Norman Finkelstein: This Time We Went Too Far – A Review

The first book I ever read by Finkelstein was Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict []. I read it as a first year university student, having been raised on every Zionist myth Finkelstein debunked in the book (except my right-wing Zionist Jewish school hadn’t taught us about Benny Morris’s work, which was more cautiously dealt with).

I grew up in an environment where it was undisputed fact that Palestine was empty, except for the Jews with their “continuous presence”, and then Arabs came after the Zionists made the desert bloom. I was encouraged by IAJV co-founder Peter Slezak to read Finkelstein’s book. I was shocked. The undisputed fact was actually argued in a specific book – and Finkelstein’s demolition of the book was about as systematic and comprehensive as was imaginable. This was the ultimate annihilation. Since then, I learnt a lot more about many of the issues Finkelstein wrote about. Yet whilst the point seems almost minor, compared to all that I discovered, I never again experienced the same sense of being utterly scandalised at how I was lied to by my teachers, and how comprehensively Finkelstein had demonstrated this.

In these early days, I read Dershowitz’s Case for Israel, and then balanced it with a Chomsky book. Later, Finkelstein released a comprehensive reply [] to Dershowitz’s book: no less than Peters, Finkelstein showed the enormity of lies on behalf of the Israeli government, in this case particularly focusing on the truth about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Finkelstein was also gracious enough to take up many other historical issues in his length appendices – something I appreciated, in the years before I had systematically read New Israeli histories, such as by Simha Flapan, Tom Segev and Benny Morris.

I approached “This Time We Went Too Far” as a far more knowledgeable reader than I had the previous books I had read by Finkelstein. However, it is probably more apparent to me now than it was then how impressive Finkelstein’s scholarship is. A glance at the bibliography reveals his general reliance on establishment, respectable sources, which he generally knows inside out.

Finkelstein’s book is rather short: it starts on page 13, and his writing ends on page 146. The bibliography can be found in pages 153 through to 199. In the body of his work, devoted to the slaughter in Gaza, his sources are overwhelmingly of the most impeccable sort: Ha’aretz, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Goldstone Report on Gaza, the Dugard Report, the Breaking the Silence Report, and other Israeli and Palestinian human rights organisations. Finkelstein also quotes at length from the handful of pundits out there willing to defend Israel’s attack on Gaza. In reading their writings, one is struck at how desperate the Israeli government must have been. If there was ever any doubt that the attack on Gaza was indefensible, it should now be settled by looking at the defenders of the attack who weren’t in the pay of the Israeli government.

For example, Finkelstein deals at length with the writings of Anthony Cordesman. Cordesman’s credulity towards the Israeli government defies belief. Relying almost entirely on Israeli government and army sources, Cordesman proved the lack of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza by citing Israeli press statements, “Israeli Ministry of Defense claims”, and the words of Ehud Barak: “we are doing and will continue to do everything possible to provide all humanitarian needs to the residents of Gaza.” Finkelstein then turns to the relevant NGOs. UNRWA’s director responded to Livni’s denial of a humanitarian crisis by saying “We have a catastrophe unfolding in Gaza for the civilian population”. The Goldstone Report is similarly examined for its criticisms, then Finkelstein turns to complaints about the blockade by 16 “respected humanitarian and human rights organisations”. Finkelstein then cites a complaint by the Red Cross, and notes the finding by Palestinian human rights organisation Al Mezan that at least 258 Palestinians killed during the attack on Gaza “did so after Israeli forces obstructed medical access to them.” (pp 66-70)

The book goes on in this way – the claims of those who defended the attack are counterposed to massive quantities of evidence by various human rights organisations. The cumulative impact is overwhelming.

That is the general outline of chapters 3 and 4. What of the rest of the book? The first chapter offers an expert, concise guide to the relevant history of Gaza. He cites impeccable sources – such as Shlomo Ben Ami, Benny Morris, Sara Roy and B’Tselem. In this chapter, he outlines a similar view to the Oslo process that I hold []. Finkelstein does not hide his contempt for the Palestinian Authority, essentially agreeing with Natan Sharansky, who he cites as saying that the “idea of Oslo” was “to find a strong dictator to… keep the Palestinians under control.” It is an interesting side note that Sharansky is considered a moral authority by some []. The “class of Palestinian collaborators” Israel sought to create were more interested in maintaining the perks of Israeli-given privilege under power than struggling for the rights of their fellow Palestinians. Finkelstein writes scornfully of the Palestinian negotiators who signed Oslo: they devoted four full pages to passage of Palestinian VIPs in the occupied territories (divided into classes of privilege), whereas less than one page was devoted to Palestinian prisoners.

In the second chapter, Finkelstein analyses why Israel attacked Gaza. He decides there were two primary reasons. The first was to restore the Arabs “fear of us” (Ariel Sharon) – in politer language, this is called a deterrence capability. The 2006 Lebanon War was a military disaster for Israel. Obviously, there was little reason to suppose another attack would be more successful. Israel still hasn’t achieved the green light for an attack on Iran. Gaza was the most viable option.

Moreover, Israel had good reason to attack Hamas (Finkelstein’s second reason for the attack): its “peace offensive” (quoting Avner Yaniv). Finkelstein reviews the record of the two state agreement. Every year, the UN General assembly votes on a “Peaceful Settlement of the Question of Palestine”. It outlines the relevant principles: land can’t be acquired by war, the settlements in the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, are illegal, Israel must withdraw from the occupied territories, and the Palestinian refugee question must be resolved in conformity with UN resolution 194. Finkelstein shows a table of the UN votes from 1997 to 2009 – typically, 155 countries say yes, Israel, the US, and a few others (shamefully, since 2004, including Australia) say no. Finkelstein goes on to note support in the Arab League and the Organisation of the Islamic States for normalisation with Israel once these terms are implemented. Finkelstein also notes the evidence of Hamas’s increasingly open support for a two-state agreement. This increasing acquiescence to the international consensus poses the same threat that Fatah posed in 1982: the threat of international pressure forcing Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories.

Finkelstein argues that just as Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to foil Fatah’s peace offensive, so Israel invaded Gaza in 2008 to “provoke Hamas into resuming its attacks, and then radicalise or destroy it, thereby eliminating it as a legitimate negotiating partner”. This problem was particularly exacerbated by Hamas’s generally strict adherence to the ceasefire – stricter than Israel’s, which not only violated the ceasefire, but also refused to obey the other term of the ceasefire, and loosen the blockade on Gaza. If Hamas appeared to be a faithful negotiating partner which would uphold a ceasefire, why couldn’t Israel negotiate a settlement to the conflict with it?

Finkelstein further argues that the goals of the attack were not only determined: so was the means. Israel was to restore Arab “fear of us” through massive, indiscriminate use of force. The quotes he compiles in favour of this proposition in this chapter, and indeed, throughout the book, make sobering reading. To take some examples firstly from government figures: Tzipi Livni explained that “Hamas now understands that when you fire on [Israel’s] citizens it responds by going wild – and this is a good thing.” She also commented that “Israel demonstrated real hooliganism during the course of the recent operation, which I demanded.” Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit: when Palestinians fire rockets, “the IDF should… decide on a neighbourhood in Gaza and level it.” Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai explained that “It [should be] possible to destroy Gaza, so they will understand not to mess with us”. Yishai also held that “we should hit their infrastructure and destroy 100 homes for every rocket fired”.

Then there are the senior military figures, said say such things as “We will wield disproportionate power against every village from which shots are fired on Israel, and cause immense damage and destruction”. Israel should act with “disproportionate force”, and aim “at inflicting damage and meting out punishment to an extent that will demand long and expensive reconstruction processes.” And on, and on.

Finkelstein then quotes soldier testimonies: massive firepower was applied. For example, “This was firepower such as I had never known… there were blasts all the time… the earth was constantly shaking”; “On the ground you hear these thunderous blasts all day long. I mean, not just tank shelling, which was a tune we’d long gotten used to, but blasts that actually rock the outpost, to the extent that some of us were ordered out of the house we were quartered in for fear it would collapse.”

The problem is: who was the force being applied to? Finkelstein also cites soldier testimonies to show that overwhelmingly, Palestinian resistance was not encountered. The enormous destruction to civilian infrastructure [] was not because there were Hamas fighters hiding in mosques, hospitals, ambulances and schools (Finkelstein cites Amnesty and others to exonerate them of these charges). If Israeli soldiers couldn’t find Hamas fighters to engage, and yet enormous quantities of firepower were expended, then logically, Israel was attacking civilians.
Furthermore, Finkelstein is unwilling to allow sadistic soldiers to be made scapegoats for decisions that were overwhelmingly made at the top of the command chain, all the way up to Ehud Barak. Like Goldstone, Finkelstein notes that there were almost no errors in Israeli bombing. The most “egregious crimes” were planned and ordered at the top.

Generally, Finkelstein’s book is written in a restrained tone. Certainly, Finkelstein seems less brazen than in earlier works. Finkelstein’s restraint in commenting on certain figures – such as Dershowitz, or Martin Peretz –must have required considerable self-control. Finkelstein knows how to target adversaries with ridicule. One feels that he left moral commentary to Gideon Levy, who he cites repeatedly through the book, to maintain his restrained tone. One of the few exceptions would be the case of Gerald Steinberg: who “compared Goldstone’s accusations to those against Dreyfus, saying “Israel had the moral right to flatten all of Gaza.” (Steinberg founded the program on conflict resolution and management at Israel’s Bar Ilan University.)”

Finkelstein has a brief chapter on his visit to Gaza. Then in Chapter 6, Finkelstein writes of the declining popular support for Israel, arguing that the Gaza Massacre was similar to the Sharpeville Massacre for Apartheid South Africa. As indicative of the evidence Finkelstein marshals, he notes that in June 2009, 49 percent of Americans registered as supporters of the Israeli government – before the attack, it was 69 percent. Now only 44 percent thought the US should support Israel. Finkelstein surveys increasing international Jewish dissent, and in his epilogue concludes that traditional Jewish liberalism is becoming increasingly impossible to maintain consistently with what is publically known about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Finkelstein argues that Goldstone epitomises this shift, because he is a liberal, a lover of Israel, yet produced a very harsh report not only on the attack on Gaza, but on the occupation and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians more generally.

Finkelstein concludes his book by arguing that the prospects for a resolution to the conflict are “better now than ever before.” Now is the time to “hold on to the truth”: about the wrongness of Israel’s attack on Palestinians, and the truth that Palestinian suffering is wrong and indefensible. The truth, that Finkelstein documented, that international law and international opinion support an end to the conflict that the US and Israel are blocking. Finkelstein urges this vision – a very firm support of the two state solution – and insists that it be an inclusive vision, encompassing Zionists like Richard Goldstone. He argues very similarly to my essay in Overland [] – we should not argue about Zionism. We should ask people whether or not they think Israel should torture Palestinians. The appeal to the most basic principles of justice and human rights are all that it should take to help “free the Palestinian people from their bondage.” This should not be an “anti-Israel” triumph. “There is room for everyone at the rendezvous of victory”, quoting Aime Cesaire.

In my view this, is a stirring and inspiring finish to an important study. Intriguingly, an appendix follows. Three pages are devoted to a Hamas letter to Obama, where Ahmed Yousef chronicles the findings of the International Court of Justice, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Yousef notes that the UN General Assembly and Arab League routinely call for a resolution of the conflict based on the principles outlined by these bodies, and that Hamas is committed to pursuing a “just resolution to the conflict” in accord with these bodies.

According to Finkelstein this letter was “partly informed” by his discussions with Hamas officials. I would not be surprised if it was more than partly informed by these discussions: it would not have read very differently if Finkelstein had written it for them. This may be a positive thing: without wishing to deny or mitigate Israeli crimes, Hamas has been a complete disaster for the Palestinians. With that said, Finkelstein’s book contains no criticisms of Hamas. He has surely read the considerable amount of denunciations it has faced by human rights organisations for its Qassam rockets, its summary justice in treating alleged collaborators and its use of torture. He must also know that its support for a two state agreement is at this stage equivocal. Admittedly, it has agreed that it would support such an agreement if it were approved in a referendum. Yet it has not said that it would agree to a full peace agreement, rather than a long truce, if Israel withdrew from the occupied territories. Whether or not this is a bargaining chip that may yet fall, Finkelstein does not acknowledge that Hamas has not quite embraced the international consensus.

In defending Hamas’s rockets, Finkelstein argues that the alternative was for the Palestinians to surrender in the face of force. I think it may be agreed that it can hardly be argued that any other government wouldn’t resist an attack by a foreign army. Yet this is separate from the moral question of whether illegitimate means can be employed in this resistance. Surely, the Palestinians are not entirely free to do whatever they like in resisting Israeli aggression. It is furthermore striking that Finkelstein should take such an unpopular stand, given that his book argues for building the broadest consensus for Palestinian rights possible, and given also that his book relies almost entirely on human rights organisations which disagree with him on this issue. It is true that Israel’s claim that indiscriminate bombardment of civilian areas is terrorism is appallingly hypocritical. Yet as long as the Palestinians are going to wield their strongest weapon – in the realm of human rights – they are ill served by leadership that effectively disarms them through what are almost universally charged to be war crimes. Hamas abandoned suicide bombings years ago, and has since then increasingly abandoned the firing of rockets. In my view, it is not clear that this defence falls within the political strategy he otherwise insists on. Whilst the suffering of Israelis cannot be compared to that of Palestinians, and whilst it is also true that much Israeli propaganda has been made of the rockets falling on Sderot, that is not to say that the people in Sderot don’t suffer, or that rockets cannot terrorise the men, women and children who live in fear of being killed by them. I think Finkelstein shows courage in willingness to criticise his own people and hold them to particularly stringent standards. However, I’m not sure I find his arguments on this issue convincing. And the gains from Finkelstein’s rhetorical restraint may well be tempered by the stick Finkelstein is giving his enemies: “Finkelstein supports terror against Israelis”, “Finkelstein cites Goldstone/Amnesty/etc only when it suits him” and so on.

These qualifying comments, however, should not overall detract from the great value of Finkelstein’s outstanding work. Finkelstein has done his work in commemorating those who died in the slaughter. Our work in achieving justice for the Palestinians continues.


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