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Reframing the Israel-Palestine conflict

Professor Ilan Pappé.

Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

Some extraordinary events have taken place in the Arab world in the last few months. People in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Yemen have taken to the streets to protest against repression, corruption and lack of jobs and access to education. Some got rid of their Western-backed dictators. A friend of mine called this ‘the second step of the decolonization process’. What’s is your view on this?

I agree with the term ‘the second phase of decolonization’, or second phase of post-colonialism. It’s a very accurate term to describe what we are seeing there.

What is happening now is not only the assertion of self-dignity in the Arab world; it’s a defining moment for the West and its rather colonialist attitudes towards the Arab world. Secondly, of course, we are talking about process in motion. We see Libya as a painful reminder that it would not be as easy as it was in Egypt, nor is it clear that the Egyptian story is over. But it brings a lot of hope.

It’s the first time I remember in my lifetime that there is good news coming from the Arab world. Because of this very sheer sense of positive energy that comes from there, it’s a moment of no return. As a historian, I keep reminding myself that a moment of no return does not mean that immediately you will have the kind of better reality that you want. It means that you have to be alert, that there will be a lot of powers and a lot of actors, including Israel, who would do the best they can to make this moment disappear. So you cannot be passive about it, you have to be active. Each one of us in our own way to help these revolutions take place. It’s a dramatic and fantastic moment which in the long run will affect Palestine in a very, very positive way.

Is there a more global implication of the Arab world revolutions? Are Israel and the US right to feel threatened?

The global implication is that whether these are academics, journalists or politicians, the schematic way in which they describe society and divide it into actors, or factors that are active and can change reality, and those that are recipients and can’t change reality has been dismantled, has collapsed. So the global implication is that you can have as much economic, political and military power as you want, but there are processes which you cannot control.

This teaches us that the way the world is represented through the eyes of its Western élite has been dealt a serious blow, which is good news.

Those in the US – and there are many very important people in America who relied on Israel to guide them in the politics of the Middle East – are panicking. I have been to Israel many times since the revolutions started and Israel is in a real panic. They understand that the usual arsenal of power and diplomacy is useless in the face of what’s happening in the Arab world. They panic because they feel that if democracy indeed appeared on their doorsteps and around them, they could not sell the fable that they are the only democracy in the Middle East anymore; they would be, in fact, painted as another Arab dictatorial regime.

That could lead to new American thinking, and a new American thinking, in the eyes of many Israelis, is tantamount to the end of Israel as we know it.

As co-ordinator of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, I am now preparing the next session of the tribunal which is going to take place in South Africa and will talk about the crime of apartheid in relation to Israel. For many, Israel is a democracy, because everyone is able to vote and Arabs are represented in the Knesset. So is Israel a democracy?

No, Israel is definitely not a democracy. A country that occupies another people for more than 40 years and disallows them the most elementary civic and human rights cannot be a democracy. A country that pursues a discriminatory policy against a fifth of its Palestinian citizens inside the 1967 borders cannot be a democracy.

In fact, Israel is what we in political science call a herrenvolk democracy, democracy only for the masters. The fact that you allow people to participate in the formal side of democracy, namely to vote or to be elected, is meaningless if you don’t give them any share in the common good or in the common resources of the state, or if you discriminate against them despite the fact that you allow them to participate in the elections. On almost every level – from official legislation through governmental practices to social and cultural attitudes – Israel is only a democracy for one ethnic group which, given the space that Israel now controls, is not even a majority group anymore. So I think that you’ll find it very hard to use any known definition of democracy which is applicable for the Israeli case.

What is your nationality, Ilan?

I don’t have a clear nationality. I have a citizenship, an Israeli citizenship. Funnily enough, I also have a European nationality because as second generation European Jews we are entitled to have a European passport, which is not equivalent to nationality but it obfuscates the question of nationality.

I would like to think of myself as a member of a potential new nation that would emerge in the secular democratic state of Israel, which would be a combination of a society made of the third generation of settler colonialists who came to Palestine in the late nineteenth century and the indigenous native population. Whether at the time this would happen people would still define themselves in national terms or not, I don’t know and I don’t care. But I feel that I am part of a settler colonialist community which pretends to be a national community by itself and is recognized as such, like the Australian and New Zealand ones. But if this is the only kind of national identity open to me, I reject it and would like to work towards something much better for me and for others.

For many people the Israel-Palestine conflict is about the Holocaust and the fact that the Jews of Europe had to find a place to live where they felt safe. Once the Jews arrived in Palestine, a dispute started about the land between them and the indigenous inhabitants, the Palestinians. It has been going on for more than 60 years. Is this what the conflict is about, in your opinion?

No, no, definitely not. The conflict is not about the Holocaust. The Holocaust is manipulated by the Israelis in order to maintain the conflict for their own interests. The conflict is a simple story of European settlers coming in the late nineteenth century, motivated by all kinds of ideas; the dominating idea was that they needed a safe haven because Europe was not safe, and that this was their ancient homeland. It happened before – this is not the only place where people have those weird ideas that they can come after 2,000 years and reclaim something which was supposedly theirs.

Because there were enough imperial powers willing to support this colonization project, they succeeded in getting a foothold and started purchasing land. They exploited a certain land regime, in which you could buy land from people who did not really own it and expel the people who really cultivated it. But even that was not really successful. As you probably know, by the time the British Mandate ended, the Zionist movement succeeded in purchasing less than seven per cent of Palestine and bringing in a number of refugees, including after the Holocaust, which was not really impressive. The Jewish community in the world preferred to go to Britain, the United States or stay in Europe despite the Holocaust. Only a very tiny minority came to Israel, and that’s why, contrary to their earlier wishes, the Zionist movement decided to bring Jews from the Arab world and de-arabize them so they would become Jewish and not identify with the Arab population.

So the conflict is about a colonialist movement that – because of the Holocaust – succeeds in not appearing colonialist in a world that does not like colonialism anymore; it is using all kinds of means and alliances to continue to colonize, ethnically cleanse and occupy. But it’s an incomplete atrocity: Zionism is an incomplete atrocity against the Palestinian people. Had it been complete, as the whites did in Australia and New Zealand, you probably would not have a conflict today. Why is it incomplete? Because of Palestinians’ steadfastness and resistance.

So there you have it in a nutshell: a colonialist project trying to complete its plan, and indigenous people resisting it. That would be a conflict, unless you decolonize Palestine and move towards a post-colonialist stage in the history of this place.

You have been a human rights activist for many years now, fighting on all fronts to help the Palestinians. Unfortunately, little has been achieved: more land is being stolen every day, more people die, more houses are destroyed and the international community reward Israel for this. So what is the way forward for the Palestinians and their supporters?

We need to have a more comprehensive historical view of successes and failures. I don’t think it has all been failure. The present Palestinian community in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as well as the Palestinian community inside Israel, will not crack – that’s clear. Whatever the Israeli policies may be, Israel cannot that easily contemplate another ethnic cleansing – and that’s very important to understand.

Secondly, I think that something has changed in the public opinion – true, it has not been translated into policies, but we may be in the defining moment for Palestine without yet knowing it. So I would like to have a more balanced view about failure and success for all of us. However, I do agree that we need a clear strategy forward. There are three things that I would very shortly and very briefly point out.

One is that we need a better understanding about the distribution of labour between outside and inside. Namely, the Palestinian political system needs to get its act together in terms of representation, unification and so on; solidarity movements should not try to replace it on questions of representation, but should concentrate on turning Israel into a pariah state which, I think, is very important in order to get things moving.

Secondly, we have to change the dictionary. We should stop talking about the peace process, we should give up the idea of a two-state solution; in my mind, we should talk about colonialism again, anti-colonialism, change of regime, ethnic cleansing, and reparations in the larger term. [These are] all kinds of known phrases which are very applicable to the situation of Palestine, but because of Israeli propaganda and US support for that propaganda we haven’t dared use them. We have to make sure that even the mainstream media and academia, and definitely the politicians, use them.

The third thing we have to do is to accept the analysis that change from within is not likely to happen, which brings forward the question of what kind of strategy to adopt if you want to bring change from outside. Luckily, we have a very good example. Most people are now pushing the nonviolent strategy instead of the violent strategy, for change. This is good because I think a new reality that is going to be born out of the nonviolent struggle will create a much better relationship at the time of reconciliation. Whereas if you win liberation through violence, we know from other historical cases that you become a violent society yourself.

So I think there is a lot to be done, and the good thing about this age of ours is that there is a lot you can do as an individual, but never forget the organizations, and the old organizations as well, especially in the case of Palestinian representation. You don’t always have to reinvent the wheel; sometimes you have to oil it and make sure that it works again – as well as it did in the past.

You can watch the full video interview here.

Frank Barat is co-ordinator of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine.

Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel’s War Against the Palestinians, a book by Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappé (edited by Frank Barat), is out now.


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