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Norman G. Finkelstein: Israel Overreached in Gaza

Norman Finkelstein has just completed a new book, This Time We Went Too Far:  Truth and Consequences of the Gaza Invasion (OR Book April 2010).  Finkelstein is a controversial scholar who has written extensively on Israel and its role in the Middle East.  His new book examines the Israeli invasion of Gaza of December 2008-January 2009.  Drawing on the numerous reports and studies in the wake of that invasion he challenges its defenders, analyzes why Israel launched it, and assesses its lasting implications.  I spoke with Dr. Finkelstein via telephone.

You write “what happened in Gaza was meant to happen.”  What happened and what was Israel seeking to accomplish?

In short what happened in Gaza was a massacre.  About 1400 Palestinians were killed and about 13 Israelis were killed.  Of the 1400 Palestinian casualties, about four-fifths were civilians and 350 children.  In the case of the Israelis 10 soldiers were killed, (four of them by friendly fire) and three civilians.  It was a ratio of about 100 to 1 overall, in terms of civilians it was 400 to 1.  Israeli soldiers described what happened saying it was like a PlayStation computer game, everything was done by remote control.  Another soldier said it was like a child with a magnifying glass burning ants.  Those are not metaphors of a war.  Those are metaphors of a massacre.

There were basically two goals.  The main goal was to restore what is called “deterrence capacity.”  Deterrence capacity is a fancy technical term for restoring the Arab world’s fear of Israel.  There was concern by Israel after the July-August 2006 war with Lebanon where it had suffered a major military defeat.  There was concern that the Arabs no longer feared Israel.  The head of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, said to the Israelis the Arabs are no longer afraid of you, if you invade us again, we will defeat you again.  So Israel had to restore the Arab world’s fear of Israel.

The problem Israel had, however, was that everyone knew that Gaza had no significant military force.  Defeating it on the battlefield was not going to restore the Arab world’s fear of Israel because there was no combat in Gaza.  There couldn’t be real combat because Hamas had no fighting force.

Israel decided to restore its deterrence capacity by indiscriminately attacking the civilian infrastructure and civilian population.  They were very clear that that was their intention.  That is what they did.  After the massacre ended Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni went on Channel 10 News in Israel and said “Israel demonstrated real hooliganism during the course of the recent operation, which I demanded.”

You quote Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in his report, The Gaza War:  A Strategic Analysis, that “Israel did not violate the laws of war.”  You argue forcefully that he is wrong.  Why?

It is not what I argue it is what all the human rights organizations concluded. There were many human rights organizations and missions that investigated what happened in Gaza. Amnesty International put out two very substantial reports. Human Rights Watch put out five reports. There was a fact finding committee headed by the distinguished South African jurist, John Dugard.  There was the Goldstone mission [Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict].  There were reports put out by various Israeli human rights organizations and international medical teams.  They all reached the same conclusion, Israel committed massive war crimes in Gaza and possibly or definitely — depending on which report you look at — crimes against humanity.  There is no question that there were very significant violations of the laws of war.
The intentional targeting of the civilian infrastructure and also there were significant cases of intentional targeting of the civilian population.

Your book documents quite extensively the disproportionality of the Israel/Hamas confrontation.  That said, who is Hamas?  Or to sharpen this a bit, doesn’t Hamas have their own agenda based on a certain kind of Islam that is restrictive and repressive, as well as ties to the theocracy in Iran?  Is it possible to oppose the actions of Israel without supporting Hamas?

It has nothing to do with what Hamas’s ideology is.  Take World War II.  Stalin was repressive.  I don’t think rational people will dispute that fact.  You could even say Stalin was tyrannical, but who would dispute the righteousness of the Red Army’s resistance to the Nazi invasion and occupation of the Soviet Union?

It has nothing to do with whether or not you agree with the regime.  It is the fact that in the case of Hamas — and here distinctions need to be made — Hamas was the democratically elected government of the Palestinians.  In January 2006 there were elections.  Jimmy Carter, who was one of the international monitors, called the elections completely honest and fair.  So it was a democratically elected government.  Israel, along with the United States, immediately tried to impose economic sanctions on the Palestinian people in order to get them to reject and repudiate Hamas, and then eventually launched an attack.

In my opinion Hamas had very few options because Israel broke the cease fire that had been implemented on June 19, 2006.  Israel broke the cease fire, as Amnesty International put it, on November 4 when it invaded Gaza and killed six Palestinians militants.

Up until the end of December of 2008, Hamas was saying that it wanted to renew the cease fire but only on condition that Israel implement the original terms of the cease fire.  Those terms were that Hamas would stop its rocket and mortar attacks and Israel was supposed to lift its illegal blockade of Gaza, a blockade that Amnesty International called a flagrant violation of international law.  A blockade which Mary Robinson, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said was “destroying Gaza’s civilization.”  Israel refused to lift the blockade and demanded a unilateral and unconditional Hamas cessation of rocket and mortar fire on Israel.

If you think the rocket and mortar fire by Hamas was wrong, or even a war crime, or even a crime against humanity, what else was Hamas to do?  The blockade was, and is, a flagrant violation of international law.  It was destroying Gaza’s civilization and the international community was doing nothing.  Are you saying Hamas, or I should say here the Palestinian people in Gaza, had a moral/legal obligation to lie still and die?

In 2006 Condoleeza Rice famously described Israel’s invasion of Lebanon as the, “birth pangs of a new Middle East.” Not surprisingly the Bush administration strongly supported Israel’s action in Gaza.  Barack Obama — who was awaiting inauguration — adopted a different posture.  When the Israelis bombed a school where people had gathered — killing 42 — he broke his silence up to that point to tell the press that "the loss of civilian life in Gaza and Israel is a source of deep concern."  This strikes me as a rather tepid statement at best that did not challenge what was going on.  What was the US role during this whole undertaking?

The U.S. role was very clearly spelled out by Amnesty International in the report it published titled, “Fueling the Conflict.”  Amnesty International stated three facts:  1) The U.S. is by far and away the chief arms supplier of Israel.  2) Under international law and domestic American law it is illegal to transfer weapons to a consistent violator of human rights.  Israel is, according to Amnesty International, a consistent violator of human rights.  3) Amnesty said that everything that has happened in Gaza happened because of “U.S. taxpayer money.”

Were it not for the U.S. taxpayer what happened in Gaza could not have happened.  In fact for example, among the more appalling things Israel did in Gaza was its use of white phosphorous.  White phosphorus reaches a temperature of 1500 degrees Fahrenheit.  Israel dropped white phosphorous on a marketplace, a humanitarian warehouse, and on two hospitals. These actions by Israel were, according to Human Rights Watch, war crimes.  Now the relevant point here is that every single white phosphorous shell that was recovered after the attack were made in the U.S.A.

You write, “It can be fairly said that the Goldstone Report marked the end of one era and the emergence of another:  the end of an apologetic Jewish liberalism that denies or extenuates Israel’s crimes and the emergence of a Jewish liberalism that returns to its classical calling that, if only as an ideal imperfectly realized, nonetheless holds all malefactors, Jew or non-Jew, accountable when they have strayed from the path of justice.”  What is different after the war in Gaza and the release the Goldstone report?

In all of Israel’s past military engagements in the Arab world there has been what you might call a military component and civilian component.  In the Six Day War, it was an overwhelmingly military component even though, as Walt Rostow said, that “It was a turkey shoot” on the battlefield.  Also, in 1973 it was a military engagement between Israel and Egypt.

In the 1980s and 1990s most of the military engagements were with Lebanon, and while they had a military component, they also had a very large civilian component, the targeting of the civilian population in order to achieve the goal of getting the civilian population and the civilian government to – in the case of Lebanon – get them to turn on the Palestine Liberation Organization, and later in the 1990s to try and get the civilian government in Lebanon to put pressure on Hezbollah.

In the case of Gaza there was no military component.  This is something the Israelis themselves acknowledge.  Israel had descended to a new level of barbarism, which was qualitatively different than what preceded it.  For that reason it evoked a large amount of international horror and outrage.

Goldstone is a Zionist who (according to him) has devoted a large part of his adult life to supporting the State of Israel.  Goldstone is also a typical Jewish liberal.  He is a defender of human rights, a distinguished international jurist, a former chief prosecutor of the International Tribunals in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.  He was kind of a paradigm — torn between his Jewish loyalties and his professional convictions.  In that respect he was fairly typical of Jews who are overwhelmingly liberal.  Goldstone was paradigmatic of the liberal dilemma.  He resolved it by going with his professional convictions and commitments, which is to say it is no longer possible to be liberal and to defend Israeli policy.  That was the dilemma Goldstone confronted.  He couldn’t in good conscience defend Israeli policy precisely because he was a liberal.  I think the Goldstone moment is indicative of where Jewish public opinion is now headed, toward sharp criticism of Israeli policy.

Norman G. Finkelstein received his doctorate in 1988 from the Department of Politics at Princeton University.  For many years he taught political theory and the Israel-Palestine conflict.  He is currently an independent scholar. Finkelstein is the author of five books which have been translated into more than 40 foreign editions:  Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History,The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict,A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth (with Ruth Bettina Birn) and The Rise and Fall of Palestine: A personal Account of the Intifada Years. For more information visit his website: www.normanfinkelstein.com.