Interview. The Israeli historian spoke at the Genoa University Library: ‘Today we are faced with a messianic, racist, fundamentalist Jewish ideology that not only believes that Palestine belongs to the Jewish people alone, but thinks it has a moral license to kill and expel all Palestinians.’

Ilan Pappé: Between being a democracy or being a Jewish state, Israel chose the latter

On Saturday, there was a long line outside the Genoa University Library: hundreds of people were waiting to attend a talk featuring Israeli historian Ilan Pappè, organized by BDS Genoa, Assopace and Tamu Edizioni. Seven hundred were able to get in; the rest had to stay outside. It was an eagerly awaited event with one of the leading exponents of Israeli academia and of a counter-narrative based on irrefutable historical research.

“History teaches that decolonization is not an easy process for the colonizer,” said Pappé at the close of the lengthy debate. “They lose their privileges, they have to give back occupied lands, they have to give up the idea of a mono-ethnic nation-state. Israeli pacifists think they’ll wake up one day in an equal and democratic country. It won’t be that simple, the processes of decolonization are painful: peace begins when the colonizer agrees to disrupt their own institutions, constitution, laws, distribution of resources. The day the colonization of Palestine ends, some Israelis will prefer to leave, others will stay in a free territory where they’re no longer anyone’s jailers. The sooner the Israelis realize this, the less bloody this process will be. In any case, history is always on the side of the oppressed; all colonialism is bound to end.”

We interviewed Professor Pappé on the sidelines of the event.

For years, there has been talk of the “Gazafication” of the West Bank: the siege of Gaza as a model for managing the Palestinian islands into which Israel has divided the West Bank. Will the opposite happen now? Will Gaza become like the West Bank?

I don’t think Israel has a plan at this point. There are several options. One is the creation in Gaza of a kind of Area A- or B+: the idea of the “moderates,” such as Gantz and Gallant, is to entrust a piece of the Strip to the Palestinian National Authority and create a buffer zone of 5-7 kilometers. It’s a ridiculous idea: Gaza is barely 12 kilometers wide in its widest part. The other option, that of the ruling ultra-right, is ethnic cleansing that would be as broad as possible, expelling the Palestinians to Egypt, or at the very least to southern Gaza, and bringing the settlers into the north. It’s too early to tell what will happen, just as it’s too early to tell how the world will react, whether there will be a war in the north with Lebanon, whether this will provoke an Intifada in the West Bank.

After denying the Nakba for 75 years, today the Israeli government is mentioning it openly, talking about a Nakba 2023, about the historical necessity of expulsion. This abandonment of any restraint, even verbal, in putting forward ethnic cleansing as the solution – where does it come from?

Those who were denying the Nakba were the center and the left. The right never denied it, quite the opposite: they were proud of it. So it’s not surprising that it’s using this term. The other reason is that Israel is treating October 7 as an event that changed everything; it no longer feels it has to be cautious in its racist discourse, in talking about genocide and ethnic cleansing. It perceives October 7 as the green light to act.

The gradual but inexorable growth of Israel’s ultra-right over the past 30 years leads one to note an evolution of Zionism with a religious bent. The statements by members of the government, starting with Netanyahu, who are invoking the Torah to justify the barbarities and policies of Ben Gvir and Smotrich, are a case in point. What is Zionism today? Can one see a process of implosion in this evolution?

Even before October 7, we were no longer dealing with Zionism. It went beyond that, towards a messianic Judaism. These people, like the Islamist fanatics, believe they have God on their side. It’s an ideological development that has overpowered pragmatic and liberal Zionism, dragging it along with it. Today we are faced with a messianic, racist, fundamentalist Jewish ideology that not only believes that Palestine belongs to the Jewish people alone (as Netanyahu affirmed with the 2018 Nation-State Law), but thinks it has a moral license to kill and expel all Palestinians. This is an extremely dangerous ideological development. Before October 7, Israeli society was already experiencing an open clash between secular Zionism and religious Zionism. That clash would resurface and prove that the only thing that holds Israelis together is the rejection of the Palestinians. For Zionism, this is the beginning of the end: a 20- or 30-year process in historical terms. It will happen because this is a colonialist ideology in a world that is now going in another direction. If Zionism had arisen two or three centuries ago, it would probably have achieved the goal of eliminating the indigenous population, as happened in Australia and the United States. But it appeared at a moment when the world had already rejected the concept of colonialism and the Palestinians had already developed their national identity.

What is the reason for the shift to the right in Israeli society after the assassination of Rabin and the pacifist impulse animating a large segment of the population?

Being a liberal Zionist has always been problematic. You have to lie to yourself all the time, because you cannot be a socialist and a colonizer at the same time. Society got tired of it, realized that it had to choose between being democratic and being Jewish. It chose the Jewish nature. It decided that the priority was to establish a racist state rather than share it with the Palestinians. It was inevitable, the logical consequence of the Zionist project. The Israel of today is much more authentic than the Israel of the 1990s.

October 7 represented a traumatic break for Israeli society. The Palestinian issue had been pushed into the background, “managed” as Netanyahu often said. Could this shock give rise to an awareness of the need for a political solution?

It will take time. The immediate future will be marked by hatred and an impulse towards revenge. It will be hard to talk about a two-state or one-state solution. In the long run, however, it’s possible that Israel will understand that the Palestinians are not going anywhere and will not remain silent, no matter what Tel Aviv does. A lot will depend on Europe and the United States: if they continue to not exert any pressure, it will be difficult for the most reasonable voices in Israel to be heard. Civil society is not enough; we need the policymakers to change. These kinds of processes take time, but it’s possible that something positive will come out of this horrendous tragedy. It will also depend on the Palestinians, whether they can unite, whether the PLO will be reestablished. There are differences among them as well: those who live in the West Bank want to see an end to the occupation and oppression, they don’t favor one state. But those who live inside Israel want that, as do the refugees in the diaspora for whom one state would mean they could return.

The extremely harsh campaign against Gaza and the stated desire to expel the Palestinians has provoked a massive reaction from public protests around the world and countries in the global south, in contrast to the positions of Western states. Are we witnessing a paradigm shift at the global level that will have medium- to long-term effects?

We are witnessing a process of globalization of Palestine: a global Palestine that is made up of civil societies, citizens, movements as diverse as the indigenous movements, Black Lives Matter, feminisms: in other words, all the anti-colonial movements that may know little about the Palestinian question but know what oppression means. This global Palestine must be able to stand up against global Israel, which is made up of Western governments and the military industry. How can this be done? By connecting the struggles against injustices around the world in a single network. Here in Italy it means fighting against racism.

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