Elias Stoakes talks to the Israeli historian Ilan Pappé about the prospect of a peace settlement in the Middle East, the plight of the Palestinian refugees, and his response to his numerous critics.

After attending the Inaugural Lecture for the European Centre for Palestine Studies at Exeter University (the first institution of its kind in our country), I met the controversial Professor Ilan Pappé, who – with some gentle persuasion on my part – agreed to do an online interview on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

In brief, Pappé’s association with “controversy” stems from, amongst other things, his much-debated claim that Palestine was “ethnically cleansed” (in part at least) in the war of 1948; his claim, unpopular in Israel, that “Zionism is far more dangerous to the middle east than Islam”; and because he has been accused of being, simply, a politically-motivated distorter of the historical “truth” by rival scholars.

Benny Morris, one of the prominent “New Historians” of Israeli history (a category that includes Pappé as well as the venerable Avi Shlaim) described a book by Pappé on Palestine as “appalling… [containing] errors of a quantity and a quality that are not found in serious historiography”; be that as it may, it is worth reviewing Morris’ own justification for Palestinian dispossession.*

King’s College’s Efraim Karsh and the inimitable Melanie Phillips in the Spectator are also voluble detractors; by contrast, John Pilger famously called him Israel’s “bravest” and “most principled” historian, whilst supporters in the academic world, including Noam Chomsky and Nur Masalha, continue to collaborate and concur with him.

Whatever one may think of his opinions, Pappé has borne a heavy cost for his heterodoxy: members of his family have shunned him due to his views, and he faced calls to resign from his former lecturing post at the University of Haifa, prompted by his political activities, and issued by none other than the university’s President.

I began by asking Professor Pappé if he believed that peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority could be achieved through their (apparently moribund) peace talks, and if not, why?

Pappé: I have very little faith in the current phase of the negotiations. As in the past, it seems that the Israeli government is exploiting the ‘peace process’ to receive immunity for its continued dispossession of the Palestinians in the West Bank and the barbaric siege on the Gaza Strip. The current phase has already been exploited by Israel to expand its settlement in the Greater Jerusalem Area – which has been accompanied by demolition of houses and eviction of people – and to tighten its grip over the Palestinian villages and towns which are in the vicinity of the ever-growing Jewish colonies of the West Bank. Similarly, it felt free to tighten the siege over Gaza, despite its promise to the international community to ease it.

At the recent inaugural lecture of the European Centre for Palestine Studies at Exeter University, you introduced Filipo Grandi from United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), who talked about the fate of the Palestinian refugees. Could you briefly outline the current human rights situation of the refugees and comment on their prospects for achieving some sort of improvement in their lives?

These are refugees who have lived in camps for more than sixty years – an unprecedented existence in modern times. Their situation varies between being denied access to meaningful jobs and benefits in Lebanon to a very limited access to the local economy and state benefits in Jordan. And we should not forget the refugee camps in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where people suffer from the double oppression of being both occupied and refugees.

There are also internal refugees in Israel itself and refugee communities in the world at large. Those in Israel live in better conditions than those in the occupied territories or the Arab world; but psychologically they had to undergo unbearable experiences for the past sixty years, such as watching their houses, businesses, factories, shops, fields and villages being pillaged and taken over by Jews.

There are two elements to this predicament. One are the dismal conditions in which people live, caged in camps that even when they become neighborhoods are on the margins of local society and in a limbo existence. Secondly, there have been more and more refugees as result of Israeli policy since 1948. There is no end to the dispossession, while at the same time the international community had already declared on 11 December 1948 through the UNGA resolution 194 that all these refugees have the unconditional right to return. As long as this continues, there is very little hope for peace and reconciliation in Israel and Palestine.

In the publication “Gaza in Crisis” (by yourself and Noam Chomsky) you mention that you are working on a book with a ‘particular focus on the Israeli decisions taken in the early years’, that you claim ‘have not been deviated from’ up to the present. What were those decisions and how has the political class in Israel consented to their continued application?

The gist of these decisions was that there could be no overall strategy for Gaza after the Israeli ‘disengagement’ from it in 2005. Therefore, there were two options for the Israeli policy makers. Either they would succeed in subjecting the Strip to Israel’s will – and putting it under a joint Israeli and PA control – encircled by barbered and electric wire. In such a case life would have depended on Israel’s goodwill, and the people would have to resign to a life in Ghetto-like conditions. Should the people of Gaza resist the first option they would be subjected to collective punishment until they surrender – this is the second option. There is no real bottom line to collective punishment, but given the circumstances on the ground, by inertia it turns into a slow genocide. The Israeli public did not only endorse this policy, in the main it demands more punitive and more drastic actions against the people of Gaza.

Changing topic slightly, how do you view the Israeli claims that Hamas hides amongst civilian infrastructure and uses human shields, as a justification for civilian deaths as “collateral damage” to IDF offences? What evidence is there for this, and is it a fair point?

This always strikes me as a curious allegation. Gaza is the most densely inhabited urban space upon earth, where can Hamas operate from within a territory that is no bigger that the largest metropolises in the world? When you cage a million and half people in a tiny squeezed space like this, and they resist, and you retaliate, you know in advance what kind of collateral damage you are going to inflict.

Do you see the Palestinian Authority as being possibly “corrupt and complicit” in the oppression of those in the West bank, as has been suggested by some commentators?

I do not think the PA is more corrupt than any government in the world, or let alone in the Middle East. It is complicit but so is anyone who in a way who does not actively resist the occupation. And yet, resisting today is almost like signing your own death certificate so that one should be very careful to make moral judgments from the outside.

One can make political judgments and the one I offer is that the PA helps the occupation and the illusion of a peace process and its seems that its dismantlement could be more beneficial for the attempt to expose the rouge nature of the Israeli regime and the criminal character of its policies.

One of your most controversial claims is that Palestine (as it was) was “ethnically cleansed” – at least in part – as a part of a systematic attempt to create a Jewish state at the cost of its Arab inhabitants. In the book “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine” you write that the Hagana’s Plan Dalet documents such intentions. Could you clarify and explain your position on this subject?Furthermore, how do you respond to the fierce criticism of your views? For example, David Pryce-Jones, described you in the Literary Review as “an Israeli academic who has made his name by hating Israel and everything it stands for.” Others have simply called you a falsifier. What is your response?

I am not going to respond to name calling – “Nazi”, “Falsifier”, “Communist”, “self-hating Jew” or whatever. I am willing to respond to any concrete question. Plan Dalet is a cluster of orders send by the Hagana High Command from the beginning of March 1948. Each command instructed a specific unit to occupy villages or urban neighbourhoods, destroy them and expel the people living in them. The famous document Plan D, published on March 10, 1948 referred only to the areas the new state would occupy from the UN Arab states, but it included the same graphic description of how to deal with the native population of Palestine. The plan as published and the systematic cluster of orders, together with other evidence I cite in my book, show a clear intention to ethnically cleanse Palestine from its indigenous population, as indeed happened. Moreover, as shown by Nur Masalha, there is already supporting evidence that this intention existed from early on in Zionist thought and strategy.

Finally, could you comment on the under-discussed issue of resources and their allocation in both the West Bank and Gaza, particularly water. Do you think that there is any hope for parity between Palestinians and Israelis in the future in this area, without a separate Palestinian state?

No hope whatsoever. The Israelis are intent of robbing the Palestinians of land, water and any other natural resources – this is what dispossession is all about.

* In an infamous interview with Haaretz, Morris controversially justified the “tragedy” of the uprooting of Palestinians thus: “there was no other choice… Even the great [sic] American democracy [sic] could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians. There are cases in which the overall, final good [sic] justifies harsh and cruel acts that are committed in the course of history…”