What is your background and how do you see your own development as a historian?
Pappe: I was born in 1954 to a German Jewish family in Haifa where I
lived in blissful ignorance about the world beyond the comfortable and safe
mount Carmel until I reached the age of 18. At that age I began my military
service which introduced me to other groups and to the host of social problems
facing Israeli society. But it was only in the 1970s, at Hebrew University,
that I was exposed to the plight of the Palestinians in Israel as an
undergraduate in the department of Middle Eastern History. It was then and
there that I found my love for history and developed my belief that the present
cannot be understood and the future changed without first trying to decipher its
It was clear that this could not be done freely inside Israel-especially if its
own history was to be my subject matter. This is how I found myself at Oxford in
1984 as a D. Phil student under the supervision of two great supervisors, the
late Albert Hourani and Roger Owen. The thesis was on the 1948 war in
Palestine, a subject that has engaged me ever since my career as a professional
historian began. This is still a subject that haunts me and I regard the events
of that year as the key to understanding the present conflict in Palestine as
well as the gate through which peace has to pass on the way to a comprehensive
and lasting settlement in Palestine and Israel. Intimate and strong friendships
with Palestinians and the newly declassified material in the archives produced
my new look at the 1948 war. I challenged many of the foundational Israeli myths
associated with the war and I described what happened in Palestine in that year
essentially as a Jewish ethnic cleansing operation against the indigenous
population. This conviction informed not only my work as a historian but also
affected significantly my political views and activity.
I also ventured, in between my forays in the1948 story, into the exciting-but
always productive for me-world of historiosophy and hermeneutics. I do think, in
retrospect, that much of what I had read and discussed influenced my attitude to
historiography in general. I treat history from a much more relativist point of
view than many of my colleagues and I was also highly impressed by the
need-which informs my work in the last few years-to write more a history of the
people and less a history of the politicians, and more a history of the society
and less of its ideology and elite politics.
Q: You have often been associated with “revisionist history”
and the emergence of a “post-zionist” discourse: what do these terms mean and
how have they affected the political climate in Israel?
Pappe: Revisionist history means those books written by Israeli
historians about the 1948 war that question the essential foundational Israeli
myths about that war. First among them is that it was a war between a Jewish
David and an Arab Goliath. The new historians described an advantage for the
Jewish military side in most stages of the war. They also pointed to the prior
agreement between the Jewish state and the strongest Arab army-the Arab Legion
of Transjordan-that neutralized the Palestinian force and limited its activity
to the Greater Jerusalem area. This prior understanding divided post-Mandatory
Palestine between the Jews and the Hashemites of Jordan at the expense of the
As for post-Zionism, this adjective is usually associated with critical research
in Israel on various chapters in the history of Zionism and Israel. It includes
sociologists who view Zionism as colonialism, historians who doubt the sincerity
of the Zionist effort during the Holocaust, and it also criticizes the
manipulation of Holocaust memory within Israel. Among them you can find scholars
identifying with the fate of the Mizrachi Jews in Israel and who deconstruct the
attitude of the state, especially in the 1950s, toward these groups employing
paradigms of research offered by Edward Said and others in postcolonial studies.
Palestinian Israelis have done the same in looking at the attitude of the Jewish
state toward the Palestinian minority and feminists have critically analyzed the
status of women and gender relations as they developed through time in the
In the 1990s, when most the works of the revisionist and post-Zionist historians
and scholars appeared, there seemed to be some impact on the general public. You
could see it in documentary films on television, in op-eds in the printed press
and in some textbooks and curricula in the educational system.
But after the outbreak of the second intifada in October 2000, not much was left
of the previous readiness of Israeli society to hear critical voices on the
past. The electronic media loyally towed the official line; the printed press
silenced critique in general; and revisionist textbooks were taken out of the
One could probably say that it never affected the political system, but it seems
to have taken root in Israeli civil society and its impact will, I think, be
felt in years to come.
Q: Your last book dealt with 1948 and you suggest that Israel
is still living with the consequences of choices made then. Could you elaborate
Pappe: This was not my last book. My last book was A History of Modern
Palestine, published by Cambridge University Press. My last book on 1948 is
The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1947-1951 published by I. B.
Indeed, I think that the ethnic cleansing in 1948 will never allow Israel to
reconcile with the Palestinians and the rest of the Middle East, nor to live in
peace with its own Palestinian minority unless Israel boldly faces the past. The
ethnic cleansing included the destruction of more than 400 villages, 11 towns
and the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians.
The Israeli state, as a political entity, has to acknowledge the ethnic
cleansing. Until today it had failed to do so and it should be made accountable
for its deeds and offer compensation for the people it wronged. This should be
done on the basis of UN Resolution 194 that allowed the refugees to choose
between compensation and return.
Q: The plight of the Israeli Arabs and those Arabs living in
the occupied territories is often underestimated: they are seen as poor and
exploited but, if I can put the matter this way, not particularly more than any
number of other peoples. Is there something systematic here that is reminiscent
of apartheid or even ethnic cleansing?
Pappe: There are of course differences in the way Israel treats the
Palestinians living under occupation and those whom it regards as citizens. But
there are also common features of that policy. Let us begin by charting the
common ground. It is beyond the scope of this interview to present the
emergence of Zionist attitudes and perceptions about the indigenous population
of Palestine. What suffices in this context is to point to the final
formulations of this process: a dehumanization of the Palestinians, their
exclusive depiction as a security problem and the wish to have a pure Jewish
state, empty of any Arabs or Arabism.
The wish to retain the façade of a democracy complicated the translation of
these attitudes into actual policy toward Palestinians inside Israel, those who
are officially regarded as citizens. Until 1966, in the name of security, the
rights of these Palestinians were removed and they were subjected to cruel
military rule. But when, after 1967, the U.S.-Israeli alliance became the
central source for the Jewish State’s existence, one of the more democratic
features developed among them was the abolition of that military rule. Racism
and apartheid-which were official policy under military rule-now became illicit
and in a way more dangerous because it was more difficult for human and civil
rights organizations to expose them. In the years since 1967, as a Palestinian
citizen you could never know where the racism and discrimination would hit you.
It meant that at any given minute, without prior knowledge, you were likely to
encounter de facto segregation, discrimination, abuse of basic rights and even
death. This is still the state of affairs today, and in many ways it has
worsened since the outbreak of the second intifada.
On top of all of this, Palestinian citizens in Israel suffer from a de jure
discrimination as well. There are three laws in the country that define most of
the cultivated land as belonging exclusively to the Jewish people and hence
cannot be sold to, or transacted with, non-Jews, namely Arabs. Other qua
apartheid laws are the law of citizenship that demands naturalization processes
for the indigenous population while the law of return grants it unconditionally
to unborn yet Jewish children everywhere in the world.
There are clear policies of discrimination in the welfare system, in the
budgeting of public services and in the job opportunities, especially in
industry, of which 70 percent is termed “Arab Free” as it is strongly connected
to the military and security sector. But I think it is the daily experience-as I
described it above-of the license for everyone who represents the state to abuse
you at will that is the worst aspect of living as a Palestinian in the Jewish
state. To this has lately been added the fear of ethnic cleansing and expulsion.
The situation in the occupied territories is far worse. House demolitions,
expulsions, killings, torturing, land confiscation and daily harassment at will
of the population has been going on from the first day of occupation in 1967: it
did not start because of the suicide bombs which appeared for the first time in
1995 as a very belated Palestinian response for more than 25 years of
occupation. The situation has only become worse in the last four years. There
are several spheres of brutality that should be mentioned: the collective
punishment, the abuse of thousands of detainees and political prisoners, the
transfer of people, the economic devastation, the slaying of innocent citizens
and the daily harassment at checkpoints. Lately to this was added the fence that
is ghettoizing thousands of people, separating them from their land and their
kin and/or destroying their source of living and their houses.
Q: This wall is being termed a “wall of separation.” Perhaps
you can offer some reflections on this symbol of oppression and its
Pappe: I think the wall fits well into older Zionist notions of how to
solve the problem of Palestine while taking into account realpolitik such as the
need to maintain Israel’s external image and keep a cordial relationship with
the West and the United States in particular. The aim has always been, and it
still remains, to have as much of Palestine as possible with as few Palestinians
in it as possible. Only very unique historical circumstances, such as those that
existed in 1948, allowed for mass expulsions of the Palestinians on the way to
realize the vision of a totally de-Arabized Palestine. In the absence of, or
while waiting for such circumstances, more gradual means have been employed. The
first is an internal Israeli decision on how much of historical Palestine is
needed for sustaining the Jewish State. The consensus between Labor and Likkud
today is that the Gaza strip is not needed and that half of the West Bank as
well can be given up. The half of the West Bank that is left to the
Palestinians, however, is not a contiguous territory: it is bisected by areas in
the West Bank deemed necessary for Israel’s survival, because they include water
resources, historical sites, strategic positions and large post-1967 Jewish
settlements. The drawing of this new map can either be done with the consent of
a Palestinian leadership or without it.
The second device is a set of operations meant to cleanse the indigenous
population of those areas that were annexed to Israel from the West Bank. Today
there are about a quarter of a million people inhabiting these regions. As in
1948, the issue is not just expulsion, but also anti-repatriation. So the wall
that is being built demarcates the eastern border of Israel (so that the Jewish
State will consist of 85 percent of original Palestine) and is meant to draw a
clear demographic line between the Jewish and Palestinian populations. People
who have already been chased out of their houses while the wall and security
zone around it was constructed, and those who are in danger of being evicted in
the future, will be blocked from coming back by the wall.
The third step is an Israeli willingness to define the Gaza strip and what would
be left of the West Bank as a Palestinian state. Such a state cannot be a viable
political entity and would be akin to two huge prison camps-one in the Gaza
Strip the other in the West Bank-in which many people would find it difficult to
find employment and proper housing. This may lead to immigration and
de-population that may raise the appetite of Israel for more land.
Two final points: the wall would leave the Palestinians citizens of Israel, as a
“demographic” problem inside the wall. Zionist policies in the past and present
Sharonite plans raise severe concerns for the fate of these people, presently
still citizens of Israel who number more the one and a quarter million today.
The second point is that the wall will also turn Israel into a prison
hall-wardens and inmates are quite often both prisoners-which means that the
siege mentality that lies behind some of the most cruel and aggressive Israeli
policies inside and outside the country will continue.
Q: The Geneva Accords have raised the hopes of many: critics
have attacked their advocates, however, and emphasized the need for a
bi-national state rather than a “two-state” solution to the current crisis.
Where do you stand?
Pappe: First, I do support a bi-national state and find it a far better
solution than the two-states solution offered by the Accords. In fact, I will
even go further than that and claim that only a secular democratic single state
will, at the end of the day, bring peace and reconciliation to Palestine. It is
the only political structure that allies with the demographic composition on the
ground-the absence of any clear homogenous territorial communities, the need to
repatriate the refugees, and the danger of the politics of identity on both
sides if they are to become state identities and the need to cater to crucial
and urgent agendas such as poverty and ecological problems that cannot be dealt
with by a national structure in either Israel or Palestine alone.
The Geneva initiative is, like so many other peace plans in the past, an Israeli
dictate that seeks, and quite often finds, Palestinian partners. This present
peace plan, like the previous one, has three assumptions that have to be
deconstructed. The first is that the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 is
irrelevant to the making of peace. The second is that peace excludes any
solution for the refugee question based on the right of return and Israeli
accountability for the catastrophe of 1948. The third, is that the Palestinians
are not entitled to a state, but a dependency over roughly 15 percent of
historical Palestine and for that they should declare the end of the conflict.
My point is that indeed everything possible should be done to end the occupation
of the West Bank and the Gaza strip and liberate it from Israeli control and
pass it to Palestinian hands. But this can only be a first step, because such a
withdrawal does not solve the predicament of most of the Palestinian people, who
live in refugee camps or are citizens of Israel. The end of the occupation is
not equivalent to the end of the conflict, as is stated in the Geneva document,
it is a precondition for peace.
Israel has first to acknowledge the ethnic cleansing of 1948 and make itself
accountable by implementing UN resolution 194. In the meantime, given the
realities surrounding the return of refugees and the presence of so many Jews in
Palestinian areas, there will be a need to look for the appropriate political
structure that can carry this reconciliation. For me, the best is the one state
Q: What would you say to those who claim that the current
policies of the Sharon regime are in reality necessary in order to assure the
security of Israel from terrorist fanatics?
Pappe: There are two answers. The first is that these policies were in
tact from 1967, long before the first suicide bomber was even born. The second
is that we should say to them what we say to those who claim that the neocons in
Washington planned the occupation of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Iran because
of 9/11. I think we all know that 9/11 was a pretext for a strategy born in a
certain American school of thought of what America is all about and how it
should control the world politically, militarily and economically. The suicide
bombers are a pretext for implementing a harsher version of policies of
collective punishment meant to enable the territorial enlargement of Israel and
the de-population of further parts of Palestine.
Q: Israel is often depicted as the lone outpost of democracy in
the Middle East. How legitimate is this claim? Or, further, is a redefinition of
democracy taking place in your country?
Pappe: I think that one of the major tests for a democracy is the
treatment of minorities. If this is accepted as a principal test case than it is
ludicrous to define Israel as a democracy, let alone as an outpost of
democracy. There are official and formal characteristics which justify the
definition of Israel as a democracy, but it is so flawed in the field of
maintaining basic civil and human rights, that notwithstanding these attributes,
one can still cast severe doubts about the definition of the state as a
As I have tried to show in the analysis of the Israeli attitude to Palestinians
as citizens or under occupation, the basic Israeli policy is a mixture of
apartheid practices and colonialist attitudes. But also the role of religion in
the state and the consequent violation of basic rights as a result are
additional reasons to look for a different definition for Israel, rather than
search a new definition for democracy.
Q: What do you make of what has been termed the “new
Pappe: I do not think there is a new anti-Semitism. There is
anti-Semitism, rooted in the extreme right in Europe and the United States. It
has been silenced to a great extent since 1945 and it is still a marginal
phenomenon. There are strong sentiments against Israel and Zionism both on the
Left and among the communities of Muslim immigrants. Some of the actions taken
are reminiscent in form and tone of the old anti-Semitism, but for the most
part, these actions have been taken against Jews who chose to represent Israel
in their own countries and thus became targets for legitimate and illegitimate
actions against them. Particularly appalling is the use by the Israeli
government and its supporters of the anti-Semitism card in order to silence any
criticism on its policies in Palestine.
Q: Do you see any sources of change and hope?
Pappe: Alas, not in the near future, but I am quite hopeful about the
long term. I think there are signs that elements of civil society both in Israel
and in Palestine are willing to take the issue of resolving the conflict away
from the politicians who hijacked it for their own personal and narrow
interests. Such actions on the part of civil society, however, will
unfortunately not prove effective or assume a mass character unless there is
strong external pressure on, and condemnation of, the Israeli state and its
policies. A more hopeful scenario cannot materialize unless that occurs and more
blood will be shed in another round or two of violence.
Q: Arab critics have described Zionism as a form of racism: how
would you deal with that assessment?
Pappe: Zionism is both a national movement and a colonialist project.
Most national movements have an inherent racist element in them. They differ in
how significant this element in the national discourse and practice actually is.
In Zionism, it is a particularly meaningful signifier of self-identity.
Colonialism is also very closely associated with racism and there are many
features of Zionism in the past and the present that are purely colonialist in
character. The only thing I would object to in identifying Zionism and racism is
the tendency to neglect other vital aspects of Zionism such as its importance
for creating a Hebrew culture, a new nation state, and a safe haven for some
Ilan Pappe is senior lecutrer, department of political science, Haifa
University and Chair of the Emil Touma institute for Palestinian studies, Haifa.
Pappe's recent books include, The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
(1992), The Israel\Palestine Question (1999) and A History of Modern