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Making Sense of Gaza: An Interview With Ilan Pappe

In this interview, dissident Israeli historian Ilan Pappu00e9 discusses current events in Gaza, the effectiveness of the BDS movement, the possibility of a two-state solution and the progression of racism within Israel.

Ilan Pappé (Photo: Salaam Shalom / Flickr)

As Israel Defense Forces continue their aerial bombardment and ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, the worst human rights disaster in the region since Operation Cast Lead (December 27, 2008 to January 18, 2009) is unfolding with increasing violence and bloodshed.

Operation Protective Edge, launched on July 6, has so far resulted in the deaths of more than 620 Palestinians, 25 IDF soldiers and two Israeli civilians. Inside Gaza, 77 percent of those killed were civilians, 44 percent of them women and children. Israeli shelling of the small territory – the 40th most densely populated urban area in the world at 360 square kilometers- has proven fierce and indiscriminate.

More than 3,000 Palestinians have been injured, many seriously, from falling debris, shrapnel and bullet wounds. Some have even been harmed by flechette bombs, which explode in midair spraying thousands of metal darts in a circular pattern 300 meters long and nearly 100 meters wide. Such ordnance is considered illegal under international humanitarian law.

On July 20, heavy artillery and tank fire struck the eastern neighborhood of Shujaiya, destroying homes and crippling infrastructure in the bloodiest day of fighting up until then. The Israeli government has stated that Shujaiya is the source of 8 percent of the rockets fired at Israel over the past two weeks, though the UN has expressed “serious concern” about the growing number of casualties in border areas.

International observers have remained highly critical of Israel’s violent response to the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in mid-June, an event which heightened tensions between Arabs and Jews and precipitated Hamas rocket attacks and the eventual ground invasion two weeks ago. Critics, among them Israeli scholar and historian Ilan Pappé (author, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, 2006) have pointed to a disproportionate death toll – now 20 times higher on the Palestinian side – and continued US military support as indicators of a situation that must change as soon as possible.

Together with other prominent scholars, activists, musicians and signatories, including Noam Chomsky, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mairead Maguire and US rapper Boots Riley, a call for an immediate military embargo on Israel was published in The Guardianon July 19. An excerpt from the document reads:

Military trade and joint military-related research relations with Israel embolden Israeli impunity in committing grave violations of international law and facilitate the entrenchment of Israel’s system of occupation, colonisation and systematic denial of Palestinian rights. We call on the UN and governments across the world to take immediate steps to implement a comprehensive and legally binding military embargo on Israel, similar to that imposed on South Africa during apartheid.

Is public opinion shifting? Are criticisms of Israeli state actions becoming more tolerable and, indeed, more common? With each new cell phone video uploaded from the bombed-out streets of Gaza to YouTube, the world is witnessing the chaos firsthand. Through the courageous work of local journalists, the human toll of violence on both sides is elucidated. As Phyllis Bennis, fellow of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam, wrote in The Nation, “The good news is that the discourse has shifted dramatically – in mainstream news coverage, punditry, pop culture and more. It’s much better than ever. They don’t get it right, still, but things are changing.” She continued, saying, “[but] we have to figure out how to move to the next, far more difficult stage of turning discourse shift into real policy change.”

Seeking a greater understanding of the conflict unfolding by the day, Truthout spoke with Pappé, now a professor with the College of Social Sciences and International Studies at the University of Exeter in southwest England. He commented on the recent violence, Operation Protective Edge and the prospects of peace in the future. The interview took place on July 19, 2014.

Harrison Samphir: How have conditions within Israel (and beyond) changed since 2008? What are Israel’s current political aims?

Ilan Pappé: The general picture has not changed since 2008. Ever since the Palestinians have democratically elected a government in the Gaza Strip, they were subjected in the Strip to a policy of siege, strangulation and ghettoization. This was a punishment for choosing a government Israel did not like. The Israelis ever since 1967 react brutally to any Palestinian attempt to play any significant role in determining the fate of the territories Israel occupied in 1967. Any attempt to demand genuine independence or end the oppressive rule is encountered by the brutal force of the army. Of course, when the resistance is based on armed struggle, then the retaliation is even worse – as we can see today in Gaza.

Israel does not know precisely what to do with Gaza. It assumes it found a way to domicile the West Bank by annexing part of it into Israel and enclaving the Palestinians in small Bantustans and hopes the international community will recognize it as a “peace solution.” This has not worked either and the failure in the West Bank accentuated the longer term inability to engage with the future of the Gaza Strip. The first signs that this unilateral Israeli policy does not work appeared when it transpired that the Kerry initiative killed, finally, the “peace process”and no one is willing resuscitate it. The second indication for this failure was the earlier moves toward a Hamas-Fatah government of unity. So the first aim of the operation, which began by the massive arrest of Hamas people and the re-arrest of those released in the prisoner exchange deal in June, was part of an overall attempt to quell any impulse in Palestine to resist the Israeli oppression.

Is Hamas actually an Israeli creation, an extension of the occupation of Palestinian territory for so many decades?

Hamas was not created by Israel, but it was empowered and enhanced by Israel as a counter force to the Fatah in the 1970s. Israel has provided it space and allowed it to generate resources with the hope that it will bring down the power of the secular national movement that began to intensify in the occupied territories.

Many media outlets have repeated the line that Hamas “rejected” an Egyptian ceasefire plan while Israel accepted it. As Jonathan Cook has pointed out, however, the ceasefire proposal was actually born in Washington, delivered by Tony Blair and designed to corner Hamas either into surrendering – thereby continuing the blockade – or refusing the plan and affirming its terrorist status. It seems as though such a scheme was intended to perpetuate a US-sponsored dialectic in the region: a good versus evil narrative favoring Israel as a moral defender of the Jewish homeland. What do you make of this representation in the media?

The ceasefire was an Israeli-Egyptian dictate to Hamas to accept the status quo, which it, and the people of Gaza, found unbearable. It included also a suggestion of expanding the warden community of the mega prison of Gaza and including in it the PA [Palestinian Authority] police. The issue of the arrests of Hamas MPs, the re-arrest of the released prisoners and the end of the siege were totally ignored as issues that have any relevance for the present wave of violence. It was not a ceasefire offer, it was a dictate that Israel knew at least would be rejected by Hamas. This reminds one of the “peace”offers in the past that were rejected by the Palestinians as they did not offer any hope for the Palestinians – such as the partition plan of 1947 and the “generous”Israeli offer in 2000.

Has it become safer to voice opinions critical of the Israeli state?

Yes, it is much safer and quite common. However, the corridors of power are still blocked for this kind of criticism. But there are signs here and there that these ideas have begun to penetrate into the mainstream media.

How will the recent violence in Israel and Gaza affect the regional balance of forces?

In the short term, this has little bearing on the regional balance of power. That balance of power is far more affected by events in Syria and Iraq than by developments in Palestine. In the longer term, the Egyptian alliance with Israel against Hamas will damage Egypt’s standing in the Arab world and may extricate the warring factions in the north of the region from their fighting by offering them a consensual cause that can constrain the present bloody conflicts in Iraq and Syria. Much depends on the ability of ISIS to create a state, which is not an unlikely scenario, one which will be in close alliance with the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia, but one that can impact these countries into a different attitude towards the Palestine issue and cause. In short, in the short term, Israel benefits from the regional balance of power, but it’s so volatile that it may find itself regretting ignoring this balance of power and focusing on American and Western support.

Is the boycotting of Israeli companies, products and services an effective way to combat the illegal occupation of Palestinian territories and the so-called apartheid state of Israel? Can you suggest an alternative?

The BDS movement is an effective and moral way of combating the violation of human and civil rights in Palestine. It is based on the valid assumption that there is no hope for change from within Israel and about the futility of an armed struggle. It also has a successful historical precedent in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. There is no alternative.

Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home party recently called for the extermination of Palestinian mothers who give birth to “little snakes.” What portion of Israeli society truly accepts such views? Have they intensified over the last decade?

For many years, the Jewish society in Israel understood that such talk, even if it was prevalent among the public, should not be aired outside. Since 2000, Israel as a political system and a society left behind such a caution. It is now in the open and is not only prevalent in the right-wing margins of the society, but at the very center of politics. The Jewish Home is a popular party and a senior member of the coalition government. By the way, comparing the Palestinians to snakes is not new: after the 1967 June war, the Israeli government debated within itself whether it should annex the Gaza Strip and the minister of finance said we should remember it is a snake pit.

Is a two-state solution still possible?

No, I think it is long dead and buried. In fact, its death happened when the Oslo Accords in 1993 exposed the real interpretation liberal Israel gave to the idea: the creation of Bantustans in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with no real sovereignty and no solution to the outstanding problem of the conflict, the right of the refugees to return and an equitable solution to the Jerusalem question.

What is your personal relationship with the state of Israel today?

I am a citizen, but I am dissident, too. I love the country, but I object to the ideological regime on which the state is based as it racially discriminates against anyone who is not a Jew and half of the population this state controls today are not Jewish. Many of them are under constant danger of being ethnically cleansed and in the case of Gaza, of being killed.

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