On October 25, Karan Thapar spoke to Avi Shlaim, emeritus professor of international relations, St. Antony’s College, Oxford. Shlaim, the acclaimed author of Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions Refutations and The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World, spoke about the history of the conflict and the aftermath of the October 7 attack by Hamas.
In the interview, they discuss various issues and some statements by Avi Shlaim are highlighted below.
‘Land grabbing and peacemaking don’t go together, it’s one or the other, and by constantly expanding settlements, Israel showed that it prefers land to peace.’
‘Israel by its actions has shown that it is not interested in having a Palestinian partner for peace because it wants to maintain its control over the territory.’
‘Israel refuses to accept Hamas as a negotiating partner. Israel’s position is that Hamas is a terrorist organisation – pure and simple. It will never negotiate with it.’
‘Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy has been to let Hamas rule the Gaza Strip, but to contain the Gaza Strip, and this policy collapsed, because Gaza could not be contained.’
‘What Israel refuses to do is to accept that Hamas represents a serious body of Palestinians, and that you cannot reach any peace agreement with the Palestinians that excludes Hamas. So, the sensible thing for Israel to do and the other European powers to do is to recognise Hamas and to negotiate with Hamas for a political settlement of the conflict.’
‘This is a political conflict between the two sides, but Israel only uses brute military force to suppress the Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza, and nothing but brute military force.’
‘What we are witnessing today, day after day, in Gaza is Israel moving towards ethnic cleansing of the population and genocide.’
‘The West also bears a part of the responsibility for the present and past, because of its massive support for Israel, its supply of arms to Israel, and its diplomatic protection of Israel.’
‘My duty as a public intellectual, and as a student of this conflict, is to give the public… an account of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which is as truthful as possible, as honest as possible, and as fair-minded as possible.’
Below is a transcript of the full interview, edited lightly for style, clarity and syntax.
Karan Thapar: Hello and welcome to a special interview for The Wire. As we approach the end of three weeks since the start of the Israel-Hamas conflict, we ask, do we really know and understand the history of the relationship and struggle between Israel and Palestine? There are many who believe that until history is properly understood, you cannot really understand why [the incident on] October 7 happened.
Joining me now from Oxford is someone who is going to explain to us the history as he sees it. Professor Avi Shlaim is an Emeritus Professor of International Relations at Oxford University and the author of seminal books on the subject, such as Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions Refutations and The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World.
Professor Shlaim, in your books and essays, you trace the origin of the Israel-Palestine conflict to the 19th century Zionist movement, which sought to create an independent Jewish state in Palestine, in which Jews would constitute the majority. But you say the principal problem with this project was that Palestine was already home to an Arab population that had lived there for centuries.
There were, therefore, two peoples and one land, hence the conflict. Are you also suggesting, Professor Shlaim, that the Zionist claim to Palestine was not justified or was at least based on weak grounds?
Professor Shlaim: The Zionist claim to Palestine was based on exceptionally weak grounds and a misrepresentation of the reality in Palestine at the end of the 19th century. There was a very clever Zionist slogan: a country without a people for a people without a country. The slogan implied that the Jews were people without a country, which they were, but it also implied that Palestine didn’t have a people, it wasn’t inhabited but this was not true. There had been a well-constituted Arab society in Palestine for centuries. And the Zionist claim to Palestine was also not very convincing because Zionism was a secular movement, but it also invoked divine promise to the Jews of the promised land.
So, the zionists were secular, they did not believe in God and yet they turned God into a land agent who promised them this particular plot of land. The weakness of the Zionist claim to Palestine is illustrated by the following episode.
The visionary of the Jewish state was Theodore Herzl, a Viennese Jew, who wrote a pamphlet outlining his idea for a Jewish state in Palestine, and the rabbis of Vienna got together, collected some money, and sent two of their members to Palestine to check out Herzl’s idea and the two rabbis sent a telegram which became famous. It said that the bride is beautiful but she is already married to another man. In other words, Palestine is beautiful but there were already other people living there.
KT: As a historian, how do you evaluate a more emotional claim that the Jews make to the land of Palestine that it is their biblical heritage? That it is the land of Canaan. This is where Judaism started. Therefore, this is our home. How do you evaluate that?
Professor Shlaim: This claim is completely invalid in the modern era. In the modern era, there is international law, there are international organisations, there are international borders, and a claim that goes back to two millennia ago is completely untenable in the modern age. Because any other people could resurrect claims that go back millennia ago, and if every person was able to assert historic rights to a land, then that is a recipe for never-ending conflict all over the world.
Having said that, I don’t deny the very strong emotional and historic association between the Jewish people and Zion. Zion is one of the many names for Jerusalem, so I don’t deny the association and of course, Jerusalem is particularly of huge symbolic and religious importance to the Jewish people.
Jews for centuries have been praying, Jews everywhere have been praying in Jerusalem. That was the ultimate aspiration to return to Zion, but that doesn’t make it a politically or legally valid claim to the land.
KT: Now Israel came into being, Professor Shlaim, in 1948 and that very quickly led to the expulsion of some 750,000 Palestinians from their lands, which they called the nakba. In an article that you wrote for The Guardian in 2009, you said, and I’m quoting you here, “Establishing the state of Israel in May 1948 involved a monumental injustice to the Palestinians.” Was that the start of the modern-day Israel-Palestine conflict as well as the deep-seated sense of hurt and grievance that the Palestinian people feel?
Professor Shlaim: [In] 1948, the establishment of the state of Israel and the first Arab-Israeli War was a turning point in the modern history of the Middle East, but I wouldn’t choose that year to mark the beginning of the conflict.
If I had to choose an arbitrary date for the beginning of the conflict, I would opt for 1917. That is the year in which Britain issued the Balfour Declaration in support of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. So, this is a really significant document in which Britain allocated to the Jews political right, the right to national self-determination, and denied it to the Arabs.
In 1917, the Jews were only 10% of the population, the Arabs were 90%. The Jews owned only 2% of the land, and yet Britain’s intervention enabled the Zionist movement to embark on the systematic takeover of Palestine which continues to this day.
So, I would say that the British mandate in Palestine from 1922 to 1948 is what enabled the Zionist movement to establish itself, and [it also enabled them] to eventually, in 1948, proclaim and achieve independence. Now, I have never questioned the legitimacy of the state of Israel within its original borders. These are the borders that were agreed upon between Israel and its neighbours in 1949 after the guns fell silent. These are the only internationally recognised borders that Israel has ever had and the ones that I still regard as legitimate, but there is no denying that the establishment of the state of Israel involved a monumental injustice to the Palestinians. This is what the Palestinians call the nakba, the catastrophe. Three-fourths of a million Palestinians, more than half of the Arab population became refugees, and the name Palestine was wiped off the map. This is the Nakba, this is the catastrophe.
KT: I’ll just point out for the audience, professor Shlaim, that although you accept that 1948 was a turning point in history, the actual origin of the problem goes back to the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which is why many Palestinians believe that the original responsibility for the creation of Israel, and for the problems between Israel and the Palestinians, is, in fact, a British responsibility and you explained that very well.
In the years that followed 1948, the Arab nations of the Middle East rejected Israel. They fought wars with Israel, but after the Six-Day War of 1967, when Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights, it agreed to trade land for peace. That could have led to a solution, but Israel reneged on its commitments and instead started to build settlements in the occupied territories. Of this, you write, “refusal to relinquish the fruits of its military victory turned little Israel into a colonial power ruling over a recalcitrant Arab population.” Why did Israel do this? Why did it deliberately throw away the possibility of a solution?
Professor Shlaim: The June 1967 war was another historic turning point in the Middle East. For the first time, Israel had something concrete that it could offer to the Arabs in return for peace, because in the course of the war, Israel travelled [expanded] its territory. It captured the Golan Heights from Syria, the West Bank from Jordan, and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt. And the King Hussein of Jordan, immediately after the end of hostilities, offered Israel total peace for total withdrawal. But Israel did not accept this offer, and Israel started building settlements in the West Bank, and in Gaza, and in the Golan Heights.
Why did Israel not agree to trade land for peace, now that it had the opportunity? The answer to that is, in the aftermath of victory, there was a convergence of secular nationalism with religious nationalism, and both secular Israelis and religious Israelis felt that this was an opportunity to realise the land of Israel. The land of Israel was a concept, and now they wanted to turn the state of Israel into the land of Israel, by incorporating the West Bank into Greater Israel. The West Bank, or as right-wing Israelis prefer to call it, Judea and Samaria, prefer the biblical rights. So, it was the surge of powerful nationalism in Israel that militated against a compromise, and the settlements are one of the factors that have not only been illegal, but also remain the main obstacle to peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
KT: Was this a missed opportunity? [Was it] A moment when Israel could actually have established a peaceful relationship with its Arab neighbours? Did it miss the opportunity?
Professor Shlaim: Most definitely, it was a missed opportunity on the part of Israel. The United Nations offered a formula for a settlement. UN Resolution 242 offered Israel peace and security in return for giving up the territories it had conquered in the course of the war.
This is a formula that [had] worked. When Israel [had] applied the formula 242, in 1979, it got a peace agreement with Egypt. Israel had to give back the whole of the Sinai Peninsula, but in return it got peace. Israel could have had peace with Syria if it had agreed to return the whole of the Golan Heights to Syrian sovereignty. And as I just said, King Hussein of Jordan also offered Israel land for peace, but Israel missed the opportunity.
Since 1967, Israel had a basic choice to make, land or peace with its neighbours, and in the case of the Palestinians, Israel has opted for land, in preference to peace.
KT: The next opportunity for a solution, Professor Shlaim, came with the 1993 Oslo Accords. You write, “Oslo achieved three things, the PLO recognised Israel, Israel recognised the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people, and the two sides agreed to resolve their outstanding differences by peaceful means.” This led the Palestinians to believe that they could gain an independent state with a capital in Jerusalem, but this never happened. What went wrong? And who, in your opinion, is more to blame?
Professor Shlaim: The Oslo Accord which happened 30 years ago last month was a very modest step in the right direction, and at the time, when the Oslo Accord was signed, I was euphoric. I thought that this is the real deal, [that] this is the beginning of a solution, because I believed that it would start a process of gradual controlled Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, at the end of which there would be a Palestinian state, but I was wrong. Now, the Oslo Peace process broke down. Why did it break down? There are two different explanations: there is the official Israeli explanation, which says Oslo broke down because the Palestinians returned to violence, and it is terrorism that destroyed the Accord. And Benjamin Netanyahu never accepted the Oslo Accord, and so he rejected it from the start.
My explanation is that it is Israel – which after the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, and the return to power of the Likud right-wing party under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, in 1996 – that reneged on its side of the deal. And if you press me to say in one word, the reason for the collapse of the Oslo Peace process, that word is ‘settlements’. Jewish settlements on the West Bank represent land grabbing, stealing land that belongs to the Palestinians. Land grabbing and peacemaking don’t go together, it’s one or the other, and by constantly expanding settlements, Israel showed that it prefers land to peace.
KT: Let me quote from your writings. You say, “The change of government from Labor to Likud had profound implications for the peace process and the reason is, Likud explicitly rejected the idea of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.” And the Likud leader was none other than Benjamin Netanyahu. So, does he bear a certain measure of personal responsibility because of the position he took, for the fact that the Oslo Accords collapsed and were not fulfilled?
Professor Shlaim: Netanyahu bears a very very large share of the responsibility for the collapse of the Oslo Accords because when he was leader of the opposition, he led a campaign of incitement against the Rabin government, the democratically elected government, and this incitement ended with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.
So, he was never committed to the Oslo Accords, and once he was elected in 1996, and he was elected by a margin of less than 1%, and yet he immediately proceeded to undermine and subvert the Oslo Accords and reestablish Israeli control over the whole of the West Bank.
Labour built settlements only in areas that they thought were strategically important. The Likud under Netanyahu has built settlements across the length and breadth of the West Bank in order to make territorial compromise impossible.
KT: In fact, you make this point very strongly in your work. Since the collapse of the Oslo Accords, Israeli settlements on the West Bank have proliferated to the point that there are now some 750,000 settlers, I believe, in the West Bank. In Gaza, Israel occupied the Strip, then after vacating it, blockaded it and surrounded it virtually from all sides, restricting imports and exports. And even when it took over the whole of Jerusalem as its capital, it once again gave a signal that there was no question of Jerusalem being shared.
Does this mean that in the last 10-15 years, maybe a bit longer, Israel has effectively buried the Oslo Accords deep underground?
Professor Shlaim: It does mean that Israel has completely turned its back on the Oslo Accords, and if Israel’s intention, if its purpose was to proceed to peace with the Palestinians, then it would support a strong and united Palestinian leadership, but Israel’s policy, especially during the five terms of Netanyahu as prime minister, has always been divide and rule.
Whenever the Palestinians managed to reconcile their differences, to form a national unity government, which included Hamas and Fatah, Israel launched an operation which disrupted the national unity government.
Israel by its actions has shown that it is not interested in having a Palestinian partner for peace because it wants to maintain its control over the territory. In 2005, Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza, but it’s for its own reasons, not part of an overall settlement…
KT: Can I pause you there Professor Shlaim? We’re going into the Israel-Hamas story, which is another very important chapter, but there are some details which my audience may not be aware of. So, let’s go to the beginning of that, so it helps an Indian audience, who’s unfamiliar with it, understand.
Hamas was founded in 1987 as an organisation committed to the physical elimination of Israel. Before we go further, how would you characterise or describe Hamas? And how would you explain its ideology, in particular the goals and principles it stands for?
Professor Shlaim: Hamas is an Islamic resistance movement, and Hamas emerged in 1987 during the First Palestinian Intifada or uprising, and curiously, in the beginning, Israel supported Hamas as a counterweight to the secular nationalism of the PLO, of the Palestinian national movement. So, Israel had already begun to play the game of divide and rule, but Hamas is an Islamic resistance movement to the Israeli occupation, and in 2006, it won a free and fair election. It won an absolute majority in an all-Palestine election.
KT: Before we go into that detail, I noticed that you described Hamas very carefully as an Islamic resistance movement to the Israeli occupation. Many people today insist upon calling Hamas a terrorist organisation, but you did not. Is it [a terrorist organisation?] Or has it become a terrorist organisation since its foundation? Or is that only partly correct or is it incorrect?
Professor Shlaim: It is necessary to distinguish between the political leadership of Hamas which most certainly is not a terrorist organisation, and it’s a political leadership that adopted the parliamentary road to power and won the election in January 2006. But Hamas also has a military wing, and the military wing has committed terrorist acts.
Most recently on October 7, it launched an attack inside Israel, which involved a massacre of Israeli civilians. Attacking civilians is wrong, killing civilians is wrong, period. There can be no debate about it. Whether Hamas kills Israeli civilians, that is wrong, and if Israel kills Palestinian civilians, as it is doing today in Gaza, that is equally wrong, and I would denounce it as state terrorism.
KT: So you’re making a distinction between the political wing of Hamas and the military wing. The political wing – as you were saying and we’ll talk about it further in detail – won a free and fair election in 2006 and came to power. But the military wing has been indulging from time to time in terrorist acts. So is the military wing a terrorist organisation?
Professor Shlaim: The military wing is the element of a political movement of a political party and that military wing has committed terrorist acts in the past, but I am reluctant to describe it as a terrorist organisation. I would like to examine its actions case by case, and conclude that if it attacks civilians, then that is a terrorist act, but if it attacks Israeli military targets or Israeli soldiers, then I wouldn’t call it terrorism.
On the contrary, I would say that people under occupation have the right to resist under international law, and Hamas is exercising the right to resist the Israeli occupation, and it’s the only element within the Palestinian community that is resisting the occupation because the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah is a collaborationist body. It collaborates with Israel in perpetuating the occupation. So, the Palestinian Authority is a subcontractor for Israeli security on the West Bank, which is why it has lost legitimacy in the eyes of the Palestinian people.
KT: In 2006 January, free and fair elections were held both in the West Bank and Gaza, and Hamas unexpectedly won a decisive victory over Fatah, but when Hamas formed the government, Israel refused to recognise it, and the United States and the European Union did the same. A year later, in November 2007, when Fatah and Hamas formed a government of national unity overcoming their differences and getting together, you are saying Israel and the US plotted to undermine it.
Was this Israeli attitude to Hamas justified by Hamas’s 1987 position of wanting to eliminate Israel? Or was Hamas changing its attitude? And did Israel fail to realise the change, and thus miss another opportunity?
Professor Shlaim: Political movements and movements on national liberation evolve just as the PLO evolved from an absolute rejection of Israel to a much more moderate position that culminated in signing the Oslo Accord with Israel. Hamas is a political movement which has moderated its position since the Charter of 1988, which is a very dogmatic and even anti-semitic document, but once it was elected, Hamas seriously moderated its position. It formed a coalition government with Fatah, the government called for negotiations with Israel for a long-term ceasefire.
Israel refused to recognise the Hamas-made government and it engaged in economic warfare to break it down. The United States and European Union, to their shame, supported Israel in this effort to work with the Hamas-led government.
Now, the Western powers claim that they’re there to promote democracy, and what happened there shows how hypocritical they were, because they say they want to promote democracy but when the Palestinians chose the wrong bunch of people they turned against Hamas, and there was indeed a plot which involved Israel, America, Fatah and Egyptian intelligence, to isolate Hamas, to weaken it, and eventually to overthrow it. There was a plan to carry out a coup to drive Hamas out of power, and this led Hamas to carry out the violent seizure of power in Gaza in 2007.
KT: Can I pause you there for a moment Professor Shlaim? Why did Israel take this attitude to Hamas? Was it because Israel failed to realise that Hamas had evolved? That is, Israel was ignorant of the change and evolution taking place, or did it simply turn a blind eye and refuse to accept it?
Professor Shlaim: Israel refuses to accept Hamas as a negotiating partner. Israel’s position is that Hamas is a terrorist organisation – pure and simple. It will never negotiate with it. Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy has been to let Hamas rule the Gaza Strip, but to contain the Gaza Strip, and this policy collapsed, because Gaza could not be contained. What Israel refuses to do is to accept that Hamas represents a serious body of Palestinians and that you cannot reach any peace agreement with the Palestinians that excludes Hamas. So, the sensible thing for Israel to do and the other European powers to do is to recognise Hamas and negotiate with Hamas for a political settlement of the conflict.
KT: Now you write that to preempt the coup of the plot which you were talking about a moment ago, one in which Egyptian intelligence, Israel, the United States were all involved, Hamas violently seized power in Gaza in 2007. That not only divided the Palestinian movement between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, but it also set up the Hamas-Israel conflict that’s virtually lasted since then.
Let’s talk about that conflict. Israel accuses Hamas of repeated terrorist attacks causing Israeli deaths. Hamas accuses Israel of blockading the Strip, depriving its people of development, and periodic air strikes and even frequent or at least occasional ground invasions. How do you, as a historian, view the decade and a half since 2007?
Professor Shlaim: A decade and a half since 2007 has not involved any movement, any step towards a peaceful settlement of the conflict. This is a political conflict between the two sides, but Israel only uses brute military force to suppress the Palestinians in the West Bank and in Gaza, and nothing but brute military force. There is an Israeli saying that, if force doesn’t work, use more force, but this is completely ludicrous. Military force cannot solve the political dispute between the two sides, and Israeli generals have a phrase, ‘to mow the lawn,’ ‘to cut the grass,’ in Gaza.
This is a horrific metaphor because what it means is, that every few years Israel goes into Gaza with very advanced weaponry, great technology, and really inflicts a huge amount of damage, not just on Hamas and its military capabilities, but also on civilians and the civilian infrastructure. ‘Mowing the lawn’ is a mechanical thing that you do every now and again to set back Gaza, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. So, what Israel needs to do is to offer a political horizon and hope to the Palestinians of Gaza.
KT: Now of Israel’s attitude to the Palestinians over the last decade or so, you write and I’m quoting you, “Israel’s propaganda machine persistently pervades the notion that the Palestinians are terrorists, that they reject coexistence with the Jewish state, that their nationalism is little more than anti-Semitism, that Hamas is just a bunch of religious fanatics, and that Islam is incompatible with democracy.”
Are you suggesting that this is not just deliberate misrepresentation but pretty close to an outright lie?
Professor Shlaim: Of course, because this is Israeli propaganda. It’s completely one-sided, and it completely ignores what we have talked about before, that Hamas chose the parliamentary road to power. Hamas tried a political avenue and every avenue that the Palestinians explore is blocked by Israel, and it’s very easy for Israel to dismiss any action by Hamas’s terrorist action, anything by Palestinians, but the truth of the matter is that the Palestinians are a normal people.
They want what every normal person wants, which is to live in freedom and dignity on their own land, and it is Israel which is preventing them from doing that. Moreover, Israel has launched successive attacks on Gaza, the first one was Operation Cast Lead in 2008. By my count, the current round of violence is the sixth Israeli assault on the people of Gaza, and all Israel has to offer is more force and demonisation of the Palestinians. Israel systematically demonises the Palestinians, all Palestinians as terrorists, and the danger of dehumanising a whole people is that it paves the way to ethnic cleansing and genocide. What we are witnessing today, day after day, in Gaza is Israel moving towards ethnic cleansing of the population and genocide.
KT: Now you have made another very important point and I’m quoting you here: “Israel claimed to be the victim of Palestinian violence.” The truth you pointed out is very different. You said, “This is a conflict between David and Goliath, but the biblical image was inverted. A small and defenceless Palestinian David faced a heavily armed, merciless, and overpowering Israeli Goliath.” I have to tell you, when I read that sentence, I said to myself, this is definitely not how the West views the problem. In fact, it’s the opposite of the Western perception.
Professor Shlaim: The Western perception of the conflict is completely out of touch with reality because it’s obvious to anyone who has eyes, to see that the victims in this conflict are not the Israelis, but they are the Palestinians. This is indeed a conflict between a Palestinian David and a heavily armed and overbearing Israeli Goliath, and it’s the asymmetry of power between the Palestinians and the Israelis that militates against a peaceful solution to the conflict.
The West bears a large share of the responsibility for the impasse between Israelis and the Palestinians because the West is completely one-sided in its support for Israel. America, in particular, gives Israel money and arms, and diplomatic protection. The trouble with American support for Israel is that it is unconditional, it’s not conditional on Israel obeying international law, or respecting Palestinian human rights. It’s this unconditional American, and British, and largely European Union support for Israel which enables Israel to get away, literally with murder.
We saw during this crisis that Joe Biden, Rishi Sunak and other European leaders rushed to Israel to visit, to show their support for Israel, but they haven’t called for a ceasefire. Surely, the decent thing to do in the present situation is to call for a ceasefire, and Hamas has offered to release the civilian hostages in return for a ceasefire, but it is Israel that is refusing to stop its bombardment of Gaza.
KT: Professor Shlaim, it was against this background which we’ve discussed in some detail, that Hamas launched its October 7 attack. Does the history that we’ve discussed explain why that attack happened? Even if it certainly cannot justify it or even excuse it. And I’m making that clear to the audience, it’s not that the history justifies or excuses the attack, but does it explain it?
Professor Shlaim: The October 7 attack by Hamas in Israel has attracted a huge amount of denunciation for a very good reason, because it was an attack on civilians. So, I denounce the Hamas attack on Israeli civilians inside Israel, and much of the commentary speaks about October 7 as a barbaric attack. What many commentators forget is that the conflict did not start on October 7. The conflict has to be seen against 56 years of Israeli occupation, since 1967. The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian lands is a daily violence against the Palestinians, and when Israel withdrew from Gaza unilaterally in 2005, it effectively turned Gaza into a prison, into the biggest open-air prison in the world.
And it imposed a blockade, already in 2007, a blockade of Gaza which is illegal, it’s a form of collective punishment. Now since October 7, Israel has intensified the blockade and committed war crimes by cutting off water, food, electricity, fuel, and medical supplies to the population of Gaza. So, the conflict didn’t start on October 7 and the action by Hamas has to be seen as an act of resistance to the Israeli occupation, and the history that we have reviewed briefly in our conversation. It doesn’t justify the attack of Hamas on October 7, but it surely gives the backdrop to what has happened.
Israel tries to contain the prison and now the prisoners have broken out of the prison. There is a Jewish-American writer, named Norman Finkelstein, who has described this as the revolt of the slaves. It’s the underdogs who have taken the initiative in breaking the siege.
KT: A sort of modern-day Spartacus.
Professor Shlaim: Indeed, that’s quite an interesting historical comparison, absolutely.
KT: In your writing, you make three broad thematic points about the Israel-Palestine conflict. First, you say, Israelis regard themselves as victims, but then you tellingly add, [that they] feeling themselves to be the victims tends to blind the Israeli majority to the suffering they inflict on the real victims in this conflict, the Palestinians. Are you saying that Israelis are oblivious to, or at least, blind to the sufferings they have inflicted on the Palestinians?
Professor Shlaim: Yes, and the Israeli media is a loyalist media that follows the party line, the government line, and there is very little reporting of what happens on the other side of the hill, what happens in the occupied territories. So, Israelis are largely ignorant of what happens on the other side, and they also have a tendency to see themselves as victims. History explains why this should be so, the Jews have suffered a great deal, and the Jews endured the Holocaust, the Holocaust explains why Israelis are so obsessed, so concerned, almost obsessed with security, but this acute preoccupation with Israeli security does blind Israelis to the insecurity of the other.
Israel demands 100% security for itself. This translates into 100% insecurity for the Palestinians as we’re witnessing today in Gaza, so yes, the Israeli public is not well-informed about the rights and wrongs, or about the history of this conflict, and its leadership, especially Benjamin Netanyahu,[who] plays a major role in misinforming the public about the reality of the situation and about the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.
KT: You make another very important point about what you call Israel’s preoccupation with security, and I’m quoting you: “Preoccupation with security makes Israel susceptible to politicians who are unscrupulous enough to manipulate the sense of threat and inflate it for political advantage.” “The arch manipulator,” you say, is Benjamin Netanyahu. “He is the high priest of fear who never stops harping on the existential threats facing the country.”
Does this explain why he served for 15 or 16 years as prime minister, the longest ever in Israel’s history?
Professor Shlaim: There are many reasons for Netanyahu’s political success in being the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history. This is one of them, but there are other factors as well.
But just to focus for a moment on his manipulation of the sense of threat this is his hallmark. This is his most distinctive position to always exaggerate the existential threat to Israel, and for decades he has been saying that Iran poses an existential threat to Israel. Well, Iran doesn’t, Israel has a monopoly of nuclear weapons, and Israel threatens Iran. And it’s for this reason that the Iranians feel so strongly that they need to acquire nuclear weapons to counter the Israeli threat. So, Iran isn’t an existential threat to Israel, and Netanyahu has been saying repeatedly that Hamas poses an existential threat to Israel.
Well, Hamas doesn’t, Hamas is a very small poorly equipped organisation, which poses no threat to Israel’s basic security, which engages in terrorism in pinpricks. And terrorism is the weapon of the weak. Netanyahu is a great manipulator, and also Netanyahu has misled the Israeli public into thinking that the Palestinians are finished, that Israel has defeated them, they are defeated people. Israel has a free hand to do whatever it likes on the West Bank, and Israel has effectively sealed Gaza off and it ceased to be a problem. The attack on October 7 meant the collapse of Netanyahu’s policy of dealing with the Palestinian issue.
KT: The third broad thematic point I want to take up is the one you mentioned earlier in an answer. It’s about the West. But I think it’s important for me to repeat it for the audience. I’m quoting what you’ve written, “The Western policy of refusing to engage with Hamas, of supporting Israel’s abuse of the right to self-defence, and of supplying it with weapons that are repeatedly used to bomb a defenceless people, is morally indefensible.”
In other words, are you saying that the West bears much of the blame for the repeated failure to resolve the Israel-Palestine problem? And perhaps also for the trauma that the Palestinians have had to live through for at least 56 years, if not a lot longer?
Professor Shlaim: Israel bears the largest part of the responsibility for dispossessing and oppressing the Palestinian people. The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories is the most prolonged and brutal military occupation of modern times. But the West also bears a part of the responsibility for the present and past, because of its massive support for Israel, its supply of arms to Israel, and its diplomatic protection of Israel. Britain and America use the veto at the Security Council to defeat every resolution that is critical of Israel, and Britain and America are opposed to the investigation by the International Criminal Court of war crimes in the occupied Palestinian territories.
This is very revealing. There is an International Court of Justice, and there is a case for investigating war crimes both by Hamas and by Israel, and yet both Britain and America are opposed to the investigation of Israel in the International Criminal Court. That means that they consider Israel to be above international law and above international scrutiny. This is why this unconditional character, this unconditional nature [of] Western support for Israel is what accounts for, as I said earlier, the fact that Israel can act with impunity, and the fact that Israel until now has been able to get away, literally, with murder.
Israel is committing murder on a massive scale every day in Gaza, but I have one glimmer of hope about the future, and that is that there is a complete disconnect between the Western government and the people of these Western countries. The governments are blindly, uncritically supportive of Israel whatever it does, but the people in America, and in Europe, and Britain, are increasingly and overwhelmingly pro-Palestinian. I hope that eventually, Western foreign policy will catch up with the sentiments of the people in the street.
KT: Let me pick up briefly, Professor Shlaim, on something you said in that answer, and you’ve also written about it in a piece as recently as May 2019. That piece ends with the following sentence, and I’m quoting you, “It’s the specific duty of the International Criminal Court to hold Israel to account for the war crimes it committed in the past and it’s an ongoing assault on the people of Gaza.”
As someone who served proudly and loyally in the Israeli Army in the mid-1960s, do you really mean that about your own country?
Professor Shlaim: I served proudly and loyally in the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) in the mid-1960s because at that time the IDF was true to its name. It was the Israel Defense Forces, it was a regular army that was there to defend the country against attack from the regular armies of the surrounding Arab states. Everything changed in June 1967. Israel travelled its territory, it occupied territory from all its neighbours, and my little army was changed and Israel became a brutal colonial power oppressing millions of Palestinians in the occupied territories.
And the IDF was transformed into a brutal police force of a brutal colonial power. That is where I part away with Israel, but I emphasise again, that I don’t question Israel’s legitimacy within its 1949 armistice borders. What I reject totally, and reject completely, is the Zionist colonial project beyond the green line. And one last sentence about the ICC, because that’s another illustration of Western double standards. The chief prosecutor instituted a full investigation of war crimes but the present chief prosecutor Karim Khan, a British barrister, has completely failed to make progress in that investigation.
On the other hand, when Russia invaded Ukraine, within two days, he announced that he was going to institute a war crimes investigation, and within a week, he sent an advance team to Kyiv to start gathering the evidence for a war crimes investigation and trial. So, you couldn’t have a starker example of Western hypocrisy than condoning everything, all the war crimes that Israel commits, but supporting the ICC in its pursuit of Russian war crimes in the Ukraine.
KT: A quick confirmation and one last question before I end. Do you believe – horrific and horrible, and indefensible as what Hamas did may have been, do you believe that the Israeli response on Gaza since October 7 also constitutes a war crime? Also constitutes something that the ICC should investigate?
Professor Shlaim: Without a doubt, the current Israeli onslaught on the people of Gaza constitutes a war crime, and this is nothing new. The first Israeli attack on the people of Gaza was in 2008 and 2009, and then there was the Goldstone Report – 575 pages – it deals with 33 episodes, and it details not one, not two, not three, but a whole series of Israeli war crimes, and Israel did not have to pay any price for committing those war crimes in 2008 and 2009, or in any of the subsequent five attacks on Gaza. So Israel is a war criminal. Israel repeatedly commits war crimes in Gaza and it doesn’t suffer any consequences.
KT: My last question Professor Shlaim. How do people in Israel, your fellow citizens, regard your views, your thinking, and your comments on Israel? How do they respond when you say, and I’m quoting what you said to me, “Israel has committed murder on a massive scale every day.” You said “Israel was guilty of state terror,” you said “Israel was guilty of war crimes,” and you called it “a war criminal.” How do your fellow Israelis respond to you when you speak in these terms, and when they hear your views?
Professor Shlaim: It depends, on which Israelis. Israelis on the left share my views. The majority of Israelis, who know about me – and I’m not that well known in Israel – would probably regard me as a traitor. But what is important to me is the truth. I am a historian, my main research interest is the Arab-Israeli conflict. So what I care about most is not what some Israelis think of me, but my duty as a public intellectual, and as a student of this conflict, to give the public – in my publications, in my books, in my articles, and in conversations with people like you – to give an account of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which is as truthful as possible, as honest as possible, and as fair-minded as possible. That is my agenda.
KT: Professor Shlaim, I thank you for giving me so much time to explain a very complicated and complex subject in ways that are simple and easy for an Indian audience to understand. People may not completely agree with your view and interpretation of Israel-Palestine history, but at least they will have heard from you, a view that they ought to pay a lot of attention to, and a view which places what happened on October 7 in a perspective that many in the media have not as yet conveyed. You’ve opened their eyes, now it’s for them to look out and see and believe. Thank you very much indeed for speaking to me.
Professor Shlaim: Thank you for giving me this opportunity.
Transcribed by Uthara Vijay.