The Ethnic Cleansing Of Palestine

Exclusive interview with controversial Israeli historian Ilan Pappé

News | Miho Seki | February 2009

The hall of the 9th District Municipal Building was packed for the Dec. 6, 2008 presentation by Dr. Ilan Pappé of his book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, which had recently been published in German. The Israeli academic’s visit to Vienna was particularly timely: It was just three weeks before the latest round of intense violence began in the Middle East and tensions were already mounting.

A former professor of history at Israel’s Haifa University, Pappé is one of a group of academics called the "New Israeli Historians," who work not only on Palestinians, but with Palestinians. Fluent in Arabic, the son of German Jewish Holocaust survivors presents a more critical perspective on the conflict, based on Palestinian and Israeli sources in Arabic as well as Hebrew: Not only has Israel conducted ethnic cleansing, but has also imposed a system of apartheid on Palestinian communities.

A controversial scholar, Pappé is considered anti-Zionist by some Israeli constituencies.

"The Israeli academic community would say the facts are right, but my interpretation is wrong, that I don’t understand that Israel had the right to do what it did," the historian told The Vienna Review. "But most scholars around the world accept the findings of my book, and it is now an integral part of history taught in schools and universities."

In The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Pappé traces the history of Israel and Zionist ideology, and analyzes the wars and events from 1947 to 1949.  Special attention is paid to the war of 1948, which Israel calls its "war of independence," and Palestinians call Al-Nakba, translated as ‘the catastrophe’.

Speaking in the Währing neighborhood of Vienna, Pappé highlighted the links to the WWII history of Germany and Austria.

"So much that Israel does is justified by what was done to Jews in these countries," Pappé said. "And I think it is up to the Germans and the Austrians to face courageously up to what they have done, so they can tell Israelis to [do the same]. All these things are part of the solution."

The Zionist movement was founded in Vienna a little over a century ago by the Austro-Hungarian journalist Theodor Herzl, in order for Jews to find security and to redefine Judaism. However, Zionism gradually turned into a colonialist project, Pappé says. The idea of a Jewish state soon became mainstream ideology among a growing number of Jews, who left an increasingly anti-Semitic Europe to seek refuge in Palestine – at the time a British colony.

After the British withdrew in 1947, Zionist leaders, including Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, embarked on a campaign to "de-Arabize" Palestine through what in retrospect has been recognized as ethnic cleansing, a situation Pappé focuses on in his book.  By 1949, 531 villages and 18 urban neighborhoods had been destroyed, and more than 750,000 Arabs were expelled from Palestine. The ethnic cleansing of Palestine never ended, according to Pappé, although it later continued in lesser intensity.

In his book, Pappé defines all ethnic cleansing as a "crime against humanity," with no extenuating circumstances. The situation in Israel is similar to apartheid, he argues, the racist system of exploitation and oppression that long protected white privilege and power in South Africa.

"There are still glimmers of hope for a just peace," though, Pappé believes. But first, it is essential to "acknowledge that something happened – and then take responsibility. This is the Israeli part of the deal." Then the Palestinians can begin to forgive and accept the new reality.

However, Western media tend to ignore him, Pappé said, describing how mainstream media was "not ready" to cover reviews, debates and discussions of his book or his views on television, especially in the United States.

In order to raise consciousness about the conflict, especially among young people, Pappé proposes the acronym "VIP": Visit (Israel and Palestine), Inform (yourself and others), and Protest (in a non-violent way).

Former Professor of History at Israel’s Haifa University, Dr. Ilan Pappé is currently at the University of Exeter, U.K. researching the events of the 1967 War. He is also working on a book about apartheid in South Africa and Israel, due to be published by I.B. Taurus in 2010.

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    the vienna review February 2009