BOOK REVIEW : ‘This Time We Went Too Far’ by Norman Finkelstein

Special for My Catbird Seat
“The Gaza invasion marked the climax of Israel’s descent into barbarism”
by Stuart Littlewood

Quite simply, this is a cracker of a book and very timely.

In explaining how Israel’s war on Gaza in 2008/9 was not the defensive action it is always painted, Norman Finkelstein recalls the 1947 UN partition of historic Palestine and remembers how, in 1957, US President Eisenhower forced Israel to withdraw from Gaza by threatening sanctions and in the 1967 war Israel re-occupied it.

The book then takes us through the warm-up for the 2008/9 war and the subsequent whitewash.

In the three years following Israel’s withdrawal to Gaza’s perimeter in 2005, we are reminded that about 1,250 Gazans, including 222 children, were killed by the Israeli army while 11 Israelis were killed by Palestinian rocket fire.

In January 2006 Hamas won the Palestinian elections fair and square, and the US and Israel reacted by imposing an economic blockade on Gaza, Hamas’s stronghold. In June 2007 Hamas foiled a putsch orchestrated by the US, Israel and elements of the Palestinian Authority. Hamas has been repeatedly accused of “seizing control” when it was correctly taking action to enforce its authority.

Israel tried to justify Operation Cast Lead, launched in December 2008, on the grounds of self-defence against rocket attacks but the main motives, we discover, were to restore Israel’s “deterrence capacity” and counter the threat posed by a new Palestinian “peace offensive”.

Deterrence capacity is about “keeping Arabs so intimidated that they could not even conceive of challenging Israel’s freedom to carry on as it pleased, however ruthlessly and recklessly”. The 1967 war had been unleashed for that same purpose.

“Israel’s problem is with international law not the Palestinians”

Finkelstein explains how Hamas’s acceptance of a two-state solution (on pre-1967 borders), and the June 2008 ceasefire brokered by Egypt, presented Israel with “a daunting challenge”. Israel would need to provoke Hamas into resuming its attacks “and then radicalize or destroy it, thereby eliminating it as a legitimate negotiating partner or as an obstacle to settlement on Israel’s terms”. Israel’s foreign minister Tzipi Livni wanted a period of calm but said any extended truce “harms the Israeli strategic goal, empowers Hamas, and gives the impression that Israel recognizes the movement”. Israel’s strategic goal, Finkelstein suggests, was to retain the valuable parts of the West Bank.

Israel is insistent that Hamas acknowledges the Jewish state’s right to exist. But Hamas, says Finkelstein, “draws a very clear distinction between Israel’s right to exist, which it consistently denies, and the fact of its existence, and it has stated explicitly that it accepts the existence of Israel as a fait accompli…”
Israel is neurotic on the question of its own legitimacy, which is hardly surprising given the manner in which a state of Israel was eventually allowed to come into existence and the arm-twisting by the US to push the partition plan through the UN. Up till then Britain, which took on the mandated responsibility for Palestine, had promised a Jewish homeland “within” Palestine, with all Jews living there as Palestinian citizens.

Did the UN act lawfully in giving away 56% of other people’s lands to racist interests that owned only 7%? Even if the UN partition was morally sound, which of course it wasn’t, Israel today refuses to define its borders, so the question for Hamas (and everyone else) is: what exactly are we supposed to acknowledge or recognize? Israel has expanded its 56% to 78% by land-grab and ethnic cleansing. Its snaking separation wall annexes even more.

Besides, a nation’s ‘right to exist’ is meaningless in law, so demanding recognition of it in Israel’s case is regarded by many as simply a ploy to fake legitimacy on whatever borders its brutal military can push to. Presumably Hamas is required to “legitimize” and sign away all Israel’s territorial gains – past, present and future.

Anyway, where is the reciprocal? Where is Israel’s recognition of the Palestinians’ right to exist in their homeland and their right to self-determination?

Finkelstein takes a slightly different tack. “Israel’s quarrel,” he says, “appears to be not with Palestinians but international law.” The terms of the international consensus for resolving the conflict do not require Palestinian recognition of the legitimacy of Zionism or the state of Israel. He quotes expert opinion that Israel’s admission to the United Nations did not confer political legitimacy. Indeed, the moral basis of the state of Israel is still a real cause for debate, but that does not affect Israel’s position as a state in the international community “entitled to the benefits and subject to the burdens of international law”.

Hamas, it would seem, is entitled to shrug its shoulders.

Israel had decided to attack Hamas as far back as March 2007 and only agreed to the June 2008 truce because the army needed time to prepare. Then it was just a question of finding a pretext to abort the ceasefire. It all fell conveniently into place when Israeli forces killed six Palestinians in air strikes and other attacks on 4 November. Hamas hit back and Israel had the excuse it wanted – it “could now enter a plea of self-defence to its willfully gullible Western patrons as it embarked on yet another murderous invasion to foil yet another Palestinian peace offensive”.

On the first day of the invasion – a day of infamy if ever there was one – 300 Gazans were killed in 4 minutes.

When the 22-day assault was over, besides Palestinian casualties (nearly 1,400 killed of whom four-fifths were civilians and 350 children) Israel had destroyed or damaged 58,000 homes, 280 schools, 1,500 factories, water and sewage installations and 80 percent of agricultural crops. The cost to Gaza’s civilian infrastructure was estimated at $660 to 900 million while the total economic cost is put at $3 to 3.5 billion.
It was really a non-war, says Finkelstein, and testimonies of Israeli soldiers included remarks like: “There was nothing there… nothing moved”; “No real resistance”; “Everyone was disappointed about not engaging anyone”.

Towards the end of the invasion Livni said: “Hamas now understands that when you fire on Israel’s citizens it responds by going wild – and this is a very good thing.” She later waxed proud of how Israel had “demonstrated real hooliganism” and said she would happily repeat her decisions because they were meant to restore Israel’s deterrence and had done so.

The book looks into Israel’s culture of lying, and the frequency with which it has been caught out, not least on the question of using white phosphorus, the so-called telephone warnings to Gazan residents of impending air strikes, and claims that Hamas used civilians as human shields. As Amnesty International pointed out, “the locations of confrontations were mostly determined by Israeli forces, who entered Gaza with tanks and armoured personnel carriers and took positions deep inside residential neighbourhoods”.

Amnesty found no evidence of Hamas using human shields but did find that Israeli soldiers used civilians, including children, as human shields by forcing them to remain in or near houses they used as military positions.
“Using massive lethal force against a defenceless society”

Finkelstein examines Israel’s insane and sustained attack on the Goldstone Report, which concluded among many other things that Israel engaged in wanton killing of Palestinian civilians for no other reason than it was “cool” – according to the post-invasion testimony of Israeli soldiers.

Although Israel’s propaganda machine worked overtime to minimise the damage caused by soldiers’ confessions, the criminal behaviour of individual soldiers was, as Finkelstein emphasizes, “the inexorable consequence and part and parcel of the criminal nature of the enterprise itself: to restore Israel’s deterrence capacity by using massive lethal force against a defenceless society.”

When people expressed disbelief that Israeli soldiers could have engaged in such behaviour, Gideon Levy is quoted as saying that it was “the natural continuation of the last nine years, when soldiers killed nearly 5,000 Palestinians, at least half of them innocent civilians, nearly 1,000 of them children and teenagers… Everything the soldiers described from Gaza, everything, occurred during those blood-soaked years as if they were routine events”.

Goldstone stated that “the repeated failure to distinguish between combatants and civilians appears… to have been the result of deliberate guidance issued to soldiers”. The operation had been aimed at destroying or incapacitating civilian property and the means of subsistence of the civilian population.
When Finkelstein visited Gaza (entering via Egypt since he’s banned from Israel) he found Hamas “earnest and willing to listen”. Interestingly, he urged them to put the Gaza government’s message across in the language of respected political and juridical institutions and the major human rights groups. Don’t say “Hamas says”, he advised, but “the UN General Assembly supported by 160 nations says”. Or “the International Court of Justice says”.

As he and his party were leaving Gaza, Hamas sent a letter to Obama partly reflecting their advice. Reproduced in the book it is an excellently crafted missive. The letter offered a welcome to the US President to see “our ground zero”. It quoted Amnesty International’s observation that “the invasion could not have happened without US-supplied weapons and US taxpayers’ money” and asked him point-blank: “Shouldn’t you see firsthand how Israel used your arms and spent your money?” Bullseye.
Did the great man reply? Did I read somewhere that Obama’s minions made sure the letter never reached him?

The time has surely come for Western supporters of the rogue state to begin to be afraid. “While official Western support of Israel held firm,” says Finkelstein. “the carnage set off an unprecedented wave of popular outrage throughout the world. Whether it was because the assault came on the heels of the devastation Israel wrought in Lebanon, or because of Israel’s relentless persecution of the people of Gaza, or because of the sheer cowardice of the assault, the Gaza invasion appeared to mark a turning point in public opinion reminiscent of the international reaction to the 1960 Sharpeville massacre in apartheid South Africa.”

Israel’s apologists attributed the anger to anti-Semitism, but Finkelstein suggests as a general rule that the lower the depths to which Israel’s criminal conduct sinks the higher the decibel level of the shrieks of anti-Semitism.

The book includes Gideon Levy’s description of “the surreal scene at the height of the brutal assault on Gaza when the heads of the European Union came to Israel and dined with the prime minister in a show of unilateral support for the side wreaking the killing and destruction”. To which Finkelstein adds: “Although it was Israel that broke the ceasefire and launched the invasion, European leaders parleyed with the US (and Canada) on how to thwart rearmament not of the perpetrators but of the victims.”
The British government, I seem to remember, even offered the services of the Royal Navy to halt arms smuggling into Gaza but couldn’t spare a ship to protect its own unarmed nationals, peacefully sailing with the Free Gaza humanitarian mission, from murderous assault by Israelis on the high seas.

The Goldstone Report sharply criticised Israeli actions that “deprive Palestinians in the Gaza Strip of their means of sustenance, employment, housing and water, that deny their freedom of movement and their right to leave and enter their own country, that limit their access to courts of law and effective remedies…”

More broadly it condemned Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians not only during the Gaza invasion but all through the long years of occupation. It went so far as to recommend that individual states in the international community “start criminal investigations in national courts, using universal jurisdiction, where there is sufficient evidence of the commission of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949″.

What’s more, the Security Council should “refer the situation in Gaza to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court” and make Israel pay compensation for damages through a UN General Assembly escrow fund.”

And Goldstone didn’t stop there. The High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention, said the report, should convene to enforce respect for the Convention in the occupied territories and ensure Israel ends its blockade of Gaza, its strangulation of Gaza’s economy and general interference in Palestinian political life.

No wonder so many fine feathers have been ruffled. However, there’s nothing new in these demands. What’s new is that, at last, someone with the credentials and clout of Judge Richard Goldstone has said it.

The panic this has caused is typified by those in Westminster who are anxious to save Livni and her gruesome colleagues from the gallows and make them a protected species by abandoning our obligations under universal jurisdiction.

According to Finkelstein, “The Gaza invasion marked the climax of Israel’s descent into barbarism”, and the Goldstone report “catapulted Israel’s human rights record into the court of public opinion.” Consequently, says a director of Human Rights Watch, “the Israeli government is taking an active role in the smearing of human rights groups”.

Finkelstein rounds off his book by issuing a challenge “to hold on to the truth that Israel’s refusal, backed by the US, to respect international law and the considered opinion of humankind, is the sole obstacle to putting an end, finally, to [the Palestinians’] suffering”. A superb note to finish on.

“This Time We Went Too Far” is, I believe, a vitally important contribution at this critical moment in world affairs. It not only pulls together the facts surrounding Israel’s blitzkrieg on Gaza but also plots the long lead-up and the reverberating aftermath. It is painstakingly researched and comprehensively referenced, and therefore makes a valuable working document for anyone engaged in the struggle or just wishing to learn the truth.

  • It ought to be in every campaigner’s ammunition locker.
  • It should be compulsory reading for every Western politician and diplomat.
  • I’d like to see ministers and foreign policy chiefs made to sit an exam on it.

The other joy is that it’s written in an easy-flowing style combining precision and cool logic. It is also the work of someone with formidable research skills. I could find nothing to quarrel with. It will be interesting to see how Tel Aviv’s global army of propaganda scribblers respond to it.

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