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Israeli Historian Ilan Pappé on Interrogation at U.S. Airport and “Collapse of the Zionist Project”

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We speak with renowned Israeli historian Ilan Pappé about his recent trip to the United States, when he was interrogated for two hours by federal agents upon arrival at Detroit airport about his political views on Gaza, Hamas and Israel, as well as demanding to know whom he knew in U.S. Muslim, Arab and Palestinian communities. Pappé was only allowed to enter the country after agents copied the contents of his phone. “They refused to tell me why they stopped me,” he says. Pappé, author of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, also discusses the Nakba, growing support for Palestinian rights, and why he believes “the collapse of the Zionist project” is imminent.

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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, with Juan González, as we continue our conversation with the renowned Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, professor of history and director of the European Center for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter. He’s joining us now from Doha, Qatar. And there’s a long delay when he answers a question.

I want to ask you, Professor Pappé, about this trip you took to the United States recently. When you arrived at the Detroit airport, you were questioned for two hours by federal agents about Gaza, Hamas and other issues, U.S. agents only allowing you to enter the country after they copied the contents of your phone. Can you take us through what happened?

ILAN PAPPÉ: Yes, I will do that, Amy, but if I may, and I think it connects to our previous conversation, I just want to say that there’s something bigger here than just the question of the ICC and Israel abiding or not abiding by it. I think that’s a moment of truth for the international tribunals, such as the ICC and the ICJ, because they would face governments that would not probably implement the rulings, because Israel still has very strong allies. And I think the rest of the world, especially the Global South, would watch to see whether the terms “universal” and “international” really mean something. So, I think Palestine is just one case of many in which we have now a real struggle to define, again, what is universal, what are universal values, and what is international justice. And I think that’s why it’s such an important historical moment.

Now, to come back to my ordeal, which was not that big, but I think is part of a bigger picture, I arrived in Detroit after eight hours’ flight from London and was taken immediately to a side room by two federal agents. And they had two sets of questions for me. One was about my views, my views about the Hamas, my views about what’s happening in Gaza. Do I frame what happened in Gaza as genocide? They wanted to know my reaction to the slogan, “Palestine should be free from the river to the sea.” They refused to tell me why they stopped me, why did I have to answer these questions. And then another set of questions had to do with whom do I know among the American Muslim community, the American Arab community and the Palestinian community in the United States. And that was followed by taking my phone for a long period, copying everything in it, and making me wait another time for phone conversations before letting me in, into the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Can I ask you exactly, Professor Pappé, what you answered them when they said, “What do you take to be 'Palestine will be free from the river to the sea?' when they asked you about whether genocide is being committed in Gaza, etc.?

ILAN PAPPÉ: Yes. Well, to the questions of “Do I define Hamas as a terrorist organization?” to that, I refused to answer that question. And I suggested to them that they should go and listen to my talks in the Michigan area, where I will discuss this issue. As for the question of genocide, I laconically said that, yes, I do frame the Israeli actions in Gaza as genocide. But again, I suggested that if they want a more detailed analysis of why do I frame it like this, they are most welcome both to read my articles and to come to the lectures in the Michigan area.

As for the question, “How do I respond to the slogan, 'Palestine should be free from the river to the sea'?” I said that everywhere where there is a river and there is a sea and people living between them, they should be free, which was a moment a bit ironical or comical, when one of them tried to show me his geographical knowledge, and he said, “So, what about Saudi Arabia?” So I corrected my phrase, and I said, “Well, anywhere where there are countries between two sources of water, people should be free,” which seemed to satisfy them at that particular moment.

I have to say, they were polite. I don’t want to describe it as an ordeal. They were polite. But what really bothers me is: Why at all do they have the right to ask me, and what was the real subtext for this whole affair? And I have my own understanding of that, although I don’t have the whole facts before me.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor, you’ve been speaking to huge crowds of young people all around the world and many of the protests, students protesting U.S. support for the war against Gaza. One of your books, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, has been much read in recent months. Could you talk about this? The Nakba or the cleansing of Palestine didn’t happen just in 1948, but there’s been a process of the ethnic cleansing, even going back to the British Mandate period as the British repressed the 1936 Arab revolt against British rule.

ILAN PAPPÉ: Yes. Yes, indeed. The Nakba is a bit of a misleading term, because it means, in Arabic, a “catastrophe.” But really what the Palestinians suffered was not an actual catastrophe, but rather ethnic cleansing, which is a clear policy motivated by clear ideology. And that policy was part, an integral part, of the Zionist program for Palestine from the very inception of the movement in the late 19th century. Of course, very early on, they didn’t have the capacity to ethnically cleanse Palestinians from their homeland. But already in the mid-1920s, when the Zionist community in Palestine was still very small, it was able, through purchase of land, on which there were many Palestinian villages, to convince the British mandatory power to evict 13 Palestinian villages, and that was in between 1925 and 1926. And then, slowly, this process of buying land and evicting the people who lived on this for hundreds of years brought the Zionist movement into a moment where it purchased at least 6% of the land of Palestine, which was, of course, not enough. And then they went to the big ethnic cleansing of 1948.

But as we know, it didn’t stop in 1948. Israel continued to expel Palestinian villages between ’48 and ’67 from among the Palestinian minority in Israel, which allegedly were citizens of Israel. Israel expelled 300,000 Palestinians during the Six-Day War in June 1967. And since June 1967 until today, about 600,000 Palestinians, in one way or another, were dislocated and uprooted by Israel. And, of course, now we have a magnitude of ethnic — or, a case of ethnic cleansing that even overtakes the magnitude of the ethnic cleansing during 1948. So, there is not one moment in the history of the Palestinians in Palestine, since the arrival of Zionism in Palestine, in which Palestinians are potentially under danger of losing their home, their fields, their businesses and their homeland.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Ilan Pappé, as you had expressed, more Palestinians have been killed in the last months than at any point in the last 76 years. More Palestinians have been forced to move, have been displaced, than what happened at the Nakba at the time of the founding of Israel. What gives you hope? You’re an Israeli historian, esteemed throughout the world. You have less than a minute.

ILAN PAPPÉ: Yes. I would say that what gives me hope is that I do think that the Zionist project in Israel and Palestine, as we see today, doesn’t have long to live, to exist. I think we are seeing processes, important processes, that are leading to the collapse of the Zionist project. Hopefully, the Palestinian national movement and anyone else involved in Israel and Palestine would be able to replace this apartheid state, this oppressive regime, with a democratic one for everyone who lives between the river and the sea and for all the Palestinians who were expelled from there since 1948 until today. I believe that this historical process has begun. Unfortunately, it will take time, and the next year or two are very precarious and are very dangerous. But in the long run, I am really hopeful that there will be a different kind of life for both Jews and Arabs between the river and the sea under a democratic, free Palestine.

AMY GOODMAN: Ilan Pappé, professor of history and director of the European Center for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.

Happy belated birthday to Simin Farkhondeh, and today to Tey-Marie Astudillo! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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