Gaza: An Inquest into Its Martyrdom

Book Author: Norman G. Finkelstein
Reviewer: Noam Chomsky
Reviewer Title: Professor emeritus, MIT
Publishing Info: University of California Press, 2018. 419 pages. $24.67, hardcover.

To plumb the depths of human savagery is a formidable task, and not a pleasant one. The task is undertaken with rigorous argument and scrupulous scholarship in Norman Finkelstein’s monumental “inquest into Gaza’s martyrdom.” And with undisguised passion. As he writes, “this book rises to a crescendo of anger and indignation.” It is hard to see how anyone with a shred of humanity could react differently to the bitter record unraveled here.

There have been evocative, often shattering, accounts of the tragedy of Gaza. Some of the most infuriating are live testimony from the scene during the periodic escalations of the crimes: among them the reports by the remarkable Norwegian surgeon Mads Gilbert from the trauma wards of al-Shifa hospital and the painful daily reports by the courageous Palestinian journalist Mohammed Omer. There have also been studies by prestigious commissions of inquiry and by the major international human-rights groups, all mined in Finkelstein’s inquest. Understanding has also been enriched by work of fine journalists and scholars. But in its comprehensive sweep, deep probing and acute critical analysis, Finkelstein’s study stands alone.

Concluding his inquest, Finkelstein cites warnings by UNCTAD and other international monitors that Gaza could become literally uninhabitable by 2020 “due to ongoing de-development, eight years of economic blockade and three operations” from 2009 to 2014. The grim figures on the availability of potable water, energy and housing, on unemployment and dependence on humanitarian aid even for food, depict all too clearly the nature of the catastrophe as 2020 approaches.

Responding to the imminent catastrophe, President Trump ordered that the U.S. contribution to UNRWA — “a lifeline for Palestinians” — be cut to one-sixth the scheduled funding. As he explained, he saw no reason to fund people who show “no appreciation or respect” as he dangles before their eyes his “ultimate deal” while handing Greater Jerusalem over to Israel.

The idea that nearly two million people, median age 17, are locked by force in a small cage that is soon to become uninhabitable while the world looks away is almost unfathomable. True, there is sometimes a reaction of disgust; in one recent case, on May 14, 2018, when, on the eve of Nakba Day, split-scene photographs appeared showing Israeli snipers expertly murdering desperate Gazans protesting their martyrdom, alongside images of Ivanka Trump smiling happily with a beaming Netanyahu at the celebration of the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. But such moments are rare.

Visiting Gazan health centers after the Israeli atrocities of spring 2018, UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl found scenes that were “shocking and deeply disturbing,” including “a pattern of entry and exit wounds that indicates ammunition used caused severe damage to internal organs, muscle tissue and bones.” One hundred seventeen were killed by Israel forces during peaceful protests and 1,200 injured, many at a distance from the troops and posing no imaginable threat — even a young woman bravely tending to the injured. What he found is “truly staggering,” Krähenbühl reported.

There were security pretenses, but much as Finkelstein meticulously reviews in case after case, they are easily dispelled. Putting aside the evidently unthinkable idea of relaxing the torment and allowing decent survival, simple engineering would have sufficed to block the way to desperate people facing catastrophe, demanding the right to return to the homes from which they were brutally expelled. Furthermore, violence could have been avoided by accepting Hamas’s offer — once again — of a long-term ceasefire (hudna). The appeal was ignored without comment. That is the usual practice, although once, after the 2014 Operation Protective Edge, an Israeli defense official explained that, “there was no reason to conduct a dialogue with a bruised and beaten movement.” In brief, don’t raise your heads; we have the guns so we can crush you as we choose.

Finkelstein quotes the inescapable conclusion of the Goldstone Report that both the criminal atrocities of the Israeli military and the “humiliation and dehumanization” of Palestinians are “deliberate policy.” The stance has deep roots. To mention only one incident from earlier days, in Halhul in 1982 soldiers broke into houses, beating people and ordering them to crawl on the ground and lick the earth, to urinate and excrete on one another and to sing the Israeli anthem “Hatikva,” and on Holocaust day to write numbers on their hands in memory of the Jews in the extermination camps — actions so egregious that they elicited a high-level protest to Prime Minister Menahem Begin. Little reaction, and not an isolated case.

The attitudes are deeply ingrained, the predicted psychological effects of the occupation.

After briefly reviewing the earlier ugly record, Finkelstein turns to Israel’s “disengagement” in September 2005, still leaving it the occupying power, as even the United States recognizes. Israeli hardliners understood by then that it was pointless to deploy a large part of the IDF to protect a few thousand settlers taking much of the land and meager resources of Gaza.

It would have been simple enough to ferry the settlers from their illegal subsidized homes in Gaza to more valuable occupied areas that were to be integrated into the Greater Israel being systematically constructed. Instead, improving on Marx, Israel chose to repeat farce as farce, re-enacting the “national trauma” staged for a domestic and U.S. audience when Israel withdrew from the Sinai in 1982. It was “one of the largest brain-washing operations conducted by the government in order to convince the Israeli people that they have suffered a national trauma the effect of which will be felt for generations,” journalist Amnon Kapeliuk wrote, designed to create “a national consensus opposed to similar withdrawals in the remaining occupied territories.” General Chaim Erez, commander of the operation, explained that “everything was planned and agreed from the beginning” with the settlers, who were to offer a show of resistance. The 2005 evacuation, ridiculed by Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling and others, replayed the record, with images of little children pleading with soldiers not to destroy their homes amidst cries of “Never Again,” the allusion and implication clear.

It would also have been simple enough to turn over to Gazans what Israel had constructed on stolen land. Instead, as Israeli scholars Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar report in their comprehensive history of settlement, “Israel left behind scorched earth, devastated services, and people with neither a present nor a future. The settlements were destroyed in an ungenerous move by an unenlightened occupier, which in fact continues to control the territory and kill and harass its inhabitants by means of its formidable military might.”

The official rationale for the withdrawal was explained by Dov Weisglass, the official responsible: it would “freeze” the political process and “prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

Furthermore, as Darryl Li observed soon after in the Journal of Palestine Studies, “the Gaza Strip can be usefully seen as a `laboratory’ in which Israel fine-tunes a dubious balance of maximum control and minimum responsibility, refining techniques that are also suggestive of possible futures for the West Bank” — a prediction that has been well verified as the project of creating a Greater Israel with isolated enclaves for Palestinians proceeds on course.

Weisglass explained further that Gazans would remain “on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger,” which would not look good. The instructions have since been followed with expert precision, though by now there are concerns that the strangulation may be too tight to avert a global response.

In November 2005, a ceasefire agreement was reached that called for crossings between Gaza and both Egypt and Israel for commerce and transit of people, bus and truck convoys between the West Bank and Gaza, the building of a seaport in Gaza, and the re-opening of the airport in Gaza that Israeli bombing had demolished. The agreement lasted for a few weeks, until Palestinians committed a major crime. They ran an election judged free and fair, but elected the wrong people: Hamas. Israel and the United States responded by stepping up violence and imposing harsh sanctions, with Europe tripping politely behind. The United States also turned to standard operating procedure in such cases, organizing a military coup, which Hamas pre-empted in 2007, an even greater crime that led to harsher punishment.

These events and what followed are analyzed carefully in Finkelstein’s painstaking review. As he shows, the basic pattern is that a ceasefire is reached, Hamas observes it, Israel pays no attention to it and periodically chooses to escalate violence, eliciting a Hamas response, which serves as the pretext for the next Israeli operation of “mowing the lawn,” in Israeli parlance. The exercise is accompanied by denunciations of Hamas terrorism that are dutifully repeated in U.S. commentary, often in Europe.

Finkelstein subjects the pretexts for Israeli escalation to close analysis, showing convincingly that they have nothing to do with Palestinian malfeasance. Rather, they derive from Israel’s strategic needs: to demonstrate deterrent power by demolishing a defenseless punching bag after Israeli failures, as in Lebanon in 2006; or to prevent a diplomatic settlement. A particularly serious threat, as Finkelstein discusses, is possible Hamas-Palestinian Authority unification. That would undercut pretexts for evading negotiations, and would threaten the U.S.-Israeli program of separating Gaza and the West Bank, undertaken shortly after the Oslo agreement, which committed the signers to respect the territorial integrity of the occupied territories.

His primary subject matter, Finkelstein explains, is “the human rights reportage on Gaza,” voluminous and generally with “exacting standards of accuracy, [recording] a ghastly tale of suffering and misery… and criminal excess and heartlessness.” Like the economic reports that he reviews, they are largely ignored apart from specialists — and “in the end the human rights community itself succumbed to the Israeli juggernaut.”

The latter “betrayal,” meticulously dissected with Finkelstein’s scalpel, is a shameful testimony to Israeli cynicism and western cowardice. After reviewing the authoritative Goldstone Report, Finkelstein devotes a revealing chapter to the malicious assault that finally left Goldstone a broken man, reduced to recanting the report of the commission he headed — alone; all other members steadfastly reaffirmed its conclusions. As Finkelstein demonstrates, he offered no basis for his recantation, but considering the personal attacks he endured in a vicious campaign of slander and defamation, reaching into his personal life, it is hard to censure him.

The campaign intimidated others as well, particularly Human Rights Watch, subjected to a “witch hunt” orchestrated not only by such “perennial apologists” for Israel as Alan Dershowitz and Elie Wiesel but a range of others as well. By the time of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in 2014, HRW had withdrawn from the fray, barely going beyond repeating condemnations by Ban Ki-Moon and even the normally supine Obama administration. Obama, Finkelstein argues, should be considered the “enabler in chief” of this brutal crime, just as after being elected in 2008 he refrained from commenting on its predecessor, Operation Cast Lead, which, fortuitously, was terminated just as Obama assumed office so that he could issue a statesmanlike call to look to the future and put the past behind us.

Finkelstein then turns to an exhaustive analysis of Amnesty International’s investigation of Protective Edge — “the most destructive of Israel’s recent assaults on Gaza,” surpassing even the terrible crimes of Cast Lead. Finkelstein concludes that “instead of falling silent on Israeli crimes during Protective Edge,” following the course of HRW, “Amnesty whitewashed them,” concentrating instead on Hamas’s retaliatory violations of human-rights law, which, as usual, scarcely compared with Israel’s.

In extenuation of AI’s abdication of its role, Finkelstein recognizes that it “capitulated to political blackmail,” in part because “it was forced to fend for itself” against the juggernaut, its usual partner HRW having fled in fear while others kept to fairly tepid and deceptive commentary, as Finkelstein reviews.

Finkelstein publishes AI’s rejoinder to his critique, along with his response, again point by point.

With the human-rights community largely neutralized, the “remaining chink in [Israel’s] armor was domestic critique,” most effectively the soldier eyewitness testimonies of “Breaking the Silence.” The soldiers were not spared the withering attacks on those who dare expose the actions of the self-described “most moral army in the world.” They “are not telling the truth,” Alan Dershowitz declared, which should settle the matter.

It is not in doubt that the charges of terrorism leveled against Hamas are sometimes correct, though it would be interesting to search for a “national liberation movement” immune to such condemnations. Surely not the Unites States. There’s a good reason why the founder of the country was called “the town destroyer” by the Iroquois, and tens of thousands of loyalists who fled rebel terror also had bitter tales to tell. And surely not Israel. Its pre-state terror far exceeds anything charged to Hamas, and its leading terrorists are revered. At one point, both the prime minister and the foreign minister, (Begin and Yitzhak Shamir), were notorious terrorists. The third-major position in the Zionist movement, the Jewish Agency, was filled by a man who had murdered dozens of civilians under guard in an undefended Lebanese village during the land-clearing operations of October 1948. He did not escape untouched. He received a seven-year sentence, but was immediately amnestied and granted a lawyer’s license on the grounds that his act carried “no stigma.”

The truly crushing blow against Gazans, as Finkelstein emphasizes, is the protracted siege, designed to prevent any normal life or recovery from the repeated episodes of mowing the lawn. There have been courageous and honorable attempts to bring desperately needed aid to the victims by sea; another flotilla is on the way in summer 2018. Each is blocked by Israeli violence. Finkelstein devotes a long section to the most disgraceful case, the attack on the Mavi Marmara, a particularly ugly display of brutality and cowardice, followed by cover-up and whitewash under U.S.-Israeli pressure.

In an appendix, Finkelstein carefully reviews the record of legal precedents, particularly concerning South Africa, to establish his conclusion that the occupation itself, not merely its implementation, “has become illegal under international law,” an original and substantive contribution on its own.

Concluding his inquest, Finkelstein recalls Helen Hunt Jackson’s remarkable 1881 chronicle of “the destruction of the Native American population by conscious, willful government policy,” dismissed and forgotten, rediscovered almost a century later under the civilizing impact of popular activism. “The present volume was modeled after her searing requiem,” Finkelstein writes. He anticipates that, like Jackson’s requiem, his own searing inquest will be dismissed and perhaps rediscovered someday, inspiring outrage at the fate of people “betrayed by the cupidity and corruption, careerism and cynicism, cravenness and cowardice of mortal man.”

There still is time to act, but if his prognosis is correct, “the black record of Gaza’s martyrdom” may soon be beyond repair.