Revisiting the Palestine question: An interview with Ilan Pappe

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Ilan Pappe will be speaking to audiences across Canada this week. (Photo:

Israeli historian Ilan Pappe begins a speaking tour across Canada tonight in Montreal. The theme of his talk is "The False Paradigm of Peace: Revisiting the Palestine Question."

Based currently at the University of Exeter in the UK, Pappe will be discussing the history of failed negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. He is the author of nine books including The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, which is the definitive account of the expulsion of close to 800,000 Palestinians in 1948 upon the founding of the state of Israel.

Pappe's tour is sponsored by the Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME). Freelance journalist Paul Weinberg interviewed Ilan Pappe for about some of the topics he will address on his tour. These questions and answers were conducted by email, just before Pappe boarded his flight to Canada.

Paul Weinberg: Do historians understand the entire story behind the events in 1948 involving the expulsion of the Palestinian residents from what now constitutes Israel? How open are the archives in Israel?

Ilan Pappe: Historians understand in different ways such a contested chapter in history. Much depends on their location of the ongoing conflict, because these events are part of our contemporary reality in Israel and Palestine. There were two basic conflicting understandings of the conflict: one Zionist and one Palestinian. What happened in the last 20 to 25 years is that most of the professional historians and with them large segments of the public tend to regard the Zionist understanding as a false attempt to cover for a crime committed against the Palestinians in 1948 when half of them were expelled by force from their homeland.

The most interesting development in this is the fact that quite a few Zionist historians, unlike their predecessors in the Zionist historiographical establishment, accept that half of Palestine's native population was expelled, but they see this is a justified act of self defence. So the final stage in the historiographical attempt to understand, as you put it, is a moral debate of whether in the name of a perceived threat ethnic cleansing and massacres can be justified. 

The archives in Israel used to be quite accessible. Material which is now considered as potentially damaging to the state's image is now far more difficult to access. But there is still, for the time being, enough there to substantiate a better understanding of the 1948 situation and beyond. 

PW: What are you working on now in your academic research?

IP: I'm working on several projects. One of them is called "the Idea of Israel". This is a history of power and knowledge in Israel, and another is the early history of the 1967 occupation.

PW: Why are you living in the UK rather than Israel? Is it dangerous for you to live in Israel under the current political circumstances? 

IP: I try and live both places in fact, but I have to work in the UK as I was ousted from the Israeli academia. I do not think the danger for people like me depends on where we are, but rather on how desperate the Israelis and their supporters inside and outside are and how far have they given up the charade of democracy.

PW: How do you envision a one-state solution? Is it possible for two hostile nations to live inside a single state? I speak of this as a Canadian living in a bi-national state that works by hook and crook. 

IP: There is already a one-state solution in place - there is only one state and one regime controlling the land between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean. So the question is not getting hostile nations to live together but convincing oppressors to end the oppression. So one has to look for a combination of an outside pressure on the oppressor and an educational effort from within to change the power relations in the already existing one state.

PW: Norman Finklestein says that a two-state solution is still doable under international law even with the huge number of Jewish settlers on Palestinian land. He also suggests that the boycott and divestment campaign against Israel hasn't really worked. What is your response?

IP: I think the two-states solutions are dead. Only someone who has not been for a while in the occupied territories can still think there is the ability to create a state of any kind there, even if the international will to impose this solution on Israel would have existed. If anything there is no such international will because the political elites are reluctant to do this. So the reality is of a one-state as I pointed out. The political elites in the west are also reluctant to stop the oppression on the ground, as they were in the heydays of apartheid in South Africa.

So you needed then, and you need now, a strong pressure from the civil society on the political elites to change course. And this is the essential role the BDS movement play and will play. The only real worry, and indeed the only remaining asset the Palestinians can still have vis-à-vis the Israelis is giving the presence of the Jews in Palestine moral and international legitimacy.

The BDS movement highlights that despite all its power, Israel will never receive legitimacy as long as the Palestinians do no grant it to them (this was understood very well by Netanyahu when he demanded that even the shamble of leadership of the PA would provide the state recognition as a Jewish State). Apart from the new efforts of Palestinian unity and re-arranging the issue of representation (resurrecting the PLO), the BDS is the most important development in Palestine in the last decade.


Paul Weinberg is a Toronto-based freelance writer and journalist. His website is

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