The Humanitarian Crisis in Gaza

6 April, 2018

A Gazan family surveys the destruction. (Photo: Bet T'Selem)

Nor­man Finkel­stein on the mar­tyr­dom of Gaza


Gaza: An Inquest into Its Mar­tyr­dom
Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 2018; 440 pages, hard­back, $34.95
An E‑book ver­sion is also available.

Eric Gordon

“The nadir of the Pales­tin­ian strug­gle is now,” says dis­tin­guished but con­tro­ver­sial schol­ar Nor­man G. Finkel­stein. He spoke on March 26, 2018 at the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Annen­berg School for Com­mu­ni­ca­tion and Jour­nal­ism. “Noth­ing is hap­pen­ing there in Pales­tine. There is no mass resistance.”

That explains why world­wide the pro-Pales­tin­ian cause is not draw­ing the crowds it once did. It also explains why the USC audi­to­ri­um was at most half full. As Finkel­stein sur­veyed the audi­ence, he point­ed to one col­lege-age man in the front row, observ­ing that he was by far the youngest per­son in the room. In Gaza today, 51 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion is under 18 years of age. Half of Gaza­’s peo­ple would be younger than this young man.

How­ev­er, if the mar­tyr­dom of Gaza seems right now to be sealed in the pages of his­to­ry, “We don’t know what will come tomor­row,” says the author, on a tour to pro­mote his newest book, Gaza: An Inquest into Its Mar­tyr­dom. “So we must keep prepar­ing the ground.”

Author of more than a dozen books, Finkel­stein is con­fi­dent of his exper­tise on the Israel-Pales­tine issue, quot­ing ver­ba­tim from his wide range of sources. Yet he presents him­self as soft-spo­ken, calm and reserved, nev­er rais­ing his voice excit­ed­ly, and always def­er­en­tial to his ques­tion­ers. He appeared in “A Con­ver­sa­tion on Gaza” with Sandy Tolan, USC Annen­berg pro­fes­sor of jour­nal­ism, and author of The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Mid­dle East. When some­one from the audi­ence won­dered why USC was will­ing to present Dr. Finkel­stein when prac­ti­cal­ly every oth­er insti­tu­tion of high­er learn­ing has turned him down for fear of con­tro­ver­sy (and reduced con­tri­bu­tions, no doubt), Tolan affirmed that USC stood by a prin­ci­pled posi­tion for free speech.

The Markaz cospon­sored the open forum, along with CODEPINK: Women for Peace and a num­ber of pri­vate donors.

Professor Sandy Tolan interviews Norman Finkelstein in a Markaz event at USC (Photo: Alfred Madain).

Gaza is among the most dense­ly pop­u­lat­ed places in the world, more even than Tokyo. Sev­en­ty per­cent of its two mil­lion inhab­i­tants are refugees: By inter­na­tion­al law, the chil­dren and descen­dants of refugees are also char­ac­ter­ized as refugees until they are set­tled some­place with res­i­dence and cit­i­zen­ship rights. Since Israel occu­pied Gaza in 1967 dur­ing the war in which it also acquired the West Bank and the Golan Heights (and the Sinai, since returned to Egypt), it has sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly de-devel­oped the econ­o­my. Finkel­stein goes so far as to to say, “Gaza has no econ­o­my”: In oth­er words, its pro­duc­tive capac­i­ty has been destroyed.

After Hamas won demo­c­ra­t­ic elec­tions in 2006, Israel inten­si­fied its block­ade of Gaza, and after Hamas con­sol­i­dat­ed its con­trol of the ter­ri­to­ry in 2007, Israel tight­ened its siege—“inhuman, ille­gal, immoral,” in Finkel­stein’s words—another notch. In the mean­time, Israel has launched no few­er than eight mil­i­tary oper­a­tions against Gaza—culminating in Oper­a­tion Cast Lead in 2008-09 and Oper­a­tion Pro­tec­tive Edge in 2014—that left behind over three mil­lion tons of rub­ble. Recent UN reports, cit­ing the poi­so­nous drink­ing water Gazans are forced to con­sume, pre­dict that Gaza will be unin­hab­it­able by 2020.

Finkel­stein refers to the work of “mas­ter of detail” Noam Chom­sky as his inspi­ra­tion. Chom­sky has con­sis­tent­ly pub­lished books of deeply rad­i­cal import, but always with metic­u­lous doc­u­men­ta­tion and foot­not­ing. Work of that lev­el of crit­i­cism of the estab­lish­men­t’s received ideas must be capa­ble of being defend­ed. There is no room in such stud­ies for vague asser­tions that can­not be proven.

With those cri­te­ria in mind, Finkel­stein painstak­ing­ly researched his dev­as­tat­ing inquest into Israel’s actions of the last decade. He argues that although Israel jus­ti­fied its block­ade and vio­lent assaults in the name of self-defense, in fact these actions were cyn­i­cal exer­cis­es of bru­tal pow­er against an essen­tial­ly defense­less civil­ian pop­u­la­tion. Based on hun­dreds of human rights reports, his new book scru­ti­nizes the many fla­grant vio­la­tions of inter­na­tion­al law Israel com­mit­ted both dur­ing its oper­a­tions and in the course of its decade-long siege of Gaza. “I want to con­vince the broad pub­lic,” the author says. “I want to invest in demon­strat­ing the details.” Prof. Tolan count­ed over 1200 foot­notes in the study, aver­ag­ing three per page.

War crimes?

When we think “refugees” from war, dis­as­ter or oppres­sion, images of large num­bers of peo­ple come to mind, cross­ing bor­ders, depart­ing on the last flights out, ford­ing streams, board­ing leaky trans­port ships, wash­ing ashore. That what’s com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent about Gaza: The bor­ders are sealed and there is no place to flee. The pop­u­la­tion is trapped in a tiny sliv­er of land equal in size to twice the Dis­trict of Colum­bia. Some have named it “the largest open-air prison in the world,” but oth­ers claim that implies guilt on the part of the inmates, pre­fer­ring blunt­ly to call it a “con­cen­tra­tion camp.”

Many crit­ics of Israel have con­demned the Zion­ist state for its “dis­pro­por­tion­ate force” against Gaza, or for the over­whelm­ing “col­lat­er­al dam­age” of indis­crim­i­nate killing in seek­ing out “ter­ror­ists” and Hamas offi­cials. These are in and of them­selves war crimes by inter­na­tion­al law. Many of those charges Israel dis­miss­es, falling back on the “fog of war” argu­ment. But Finkel­stein takes his argu­ment a step fur­ther, doc­u­ment­ing the tar­get­ing of civil­ians as such, a charge that inter­na­tion­al human rights orga­ni­za­tions are hes­i­tant to levy against Israel for fear of loss of legit­i­ma­cy, stand­ing, or in the case of aca­d­e­m­ic peo­ple, their careers. Finkel­stein him­self has not held an aca­d­e­m­ic posi­tion for over eleven years—not because his schol­ar­ship is in ques­tion, but because of insti­tu­tion­al wari­ness of hir­ing him.

Such was the case with Jus­tice Richard Gold­stone, the South African Jew­ish author of the Unit­ed Nations report on Oper­a­tion Cast Lead, which high­light­ed the Israeli mil­i­tary’s objec­tive to pun­ish, humil­i­ate and ter­ror­ize the Gaza pop­u­la­tion. An out­raged Israel, and its allies, worked hys­ter­i­cal­ly to dis­cred­it that doc­u­ment. Gold­stone was pres­sured to “recant” his con­clu­sions in 2011 owing to the sur­fac­ing of “new infor­ma­tion,” whose exis­tence Finkel­stein doubts. Gold­stone was sim­ply intim­i­dat­ed, and in Finkel­stein’s opin­ion, pos­si­bly blackmailed.

Lat­er Israeli mil­i­tary oper­a­tions in Gaza elicit­ed far less crit­i­cism out of this fear of fac­ing that nation’s aggres­sive pub­lic rela­tions offensive.

A group of Israeli mil­i­tary vet­er­ans called Break­ing the Silence has made a project of record­ing sol­diers’ actu­al expe­ri­ences in Israel’s wars, warts and all. Israel has come down espe­cial­ly hard on this group, call­ing them trai­tors and liars out to dele­git­imize the coun­try. In fact, their eye-wit­ness reports were hor­ri­fy­ing­ly accu­rate, putting paid to Israel’s oft-repeat­ed claim that it has “the most moral army in the world.” But in read­ing them, says Finkel­stein, he also found no expres­sions of remorse about their actions in Gaza. Homes and neigh­bor­hoods were sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly bull­dozed and bombed, leav­ing res­i­dents with nowhere to go. Orders were to destroy and kill every­thing that moves, and every­thing that does­n’t. Even if res­i­dents fled the announced bomb­ing zone, they would be attacked on the road out.

If Break­ing the Silence is silenced, “the next time Israel attacks,” says Finkel­stein, “there won’t be any cred­i­ble witnesses.”

What about the rock­ets and missiles?

The author spent some time in his remarks speak­ing about the right of self-defense. Again he revert­ed to inter­na­tion­al law con­cern­ing occu­pa­tion, which allows an occu­pied peo­ple to resist, even mil­i­tant­ly, and lim­its the occu­py­ing force’s pre­rog­a­tives. As to the stan­dard ques­tion Israel pos­es, “What would you do?” if Mex­i­co or Cana­da or Cuba were rain­ing down rock­ets and mis­siles on the U.S., Finkel­stein turns that around. What would Pales­tin­ian par­ents do know­ing that with each sip of water, their chil­dren are being poi­soned, their agri­cul­tur­al lands are being uproot­ed, their hos­pi­tals fail­ing for lack of power?

And what about those rock­ets and mis­siles? Israel claimed that in the 51 days lead­ing up to Pro­tec­tive Edge, 5,000 rock­ets were fired from Gaza into Israel. For­tu­nate­ly, says Israel, 90 per­cent of them were deflect­ed by the Iron Dome tech­nol­o­gy sup­plied by the U.S. But Finkel­stein dis­putes these num­bers. In the first place, he says, Iron Dome func­tions over urban areas, while most of the rock­ets would have been aimed at and would have land­ed in more sparse­ly set­tled areas adja­cent to the Gaza Strip. If even 10 per­cent of the rock­ets got through, how much dam­age did they cre­ate? Finkel­stein says Hamas rock­ets destroyed exact­ly one Israeli house. Now, both Israel and Hamas have an inter­est in inflat­ing the num­bers of rock­ets fired—Israel to exag­ger­ate the attack on the Israeli civil­ian pop­u­la­tion, and Hamas to impress with the pow­er of its resis­tance capability.

But accord­ing to Finkel­stein, nei­ther ver­sion is true: What peo­ple in the vicin­i­ty were hear­ing was noth­ing more than fire­crack­ers. For all prac­ti­cal pur­pos­es, he says, the rock­ets “nev­er hap­pened.” He also says the sto­ry about the ter­ror­ist tun­nels Hamas cre­at­ed to bore into Israel has also been blown out of pro­por­tion, and that Hamas nev­er aimed to attack civil­ians in Israel, only the mil­i­tary. He also ques­tions the vaunt­ed effi­ca­cy of Iron Dome.

Read­ers will have to go to his book to see the evi­dence he adduces to make such claims. But it is easy to see why, fly­ing in the face of all that Israel says, and that most gov­ern­ments and media accept, what Finkel­stein says is so con­trar­i­an as to elic­it con­dem­na­tion. But he sticks by his views and wel­comes chal­lengers who will, as he claims to do, rely on fac­tu­al evi­dence alone and not be swayed by nation­al­is­tic loy­al­ties or oth­er emo­tion­al criteria.

One state vs. two

In the Q & A, Finkel­stein held forth on sev­er­al fur­ther points. To the sur­prise of many in the audi­ence, Finkel­stein is not a friend of BDS—Boycott, Divest­ment, Sanctions—the strat­e­gy adopt­ed world­wide to try to force Israel to nego­ti­ate in good faith with the Pales­tini­ans for fear of los­ing mar­kets, invest­ments and eco­nom­ic ties with trad­ing part­ners. He claims that the BDS move­ment takes “no posi­tion” on Israel’s right to exist as a nation, which is hyp­o­crit­i­cal and incon­sis­tent because in effect it sup­ports the one-state solu­tion. If BDS favors Pales­tini­ans’ right to a state as a mat­ter of inter­na­tion­al law, then it is only con­sis­tent that they should sup­port Israel’s right as well. He is crit­i­cal of the one-state advo­cates as being out of touch with the pro­fessed goal of all pre­vi­ous inter­na­tion­al agree­ments and with every sin­gle gov­ern­ment in the world. The “one-staters,” he says, are most­ly “lib­er­al arts professors.”

A ques­tion­er asked about the future of Israel as a faith-based nation. Right now, Finkel­stein answered, Israel is “a very ugly, very mean place.” But change does hap­pen. Look at Ger­many and Japan: In inter­na­tion­al sur­veys, they both place near the top of the list of peace­ful nations in the world.

About the future of progress toward two states: It’s “cur­rent­ly dead,” he says. “But so is every­thing.” Accord­ing to Gand­hi, Finkel­stein recalls, pub­lic opin­ion is moved not by noble words and man­i­festos, but rather by offi­cial dis­plays of vio­lence, heads beat­en and killings. The Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Edu­ca­tion deci­sion did not deseg­re­gate schools: A decade lat­er, only one per­cent of South­ern schools were inte­grat­ed. It took the mil­i­tan­cy of the 1960s civ­il rights move­ment, with the fire hoses, the mur­ders, the jail­ings, the march­es, to demon­strate the his­toric neces­si­ty to move for­ward. In his esti­ma­tion it will like­ly have to come to that in Pales­tine, but right now peo­ple feel numbed and cynical.

Finkel­stein rejects the famil­iar Israeli claim that they have “no part­ner for peace” on the oth­er side. The PLO has been that part­ner since the 1970s, and each time a final agree­ment seems near, Israel finds a way to scut­tle it. In var­i­ous peace accords Pales­tine and the oth­er Arab nations have shown their will­ing­ness to rec­og­nize Israel if Israel will nego­ti­ate a set­tle­ment based on the 1967 bor­ders. He is con­vinced that even on as touchy an issue as the right of return, “with a full pack­age, the Pales­tini­ans would be reasonable.”

Eric A. Gor­don is the author of a biog­ra­phy of rad­i­cal Amer­i­can com­pos­er Marc Blitzstein, co-author of com­pos­er Earl Robin­son’s auto­bi­og­ra­phy, and the trans­la­tor (from Por­tuguese) of a mem­oir by Brazil­ian author Hadasa Cytrynow­icz. He holds a doc­tor­ate in his­to­ry from Tulane Uni­ver­si­ty. He chaired the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia chap­ter of the Nation­al Writ­ers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is direc­tor emer­i­tus of The Work­men’s Circle/Arbeter Ring South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Dis­trict. In 2015 he pro­duced “City of the Future,” a CD of Sovi­et Yid­dish songs by Samuel Polonski.