Norman Finkelstein has the moral gravity of an Old Testament prophet, the scrupulous attention to detail of a Talmudic scholar, and the mordant sense of humor of a Yiddish novelist. All these attributes are on display in Gaza: An Inquest into its Martyrdom, an indictment of Israel’s crimes in the overcrowded Palestinian territory from 2008 up to the present.
The criminal pattern of Israel’s ongoing blockade, punctuated by murderous assaults against the civilian population of the beleaguered territory, will not be news to anyone who follows Israel/Palestine. But the cumulative impact of Finkelstein’s meticulously-documented 408-page chronicle is devastating, and it will leave the reader stunned that the worldwide reaction is so muted.
Finkelstein does have one major new finding. He argues that the major international human rights organizations, after effectively denouncing Israel’s assault on Gaza in 2008-09, have since quieted down, to the point that Human Rights Watch issued only one feeble report after the biggest Israeli attack of all in 2014. Israel’s hasbara (propaganda), along with other kinds of pressure, is successfully whitewashing Israeli crimes.
Finkelstein deals in turn with Operation Cast Lead (2008-09; 1400 Gazans dead, including 350 children); the assault on the Mavi Marmara ship that was bringing medical and other supplies to the territory (9 dead); the less well-known Operation Pillar of Defense (2012; 100 dead, 35 children); and the most savage attack to date, Operation Protective Edge (51 days in 2014; 2200 dead, 550 children). He points out that by contrast, a total of 86 Israelis died in all these assaults, and of the 73 Israeli casualties in the 2014 invasion, fully 67 were Israeli combatants.
Throughout, Finkelstein thoroughly disproves Israel’s justification for its assaults, that they constituted “self-defense.” He points out that Hamas, the largest Palestinian political force in Gaza, did not start the regular hostilities; in fact, the organization showed growing signs of compromise with the reality of Israel, Hamas’s policy was characterized by what Finkelstein calls “flagrant pragmatism.” Hamas also signed on to a 2014 agreement to end its feud with its rival, Fatah. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, threatened by the specter of Palestinian unity, staged raids across the West Bank; Finkelstein explains that “the rampage was patently tailored to elicit a violent response from Hamas, so as to ‘prove’ it was a terrorist organization.”
Netanyahu issued propaganda during the 2014 Protective Edge assault over what he called “terror tunnels” under the Gaza border, supposedly aimed at Israeli kindergartens. Finkelstein reminds us that in fact not one single attack through the tunnels targeted Israeli civilians. He also dismisses the Hamas rocket attacks on Israel, calling most of them “bottle rockets” or “fireworks,” nearly all of which landed harmlessly. He quotes the Hamas leader Khalid Meshal: “Our modest, home-made rockets are our cry of protest to the world.”
Finkelstein also crushes the hasbara charge that Hamas and Gaza used civilian “human shields” during the fighting, which Israel and its apologists say partly excuses the high Palestinian civilian death toll. He finds that there is not a single credible piece of evidence for the human shield claim, nor is there any proof that Hamas hid weapons in mosques and schools.
He is impatient with the tortured efforts by Israelis and others, including lawyers and ethics professors, to justify Israel’s criminal tactics. He explains that one such scholar, Professor Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University, said that “Israel had the moral right to flatten all of Gaza.” Finkelstein adds wryly, “Steinberg founded the university’s program on conflict resolution and management.”
Finkelstein devotes considerable energy to the Goldstone Report, the 2009 mission sponsored by the UN Human Rights Council, which concluded that Operation Cast Lead was “designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population.” He has scorn for Richard Goldstone’s eventual recantation of his own panel’s report, mixed with some understanding of the overwhelming pressure Israel brought to bear on the previously respected South African jurist. Finkelstein does show that hard facts still rebut Goldstone’s recantation.
Israel’s 2010 assault on the Mavi Marmara is next, and Finkelstein demolishes Tel Aviv’s dishonest argument that its commandos were fighting for their lives during a desperate melee on board the ship. He asks how the ship’s passengers somehow “plotted and armed themselves to kill Israelis, but didn’t even manage to kill those in their custody, whereas the Israelis took every precaution and exercised every restraint not to kill anyone, but ended up killing nine people.” (Ultimately ten with the death of a Turkish man left in a coma.)
In the book, Finkelstein relies heavily on Breaking the Silence, the truth-telling organization of former Israeli soldiers, and points out, “None of the hundreds of testimonies collected over more than a decade has ever been proven false. . .”
His most original finding — and one of the most alarming — is that the mainstream international human rights organizations have been silencing themselves about Gaza. He writes that Human Rights Watch “just barely issued one report” after the 2014 Protective Edge attack, which was the deadliest assault so far. Amnesty International did somewhat better, but he goes on at great length to argue that Amnesty’s reports were so contorted as to constitute a “whitewash.” He also charges that B’Tselem, the most prominent Israeli human rights group, also “acquitted itself without distinction in its reporting on Gaza.”
His conclusion is deeply pessimistic. He unsurprisingly dismisses the “peace process” as a fraud, and warns that Israel’s power and influence in growing, both in the Mideast and worldwide. “Meanwhile,” he concludes, “Palestine’s star is on the wane,” partly because “the cause of Palestine has now been eclipsed by the numberless humanitarian crises wracking the Middle East.” He predicts that Palestine “will be reduced to the minuscule weight of its demography and territory, and come more slowly to resemble the self-determination struggles in East Timor and Western Sahara.”
Norman Finkelstein has been at the top of Hasbara Central’s Enemies List for more than 3 decades. Over the years, the pro-Israel forces have slandered him, tried to deprive him of his teaching career, and even sought to prevent him from publishing. He is unbowed, continuing to bear witness from his study in the far reaches of Brooklyn. The hasbarists will certainly try to discredit his new book on Gaza. They should be daunted by the fact that he has never once been successfully challenged on matters of fact and hard evidence. Never once.