Normal Finkelstein is an American political scientist, author, and activist, who has just published Gaza: An Inquest Into Its Martyrdom (University of California Press). Finkelstein is the author of several books, including The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering and Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History. Finkelstein’s latest book was published at around the time when the situation in Gaza was heating up, with Palestinians organizing what they referred to as the Great March of Return and the breakout of fighting between Hamas and Israeli forces. Diwan interviewed Finkelstein in August to get his perspective on the present situation in Gaza and to discuss the views that he expressed in his book on the subject.  

Michael Young: Your recently published book Gaza: An Inquest Into Its Martyrdom comes out at an appropriate time, given recent tensions in the territory. What motivated you most in writing the book?

Norman Finkelstein: In A Century of Dishonor, written at the end of the 19th century, Helen Hunt Jackson chronicled the destruction of the Native American population by conscious, willful government policy. The book was largely ignored, then forgotten, and finally rediscovered by later generations ready to hear and bear the truth. Speaking to the fate of the Cherokee nation, which was expelled from one tribal homeland after another and finally stripped of its tribal holdings by the U.S. government, Jackson wrote: “[T]here is no record so black as the record of its perfidy to this nation.”

My Gaza book was modeled after her searing requiem. I held out faint hope while writing it that it would find an audience among my contemporaries. In fact, although it was released just as sustained mass nonviolent demonstrations erupted in Gaza (The Great March of Return), and although a respected university press published it, and although academic experts acclaimed it as definitive and pioneering, my book did not receive a single review in the mainstream media.

Still, one should persevere in the truth; it is the least that is owed the victims. Perhaps one day in the remote future, when the tenor of the times is more receptive, someone will stumble across this book collecting dust on a library shelf, blow off the cobwebs and be stung by outrage at the lot of a people, if not forsaken by God then betrayed by the cupidity and corruption, careerism and cynicism, cravenness and cowardice of mortal man. “There will come a time,” Jackson anticipated, “when, to the student of American history, it will seem well-nigh incredible” what was done to the Cherokee. Is it not certain that one day the black record of Gaza’s martyrdom will also seem well-nigh incredible?

MY: Israel often mentions that its operations in Gaza constitute an effort to maintain its deterrence capability. Yet given the large number of military confrontations in the past decade, how well has deterrence worked?

NF: First, inasmuch as Gaza has never posed a military threat to Israel, none of Israel’s “operations” (a euphemism for massacres) was designed to preserve its deterrence there. The primary purpose of Operation Cast Lead (2008–2009) was to restore Israel’s regional deterrence capacity—that is, the Arab-Muslim world’s fear of it—after the debacle Israel suffered in the 2006 Lebanon war against Hezbollah. Operation Pillar of Defense (2012) was designed to cut Hamas down to size as it was entrenching its governance model in Gaza with some success. Operation Protective Edge (2014) was not premeditated, but once Israel embarked on the murderous assault it exploited the occasion to deliver to Hamas a crippling blow.

Second, Israel barely paid a price in these attacks. For example, during Operation Protective Edge Israel destroyed 18,000 Palestinian homes, whereas Hamas projectiles destroyed all of one Israeli home. Israel killed 550 Palestinian children, whereas Hamas killed all of one Israeli child.

Third, although morale in Gaza remained high after Cast Lead and Pillar of Defense, the inferno that Israel visited on Gaza during Protective Edge did partly break the people’s spirits. The option of “armed resistance” had spent itself. That’s why Hamas has now embarked on the path of nonviolent mass resistance. In the case of Lebanon, there exists reciprocal deterrence capacity—or what was called during the Cold War “mutually assured destruction.” Each side can inflict significant enough damage so that neither side wants to risk armed conflict.

MY: A significant part of your book is taken up with examining critically how international bodies or nongovernmental organizations reported on the successive rounds of violence in Gaza. What did these reports have in common and why did you choose to focus on them in your book?

NF: Israel is hyper-sensitive to international public opinion. Hence its huge investment of time and energy in hasbara—translated formally as public diplomacy, but familiarly as propaganda. Feeble as it is, the reportage of the human rights community has exercised a degree of restraint during Israel’s periodic massacres in Gaza.

When Richard Goldstone issued his devastating United Nations Human Rights Council report on Operation Cast Lead in 2009, it appeared as if the day of reckoning was finally upon Israel. Because Goldstone was both a proud Zionist and a proud Jew, Israel was unable to taint him and his report as anti-Israel or anti-Semitic. Israeli officials feared to travel abroad as warrants for their arrest awaited them at foreign airports. Israel then mobilized its vast domestic and diaspora resources (presumably including its intelligence agencies) to break Goldstone’s will. The juggernaut succeeded. In circumstances that are still shrouded in mystery, Goldstone recanted the report. The writing was now on the wall for the human rights community: If you cross Israel, you’ll be “Goldstoned.”

The results of this brazen intimidation campaign were not slow in coming. The principal human rights organizations either whitewashed Israeli crimes during Operation Protective Edge (Amnesty International, the Human Rights Council) or ignored them (Human Rights Watch). It was a shameless and shameful abdication of responsibility in Gaza’s most desperate hour.

MY: Time and again in your book you make the case that Palestinians have a right to engage in self-defense under international law, and your Appendix focuses on this. Can you summarize your argument, in particular what can be done to change the behavior of what you call a “recalcitrant occupier.”

NF: From the legal standpoint, the central feature of an occupation is that it is supposed to be temporary. Once it ceases to be temporary, it becomes de facto an annexation. Under international law forcible annexation is illegal. This last principle, as pertaining to Israel’s occupation, is captured in the preamble of UN Security Council Resolution 242, recalling the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” In the case of apartheid South Africa’s occupation of Namibia, the International Court of Justice ruled that negotiations to end an occupation cannot go on interminably. The occupying power must not just enter into negotiations per se, but this must also be done in “good faith.” Otherwise, an occupying power can simply perpetuate its occupation under the cloak of negotiations.

It ought to be clear after a half-century of occupation-cum-negotiations that Israel has breached the good-faith principle. It rejects ab initio the consensus legal framework for ending the conflict—two states on the June 1967 border with minor, reciprocal land swaps; and a “just resolution” of the refugee question based on return and compensation—thus preempting a final settlement in accordance with international law. So the situation should no longer be referred to as Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza, but Israel’s “illegal occupation,” or, more precisely, its “illegal annexation” of those territories. Incidentally, as the West Bank and Gaza have been effectively annexed, Israel is also uncontroversially an apartheid state.

MY: How would you place the recent round of violence in Gaza in the broader framework of Israeli military operations in recent years in the territory? What are the motives of Hamas, in particular, and is this a case, as some have suggested, of the movement acting on behalf of Iran, with which it has reconciled?

NF: Since the inception, on March 30, 2018, of the mass, overwhelmingly nonviolent protests in Gaza, Israel has alleged that it is using proportionate, discriminate force to defend its border. On the other hand, human rights organizations have alleged that Israel has resorted to disproportionate, indiscriminate force. Both sides, however, agree on the premise that Israel does have a right to defend its border. But the fence separating Gaza from Israel is no more a “border” than Gaza is a state. Distinguished Hebrew University professor Baruch Kimmerling called Gaza a “concentration camp,” while former British prime minister David Cameron called it an “open-air prison.” The Ha’aretz editorial board called it a “ghetto,” the Economist, a “human rubbish heap,” the International Committee of the Red Cross, a “sinking ship.” Gaza is what the UN human rights chief called a “toxic slum,” in which a civilian population is “caged … from birth to death.” Does Israel have the right to use force to encage Gaza’s 1 million children in a “ghetto” or a “toxic slum”? Don’t Gazans have the right to break free from a “concentration camp”? Does anyone now debate whether or not Nazi Germany used “excessive” and “disproportionate” force to suppress the Warsaw Ghetto uprising? Who now ponders whether Nazi Germany had a “right to self-defense” against the Jewish Fighting Organization, which resisted arms in hand? Are such questions even conceivable?

It might be said that Gaza is not the Warsaw Ghetto. But as an Israeli journalist who served in Gaza during the First Intifada reflected, “[T]he problem is not in the similarity … but that there isn’t enough lack of similarity.” The World Health Organization has stated that “over 1 million people in the Gaza Strip are at risk of contracting waterborne diseases,” while an Israeli expert predicts that Gaza will soon be overrun by typhoid and cholera epidemics like those that decimated Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto.

The principal objective of international humanitarian law is to protect civilians from the ravages of war. The principal objective of international human rights law is to protect the dignity of persons. How then can either of these bodies of law possibly be used to justify the use of force—any force—that is designed to entrap civilians in an inferno in which they are being degraded, tormented, and killed?

“Innocent human beings, most of them young,” Sara Roy of Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies has observed, “are slowly being poisoned by the water they drink, and likely by the soil in which they plant.” The only morally sane question presented by the situation in Gaza is, Does Israel have the right in the name of “self-defense” to poison 1 million children? It is a lamentable fact that this simple question has not just been sidestepped, but is not even heard in current debate. Whether or not Hamas harbors ulterior motives (which political party doesn’t have its own agenda?), whether or not Iran is advising it (is there a law prohibiting this?), and so on, these sorts of questions are red herrings. Hamas’s official, declared objective is to end the murderous Israeli siege. Only a moral monster can doubt its legitimacy. All the rest is irrelevant commentary.