Norman Finkelstein’s ‘Gaza’ is an exhaustive act of witness

An Inquest Into Its Martyrdom
Norman Finkelstein
440 pp. University of California Press. $34.95.

After the 2012 war, I told my Gazan team that we needed a new word.  ‘War’ was a goal-oriented pursuit, tempered by mortal and strategic risk.  Israel’s conflict maintenance was neither.

After the 2014 war, while we still wore those 1000-yard stares, I set out to assign proportionate responsibility.  I read books on military accountability, the arc from force projection to force protection, law of war handbooks, and every report I could find.  I could not unpick their crazy-making inconsistencies.  From their conclusions, I could not recognize what I had seen.  I told my team that we needed a new kind of scholarship.

Gaza: An Inquest Into Its Martyrdom

Gaza: An Inquest Into Its Martyrdom, enables a different scholarship.  Norman Finkelstein has set out to deconstruct the false narrative of war in Gaza, by refuting its component parts.  One by one.  Finkelstein is an author, activist and scholar with decades of archives and outrage to bring.

Gaza is one exhaustive act of witness.  I differ with some of its choices, and I note that in order to emphasize that agreement is not required.  I found Gaza hugely valuable as an argument, a demand for accountability, and as a response to the question my team repeated, “What do they think we are?”

From the outset, Norman Finkelstein is specific about his task.  “This book is not about Gaza.  It is about what has been done to Gaza.”  The following 400 pages confront and debunk a decade of headline violence.  Finkelstein excoriates not only Israeli political and military actors, but also those NGOs and institutions whose work should protect Gazan rights.  Instead, he says, Gazans are pounded by the military, and then “betrayed” by a complicit set of institutions.  

Finkelstein has said that he sought to combine rigorous scholarship with his anger at the lies which enable the violence.  He digs his heels in, and he does not let go.  And although he warns of the book’s tedium, I found his writing highly readable although, of course, his content is shocking.  

To aid others’ research, I greatly appreciated the choice to include extensive footnotes, not endnotes.  They are rich with sources for further reading.  I would have loved a comprehensive bibliography, although that might have doubled the book’s length.

He wades straight in, with little repetition of the history.

Turning Gaza into a Target

Every writer must ask, ‘Why Gaza – why there?’  Norman Finkelstein suggests that “poorly defended but proudly defiant” Gaza has been an exigent site for “deterring Arabs, deterring peace”.  There, Israel has periodically renewed its regional deterrence, without running the risks of fighting a fully equipped foe.  I would add that, because Gaza lacks defensive weaponry, Israel fires at will from land, sea and sky.  That one-sidedness makes it doubly important to scrutinize Israel’s choices closely.  

Gaza’s scrutiny is relentless.  Finkelstein uses statistics to hammer home the gross asymmetry of violence and harm.  In Operation Cast Lead, the three-week invasion of 2008, 6300 Gazan homes were destroyed, versus one Israeli home.  

He lists the allegations that are made, repeated, absorbed into the idiom – but never substantiated.  After 29 ambulances were damaged or destroyed in Operation Cast Lead, the reporting (and commissioned reporting) of Physicians for Human Rights – Israel concluded that ambulances had been “targeted” in a campaign whose “underlying meaning … appears to be one of creating terror without mercy to anyone.”  Israel’s brief cited Hamas’s “extensive” military use of ambulances, without meaningful evidence.  Goldstone could find none.  B’Tselem has found none.  Israel’s Magen David Adom also disputes the charge, yet somehow it lives on as urban legend.  45 ambulances were damaged or destroyed in Operation Protective Edge.

To illustrate the intentionality of the Dahiya Doctrine of disproportionate force, Finkelstein heaps quote upon quote.  Israeli military and government sources indict themselves. Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister, Eli Yishai, said of Operation Cast Lead that “It [should be] possible to destroy Gaza, so that they will understand not to mess with us… [T]housands of houses, tunnels and industries will be demolished.”  

What does it take, Gaza asks, for Palestinian ambulances to be presumed civilian, or for Israel’s rationales for disproportionate force, which they describe so openly, to be questioned? For Finkelstein, this is where the big lie washes out:  it is a war crime to intentionally apply disproportionate force, or to primarily target civilian infrastructure… unless one has prepared the ground by explaining in advance that every object is military, terroristic and therefore legitimate.  

An infographic created by the Israeli military in July 2014.

Gaza extracts enduring themes from the documentation. Finkelstein refutes them at length, beginning with the charge that Hamas uses civilians as human shields.  He brings each digression back to its meaning:  this is the narrative that corrodes Gazan human rights and civilian protections.  This is how Gazan casualties are downgraded to the status of collateral damage, and this is how responsibility is devolved from Israel’s choices to those of Hamas.

These themes lead Finkelstein to his later, extended argument that evidence about these wars is evaluated within a tilted frame.  Monitors accept that Israel may err occasionally from its responsible and legitimate use of force, while assuming the illegitimacy and malice of Hamas actions.

Gaza’s approach is retrospective, and I would have liked more linkage with emerging currents of thought.  Gaza arrives at a moment of intergenerational change in the debate between and about Palestinians.  A number of Gaza’s intractable issues may be transformed, rather than being fixed within the old parameters.  A few examples will illustrate:

  • Palestinians are debating the framework which best expresses their experience, in order to unite behind a single narrative and set of demands for restoration.
  • The laws of occupation describe a temporary state.  How will Palestinians respond to the inability of existing law to regulate such an enduring occupation regime?

As these and other issues are re-conceived – decolonized – I find myself more hopeful that policy and activism will transform this mess.   Of course the exercise of accountability is historical.  However, Gaza’s list of issues might also have served to point readers forward.

In his brief chapter on Operation Pillar of Defence, November 2012, Finkelstein notes other states’ ability to limit the extent and duration of IDF bombing.  I would also have liked him to push further into questions of donor / state responsibility.  Their acquiescence, and their neoliberal aid choices, are not challenged often enough among the things done to Gaza.

From Chronicle to Accountability

By the time I reached the section on Operation Protective Edge, July – August 2014, midway through the book; I had figured out how Finkelstein’s prosecutorial inquest could enable me to contextualize the war we had seen.

Alongside Gaza, I opened the Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) analysis of the IDF’s weapons policies and rules of engagement across the Gaza wars.  AOAV situates the facts of 2014 within longitudinal trends.  Together, the AOAV’s progression and Finkelstein’s detail more starkly illuminate Gazans’ increasing danger.

To those retrospective documents, readers must also bring the testimony of someone who lived it forward, in an overcrowded shelter, on the grounds of a hospital, or at home in the dark.  You have to let a voice explain that it was incessant, that the tonnage of high explosives made the ground tremble as the losses compound.  

The killing of four boys on the beach took everyone’s breath away, yes, but three more children were struck and killed while playing on their roof the following day.

One of my team called me then, whispering so that her own children would not hear her say, “I’m afraid.  They’re trying to break our spirit by killing the children.”

The violence around us was so order-of-magnitude disproportionate that the mind resists taking it in.  A voice demands that you not only take it in, but that you transpose it onto your life, your children, your neighbourhood.  

I remember rolling out from beneath my desk at dawn on July 30.  Reports logged more than one bomb per minute overnight, and my hands shook while I searched the news websites.  “What would you say,” I challenged each one, “if it happened in Tel Aviv?”

The bombardment and the shelter schools and Shuja’iyya and Khuza’a and Rafah and …   Where was the world?

And then, where was the accountability?

Finkelstein replies by moving from chronicle to argument.  In chapters called Betrayal I and II, he charges the human rights NGOs with “capitulation as pervasive as it was pathetic”.

He presents his disagreement with Amnesty International in three rounds, and he reproduces their response in full.  At the heart of it, he asks,  

Did Israel primarily set out to target Gaza’s civilian population or legitimate military objectives during Operation Protective Edge?  Whereas Amnesty’s factual evidence overwhelmingly affirmed the former, its legal analysis of this evidence consistently presumed the latter.  In other words, its legal analysis repeatedly contradicted its own evidentiary findings and effectively exonerated Israel of the most explosive charge levelled against it.  

He calls their conclusions “materially ludicrous and morally a travesty”.   Evidence that would be sufficient to condemn others, in Gaza could surmount the lenience that he calls SP4I — the special presumption for Israel’s good intentions.

UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) reporting viewed each Hamas rocket as inherently indiscriminate because the rockets could not be aimed.  

It perplexes, then, why it’s not also an inherently indiscriminate attack when Israel unloads, in a precision strike in the heart of a densely population civilian neighbourhood, a 2000-pound bomb that “generates an 8500-degree [Farenheit] fireball, gouges a 20-foot crater as it displaces 10,000 pounds of dirt and rock and generates enough wind to knock down walls blocks away and hurl metal fragments a mile or more.” Instead, the [UNHRC] report deemed Israel’s use of such a weapon in such circumstances “extremely questionable.”  Pray tell, what questions remained? 

He also details what he calls the UNHRC’s false equivalence of suffering.  An even-handed assessment of the harm can not do justice to the conflict’s real proportions:

Excerpted from Table 12 in Gaza: Inquest Into Its Martyrdom 

Why did NGOs and institutions steps back and refrain from more aggressively investigating possible breaches of law?  Finkelstein attributes it to a public that had grown accustomed to, and accepting of, the “periodic massacres” in Gaza, to nervous eyes on the punishment that had been meted out to other investigators, and to political heat.  

Gaza concludes with an appendix on the occupation’s “comprehensive repudiation of international law”.  Finkelstein calls on the UN General Assembly to demand its end, regardless of any ‘interminable negotiating process, the manifest purpose of which… [is] to make the occupation irreversible, and to consign to oblivion the people of Palestine.”  

Beyond ‘Gaza’

On his own terms, Finkelstein does what he set out to do.  Now, let me challenge a few of his terms which, I believe, make the task incomplete.

Where does all the outrage go – now what?  Why is carnage in Gaza allowed, why do Western states and people sit still for it?  The question extends beyond Finkelstein’s scope, yet this is where his book naturally leads me. I am not satisfied to be left where Gaza ends.  

Finkelstein has taken on a mountain of a task, to police some of the violations and reporting of the violence done to Gaza.  I agree that the narrative of what is done to Gaza amounts to a big lie.  However, I think that the military campaigns are enabled by the lie.  He has not challenged the lie at its source.

The dehumanization of Gaza is the vector upon which the violations travel: the ceaseless suggestions that Gazans are less than human and therefore less deserving of human rights; that they are tainted and therefore less deserving of civilian protection in war.  Being hidden makes them easier to demonize.  They can be harmed without strenuous objections, because they have already been rendered unlike us.

Policing the laws of war and the rights of civilians will be necessary and insufficient, as long as the demonization persists – not of Hamas, but of Gazans.  Gaza is indispensable to the demand for accountability.  However, we also need to restore Gazans as humans to whom the laws and rights apply.  That will level the frame for future scrutiny.  

We need to do that before the next war.

Therefore, I think that Gaza needs a companion volume, with three themes.  

First, the narrative needs to include the baseline as well as the headline violence. NGOs like B’Tselem and Gisha do an excellent job of factually presenting the blockade and separation regimes.  However, there is urgent need to expose the wretched euphemisms which normalize so much prosaic violence: the ‘relative calm’, the ‘incursions’, the apparently endless supply of ‘terrorist infrastructure’, and the ‘targeted killings’ that turn all of Gaza into a pinball deck.

Second, Finkelstein acknowledges that ‘being done to’ insufficiently describes any community, but he is wary of celebrating Gaza’s stunted agency.  Isn’t the reverse true?   Isn’t it insufficient to describe Gaza without it?  Gazans are entitled to their rights, precisely because they are whole people, choosing, stubborn, normal, cohesive as contact cement under pressure, and unconscionably confined from birth.  When we describe them more fully, we draw attention to the violations of their most basic human status.  The big lie about Gaza will not be defeated without restoring the full humanity of those being lied about.

Finally, a fuller narrative requires the willingness to hold Hamas and other Gazan fighters to account, which this book does not do.  Norman Finkelstein asserts that Hamas cannot be expected to avoid jeopardizing civilians by moving its fighters away from civilian objects, since they would be unreasonably exposed elsewhere.  Given a right of armed resistance to occupation, he questions how poorer, obstructed belligerents are intended to resist, if not with primitive armaments like Hamas’s  (un-aimed) rockets.  He gives the suicide bombings of the Second Intifada no real, critical attention at all.

This lets Hamas and the other Gazan militants off the hook too lightly.  Accountability calls everyone to proportionate account.  I think that the fighters’ accountability is of specific importance in Gaza.

Israelis protest that they cannot fight a war in Gaza, without firing into or near civilian buildings.  Finkelstein dismisses them: if it can’t be done legally, then stop doing it.  These are wars of choice, with alternatives.  Some things are just wrong, like dropping large, high-explosive bombs onto walled cities.  

Well, I also felt pretty indignant about the bastard who decided to fire from near our wall, late in the afternoons of the 2014 war.  I did not equate the ‘bang’ of his rocket launches with the BOOM of an Israeli reply that sent the plaster snowing down, but I heartily wanted them all to step away from the buildings.

Hamas was also found to have violated the neutrality of UN installations by storing weapons in several schools which were not being used as shelters.  I’ll repeat that: there were no weapons at the seven shelter schools which were struck by the IDF.  A range of other reports might also merit investigation.  

Gazan fighters did make choices.  Some were harmful.  

Their choices are a dimension of what is done to Gazans.  In fact, it seemed that one facet of being Gazan was the knowledge that one’s life and one’s children were valued cheaply, at times by both belligerents.  It hurt to see my own team internalize and accept their discounted status.   Their whole jeopardy deserves recording and accounting.  

It does not diminish Gaza’s case to challenge Hamas’s choices.  The obligations of belligerents are not reciprocal.  That is, they do not owe legal behaviour to each other, and the misbehaviour of one does not release the other from its legal obligations.  Every armed party, independently and with no opt-out, is bound by these laws.  Therefore, confronting the proportionate harms of Hamas does not excuse any violation by Israel.  

Calling for full accountability more fully illuminates the treacherous ground that Gazans inhabit.

Besides, Gazans don’t need to be perfect victims, in order to deserve protection.  It’s enough for them to be humans with the same rights and protections and potentials that we all recognize in each other.

Norman Finkelstein’s book is of enduring value to Gazans, and those who seek accountability for the violence perpetrated in Gaza.  I recommend it, alongside other voices to tell the story as fully as possible.

Author’s Note: I read a draft of Gaza: An Inquest Into Its Martyrdom, and commented on the sections covering the time I worked and lived in Gaza, 2011 – 2015.  I also worked as a member of UNRWA’s emergency management team, in Gaza, through most of Operation Protective Edge, the war of 2014.  The opinions here are mine alone, and do not represent my former employer.

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