A professor at a Russell Group university said in the wake of the Hamas attacks on Israel on Oct 7 that the terror group “had to act, and quickly so”.
In a separate interview, Prof Ilan Pappé also denied that Hamas, which killed about 1,200 people and took hundreds of men, women and children hostage, was a “terrorist” movement.
The expatriate Israeli historian is professor of history and director of the European Centre for Palestinian Studies at the University of Exeter.
It is the latest UK university to face scrutiny over the views of its staff on the Israel-Hamas war.
A student accused the university of “failing to support” its Jewish community by not immediately condemning the academic’s comments.
In a comment piece published on the The Palestine Chronicle website on Oct 10, Prof Pappé, 69, described how it was “challenging to maintain one’s moral compass” when society “takes the moral high ground and expects you to share with them the same righteous fury with which they reacted to the events of last Saturday, October 7”.
He added: “It is this moral compass that led me, and others in our society, to stand by the Palestinian people in every way possible; and that enables us, at the same time, to admire the courage of the Palestinian fighters who took over a dozen military bases, overcoming the strongest army in the Middle East.
“Also, people like me cannot avoid but raise questions about the moral or strategic value of some of the actions that accompanied this operation.”
When asked to clarify whether he “admired” the courage of the Hamas fighters who stormed kibbutzim to murder and rape civilians, Prof Pappé stressed that he “condemned” these attacks “now more than ever before”. He added: “There is a difference between occupying military bases of an army that maintains the Gaza Strip as a ghetto and the killing of innocent people, raping and the other atrocities committed that awful Saturday.”
In the same article, Prof Pappé went on to describe the plight of Palestinian people “at a time when its oppressors had elected a government, which is hellbent on accelerating… the elimination of the Palestinian people”. He added: “Hamas had to act, and quickly so.”
The renowned academic also called for “de-Zionised, liberated and democratic” Palestine “from the river to the sea”.
The phrase has been chanted by Palestinian nationalists and terror groups to assert territorial claims of an independent Palestinian state.
However, Prof Pappé told The Telegraph that the slogan was for “Jews and Palestinians who believe that the only solution to the conflict is one democratic state all over Palestine and Israel” and that if anyone thought it was racist then the problem “lies in their understanding”.
In a separate TV interview with news channel Al Jazeera, Prof Pappé was asked whether he agreed that Hamas was “not a terrorist movement”?
‘National liberation movement’
In an exchange translated from Arabic, Prof Pappé responded: “No, it is not” before agreeing that it was “a national liberation and resistance movement”.
The academic told The Telegraph he recognised and “respected” Hamas as a “proscribed terror organisation under British law”, but added: “I explained that I understand this is the law but I think it is wrong as an expert.”
Rojin-Sena Cantay, 20, an Exeter student, said she reported the academic’s comments in the interview to the university after seeing a clip online.
Ms Cantay claimed that Exeter staff told her they would need to look into it themselves and ensure they had accurate translations of what Prof Pappé had said and she had not heard anything else since.
She said: “I am absolutely terrified to think of how people around campus who respect this professor will be influenced by him.
“I do feel the university has failed to support its Jewish community. At the very least they could put out a statement publicly condemning Hamas as a show of support for us.”
Ms Cantay is a fellow for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (Camera).
Christina Jones, a spokesperson for Camera UK, said: “It is shocking a professor at a leading UK university would attempt to downplay the events of Oct 7.
“Hamas is a terrorist organisation with no moral compass that openly calls for the genocide of Jews in its charter and that has acted upon this edict.”
Edward Isaacs, president of the UK and Ireland’s Union of Jewish Students, said: “It is sickening and completely unacceptable for Prof Pappé to praise the ‘courage’ of Hamas terrorists on Oct 7.”
‘I explain how Hamas felt’
When asked whether he was justifying the attacks of Oct 7, Prof Pappé said: “Hamas promised two years ago to act if the Al-Aqsa Mosque was invaded and its activists continued to be arrested and killed and if the siege continued.
“It had to act according to its own understanding of prestige and survival. That does not mean that I justify its action; as an expert I explain how they felt and they felt they had to act.”
As part of a lengthy response he also said it was a “sensitive time” for Palestinians in Britain, as well as Jews, and that students were “always welcome to talk to him directly”.
He added: “I have taught Jewish, Arab and British students for 15 years in Exeter. Even Jewish students who disagreed with me felt that they were treated fairly and found the course professional and illuminating.”
A University of Exeter spokesperson said: “We remain deeply concerned and distressed by the violence in Israel, Palestine and the Middle East. Our thoughts are with all those who are suffering as a result, wherever they are in the world.
“The University’s primary role is to ensure the safety of our students and colleagues, and to safeguard the freedom of speech and expression and academic freedom for all members of our community.
“We promote a culture of debate within the law, built on the principle of tolerance of different views and beliefs. We actively promote free discussion and interrogation of challenging and sometimes controversial ideas, and ensure that our academic staff are able to undertake teaching and research without hindrance of their right to freedom of speech beyond the limitations of the law.”
They added: “We received reports of an incident during a student event on campus. We offered support to the affected students, and investigated the incident fully. We are unambiguous in our support for all colleagues and students at this time, and there is no place for hate in our community.”