Speaking to the Monitor about his new book ‘The Biggest Prison on Earth,’ historian Ilan Pappe says that – ultimately – he is ‘confident of a peaceful scenario.’
August 15, 2017 —Historian Ilan Pappe’s new book The Biggest Prison on Earth: A History of the Occupied Territories continues his work of shining new analytical light on the seemingly intractable Israel-Palestine conflict, following up earlier books such as “Ten Myths About Israel” and the bestselling “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.” Pappe recently talked with Monitor contributor Steve Donoghue about his work.
Q: Your new book is already sparking the kind of controversy that greeted “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine” and “Ten Myths About Israel” – this must be a familiar pattern to you by now, yes? Do you find that the tenor of this conversation has changed at all over the years? Is there more receptivity to your work, for instance?
It depends where. Around the world, yes, the tenor has changed. There is more readiness to change the language that describes Israeli actions in the past and the present; there is less disbelief when a systematic abuse or dispossession is shown as a structure or strategy rather than a policy. As for Israel, the same denial and unwillingness to face the unpleasant chapters of the past persists.
Q: That assertion – that Israeli dispossession of Palestinians is an outcome of premeditated state strategy rather than a policy adapted to circumstances – contradicts the attractive notion of a fledgling state merely doing what it must to survive. It paints a far uglier picture.
This is not an attempt to demonize the Israelis or Israel. My main argument is that the Zionist movement in Palestine until 1948 and the state of Israel are a settler colonial project that is still intact today. The nature of such a project is that the settlers in this particular case study see themselves as natives who return to their home and see the natives as aliens, who at best can be tolerated if they do not challenge to the settlers’ power and ownership. So this is not a matter of planning only or strategic clarity.
Q: Settler colonialism seldom bodes well for the natives, and it certainly hasn’t for the Palestinian population now living in what you describe in the book as “the ultimate maximum security prison.” In “The Biggest Prison on Earth” you’re careful not to offer false or cheap hope for any good resolution to this problem – but do you see any such resolution as possible?
To be honest not in the short run. However, I do believe that in the long run the basic features of the project will diminish and hopefully disappear. I am confident of a peaceful scenario: not in a big bang but in bottom-up evolution. Change will come first and foremost due to Palestinian steadfastness and popular resistance, the intensification of the international pressure on Israel, and it will be cemented by joint Palestinian and Jewish effort to reformulate the relationship between them on the basis of equality, democracy, and respect for human and civil rights.
Joint life on equal footing is possible – the main obstacle is the state’s ideology that dehumanizes the Palestinians and refuses to allow them equal and normal life for the sake of what is deemed “Jewish Security” – namely an ethnic Jewish state that forever has a Jewish majority by all means possible and provides privileges and exclusivity for the Jewish people in it. This is an obsolete ideology and world view which will not hold water for too long in a world that wishes and struggles to ensure that more and more people would be liberated from tyranny, bigotism, religious fanaticism, and racism.
The obituaries for Shimon Peres have already appeared, no doubt prepared in advance as the news of his hospitalization reached the media.
The verdict on his life is very clear and was already pronounced by US President Barack Obama: Peres was a man who changed the course of human history in his relentless search for peace in the Middle East.
My guess is that very few of the obituaries will examine Peres’ life and activities from the perspective of the victims of Zionism and Israel.
He occupied many positions in politics that had immense impact on the Palestinians wherever they are. He was director general of the Israeli defense ministry, minister of defense, minister for development of the Galilee and the Negev (Naqab), prime minister and president.
In all these roles, the decisions he took and the policies he pursued contributed to the destruction of the Palestinian people and did nothing to advance the cause of peace and reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis.
Born Szymon Perski in 1923, in a town that was then part of Poland, Peres immigrated to Palestine in 1934. As a teenager in an agricultural school, he became active in politics within the Labor Zionist movement that led Zionism and later the young State of Israel.
As a leading figure in the movement’s youth cadres, Peres attracted the attention of the high command of the Jewish paramilitary force in British-ruled Palestine, the Haganah.
In 1947, Peres was fully recruited to the organization and sent abroad by its leader David Ben-Gurion to purchase arms which were later used in the 1948 Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, and against the Arab contingents that entered Palestine that year.
After a few years abroad, mainly in the United States, where he was busy purchasing arms and building the infrastructure for the Israeli military industry, he returned to become director general of the defense ministry.
Peres was active in forging Israel’s collusion with the UK and France to invade Egypt in 1956, for which Israel was rewarded by France with the needed capacity to build nuclear weapons.
No less important was the zeal Peres showed under Ben-Gurion’s guidance and inspiration to Judaize the Galilee. Despite the 1948 ethnic cleansing, that part of Israel was still very much Palestinian countryside and landscape.
Peres was behind the idea of confiscating Palestinian land for the purpose of building exclusive Jewish towns such as Karmiel and Upper Nazareth and basing the military in the region so as to disrupt territorial contiguity between Palestinian villages and towns.
This ruination of the Palestinian countryside led to the disappearance of the traditional Palestinian villages and the transformation of the farmers into an underemployed and deprived urban working class. This dismal reality is still with us today.
Peres disappeared for a while from the political scene when his master Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, was pushed aside in 1963 by a new generation of leaders.
He came back after the 1967 War and the first portfolio he held was as minister responsible for the occupied territories. In this role, he legitimized, quite often retroactively, the settlement drive in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
As so many of us realize today, by the time the pro-settlement Likud party came to power in 1977, the Jewish settlement infrastructure, in particular in the West Bank, had already rendered a two-state solution an impossible vision.
In 1974, Peres’ political career became intimately connected to that of his nemesis, Yitzhak Rabin. The two politicians who could not stand each other, had to work in tandem for the sake of political survival.
However, on Israel’s strategy toward the Palestinians, they shared the Zionist settler-colonial perspective, coveting as much of Palestine’s land as possible with as few Palestinians on it as possible.
They worked well together in quelling brutally the Palestinian uprising that began in 1987.
Peres’ first role in this difficult partnership was as defense minister in the 1974 Rabin government. The first real crisis Peres faced was a major expansion of the messianic settler movement Gush Emunim’s colonization effort in and around the West Bank city of Nablus.
Rabin opposed the new settlements, but Peres stood with the settlers and those colonies that now strangulate Nablus are there thanks to his efforts.
In 1976, Peres led government policy on the occupied territories, convinced that a deal could be struck with Jordan, by which the West Bank would be within Jordanian jurisdiction but under effective Israeli rule.
He initiated municipal elections in the West Bank but to his great surprise and disappointment, the candidates identified with the Palestine Liberation Organization were elected and not the ones loyal to Jordan’s Hashemite monarchy.
But Peres remained faithful to what he named the “Jordanian option” as an opposition leader after 1977 and when he returned to power in coalition with the Likud in 1984-1988. He pushed forward the negotiations on the basis of this concept until King Hussein’s decision to cede any political connection between Jordan and the West Bank in 1988.
Israel’s international face
The 1990s exposed to the world to a more mature and coherent Peres. He was Israel’s international face, whether in government or outside it. He played this role even after the Likud ascended as the main political force in the land.
In power, in Rabin’s government in the early 1990s, as prime minister after Rabin’s 1995 assassination, and then as a minister in the cabinet of Ehud Barak from 1999 to 2001, Peres pushed a new concept for what he called “peace.”
Instead of sharing rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with Jordan or Egypt, he now wished to do it with the Palestine Liberation Organization. The idea was accepted by PLO leader Yasser Arafat, who may have hoped to build on this a new project for the liberation of Palestine.
As enshrined in the 1993 Oslo accords, this concept was enthusiastically endorsed by Israel’s international allies.
Peres was the leading ambassador of this peace process charade that provided an international umbrella for Israel to establish facts on the ground that would create a greater apartheid Israel with small Palestinian bantustans scattered within it.
The fact that he won a Nobel Peace Prize for a process that advanced the ruination of Palestine and its people is yet another testimony to world governments’ misunderstanding, cynicism and apathy toward their suffering.
We are fortunate to live in an era in which international civil society has exposed this charade and offers, through the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and the growing support for the one-state solution, a more hopeful and genuine path forward.
As prime minister, Peres had one additional “contribution” to make to the history of Palestinian and Lebanese suffering.
In response to the endless skirmishes between Hizballah and the Israeli army in southern Lebanon, where Hizballah and other groups resisted the Israeli occupation that began in 1982 until they drove it out in 2000, Peres ordered the bombing of the whole area in April 1996.
During what Israel dubbed Operation Grapes of Wrath, Israeli shelling killed more than 100 people – civilians fleeing bombardment and UN peacekeepers from Fiji – near the village of Qana.
Despite a United Nations investigation that found Israel’s explanation that the shelling had been an accident to be “unlikely,” the massacre did nothing to dent Peres’ international reputation as a “peacemaker.”
In this century, Peres was more a symbolic figurehead than an active politician. He founded the Peres Center for Peace, built on confiscated Palestinian refugee property in Jaffa, which continues to sell the idea of a Palestinian “state” with little land, real independence or sovereignty as the best possible solution.
That will never work, but if the world continues to be committed to this Peres legacy, there will be no end to the suffering of the Palestinians.
Shimon Peres symbolized the beautification of Zionism, but the facts on the ground lay bare his role in perpetrating so much suffering and conflict. Knowing the truth, at least, helps us understand how to move forward and undo so much of the injustice Peres helped create.
The author of numerous books, Ilan Pappe is professor of history and director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, at its heart, a story of two peoples and one land. Both see history as their justification. Which means a historian who appears to change sides inevitably becomes a figure of enormous controversy. HARDtalk speaks to Israeli historian, Ilan Pappe who says the record shows that the Jewish state is racist; born of a deliberate programme of ethnic cleansing. Not surprisingly he’s widely reviled in his home country. His work has been both supported and criticized by other historians. Before he left Israel in 2008, he had been condemned in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament; a minister of education had called for him to be sacked; his photograph had appeared in a newspaper at the centre of a target; and he had received several death threats.
Breaking news/a good day for free speech: despite extensive efforts by the new Amcha Initiative to get Israeli historian Ilan Pappe booted from Cal State University campuses, where he is scheduled to speak next week, the presidents of Cal State Fresno, Cal State Northridge, and Cal Poly have taken a strong, unanimous stand in support of free speech on college campuses.
If you’re near any of these campuses, please go hear Ilan Pappe speak the week of February 20th. He’s a brave, important scholar whose analysis and insights are invaluable to understanding Israel and Palestine. He’s speaking at Cal State Northridge, Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and Cal State Fresno.
In the attempt to censor Pappe, who is a Jewish Israeli, UC Santa Cruz Hebrew lecturer Tammy Rossman-Benjamin, under the aegis of her new group, “The Amcha Initiative: Protecting Jewish Students,” recently sent a letter to the president of the CSU system against Pappe and his CSU hosts. The letter is a prime example of doublespeak, emphasizing – using bold font and capital letters – that “are NOT asking that these three events be cancelled or that Ilan Pappe be censored.” (emphasis in original)
What, then, were they asking for? For the Cal State campuses and Cal Poly to “rescind all … sponsorship and support” from the Pappe events. What does that mean, exactly? Removing the events from campus and preventing the faculty from hosting Pappe in their official capacity. So no, that wouldn’t exactly be censoring Pappe – he could still speak off-campus, we presume – but it would surely be censoring the faculty who invited him, making a mockery of the freedom of intellectual inquiry and free speech that are so essential to college campuses.