Book Review: ‘GAZA: an inquest into its martyrdom’ by Norman Finkelstein, an authoritative history and a real flick in the eye.

When we left after the operation, it was just a barren stretch of desert…. We spoke about it a lot amongst ourselves, the guys from the company, how crazy the amount of damage we did there was. I quote: “Listen man, it’s crazy what went on in there,” “Listen man, we really messed them up,” “Fuck, check it out, there’s nothing at all left…, it’s nothing but desert now, that’s crazy.
[Y]ou’re shooting at anything that moves – and also at what isn’t moving, crazy amounts… [I]t also becomes a bit like a computer game, totally cool and real.
[I]t’s destruction on a whole other level.
– Excerpts from Israeli Soldier testimonies featured on page 219, GAZA: an inquest into its martyrdom, taken from ‘Breaking the Silence’.

This year, Dr. Norman G. Finkelstein published another book on the Israel-Palestine conflict, Gaza: an inquest into its martyrdom. It covers the recent history of violence inflicted upon the Palestinians in the Gaza strip since 2005, or more succinctly in the opening words of Finkelstein, “This book is not about Gaza. It is about what has been done to Gaza.”

Though I have scarcely thought about the conflict since completing my Honours thesis in 2016, I decided to order a copy and found myself reading it from cover to cover in only three days. To be brief, this book can most accurately be summarized as the literary form of a slap to the back of the head, perhaps a step on the back of your heel, or a flick in the eye. The facts it brings to the fore and the testimonies it lays out for all to see are hard to read with indifference. They reach out from the page and pinch you, zap you, shock you. It is impossible to love this book; to be honest I felt myself compelled to hurl it across the room on more than one occasion. Regardless, it should be recognised as both another triumph in scholarship for Finkelstein and as an authoritative contemporary history of the Gaza strip. I have immense admiration for it, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to deepen their understanding of the political situation between Israel and the Palestinians of that ‘Open-air Prison’, the Gaza Strip.

Spread over four parts, the book covers a factual exploration of the 2009 Operation Cast Lead, the life and death of the Goldstone Report, the fate of the humanitarians aboard the Mavi Marmara, and finishes with an in-depth analysis of Operation Protective Edge, and the white-washing reports published by Amnesty International in its wake. Ultimately, the last 13 years in the Gaza strip have been defined by two major things; the restrictive and illegal blockade, and the periodic massacres inflicted on the population by the IDF (Israeli Defence Force), most hideously during Operations Cast Lead (2009) and Protective Edge (2014).

I had not read far into the first part of the book, ‘Cast Lead’, when some old feelings began to return. They were the same feelings I so often found myself recoiling from while writing my Thesis in 2016. On the brutality of Israel’s 2009 Operation Cast Lead, citing an Amnesty International Report and an article featured in Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Finkelstein writes:

[Israel] killed as many as 300 Gazans in just four minutes on the first day of Cast Lead. The majority of targets were located in “densely populated residential areas,” while the bombardments began “at around 11:30am…, when the streets were full of civilians, including those going to school for the second shift.”  A respected Israeli strategic analyst observed several days into the slaughter, “The IDF, which planned to attack buildings and sites populated by hundreds of people, did not warn them in advance to leave, but intended to kill a great many of them, and succeeded.” Page 23.

It was as if reading this passage had caused an old piece of steel wool to roll back into an uncomfortable place within my stomach. It has since dawned on me that knowing about the suffering of the Palestinians is not something one can easily forget. This book is a history book insofar as it fits into a narrative that stretches across time, but that atrocious history continues. These things didn’t just happen in 1917, in 1941, in 1975 or in 1994, they happened this decade, this year, today, and will continue on into tomorrow. I must confess, although it is with admiration for the book that I write this review, and I am motivated by the hope that those who read this will come to identify with the dream of Palestinian emancipation, it also comes from a place of anger and loathing for those mass murderers in Tel Aviv. I don’t wish to be someone who acts through rage, but I really wonder how someone can approach a situation so ghastly without doing so. It troubles me to think that I don’t fully understand why I am writing this. But I do know that moral Australians should never stop demanding our Government to be on the side of International Law and of Justice, and stop lending diplomatic support to the Israeli Government.

In one of his earlier works, Image and Reality of the Israel Palestine conflict, Finkelstein works through the mythologies of Israel-Palestine by comparing them to the factual record. It is true, myths and lies are deeply coagulated within the blood of this conflict, and the following excerpts from Israeli soldiers who partook in Operation Protective Edge should dash one of the most pervasive and damaging myths of all: the Israeli military possesses a form of abnormal morality and care for civilian life. While I believe this particular myth has been resoundingly deconstructed many times before, it is strikingly dealt with in part four of the book, ‘Operation Protective Edge’. Finkelstein writes,

According to an international High Level Military Group – sponsored and selected by the “Friends of Israel Initiative,”… “The IDF not only met its obligations under the Law of Armed Conflict, but often exceeded them.” Indeed, it purported that the “IDF showed significant restraint, “and that a “life-preserving ethos… is propagated throughout its ranks.” It even went so far as to “express strong concerns that the actions and practices of the IDF to prevent collateral damage were so extensive… that they would curtail the effectiveness of our own militaries, were they to become constraining norms of warfare and enacted in customary law. Page 217.

But with regard to the following testimonies provided by Israel Soldiers, the point of view that a “life-preserving ethos” exists within the IDF (Israeli Defence Force) appears to be less of a matter-of-fact statement and more of a sick coupling between a brazen lie and a bad joke. Citing Israeli Non-Government Organisation ‘Breaking the Silence’, Finkelstein provides compelling evidence to suggest that Operation Protective Edge more closely resembled a smash-’em-up video game than any defensive military operation. The following quotes come from members of Israeli tank divisions deployed in Gaza, 2014.

There was no threat and it was quiet, and then suddenly there’s this command on the two-way radio: “Guys, everyone form a row, facing the neighborhood of al-Bureji.”… I remember it, all the tanks were standing in a row, and I personally asked my commander; “Where are we firing at?” He told me: “Pick wherever you feel like it.” And later, during talks with the other guys – each one basically chose his own target, and the commander called it on the two-way radio, “Good morning al-Bureji.” “We are carrying out, a “good morning al-Bureji,’ guys” that was the quote… And everyone fired shells wherever they wanted to, obviously. Nobody had opened fire at us – not before, not after, not during. Page 258.

Another soldier recounted his memories from what appears to be the same moment:

Each [tank] aimed at whichever direction it chose… And that’s how it was, really – every tank just firing wherever it wanted to. And during the offensive, no one shot at us – not before it, not during it, and not after it. I remember that when we started withdrawing with the tanks, I looked towards the neighborhood, and I could simply see an entire neighborhood up in flames, like in the movies. Columns of smoke everywhere, the neighborhood in pieces, houses on the ground, and like, people were living there, but nobody had fired at us yet. We were firing purposelessly. Page 259.

Yet another soldier recounts the fate of a distant, orange house by the beach.

[T]here was a sort of building far away near the coastline, around 4.5 kilometres from us… It wasn’t a threat to us, it had nothing to do with anybody, it wasn’t a part of the operation, it was out by the sea, far away from anything and from any potential threat – but that building was painted orange, and that orange drove my eyes crazy the entire time… So I told my platoon commander: “I want to fire at that orange house,” and he told me: “Cool, whatever you feel like,” and we fired…
[Did your guys discuss it later?]
The bit about shelling purposelessly? No, because when you look at the bigger picture, that’s something we were doing all the time. We were firing purposelessly all day long. Hamas was nowhere to be seen. Page 260.

After reading these accounts, of which there exists hundreds, is it a wonder that the so-called Operation Protective Edge saw the deaths of 1,500 Gazan civilians, including 550 children, and the destruction of no less than 18,000 buildings? For Australian readers, the Gaza strip is approximately 1/5th the size of the Sunshine Coast with 6 times the population. It is in some places more densely populated than central Tokyo. What else could be the result of this kind of military behavior? Where exists this “life-preserving ethos”?

The book leaves us at a dire position. Granted, the position of the Palestinians has been dire since long before I was born, but the ability to know about what is happening is now under threat. Finkelstein admits himself, reliable sources of information from previous years are rapidly disappearing. The Human Rights Organisations and United Nations agencies which provided large volumes of raw factual information on Operation Cast Lead in 2009 were either silent or intellectually complicit in the quantitatively more destructive Operation Protective Edge of 2014. The reasons for this are only open to speculation, perhaps, as Finkelstein himself has suggested, the abnormal circumstances surrounding the life and death of the Goldstone Report may have scared away those who would make similar charges towards Israel in the future. Even ‘Breaking the Silence,’ the Israeli organization that provided the voices of so many primary sources of information to the public has been almost destroyed by political pressure inflicted on it from within Israel. If Israel decides to once again bludgeon and make corpses of the prisoners in Gaza, will anyone be there to see and record the truth? And further, will they be brave to tell the world with conviction?

Finkelstein possesses this kind of conviction, particularly when concluding the book and laying out his reason for writing it. With a kind of pointed confidence that I fail to possess when it comes to the question of writing, Finkelstein refers to what “Gandhi called his doctrine of nonviolence satyagraha, which he translated as “Hold on to the Truth.” Though, in this case the truth of Palestinian suffering is metaphorically buried beneath an ocean of misinformation, Finkelstein is motivated simply by telling the truth, if only in the hope that some day, people might come to appreciate it simply for the fact that it is true. I am not a professional book reviewer, so I do not know the standard writing practice as it refers to ending a review by stealing verbatim the ending of the book, but nonetheless:

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 US government, Jackson wrote, “there is no record so black as the record of its perfidy to this nation.”  The present volume was modeled after her searing requiem. The author holds out faint hope that it will find an audience among his contemporaries. Still, the truth should be preserved; it is the least that’s 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 in retrospect also seem well-nigh incredible? Page 365.