Book Review: Norman Finkelstein’s “This time we went too far”

19 April 2010

Eight months prior to its December 2008 Gaza invasion, Israel established a National Information Directorate with the aim coordinating a public relations strategy with a clear, unified message to the world’s press. Israel’s 2006 war against Lebanon was seen as a disaster to Israel’s image in the world. A contingent of diplomats, lobby groups, bloggers and other supporters of Israel were mobilized as a parallel, complementary track to the military efforts.

The core message propagated to journalists at the outset of the Gaza attack was that Hamas broke the agreed ceasefire that had been in force for months; that Israel was engaged in a defensive war; and that Hamas was a terror organization that targeted civilians and used them as human shields. A few days into the offensive, Israel’s standpoint seemed to have permeated elite circles as Western politicians provided cover for Israel to “finish the job” of destroying Hamas, and refusing to call for a ceasefire. Journalists were barred from entering Gaza (although crucially Al-Jazeera was already there before the Israeli attack) and unable to independently account for the Palestinian side. Stationed on a hill overlooking Gaza, they were exposed to a highly-organized and well-funded Israeli spin machine. As a result, Israeli officials, one after another, were given disproportionate airtime on prime time television in western countries.

Despite these conditions, global public opinion of Israel has sunk to an all-time low. In his latest book, “This Time We Went Too Far,” Norman Finkelstein argues that Gaza marked a turning point in public opinion reminiscent of the international reaction to the 1960 Sharpeville massacre in South Africa, a point that has also been strongly made by Palestinian commentators such as Haider Eid. “It is not so much that Israel’s behavior is worse than it was before,” Finkelstein writes, “but rather that the record of that behavior has, finally, caught up with it” (104).

Whereas the anti-war demonstrations in Western countries were ethnically heterogeneous, counter-demonstrations consisted mainly of Jews. This reversal, Finkelstein contends, is part of a general trend of decline in public perceptions of Israel. In 2003, for instance, a European Union poll considered Israel the biggest threat to world peace. Public discontent “reached a boiling point of indignation during the Gaza invasion” (112). As Finkelstein illustrates, the truth can no longer be denied or dismissed given the persistence of Israel’s crimes and the wide availability of evidence against it.

A self-described “forensic scholar,” Finkelstein fearlessly presents Israel’s case in support of the Gaza invasion as advocated by its most vocal supporters and then mercilessly shreds their arguments. His emphasis on factual documentation from non-partisan sources and statements from Israeli officials leave little room for doubt.

Take the “factual and legal” defense of the Gaza offensive issued by the Israeli government (54). Finkelstein found that it used flimsy citations to back up the so-called “facts” including reportage from Italian journalist Lorenzo Cremonezi — an “Internet user” and “a participant on a Fatah Internet forum” — who claimed that “no more than 500-600” Palestinians died in Gaza (this would have meant that both Israel and human rights organizations grossly exaggerated the Palestinian death toll) (55).

The critical evidence presented in the Israeli brief allegedly came from Palestinian detainees. The UN fact-finding mission led by respected jurist Richard Goldstone revealed detainees were “ ‘subjected … to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment throughout their ordeal in order to terrorize, intimidate and humiliate them. […] All the men were handcuffed in a most painful manner and blindfolded, increasing their sense of fear and helplessness’ ” and “ ‘subjected to beatings and other physical abuse that amounts to torture’ ” (54). Hardly a reliable source.

The same Israeli brief contended that a Palestinian detainee “admitted” that “Hamas operatives frequently carried out rocket fire from schools, precisely because they knew that Israeli jets would not fire on schools.” Finkelstein asks, “why would he make such as a confession when, over and over again, Israeli weaponry did precisely that?” (64). Israel claimed that it used state-of-the-art precision weapons and targets were “checked and cross-checked” (59); yet it managed to damage or destroy 58,000 homes, 280 schools and kindergartens, 1,500 factories and workshops, several buildings housing journalists, water and sewage installations, 80 percent of the agricultural crops and nearly one-fifth of the cultivated land (90 percent of the civilian infrastructure that was targeted was destroyed in the last days of the war). This and other evidence led the Goldstone report to conclude that Israel carried out a “ ‘deliberate policy of disproportionate force aimed not at the enemy but at the … civilian population’ ” (81). No human rights organization found evidence that Hamas used human shields.

Finkelstein concludes that Gaza was not a war but a massacre, “like shooting fish in a barrel” (74). Israel maintained undisputed control of the air, carrying out 3,000 sorties virtually unhindered. Amnesty International could not find cases where civilians were caught up in crossfire, because there wasn’t a single battle during the 22-day assault: “ ‘Most of the time it was boring,’ one soldier confirmed to Amnesty, ‘there was supposed to be a tiny resistance force upon entry, but there just wasn’t’ ” (75).

If Hamas did not constitute a threat, what were Israel’s motives for the attack? Finkelstein postulates two reasons. First, Israel needed to restore its deterrence capacity following the 2006 conflict with Hizballah, i.e. “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” (31). Israel carried out an incursion into Gaza that killed Hamas fighters, breaking the ceasefire and forcing Hamas to retaliate. As Finkelstein recalls, Israel staged a similar provocation in 1982 as an excuse to invade Lebanon and oust the Palestine Liberation Organization). Second, Hamas showed that it was capable of honoring the ceasefire agreement — by Israel’s own admission — and its leaders were gradually softening its positions towards a settlement with Israel. Adding to this, Hamas’ unofficial contacts with some western governments ran counter to Israel’s policy of isolation. A war would press the reset button on this progress since Israel is not interested in a fair settlement of the conflict.

Israel’s supporters unleashed a barrage of criticism against Judge Goldstone following the release of the report by the UN-commissioned investigators he chaired in September 2009. Harvard Law School’s Alan Dershowitz, Finkelstein’s long-term opponent, said the report reminisced the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the US, considered it worse than “ ‘Ahmadinejad and the Holocaust deniers’ ” (134). Few, however, challenged the facts. Milder critics argued that the report devoted substantially less space to Hamas’ rocket attacks. Finkelstein deems this accusation valid but in the opposite direction. Given that the ratio of Palestinian to Israeli deaths stood a 100:1 and destruction of property at 6000:1, “the proportion of the Goldstone report given over to death and destruction caused by Hamas in Israel was much greater than the objective data would have warranted” (129).

The reason for this fixation on Goldstone, considering that several other human rights organizations issued reports reaching similar conclusions, was his stellar credentials. He is a self-declared Zionist, who “ ‘worked for Israel all of [his] adult life,’” sits on the board of governors of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, had a mother who was an activist in the women’s Zionist movement and a daughter who emigrated to Israel (138). His words beamed credibility and so Israel could not play the “anti-Semitic” or “self-hating Jew” card to silence him. Finkelstein goes as far as saying that the report marked the end of an era, where apologetic Jewish liberalism, which turns a blind eye to Israeli crimes, returned to its universalist roots. Jewish support for Israel is waning among the younger generation and while the majority did not criticize Israel during the offensive, they could not defend it either.

There is a brief myth-breaking reference to Gandhi in the book worthy of mention. Unlike what is widely believed, Gandhi categorized forceful resistance against impossible odds as “almost nonviolence” (130). Gandhi gave the example of a woman fending off a rapist or Polish armed self-defense to Nazi aggression. These cases of resistance are in essence symbolic, allowing for a dignified death. Hamas’ “desultory” rocket fire would fall in this category in the face of Israel’s overwhelming strength and status as occupier. Liberal champions of Gandhi’s philosophy should take heed.

The book’s weakness rests on its omissions. Finkelstein’s appraisal of the post-Gaza aftershocks ignores the spectacular upsurge in support for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel as the prime means for international solidarity. This disappointing exclusion is related to Finkelstein’s rather naive faith in international law as the sole means for resolving the conflict. Finkelstein champions “holding on to the truth” as a weapon against Israel but he fails to translate this into practical terms. It is then unsurprising that his power-blind analysis leads him to end the book rejecting the use of ideology, namely Zionism, as a rationale for understanding individual and collective action associated with Israel.

To complement the book’s rationalist analysis, Finkelstein devotes a chapter narrating his visit to Gaza a few months following Israel’s invasion. It is here that the level of his dedication and passion to the cause can truly be grasped. He observes that Palestinians seemed to have become accustomed to Israel’s frequent assaults, “as if Gaza were situated in the path of tornadoes, except that in Gaza every season is tornado season” (99). The delegation was guarded most of the time by young Hamas militants. While under the laws of war they would be considered “legitimate” targets, Finkelstein posits that in a rational world, “laws of war” make as much sense as the “etiquette of cannibals.” They have chosen to take arms to defend their homeland from foreign plunderers. He confesses, “were I living in Gaza, still in my prime and able to muster courage, I could easily be one of them” (102).

Mahatma Gandhi once wrote: “Massacre of innocent people is a serious matter. It is not a thing to be easily forgotten. It is our duty to cherish their memory.” Finkelstein’s book reads like an indictment against Israel fit for the world court and his quest for uncovering the truth is a fitting tribute to the martyrs of Gaza.

“This Time We Went too Far” is available from OR Books (http://www.orbooks.com/).

Ziyaad Lunat is an activist for Palestine. He can be reached at z.lunat A T gmail D O T com.