For decades, one-sided support for Israel distorted U.S. perceptions and policies in the Middle East. Only recently has the pro-Zionist narrative faced significant challenge, including protests against the abuse of Palestinians from Israeli dissidents like Ilan Pappe, who spoke with Dennis J Bernstein.
By Dennis J Bernstein
Ilan Pappe, an Israeli citizen born in Haifa to German-Jewish parents who had fled the Nazis, became a teacher, author and strong critic of Zionism which he saw evolve from a desire for a safe haven for Jews into a system of racial intolerance toward the human rights of Palestinians.
His criticism of Zionism and his eventual support for a boycott strategy to compel a change in Israel’s policy toward Palestinians led to his departure from the University of Haifa in 2007 and his move to Exeter University in Great Britain, where he has continued his writing and his criticism of Israeli behavior.
Pappe’s books include The Bureaucracy of Evil: The History of the Israeli Occupation; The Boycott Will Work: An Israeli Perspective; The Case for Sanctions Against Israel; The Forgotten Palestinians: A History of the Palestinians in Israel; Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel’s War Against the Palestinians; Out of the Frame: The Struggle for Academic Freedom in Israel; and The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1947–1951. His next book, Peoples Apart: Israel, South Africa and the Apartheid Question, is due out next month.
Pappe was interviewed by Dennis J Bernstein for the Flashpoints show on March 19.
DB: Why don’t you give us your best shot of what life is like for Palestinians now, in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. I mean, are they better off than 20 years ago?
IP: No, no, they are probably not. I think the different experiences Palestinians are going through, in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, it depends where you are geographically. But, in general, each and every one of them is subjected to a policy of oppression and occupation, and is under the danger of being either ethnically cleansed or killed or imprisoned.
I think the worst place, nowadays, is probably the Gaza Strip, where the ghettoization of the Strip continues, especially with the new policies of the Egyptian government, that in a way copies the Israeli policies now. And so the siege is even tighter than it was before, and most human rights organizations are fearful of huge human catastrophe that can happen in any day in Gaza.
In the West Bank, I think, that your listeners may remember or not remember, the West Bank is divided according to the Oslo Agreement to three areas; to areas A, B and C. Area C, which is almost half of the West Bank, is under direct Israeli control. And the Israelis are looking for ways of getting rid of the people who live there. So, I think, in the West Bank, this is the area where people are under an imminent danger of being ethnically cleansed.
But I don’t think it’s much better elsewhere, in terms of economic conditions, social conditions, and the fact that for more than 45 years these people are at the mercy of the Israeli military and its absolute control of their life.
DB: And the huge wall, the house demolitions in Jerusalem, and the expanded settlement building make it for … if I get this right, from the Palestinian side, impossible to even begin to think about any kind of negotiations.
IP: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think that the Israelis back in ’67 already had this formula that for some reason Jewish citizens or inhabitants need space beyond the place of habitation. They need a garden, they need a park, they need some sort of an expansion. Palestinians, according to the Israelis, need only the place where they live. I mean, physically live, so towns are not allowed to expand, villages are not allowed to expand. And, their idea … the Israeli basic idea of a state of Palestine is in a similar way. So it will have, at best 50 – 40 percent of the West Bank, and the rest would be enclaves such as the one in Gaza. This is no way any human society could exist for very long, definitely not to be defined as a state or as an autonomous political creation.
DB: Let’s talk about this use of the word apartheid, as it refers to Israel and South Africa. And in the new book, that’s not out yet, in Peoples Apart: Israel, South Africa and the Apartheid Question, you do come head-on at the notion of apartheid as it relates to Israel and South Africa.
IP: Yeah. I think that the idea of comparing apartheid South Africa to Israel became more and more relevant since we discovered that, for many people especially in the West, a better understanding, what goes on in the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians is the South African model. So it started as an activist idea with Israeli Apartheid Week all over American and later on European campuses.
But I think what the book, I am editing, is doing, it tries to take it one step further. It involves the academic community. So we take a serious look at the two case studies. And I think what we find, and we’re not the only ones, but I think that’s one of the first books to do it in a thorough, systematic way, is that historically, you are talking about two settler colonialist societies that adopted very similar ideas and attitudes towards the native population.
And if you move to 1948, which is the year which apartheid officially was announced [in South Africa], it is the year when Israel ethnically cleansed the Palestinians, not surprisingly, the same year. You can see that also more recent history has a lot in common in the way that the native population is referred to.
And I think the most important part of this comparison is to seek the solutions that were relevant for bringing down apartheid, and to adapt them to the case of Israel and Palestine. That means getting out of the idea of the two-states model. That means understanding that Palestinians, also those who live in Israel, not just in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, are under an oppressive regime. Understanding that the Israeli legal infrastructure, its practices, its policies, its ideology, the basic ideology that underlines the whole idea of a Jewish state has a lot in common with the ideology that underlined the apartheid regime in South Africa.
So you have a whole, kind of issues in the past, in the present and in the future that make this comparison a very powerful idea. Not only for analyzing what’s going on, but also as a prognosis of how to get out of it. As a counter idea to the mainstream idea of peace that has been, sort of conducted in the last 25 years by this country where we are here, the American kind of led peace process, leading nowhere, it will end nowhere.
If you treat Israel and Palestine as a case of apartheid, you are not looking for a peace process, you are looking to change a regime, to end an oppressive regime. And I think that is what is too powerful about this comparison, it offers a different agenda, instead of the failed agenda of peace as it has been led by the Americans in the last 25 years.
DB: Okay. Can you break down the structural comparison? Go through that for us. How you see this?
IP: Yeah, there are about five or six different groups of Palestinians today ruled by Israel, between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean. So we have to view Israel and Palestine as one geopolitical entity. Israel controls every square inch of that entity. But it rules in different ways, the lives of different Palestinian groups.
In some case, some Palestinians fare much better than Africans did under apartheid. In other cases, they are in far worst situation that the Africans were ever under apartheid regime. But taken together, taken together from the legal point of view, from the constitutional point of view, Israel is an apartheid state. I’ll give a few short examples, so the people would understand what we are talking about.
Ninety-seven percent of the land inside of state of Israel belongs to the Jewish Agency. That means that Jews are not allowed to sell land to Palestinian citizens of Israel, who are 20 percent of the society. So there is a segregation, there is an apartheid, there is a separation in the access to land. Land ownership, according to the Israeli law, is biased in such a way that only Jews have access to land.
Let’s take another example. The idea of social welfare or benefits that the state is giving its citizens. Israel does not officially discriminate against the Palestinians, as Palestinians. It has a formula which says that anyone who didn’t serve in the army is not going to get the full benefits that the state is giving to its citizens. However, Jews who didn’t serve in the army, like the older Jews, do get all the benefits. So it remains only as a discriminatory policy towards the Palestinians in Israel.
This is the group that relatively fares better than the rest, but then you move on to the West Bank. You have roads and highways and motorways which are only for Jews.
DB: So these are Jewish-only roads and highways?
IP: Even South Africa didn’t even have that, that’s an Israeli invention.
DB: What happens if a Palestinian gets caught on a Jews-only road?
IP: I tell you what happens. They would be arrested, they would be imprisoned without a trial, they probably would offer two ways out of a long prison term. One is to become a collaborator of the secret service or to pay a very, very high sum of money, which most of them don’t have. And then they will spend without a trial, a year or two years in prison.
DB: All for being on a Jews-only road?
IP: Yeah. And there are checkpoints that make sure that most of them are being stopped from going on these roads, physically, by the checkpoints.
DB: Can you make a mistake, end up on these roads, and then end up in a lot of trouble?
IP: You can. You definitely can. You can end up in any Jewish space which is defined by the state as Jewish space without a permit. And if you don’t have that permit then you are in big, big trouble. Now, of course, the problem is that with 60 percent unemployment, Palestinians would risk going through being punished this way, because there are no jobs in the Palestinian areas. There are only jobs in the Jewish areas. So they would risk crossing the border, crossing the checkpoint, crossing the wall, in order to bring food to their families. But they are, in some cases, they even risk their own life because they can be shot, as well.
These are practices which were at the darkest age of apartheid in South Africa, the checkpoints in the townships, between the townships and the white areas. And there is a similar kind of separation.
Now the Israeli education system is segregated until up to the universities. What the listeners should understand, it’s not the petty apartheid of South Africa. What I mean by that, there are no different benches, and no different toilets, and no different…
DB: But you’re saying Arabs and Jews don’t go to school together.
IP: No. No. No, they don’t go to school. But they can meet in the university, in the university.
DB: Are the schools equivalent? Are the Arab schools as good?
IP: No, they are not as good. And the whole program is designed by Jews for the Arabs, in Israel. As I said before, it’s not the petty apartheid, although I think Israel is moving towards the petty apartheid because they don’t have enough control in the old means.
It’s more invisible, it’s more sort of glass ceilings because Israel, at least until recently, wanted to portray itself as both Jewish and democratic, both an ethnic racist state but one which is also democratic. And I think that kind of marketing is not going well anymore.
I just published a book in February called The Idea of Israel in which I share how the whole marketing campaign of Israel, the truth trying to square the circle, to say Israel an apartheid state, but we’re also a democratic state, is collapsing…
I think, really, coming back to the main point. I remember when Desmond Tutu came to the West Bank and some other, sort of big shots of the ANC [African National Congress] came and I was accompanying them. They mentioned something which I had never thought of before. And I said, “Why do you keep telling me that this is worse?” Because I read so much on the life of Africans under the apartheid regime, and I was always moved. And it looked so callous and cruel. I said “Why are you so insistent that this is worse, in its totality?”
And Desmond Tutu said something very important. He said, “The whites in South Africa wanted to exploit the African. Which is very bad. They wanted to exploit, they wanted to make sure that everything is in their hands. But nonetheless, they still mixed. I mean there was an African nanny in every house of white families.” He said, “My feeling is …” and he’s absolutely right … “that Zionism doesn’t want to exploit the Palestinian, it wants to eliminate him.”
And it’s far worse. If you’re exploited, then one day you liberate yourself. But if someone wants to eliminate you, and will succeed, there is no redemption. There is no end. And this I think, someone … only people coming from South Africa could immediately see this, that this is worse. I mean they have seen exploitation, and I think they are right. The Palestinians happen to be in a space where most of the people who have power in Israel to make decisions, don’t want to see them. I’m not talking about genocide, but ethnic cleansing. But ethnic cleansing can also lead to genocide. And there’s always this danger.
So it’s worse than apartheid because they want to separate the Palestinians from the land of Palestine. They don’t want to separate the Palestinians from the Jews, as the South Africans did (with blacks and whites). They want to separate the people from their land, from their history, and from their culture and their identity. That is a far more destructive and cruel project to my mind.
DB: John Pilger did the film, what was it in 1975 [“Palestine is the Issue”] and 25 years later he’s still doing the film [“Palestine is Still the Issue”] and he’s still calling it the same thing because it is still a core issue to peace in this world.
IP: It absolutely is. I think we are all a bit distracted and rightly so by the horrific things that are going on in Syria, and by the unpleasant events, Iran, Israel and in the Arab world. But we should never forget that it all goes back to this issue. It is the last remnants of the colonialist period and it was kind of an open wound that never healed.
And there is a direct connection between the way the United States has kept alive a colonialist project, into the Twenty-first Century, and the horrible things that we are seeing elsewhere in the Middle East. The Middle East is not able to sort of remove the shackles, if you want, of the colonialist past and move into a different phase because there was this question of Palestine remained open, and unresolved. It epitomizes double talk of the West. It epitomizes the hypocrisy of the West, and so on. And it gave pretext to a lot of bad people to do bad things to their own brothers and sisters. Because they would say, “Yes, but look at the Americans and the Israelis.”
DB: I have so many questions I want to ask you about all those issues. And every time you say something I have five more questions. But I do want to get to Syria and the plight of Palestinians in Syria. But before we do that I, just to stay with the terminology that is now used by many of us, and debated by others. We use this word ethnic cleansing. We were just talking about that. Could you talk about that? When you say ethnic cleansing what are the, sort of the continuing Israeli policies that make that, and you were beginning to talk about it, but make that definition real, and not hyperbole.
IP: Yeah, yeah, for sure. You know, when I decided to write a book in 2007 called The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, I had to wander from one publisher to the other, because most of them said we’re not going to associate the term ethnic cleansing with what Israel is doing. I convinced the publisher who eventually published the book, by showing him, the guys who were running the publishing house, by showing them the definition of ethnic cleansing in the State Department website. And the State Department website is very clear. It says: “If there are two ethnic groups on one land, and one group contemplates getting rid of all or part of the other ethnic group by peaceful or violent means, this is ethnic cleansing.” And the State Department website goes on to say that “Ethnic cleansing is a crime against humanity.” And that “the United States would never endorse anyone who is doing it.”
Now I took that definition and I broke it down, to historical chapters, and then I went to the present. And it was very clear to me that most mainstream Zionist ideology and the practices beginning with the major ethnic cleansing in 1948 when Israel systematically expelled 3/4 of a million Palestinians. But then, going on after ’67, I’ll give you three very short examples.
Between 1967 and until today, in the area that is called Greater Jerusalem, that is Jerusalem and everything that surrounds it, Israel had expelled by various means more than one quarter of a million Palestinians. They did it by not allowing people to come back after they left the country. By claiming that people who don’t pay their parking tickets, they cannot stay in the Greater Jerusalem area. Sometimes people are not ethnically cleansed to Jordan. They can be ethnically cleansed to Ramallah, which is a half a hour drive from the Greater Jerusalem area. But they want to Judaize this whole area. So that’s one place where ethnically cleansing continues as we speak.
Just two months ago, the Israelis were unhappy with the presence of Palestinian Bedouins in the south of Israel. And they initiated something which was called the Proper Plan. A plan to ethnically cleanse 70,000 Palestinians in the south of Israel. These Palestinians were very well organized and Israel is now thinking of how to do it in a different means because it was very clear, for the first time, this group would resist, by force.
DB: Now, you are talking about the Bedouins.
IP: The Bedouins, in the south. The Jordan Valley, which is an area which Israel wants to be clean of Palestinians has a population of 10,000 of Palestinians who are about to be evicted by force because it’s under the radar of the international community. In the old city of Akka, there are 20,000 Palestinians living in the old city which the Israelis don’t like. They want the old city to be cleaned both of its Arab history and the Arabs who live in it.
It’s a lovely, crusader city, north of Haifa. And so it’s piecemeal ethnic cleansing. I call it creeping ethnic cleansing or incremental ethnic cleansing. What the Israelis learned is that you cannot do the massive ethnic cleansing you did in 1948, again. The world is too alert, too focused, and the Palestinians are in much larger numbers. So they do it incrementally, they do it stage by stage.
But I really think that the future, as far as, unfortunately, most Israeli policymakers see it, is to have as much of what used to be Palestine as possible, with as few Palestinians in it, as possible. Now you can ethnically cleanse people by enclaving them, by putting them like in Gaza, in a ghetto. You don’t have to expel the people of Gaza. You can just starve them to death. Or you can physically take them out of the area that you want. I think the world becomes more and more aware of it, because of the alternative media, like your station but because of the work of activists and so on.
And it’s part of the new dictionary. We talk about apartheid, we talked about ethnic cleansing. I think we are experimenting with a new language when we talk about Israel and Palestine. Not peace process, not even occupation. It’s colonialism, it’s ethnic cleansing, it is apartheid. These are three new terms, if you want. Three new entries in a new dictionary that I think will dominate the conversation about Israel and Palestine, and would expose what the Israelis were trying to hide for many years. And we’ll call a spade a spade. You will not be able to hide behind liberal Zionist ideas of Israel as a Jewish democracy.
DB: By the way, what’s your definition of Zionism?
IP: Zionism, for me, today definitely is a racist ideology that is targeting only Palestinians, in a sense that Zionism says that the idea of a Jewish state is the most supreme value compared to any other value, whether it’s a human rights value or a civil rights value. Zionism is an ideology of power, today, that would justify very much like apartheid, discriminating against the Palestinians in every aspect of life. Zionism, historically, was a bit more complex. It was a noble idea, to begin with, of people who were trying to find a secure place…
DB: …for Jews to live…
IP: …from Nineteenth Century Europe. And even then, yeah, I’m not crazy about nationalism but it’s okay, everybody else was trying to. I think Zionism became a colonialist project the moment it targeted Palestine as the land where it wants to fulfill its ambition, to find a secure home for the Jews, and to redefine Judaism as nationalism. The moment they decided to do it in Palestine it became a colonialist project. And what we needed to do then, and what we need to do now is to see what happens to the people at the receiving end of Zionism. Not what it does to Jews but what it does to others.
I think the late Edward Said, was quite right when he said “Basically, Zionism for Jews was not a bad thing. But it was the worst thing that could have happened to Palestinians.”
DB: Well, this could be a one word answer. Do you see any difference between the Republicans and the Democrats when it comes to Israel and Palestine? No!?
IP: No, no, really. No. I don’t see … I mean the only good news in America are the campuses that have really changed, civil society has really changed. American political elite is still stuck in a horrible kind of posture that only perpetuates the suffering of people rather than ending it.
DB: Alright, two things, I want to get to. One is, in the context of the South Africa parallel, there is now a boycott of Israeli corporations that do business [in the occupied Palestinian territories]. Do you see that as an effective movement? Is that an important movement in this move to resist this kind of, what you call, ethnic cleansing?
IP: Well, definitely. I think the whole campaign, the BDS, the boycott, divestment and sanctions. We don’t have sanctions as yet. I think the idea that we should have sanctions is very, very important. First of all it galvanized activists all around the western world after years of being sort of more low key in their support of Palestine. It really gave new orientation to the solidarity with the Palestinians, which is not an easy thing. We don’t have an ANC, as we used to have in the days of anti-apartheid. But things are fragmented, are not united, it is not very clear who leads them. And yet people wanted to show their sympathy and solidarity with the Palestinians. And I think the BDS, this campaign was very powerful.
Secondly, I think it is a very important definer, a kind of signifier of what Israel is. You do not adopt or you do not support the idea of boycott if you believe that a society can change from within. And I think what the importance of this message is a very clear, and to my mind, accurate analysis of the political mood in Israel. Israel is a society that will not change from within. And the only way it will change, if someone would send it a powerful message, kind of a wake-up call, “You have to change, otherwise you will pay a price.”
And, the final point I would say about the BDS, the Palestinian society that asked for the BDS replaced this as a strategy, replaced the arms struggle, the suicide bomb, with these ideas. I think it is far better to have this non-violent means of trying to force Israel to change its policies, than the horrible kind of things, that suicide bombs brought with them. Not only to the Israeli Jews, but also to the Palestinians themselves.
DB: And there’s an amazing model in that they’ve seen what happened in South Africa.
IP: Exactly. There is a proven success story there, which inspires people to go on with this.
DB: Alright. I want to have you respond to the situation in Syria. Incredible impact on Palestinians there, over the border, in Lebanon. These are stories we’re not hearing about.
IP: Right. No, definitely, the whole Yarmouk Camp, one of the largest Palestinian refugee camps has been wiped out, and nobody is talking about it.
DB: How many people is that?
IP: It’s about 20,000-30,000 people who just disappeared without trace, in many ways. I think that what happens in Syria took us long time to digest, and its connection to Palestine is very important, on two levels. One is, of course, the level of the suffering of the people there. And, instead of trying to take sides, who is to be blamed? … the Assad regime that nobody should celebrate as a human achievement, or the opposition that doesn’t seem to be much better?
In every respect, the people themselves, for every Syrian that is killed there is a Syrian who is a hero. A physician who remains in a city, and continues to treat his patients, and so on. So, there is out of the inhumanity, Syria shines also the humanity of the people. So I think on one level there is this, next door to Palestine, there is both the most horrific scene that you can see, but also the most inspiring one, in many ways. But the West doesn’t report the inspiring stories.
The second aspect is far more important in a way. Israelis believed until recently that they are not connected to the Arab world. They are located somewhere between Norway and Scotland. And they have nothing to do with what’s going on. And the fire, and the slaughtering and everything, it’s not their world.
And, of course, this is a mistake, they are in the middle of the Arab world. They are part of the Arab’s world’s problems. They could be a part of the Arab world’s solutions, but they don’t want to, they don’t want to. And the turmoil, the storm that is now sweeping the Arab world, will reach Israel as well. It won’t help them.
You know, I said to an Israeli newspaper, they interviewed me lately and they usually don’t. But he started arguing with the interviewer and me about, he kept saying, “You know, but the Arab world, whatever happens in the Arab world has nothing to do with us.” So, I decided what else could I tell him, I gave him two images, which I think, for me, sums up the relationship between Israel and what’s going on in the Arab world. One image, I said to him, you know, even if you occupy the best deck on the Titanic, you are still on the Titanic.
DB: You are going down.
IP: Exactly, so it won’t help you. And since I saw that didn’t work too well. I said think about the roof of the American embassy in South Vietnam in 1975. I said, “Do you remember the images of the helicopters and how people were fighting to get on them? This is one scenario that Israelis should take very seriously.” Of course, Israelis say, “We have 250 nuclear weapons, we have the strongest army. This will never happen.” And I said: “Be careful.”
DB: I’ve got two minutes left so I’m going to ask my dumb question, my dumb popular public affairs question: How could it be that a nuclear renegade like Israel where there’s, as you suggest, 250 nuclear weapon, could get away with threatening to go across a couple of countries, and bomb Iran because they might some day, sometime in the future, think about having nuclear power and maybe the beginnings [of a nuclear weapons program], how could the world accept that kind of nonsense?
IP: Well, it’s not a dumb question. I needed the whole book, as I mentioned, my recent book, my very recent book The Idea of Israel is exactly about that. Israel succeeded in marketing an impossible reality. Until recently, people would think it made sense that Israel can bomb an atomic [facility] in Iran, who knows whether they [Iranians] have or want to have atomic bombs or not, and be totally immune from its [Israel’s] own policies.
But this is not the only paradox. Israel can get away with so many practices and policies and strategies that no other country in the world can get away with. And I think that kind of immunity, that allowed the Israeli impunity, is now under question. And, for the sake of my Israeli friends, and my family, and all my friends who are out there, I keep telling them: “If it won’t come from you, it will come from the outside. And this game may be over sooner rather than later.”
Dennis J Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom.