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Israeli Historian Ilan Pappé on Gaza War, Hostages & the Context Behind Current Violence

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We speak with Israeli historian Ilan Pappé about Israel’s escalating war on Gaza, as well as a leaked document from the country’s Ministry of Intelligence that suggests permanently expelling Gaza’s entire population to the Sinai Desert in Egypt. “This is a massive operation of killing, of ethnic cleansing, of depopulation,” says Pappé. He also says the only way to secure the release of the more than 200 hostages held by Hamas is to agree to an all-for-all swap for the thousands of Palestinian political prisoners held by Israel, including many women, children and elderly people. “This is the only way to release the people who were taken.” Pappé is a leading critic of the Israeli occupation, a professor of history and the director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter. His books include The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples and The Idea of Israel: A History of Power and Knowledge.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Internal Israeli government documents have revealed the Israeli Ministry of Intelligence is recommending the forcible transfer of the entire population of Gaza to the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. The 10-page document, which is dated October 13th, has been published in full by the Israeli news outlets Local Call and +972. The document recommends transferring all Palestinians to Egypt, then setting up a, quote, “sterile” zone of several kilometers near the border between Egypt and Gaza. In addition, the document recommends Israel then prevent the, quote, “return of the population to activities/residences near the border with Israel,” unquote.

Fears of a new Nakba, or Catastrophe, have been growing ever since Israel ordered all Palestinians living in Gaza City and in north Gaza to vacate their homes and head south. On Monday, Palestinian U.N. Ambassador Riyad Mansour accused Israel of trying to depopulate Gaza.

RIYAD MANSOUR: They want to depopulate the Gaza Strip completely from the entire population and throw them in the lap of Egypt in the Sinai Desert. … No one should justify our killing or find reasons to give more time to the killer. Call for an end of this assault on an entire nation. Stop the killings in the West Bank by settlers and occupation forces and the forced displacement underway there.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Haifa in Israel, where we’re joined by the Israeli historian Ilan Pappé. He’s professor of history and the director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter. He’s the author of several books, including The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine and A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples, as well as The Idea of Israel: A History of Power and Knowledge. Fifty years ago, Ilan Pappé fought in the Israeli military during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, has since become a leading critic of Israel’s occupation.

Professor Pappé, welcome back to Democracy Now!

ILAN PAPPÉ: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: If you can start off by talking about your take on what’s happening today? You just heard the doctor in Gaza, who just left Al-Shifa a few minutes ago.

ILAN PAPPÉ: Yes, I think — Amy, it’s good to be back on your program. Thank you for having me.

I think what we are seeing now, what unfolds in front of our eyes, is a genocidal situation, by which people are targeted, whether they are children, babies, in hospital or in schools. And this is a massive operation of killing, of ethnic cleansing, of depopulation. The pretext for that kind of savagery is revenge for what the Hamas did on the 7th of October, but I think the real intention here is not just revenge but trying to exploit what happened on the 7th of October to create new realities in historical Palestine. You called it a new Nakba. I think that this is — the Nakba has never really ended for the Palestinians, so it’s a new horrific chapter in the ongoing Nakba that the Palestinians are suffering here. So, this is a really horrific situation that can only be stopped from the outside, because there is no motivation inside Israel to stop the operations, nor to care more about the lives of innocent people, despite what the Israeli army claims to do in the field itself.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a short clip of Prime Minister Netanyahu speaking over the weekend.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: [translated] You must remember what Amalek has done to you, says our Holy Bible. And we do remember, and we are fighting. Our brave troops and combatants, who are now in Gaza or around Gaza and in all other regions in Israel, are joining this chain of Jewish heroes, a chain that has started 3,000 years ago, from Joshua ben Nun until the heroes of 1948, the Six-Day War, the ’73 October War and all other wars in this country. Our hero troops, they have one supreme main goal: to completely defeat the murderous enemy and to guarantee our existence in this country. We have always said, “Never again.” Never again is now.

AMY GOODMAN: And I want to play Netanyahu from last night.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Calls for a ceasefire are calls for Israel to surrender to Hamas, to surrender to terrorism, to surrender to barbarism. That will not happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you respond to the Israeli prime minister, Professor Pappé?

ILAN PAPPÉ: Yes. I think the main attempt here is to make sure that people do not understand the context in which the Hamas operation occurred, to totally dishistoricize that event, to forget about the 15 years of inhuman siege on Gaza, of 56 years of a ruthless occupation and ethnic cleansing in the West Bank, and 75 years of not allowing refugees to come back to their homes. I think this is an attempt to Nazify the Palestinians, which is not new, by the way. The Israelis, every now and then, use it. If you remember, Menachem Begin compared Yasser Arafat in the bunker in 1982 to Hitler in the bunker. The Nazification of the Palestinians is meant to, first of all, license Israeli policies without any consideration to international law or human rights, and, secondly, to divert us from talking about the real issue here, which is not the Hamas or its actions on the 7th of October, but rather the situation that bred this kind of violence. Rather than talking about the symptom of violence, we should talk about the source of violence. And the source of violence has not changed. We have millions of Palestinians for years being oppressed, ruled and controlled by Israel, and they are fighting with the means that they have. And this is going to go on, unless, of course, there is a willingness to go back to the negotiation table and ask why the violence erupted in the first place and what are the best ways to prevent another cycle of violence in the future.

There’s a second reason for Netanyahu’s rhetoric. Of course, he doesn’t want the Israeli media or the international community to deal with his own problems, that were very acute before the 7th of October, and to say, “This is now a situation where you cannot at all — well, this is a domestic issue. You cannot talk about me or my failures. This is a moment of existential threat to Israel.” And therefore, this kind of rhetoric will continue. And it’s very dangerous, not to mention the fact that it abuses — when they use the Holocaust, it abuses the Holocaust memory, because with all the horror of what happened on the 7th of October, this is not the Holocaust. And there’s no comparison between Palestinians, who act after years of oppression and siege, to Nazis, who just target Jews because they are Jews. There’s no comparison. This whole language is not the one to be used. And I think that Netanyahu is trying to galvanize a very vindictive Israel behind him. And the results of this kind of policy are unfolding in front of our eyes, and we just had this horrific and very moving kind of report that you had with the doctor from Gaza before me.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Pappé, can you talk about the hostage families? They don’t get a lot of attention, what they’re calling for, though they get tremendous attention for who these hostages are, and the people who were killed on October 7th. But there are many. For example, we interviewed Noy Katsman, the brother of Hayim, who was killed by Hamas on October 7th. He said his brother was a peace activist, and he himself said, “Not in my brother’s name.” He called for a ceasefire. And I wanted to ask you about this force of the hostage families and about the everybody-for-everybody proposal. On Friday, just after we got off the broadcast, it said, you know, “imminent major release.” And some thought that Netanyahu was pushing forward with the invasion more quickly because he didn’t want this possibility to happen. But explain the proposal of all hostages, over 200 of them, in return for all Palestinian prisoners, and who these prisoners are, close to 7,000 of them.

ILAN PAPPÉ: Yes, I think that not everybody among the families, because I don’t think they’re all made of the same cloth, but many of them understand that the only way to bring their dear ones back home is this kind of an exchange of prisoners. We are talking about thousands of Palestinians who are incarcerated in Israeli jails, many of them without trials. And they are kind of — the allegations against them vary, from actual participation in guerrilla or violent actions against Israeli citizens or soldiers, and those who are incarcerated for being a member of a Palestinian organization. Some of them are very young. Some of them are women. Some of them are very old and have been there for a very long time. And some of them were just recently incarcerated without trial in the West Bank. They are all part of the Palestinian liberation movement. And it needs a very different Israeli perception of the Palestinian struggle and those who participated in its struggle to be able to say, indeed, this is only way forward — namely, to release all of them, to the last one, and receive all of the people who were taken by the Hamas on the 7th of October.

What I can tell you, Amy, which is very interesting, is that former generals in the Israeli army, former heads of the Israeli Mossad and Shabak, the secret service, are supporting this kind of exchange. And this is a very important position that they are holding. And that may explain the fear on Netanyahu’s side to let this issue extend longer, because the voices that are calling for such an exchange are not coming from the extreme Israeli left or the liberal Zionists. They’re coming from some very powerful people, who were heading some of Israel’s most important institutions, such as the Mossad, the army and the secret service.

Will it take place? I don’t know. It depends very much on how things unfold on the ground itself with the invasion, that nobody in Israel gives the Israeli public any details of how it goes on, but it seems that it doesn’t go as well as the Israelis claim it does, and depends a lot, of course, on the international community, because quite a few of the people who are held by the Hamas have also dual citizenship. But there’s no doubt, Amy, this is the only way to release the people who were taken on Saturday. Neither Israeli commando salvage operation nor piecemeal deal will bring all the people back. This is a situation where you can solve the problem and not delay it for another five or six years, with babies and old people who might not survive a long stay in captivity.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Pappé, you were born to German Jewish parents who fled German persecution, the Nazis, in the 1930s. You fought in 1973 in the Israeli military. Can you talk about your life trajectory and how you came to write a book talking about the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, and the response in Israeli society, your university, University of Haifa, and how you ended up at Exeter?

ILAN PAPPÉ: Yes, it was — Amy, it was a journey. There was no one moment of epiphany or awakening that makes you actually take positions which will frame you as a traitor in your own society, and definitely would leave you with no reference group in your own society. For me, it was a journey that had many important stations, such as spending some time as a postgraduate student outside of Israel; having an Arab supervisor; looking, as an historian who was interested in the history of my own country, in the documentation that became available about 1948. So, all these possibilities outside to meet Palestinians on equal footing, to be able to research as a professional historian history or documentation that revealed evidence that contradicted, in a very significant way, the narrative on which I grew up on, all this led me to a moment where I thought that I understand what is going on in historical Palestine, what went on in historical Palestine. And I saw quite clearly, at least from my perspective, who were the victimizers, who were the victim, who was the colonizer, who was the colonized, who was the ethnic cleanser, and who was the victims of ethnic cleansing.

And because my parents came from Germany, and because we lost a lot of people in the Holocaust, exactly because of that legacy, I felt I could not be indifferent to the suffering of the Palestinians, nor did I want to be part of the society that caused this suffering. And I think that as the years go by and the research becomes more and more intensive, and my understanding and relationship with the Palestinians become increased and widened, I am even more confident today than I was in the early years of my career, either as an activist or as a professional historian, that I’m very at peace with my moral positions toward Israel and Zionism.

In 2006, that position led to pressure from my university to leave the university and to resign. So I had no choice. I had to resign, and I had to leave. I was very lucky to be offered a position in a university in Britain, where I founded the Centre for Palestine Studies. I am still a citizen of Israel. I’m still going to Israel and spending time in Israel and spending time in Britain, trying to divide between the two places. And I still believe that what I cherish as human rights, as human morality, is the only basis for better life for everyone concerned, Jews and Palestinians alike, in a state in the future that would be based on equality, that would not discriminate against people because of their nationality, religion or culture, and one which will rectify past evils and would allow refugees to return, and hopefully build a state that would radiate and influence the Middle East as a whole.

AMY GOODMAN: Ilan Pappé, we want to thank you for being with us, professor of history, director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter, author of many books, including The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine and Gaza in Crisis, which he co-wrote with Noam Chomsky.

Coming up, United Auto Workers has ended its historic six-week strike against the Big Three automakers. Stay with us.

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