do it again.

EHB: As Daoud Kuttab noted in al-Monitor, there is a relatively large difference between the level of mass protest in the Gaza Strip when compared with the West Bank. How will these protests and the area that they originate from affect Israeli reactions at both a governmental and a societal level when compared to the much smaller scale protests that have regularly taken place in places like Bethlehem and Hebron since the end of the Second Intifada?

IP: I think there is a dialectical connection between the two parts of the occupied space. Due to the age of internet age we live in, this connection is not easy to control even if the [Palestinian Authority] does what it can to regulate the resistance and navigate between a wish to allow popular resistance, on the one hand, and its existential wish to survive, on the other. So, for the time being, the scope in the [Gaza] Strip is wider and more supported from above than in the West Bank. But as the Gaza protests can be sustained for a longer period, the PA’s ability to regulate will decrease significantly and we will witness a kind of a third Intifada.

EHB: Recently, Netanyahu called Viktor Orban, Hungary’s nationalist and anti-Semitic prime minister, to congratulate him and express his desire for Orban to visit Israel. Has the current government’s willingness to partner with anti-Semitic politicians and organizations in positions of power overseas had any reverberations within the different strata of Israeli society or politics from the academic community to the average voter? Does this fit into the broader history of Israel?

IP: There is nothing new there. Anti-Semitism and Zionism share the same goal: to expunge Judaism from Europe (for different reasons, of course). It created in the past despicable alliances, even with the Nazis. The current version is cemented by a common Islamophobic dimension, on the one hand, and the constant disappearance of any support groups among the center and the left in the western political systems, on the other.

I would add to it the fact that the new recruits to the EU, are countries that have a deplorable record of anti-Semitism and collaboration with the Nazis in the extermination of the Jews (Hungary is a prime example of that) and hence supporting present day Israel is a convenient tool of amnesia and a secured pathway to remain within the close circle of America’s allies in Europe.

EHB: The current protest period in Gaza seems to have reverted to a largely non-violent model. How does non-violence affect the legitimacy of armed repression in the eyes of Israeli society? Is there an intellectual basis for armed repression of nonviolent resistance?

IP: Alas, it does not affect Israeli society, as we know from its reaction to the first Intifada. Its main target was and should be world public opinion that can be galvanized more easily if this is the main mode of resistance. The way nonviolent resistance is framed in Israel, and was framed, is that it is just another instance of Palestinian terrorism. The dehumanization and lack of compassion inherent in the settler colonial project of Zionism does not allow for any appreciation of nonviolent resistance by the Palestinians.

EHB: On one hand, Gaza is treated as an independent state when it’s expedient to consider military conflict as a legitimate form of state-state discourse between peers. On the other hand, outside of these conflict periods, the requirements that bind state-state discourse are abandoned on the basis that Gaza is a rogue territorial element of the Palestinian Authority that has broken away from legitimate governance in the West Bank, which the state of Israel explicitly admits to occupying. On this basis, have the protests in Gaza precipitated a reevaluation of the status of the occupied territories within Israel?

IP: Gaza is not treated as a state by Israel, hence there is not contradiction but actually coherence in the Israeli strategy. The pillars of this strategy are as follows: unilateralism — namely Israel alone decided the fate of historical Palestine and the people living in it. The second pillar is space. Regardless of the nature of the regime, and legal regime in different parts of historical Palestine, Israel controls directly and indirectly, with the help of Palestinian collaboration or without it, the space. Third pillar is demography: the best is to have as much of historical Palestine with as few Palestinians in it as possible. All means are justified to achieve this: enclaving Palestinians, expelling them, or killing them.

EHB: Finally, could you articulate your thoughts on the current protests, in light of your disagreement with Noam Chomsky’s over a one-state vs. two-state approach to the conflict, respectively. It seems that these most recent protests challenge the international legitimacy of the Gaza border, which could expand the Overton window around how we think of the nature of the two-state solution.

IP: In two ways the protests challenge the two-state solution. First, the model of the two-state solution is based on the dismantlement of Jewish colonies in the 1967 occupied territories, sending them back to Israel (where in the case of the West Bank settlers, would mean resettling them amidst Palestinian population inside Israel) and by that satisfying Palestinian craving for sovereignty and independence. The Israeli withdrawal, very much like the creation of Bantustan in Ramallah, made life far worse for the Palestinians in the occupied territories, and distanced us all from a genuine reconciliation that can only take place in one democratic state all over historical Palestine. Secondly, the protests are not just about the siege and the blockade. They are mainly about a third generation of refugees living few yards away from the parents and grandparents land on the other side of the fence, demanding justice and return. Again a two-state solution can not even begin to rectify this past evil.


Evan Heitkamp Boucher is a writer, researcher, and Arabic translator based in Grand Forks, North Dakota. He lectures in the political science department at the University of North Dakota where he focuses on political economy, the sociology and phenomenology of terrorism, Middle East politics, revolutionary movements, and the politics of authoritarianism. Follow him on Twitter @EHeitBou