Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

The Palestinian enclaves struggle: An interview with Ilan Pappé

Middle East

Israeli historian and activist Ilan Pappé. Photo by Meraj Chhaya.

Professor Ilan Pappé is the director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter, UK. He is the author of fifteen books, among them The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. His newest book, written together with Noam Chomsky, is called On Palestine.

Editors: Professor Pappé, your field is history, but your particular specialism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, is one whose historical issues are still very much live today. What are your views on the renewed violence in Gaza last summer?

Ilan Pappé: The last Israeli attack on Gaza has to be put in a longer historical context. It is just another point in a long history that probably stretches back to the very beginning of the Zionist project in Palestine in the late 19th century. Zionism in essence is a settler colonialist project, very much in the same mould as such projects in Africa, Australia and the Americas, the only difference being that it has not as yet completed its ambitions.

The Zionist movement had two basic ambitions. One was a demographic one. The basic Zionist assumption regarding demographics was that the Jewish presence in Palestine can only be assured by safeguarding Jewish exclusivity, or at least absolute majority, in the land—namely to have Palestine with as few Palestinians as possible. What changed over the years was the means for achieving this goal. The movement adapted itself to changing historical circumstances in order to implement the Zionist project on the land of Palestine.

The second ambition was geographical: to take over as much of the land of Palestine as possible. This was fully achieved in 1967 when, territorially, the Zionist movement took over the whole of historic Palestine. But more territory undermined the demographic ambition. The new greater Israel was left with the same demographic problem that haunted the Zionist movement from its early inception—namely, there was still a large number of Palestinians within this space which Zionism designated as the Jewish homeland.

Ever since 1967, this conundrum preoccupies the Israeli policymakers more than any other strategic question. In fact this has been a preoccupation of the Zionist movement from very early on. The solution it found to the problem in 1948 was to ethnically cleanse as many Palestinians as possible (and indeed half of the population was kicked out). But while the young Israel got rid of one million Palestinians in 1948, it incorporated another million and a half in 1967.

After 1967, the search was for a solution that would enable Israel to keep the territorial achievement without undermining the demographic one. The solution was the so called ‘peace process.’ The peace process was never meant to finalise any deal on the fate of the territories Isreal occupied in 1967, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It was meant to turn a temporary reality—by which Israel keeps the territories, but does not grant any rights to the people living there—as a permanent one. As long as there were Palestinians supporting this process—and there were—it won international legitimacy, and we are still there today in 2015.

The basis of this process is the two-state solution, again an Israeli idea supported by Palestinian leaders hoping this will end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The supposedly tangible possible end result of the process also gives it legitimacy and blinds all concerned to the fact that Israel has not lost one moment ever since 1967, under the umbrella of the ‘peace process,’ to unilaterally create new realities on the ground. These realities included the colonisation of half of the West Bank through the construction of Jewish settlements and military bases and enclaving the Palestinians both in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip in gated communities with no connection to one another and with heavy military presence on their boundaries. Israel wants these enclaves to be the future Palestinian state—for this so far they have found no Palestinian partner.

The Palestinian enclaves struggle in two different ways. The one in the West Bank, led by the secular Fatah movement, lost faith in the diplomatic process and is now attempting an appeal to international tribunals that would force Israel to withdraw from the West Bank. The one in the Gaza Strip, led by the Islamist group Hamas, believes it can achieve the same through a military struggle. The different strategies are not only the result of different ideological perceptions of reality. The enclave in Gaza is the most densely populated area in the world, where most of the people are refugees from 1948. There are no outlets whatsoever and there is no countryside one can run to in times of trouble. It is a ghetto. And ever since 2006, when the people of Gaza voted in favour of Hamas, since they lost faith both in the Fatah leadership and the peace process, they were punished by Israel in a most terrible way—slow strangulation. Israel controls the entry of food, people, commodities and very little is allowed in or out.

Such a strangulation was imposed on the West Bank in 2002 in operation Defence Shield, when Fatah attempted to resist the occuaption by force. Then, as in Gaza, since 2006, Israel used all its military might to punish those who attempted resistance. Its army employs tanks and artillery, as well as the most updated and advanced lethal military technology. The latter means are used also as a display of the latest achievements of the Israeli military industry for prospective buyers. And it uses them with a brutality that shocks the world for a while but is usually soon forgotten.

What we saw last summer was yet another Israeli idea of how to deal with the Palestinian resistance through the power of its military force. It used more power than it had ever used before—hence the high number of casualties [according to preliminary figures released by the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 1402 Palestinians civilians have been killed in the recent conflict].

There is one final additional dimension to the Israeli mode of action I would like to add. Israel since 1948, and during 1948, was very careful to try and depict its action as retaliation, and not an initiation of violence. Hence, Israel repeatedly starts missions meant to provoke a violent reaction from the Palestinians so as to justify a larger operation against them. This was apparent once more in the events that led to the 2014 attack on Gaza. Three settlers were murdered in the West Bank in an act of individual desperation that infrequently happens in a tightly controlled and oppressed West Bank since 1967. While it was known that they were killed, the army was sent to harass the local population and arrest most of the Hamas leaders and activists in the area. The Hamas retaliated symbolically from the Gaza Strip on this crackdown on its support group in the West Bank. The Israeli reaction was a genocidal attack on the Gaza strip.

Israeli wall in West Bank. Photo by Nilfanion/Wikimedia Commons.

Eds: What do you think is the endgame for the Israelis?

IP: The endgame is still implementing the initial Zionist programme of having as much of Palestine as possible with as few Palestinians in it as possible. The main effort is to blur in the eyes of the world the link between this ambition and the Israeli actions on the ground. In the case of apartheid South Africa, the end of the regime there was fated when the world recognised the connection between the ideology of the regime and the brutality its security forces committed on the ground. In practical terms, it means annexing area C (almost half of the West Bank to Israel), increasing Jewish settlement in the north and south of Israel, as well as in greater Jerusalem) and resisting any attempt by the Palestinians to exit the enclaves built for them by Israel. It may sound like a tactic, but in Israel this is a strategy if not an ideology—namely part of life in a daily routine of continuing to oppress the Palestinians.

The reason this can work, from within, is that policing another people (six million within a population of twelve million) provides many jobs and power to a lot of people. The number of Israelis employed directly or indirectly is massive. This is a source of income for many, many people in this country. Ultimately, it is not a state that has an army and a police force; it is an army and police force that have a state.

Eds: Do you think the plan is to keep a Jewish majority or to completely get rid of Palestinians?

IP: There is a debate within Israel as to whether it is necessary to get rid of the Palestinians in order to achieve the prime goal of Zionism. You will find there are two Zionist approaches to this: one pragmatic, believing the status quo should be maintained, and a messianic one, wishing to alter dramatically the reality on the ground.

The pragmatic approach is represented by the Labour party and maybe by certain important members of the present government. They think that if you keep people in the enclaves I mentioned—or as others call them, Bantustans— and don’t give them full rights, you almost achieve the same goals as if you actually kick them out. They can stay in the country but with no territorial integrity between them. Of course, whenever these Palestinian communities seem to resist, then what surfaces are ideas of more drastic action, like the one Israel took in 1948: expelling the people from the country. I think for the time being ‘pragmatic’ Israelis feel that they can continue with the Bantustan approach to achieve the same goal they were aiming for ever since 1882 or at least since 1948.

The second approach wants to push the end nearer to our times and its proponents are in this sense messianic Zionists. They believe that regardless of public opinion or universal moral considerations, Israel has the right and the might to complete the settler colonial project of turning the whole of Palestine into a Jewish state. It used to be a marginal point of view of the extreme right. It is much stronger and more popular these days.

Both are tactics aiming at implementing the same endgame. Given the horrific events surrounding us in the Middle East, the growing prominence of the second approach integrates Israel well into the present day, harsh realities of the Middle East, where brutal force is used in order to determine new facts on the ground.

Eds: The way you have presented your thesis makes it seem focused on demography. But demography is a matter of how many children each group has, child mortality, things of that sort. It is a different subject. And the Palestinians are clearly ahead on demography. Why would the Israelis take an approach that seems so doomed to fail?

IP: Within historical Palestine, Jews are not a majority and will be even less so within thirty or forty years. You have to bear in mind that many Israelis are leaving because they are getting sick of the place. But I think that is the whole issue: there is a conviction behind those who make decisions in Israel, be they military men, strategists or politicians, that they will have enough tools to deal with what they call the ‘demographic threat.’ If they were to feel that demography is defeating them, you know, from different enclaves, that would make them feel insecure. I don’t think they would hesitate to implement mass expulsions, or any other drastic move. So, even the ‘pragmatists’ are convinced they will win the demographic battle.

At the moment, the Israeli government still sees a long future ahead in which the kind of structure they put in place is working. They can play the charade of a democracy and the charade of the peace process where, in reality, they imprison the Palestinians in Bantustans, whenever it is needed. Given the way the Middle East is developing and the way the world is viewing Islam, they think that they have a future where they can get away with it. It is not even about Israel being the only democracy in the Middle East or epitomising the Enlightenment any more. They simply want to get away with their demographic policies without losing their economic ties and their strategic alliances, especially with the US. So long as they are convinced that these alliances are not under danger, they will continue.

Should the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] campaign succeed in affecting US policy and the Israelis come to be regarded as a liability or a pariah state, it would start to affect the country. Then I think the society would have to decide whether it became a rogue state that the world cannot tolerate anymore or if it wants to fundamentally change its ideological view of the reality. At the moment, they are not forced to make that decision, but there are indications already of what the decision would be. When the Israeli public was asked whether they would choose to be less of a democratic state but more of a ethnic/racist state or more of a democratic state and less of an ethnic/racist state, the majority voted for a Jewish, and not democratic, state. These are the options.

Eds: It’s unclear why the two-state solution is incompatible with the model you describe. If the Israelis, as you say, have these goals, why shouldn’t they do everything in their power to push for a two-state solution, to separate the Palestinians and the Israelis?

IP: Provided that the two-state solution doesn’t undermine the territorial victory of 1967, of course. All it takes is to convince the Palestinians that a Palestinian state is where the Palestinians live. This means they will have no rule over the roads, the green lungs, national parks or any non-inhabited space. It leaves them about 40 percent of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. However, even the most domiciled Palestinians refuse to accept this.

The only two-state solution that does not undermine the demographic obsession is one that envisions a Palestinian state made of a network of Bantustans, connected to each other by tunnels. But the whole territory would be controlled by Israel, a fake state. It is really a twisted idea of a huge open prison. But we know that this idea was rejected even by those Palestinians who were regarded as going too far for their wish to collaborate with the Israelis.

Eds: But again, how does that serve the Israeli interest in the model you describe? Why doesn’t the Israeli state just give the Palestinians a real state, given that it would seem to further their interests according to your view?

IP: From their perspective, Israeli strategists cannot give up the land (either because they believe without it the state is not strategically viable or because ideologically they regard at least the West Bank as the heart of ancient Israel). Moreover, they have used so much of the land, through settlements, that it has become an integral part of the state.

Separating one Palestinian community from the other, in the colonialist mode of ‘divide and rule,’ is the only way a settler colonial state like Israel can deal with the reality. Since 1967 Israel has exploited the occupied territory. It has employed means of ‘judeaisation,’ or colonisation, to such a degree that what separates one Palestinian community from another are Jewish communities and these Jewish communities serve all kinds of purpose [Editors’ note: They use the land for agriculture, industry, military training and building Israeli infrastructure more generally (roads, settlements, walls). The idea is to “create facts on the ground” and annex the West Bank one day.]. The most important biblical parts of Israel were within the West Bank. They found a way of offering impoverished Jewish people a better standard of living within these colonies and at the end of the day the aim is to change the demographic balance within the West Bank through the capture of land. Ariel Sharon was connecting this strategy with a plan to make the Palestinians unwelcome so that they will move to Jordan.

Eds: When you speak of a fake state…

IP: The fake state is the state envisaged by the Oslo accord. The agreement divides the West Bank into three areas. Area C is the area that Israel rules directly. Israel is now in the process of annexing Area C, which makes up almost half of the West Bank, 10% of historical Palestine (I’m leaving Gaza out for now). If you divide that 10% into ten different territories —well, this is what Israel calls a state. The Palestinians are not willing to accept this and the international community does not agree to it either, but they don’t do anything to enforce a change in reality. And the Israeli take on reality may be right: you can continue the dialogue almost forever.

Eds: How does the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 fit in with this theory?

IP: The Israelis thought they could run the Gaza strip like they ran the West Bank, with an Israeli part and a Palestinian part. But the settlers there were a constant target for Palestinian guerrilla attacks and the occupation was very costly. There was a need to maintain a strong military presence. Moreover, the presence of Jewish settlers in the midst of the Palestinian population complicated the Bantustan model of control I mentioned before. It limited the ability of the Israelis to collectively punish the Palestinians, not just because the collateral damage could have included Jews but because the infrastructure usually targeted by Israel in such punitive actions also served the settlers. It was a situation in which prison wardens were living amongst the inmates. In such a situation you cannot really punish the prisoners [Editors’ note: Because then you kill the wardens (i.e. the settlers) too. Ever since settlers were removed, Palestinians in Gaza get bombed once a year in “collective punishment.” This was impossible when settlers were still present. Gaza, in Pappe’s analogy, is the prison.].

There were other benefits to the disengagement programme. The trauma manufactured in Israel around the eviction of Jews was helpful in sending a message to the world that evicting settlers is something that Israelis cannot undergo twice. It was also, for Sharon, a repeat of the Menachem Begin Deal with Egypt in 1977 (Israel will give up the Sinai, and Egypt will not pressure Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip). The Gaza Strip for the West Bank is something Sharon could live with, as would probably many others on the Israeli Right.

What this shows you is that the only credible solution that could settle this in the interests of the native [Palestinian] people is a one-state solution. The two-state approach was an Israeli invention, as if you can somehow create an outlet for the Palestinian sense of injustice, between Israel and the Arab world. All this is not going to work anyway. It is just a tactic for dealing with one group of Palestinians. There are other groups: among them the Palestinians inside Israel, and the five and a half million refugees who are internationally recognised.

Photo courtesy the Israel Defense Forces

Eds: You’ve spoken a lot about what the interests and goals of the Israeli state might be. What do you think Hamas’ goals are within the framework you describe?

IP: Hamas comes at the situation from two perspectives, the Islamic one and the Palestinian national one. These two perspectives, when used together, say the following: we are not going to solve the differences between us and the Zionists on the one hand, nor can we hope to dislodge the Zionists; therefore we are willing to give them a 30 year hudna [Islamic parlance], a kind of armistice, which could practically be equated with the two-state solution.

What Hamas suggested all along was to find a way to live with the disagreement rather than looking to solve it. This is something the Israelis cannot agree to. In their view, Hamas’ role is like that of the Palestinian Authority: to listen and receive dictates, to have the kind of reality they are willing to tolerate be dictated to them. Hamas decided that it can use an armed struggle to try and bring Israelis to that position, which I don’t think is going to work.

On top of that, Hamas’ reaction to the Israeli policy, the policy of strangulation, is often only a reaction rather than a well-thought-out strategy about the future. The response to the ghetto that Israelis created is launching rockets, by showing your anger rather than resisting because you believe you can defeat the Israelis. This creates confusion about the Hamas’ goals. The difference between a strategy and an existential reaction is blurred. I think on the other hand what Hamas has been doing since April 2014 is far more solid and sound, the attempt to work with the Palestinian Authority to find a common strategy. It seems to be quite successful as the Israelis would not otherwise have used such military force.

Eds: What do you say to the argument that the current situation, including the recent violence in Gaza, actually suits Hamas’ interests? At the moment, they can take the moral high ground at no real political cost.

IP: At the end of the day, Hamas needs more than the moral high ground. A moral high ground does not bring a family back to life. I think they are navigating between the domestic support that they have, which seems to be higher than the level of support that the Palestinian Authority has. But they do not forget that they also have a duty to cater to the elementary existential needs of their people. And you don’t do that just by taking the moral high ground.

In the future, I think we will see a political force that will have to find solutions for their own people’s survival and not just hide behind moral posturing. After their work in the refugee camps, Fatah was in a similar situation. But it also cared for the educational and welfare needs of its people and without that it would have been totally delegitimised. Hamas also has to show its people its own vision of the future: what the world will look like in the next 50, 60 years.

Eds: Your ideas focus quite strictly on the Israelis and, in your research, the Zionists. But what about the context of the policy of Hamas, which is based on violent attacks against civilians?

IP: People who say this generally don’t regard the act of invading and taking someone’s home as a violent act. Of course, coming from this position the Palestinian response looks unreasonable. The Palestinians resisted the idea, supported by Britain, that their homeland is not their own, but belongs to people who came from Europe. In turn, the colonialist powers respond to the violence with their own violence. But nobody excused the anti-colonial movement for being the source of the violence. It is the colonialist situation that produces the violence. You need to decolonise Palestine. This can’t be done by throwing the Jews back to the homeland, but by creating a political outfit that respects most of their rights.

Eds: But even historically, there is a fairly consistent strand of violence and antisemitism in the Arab policy towards the Israelis. Before the formation of the state of Israel, there is the famous example of the Mufti of Palestine, Haj Al Amin Al-Husseini, who allied himself with the Nazis. Aren’t these factors relevant for understanding the historical and current context?

IP: I think this view is totally distorted. Before the arrival of Zionism, Palestine was a country where all the religions lived together. There was no antisemitism or a particular anti-Jewish bias.

The Palestinian community became anti-Zionist, not anti-Semitic, when they realised what the real aims of the colonialist movement were. They sometimes blurred the terms Jews with Zionists, because the Zionists insisted they were there on the name of Judaism and they colonised the land as Jews.

Husayni as a leader underwent a similar transformation. But he took it further. He understood that Britain was the key for saving the Palestinians from the colonisation of Palestine. When he realised they were supporting Zionism and not rejecting it, he looked for help from their enemies, who were, on the eve of the Second World War, the Italians and the Germans. So yes, at one moment, he flirted with the Nazis. Neither he nor any other Palestinian took the Nazi ideology seriously. None of these people had a problem with Jews. They had a problem with a particular group of Jews who wanted to dislodge them. They would sometimes call them ‘the Jews’ when they meant ‘the Zionists.’ They would use the word Jews. The problem that creates this identification between Zionism and Judaism is because of Zionism: it claims it represents all the Jews in the world. When it destroys a village, it claims it does so in the name of Judaism. Unsurprisingly, when not one Jewish voice says otherwise, this is the outcome. But luckily, there are a lot of Jews who are not Zionists who do speak up saying that they are not condoning it.

To sum up, not all Jews are Zionists, and not all the Zionists are Jews. The heart of the problem is with Zionism as an ideology. Not because of what it promises the Jews—it is a noble idea to create a safe place, even a natural home, but it is a horrible idea when you think the only way you can implement it is by destroying the homes of other people. It’s not going to work in the 21st century. For the sake of the Jews in Israel themselves they should seek a reconciliation with the native people, who are still willing to compromise, and not continue the act of ethnic cleansing, or else the Palestinians will always be helpless.

Eds: How does the current political situation in Israel—Netanyahu having just been re-elected—support or influence your theses? How do you see things developing with the recent election?

IP: Before the election, while everyone was confident Netanyahu would lose, I predicted that those I call here the ‘messianic’ Zionists are getting stronger at the expense of the pragmatic ones. The results of the elections reaffirm my conviction that this is the trend: Israel becomes a state that does not feel the need to play the charade of democracy or peace process and intends to unilaterally implement the takeover of Palestine and deal with the Palestinians in the way I described before. Either Palestinians accept life in Bantustans or they will feel the strength of the military brutality if they resist.

Pressuring Israel from the outside through BDS, and a one state solution, remain the only panacea for this illness called Zionism.

This interview originally appeared on


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