Finkelstein on Gaza’s Martyrdom


Norman J. Finkelstein challenges media assumptions. [Staff Photo J. Adas]

By Jane Adas

Of late, some writers for The New York Times have noticed that conditions for people living in Gaza are challenging.  Columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in a Feb. 7 op-ed, “Due largely to Hamas’ malevolence and incompetence, but also some Israeli restrictions, Gaza has limited hours of electricity each day.” He does not mention that since 2006—more than a decade—Israel has sealed off Gaza with varying intensity and bombed its only power plant several times. The crisis as Friedman sees it is that Gaza’s untreated sewage goes into the Mediterranean and flows north, clogging Israel’s desalination plant in Ashkelon.
For David M. Halbfinger, author of a Feb. 12 front-page article entitled “Gaza is Near Financial Collapse, Prompting Fears of Violence,” the concern is that “the resulting social harm in Gaza can blow back against Israel.” He alleges that the option Hamas “has resorted to three times—going to war with Israel, in hopes of generating international sympathy and relief in the aftermath —suddenly seems less attractive.”
Both writers are clearly unfamiliar with Norman G. Finkelstein’s latest book, Gaza: An Inquest Into Its Martyrdom (available from the Washington Report’s Middle East Books and More), which would surely challenge their assumptions.
In a Jan. 30 talk at Columbia University sponsored by the Center for Palestine Studies, Finkelstein discussed a key aspect of his book, “the politics of international law filtered through political realities.”  He focused on the role of human rights organizations, mainly Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International (AI), as quasi-guardians of international human rights law, noting that their performance fluctuates according to the political situation.

Finkelstein described the organizations’ actual reporting, at least until recently, as unimpeachable: “They do not lie.” The problem comes when they interpret the factual material to make legal determinations about whether or not an action constitutes a war crime or a crime against humanity. Finkelstein observed that neither organization has any compunction about accusing Israel’s adversaries—Hezbollah and Hamas—of war crimes, especially in the use of indiscriminate weapons and targeting civilians. They are far less forthcoming about Israel, however. For example, after the U.N. cease-fire ending Israel’s 35-day war with Lebanon in 2006, Israel dropped 4.6 million cluster bomblets on 40 Lebanese villages. HRW’s factual findings were that Israel used an “indiscriminate delivery system [that] targeted civilian concentrations with no military objectives.” Its legal conclusion was that Israel had committed “a possible war crime…in some locations.”
Israel’s 2008-09 Cast Lead assault on Gaza was, according to Finkelstein, a turning point in public attitudes toward Israel. Both AI and HRW issued multiple reports, and the total of reports for all organizations exceeded 300. For example, HRW’s “Rain of Fire” found that Israel’s white phosphorus attacks on schools, hospitals, a humanitarian aid warehouse and a market constituted war crimes. AI concluded that Israel’s high-precision drone and helicopter attacks that killed many children and civilians were war crimes.
Then came the U.N. Human Rights Council’s September, 2009 Goldstone Report. It described Israel’s Operation Cast Lead as deliberately disproportional attacks designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population. Richard Goldstone, a much-respected South African jurist who is not only Jewish but also a pro-Israel Zionist, was, as Finkelstein put it, “immunized from the Israeli propaganda machine.” In other words, the anti-Semitic label could not be deployed against him. This led to Israeli panic and hysteria. The attacks on Goldstone were personal and nasty. Netanyahu labeled Goldstone one of three strategic threats to Israel.
On April Fool’s Day, 2011, Goldstone recanted in a slapdash Washington Post op-ed that Finkelstein said was not typical of his usual careful writing style. Why? Did Goldstone succumb to the smear campaign? Finkelstein suspects he or a family member was blackmailed. The international human rights community, daunted and suffering disaster fatigue, learned its lesson: “the prudent move is not to go too hard on Israel or, wiser still, to cross Israel off the agenda.”
Israel’s 2014 Operation Protective Edge was on an even greater scale than Cast Lead. The International Committee of the Red Cross’ Peter Mauer, after touring Gaza, said, “I’ve never seen such massive destruction ever before.” Yet there were only a handful of investigations. Amnesty International was the only one to produce substantive reports, five of them, “all shameless whitewashes.” AI tried to balance the suffering on both sides, a mission impossible given 1,600 Palestinian civilians killed versus 6 Israelis; 550 Palestinian children killed versus 1 Israeli; 18,000 Palestinian homes destroyed versus 1 Israeli. AI depicted Israel’s actions during Protective Edge as going after military operations, only marred by excess. This view, Finkelstein continued, is belied by Breaking the Silence testimonials of soldiers who described the Israel military using a crazy amount of firepower and shooting anything that moves.
An audience member questioned why human rights organizations changed so much after Cast Lead—was it due to the lobby? Intimidation? Donor pressure?  Finkelstein responded that Israel has changed tactics in the last couple of decades in becoming more overtly ruthless. He thinks the change is due more to fear, and “the fear is real.”


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