In part three of our interview on his new book “Gaza: An Inquest into Its Martyrdom,” Norman Finkelstein discusses the legality, and utility, of Hamas’ armed resistance to Israel’s occupation
AARON MATÉ: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. Continuing our conversation with Norman Finkelstein, author of the new book, Gaza: An Inquest Into Its Martyrdom. Let’s get into the, this is a tough issue for many people, but you take on, which is the morality of Hamas and all the other Palestinian factions of armed struggle. You write in the book that under international law, Hamas has every right, Hamas and all Palestinian factions, because by the way, it’s not just Hamas that uses force inside Gaza. There’s several factions there. You write that under international law they have every right to armed resistance. Explain that.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, I was pretty careful in my choice of words because I went through the scholarly literature on the subject and the most authoritative opinions by say, James Crawford at Oxford is that there’s no law barring, prohibiting peoples under occupation and struggling for self determination, there’s no law barring them from using armed force to gain their self determination or to end an occupation. On the other hand, international law is very clear and unequivocal that an occupying power, or a power denying a people the right to self determination does not have the right to use armed force.
Now, that raises two, or the next level of analysis is two complications. Complication number one on the side of Hamas is even if they have the right to use armed force, or there’s no law prohibiting them, do they have the right to use weapons which are inherently indiscriminate and therefore cannot target military sites or military personnel but will end up causing significant civilian death? So, there’s a question, that’s a secondary level of analysis. They have the right but do they have the right to use indiscriminate weapons? On the Israeli side, they don’t have the right to preserve an occupation. They don’t have the right to deny a people the right to self determination but do they have the right to use their weapons in self defense? That’s their claim, okay?
If you’ll allow me, let’s look at each of those questions. Question number one: Hamas’ use of indiscriminate weapons. First of all, as a factual matter, let’s set aside the quality of the weapons. The weapons are basically symbolic. They’re the equivalent of fireworks. As Khaled Mashal put it at one point, the head of Hamas at that moment, he no longer is, he says they’re “our cry to the world.” It’s a kind of, if I can use my language, it’s a kind of SOS. They’re sending these flares into the air, “SOS. We’re dying.” That’s not an exaggeration.
When Mary Robinson from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, when she went to Gaza in 2008, she said “a whole civilization is being destroyed. I am not exaggerating. A whole civilization is being destroyed.” So, if you send up flares saying, “SOS. We’re dying,” which have next to zero impact on civilians, next to zero. I think whether or not they’re discriminate or indiscriminate, it’s beside the point. They’re doing no damage. They are almost entirely symbolic.
AARON MATÉ: Okay, but here’s my problem with that. To say that they’re entirely symbolic and …
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Almost entirely.
AARON MATÉ: Almost entirely symbolic, that that’s their SOS, presumes that that’s their only method of letting out an SOS. And firing rockets, even if they’re futile, is not the only way. You’ve pointed this out, that they could engage, if they wanted, they could organize a mass nonviolent campaign. But you write in the book this. You say, “The ultimate question is do Palestinians have the right to symbolically resist slow death, punctuated by periodic massacres, or is it incumbent upon them to lie down and die?” But why are those the only two options? Why is an option, instead of exercising their symbolic right to resist, why is not, instead of directing energies towards that, towards violence, in the case of Hamas, directing it towards organizing mass nonviolence? How do you respond to that?
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: First of all, I’m not a moral coward. As I said at the beginning of the book, I’ve never taken foundation money, not that it was ever offered me. But I don’t take the foundation money, and that’s a kind of, or think tank money, or even university money. It’s a kind of a liberatory experience. If he who pays the piper calls the tune, nobody’s paying this piper. So, I get to call my own tune.
And so, I just want to look at the facts. Nobody has the right to tell Palestinians that they should practice nonviolence. I think it’s a losing strategy, the strategy of armed resistance. And I’ve said it many times to them. Occasionally, I do seminars over Skype with people in Gaza. And I’m very forthright about that. I said, “it’s just a mythology. There’s no armed resistance. It’s just something Israel exploits each time it launches one of its massacres.”
But there’s a difference between telling them, “I don’t think this strategy’s gonna work,” and telling them they don’t have the right. The law is clear.
AARON MATÉ: I got that. I’m not saying, I got that.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: They have the right. I’m not gonna tell them they have to practice nonviolence. Gandhi did not do that. During the first Arab rebellion in Palestine in 1936 to 38, he had a very heated exchange, you might say an unfriendly exchange, with Martin Buber, the so-called pacifist Zionist philosopher. He said to Buber, I think it was initially it began with an interview that Gandhi gave. He said, “I wish the Palestinians choose nonviolence.” But then he went on to say, “According to the accepted canons,” C-A-N-O-N-S, “according to the accepted canons of right and wrong,” he didn’t say Palestinians, at that point Arabs, have the right to use armed force to resist their aggressors, their occupation.
So, I am dealing here in the book with the law. And under the law, they have no obligation to lie down and die. They have no obligation to do that under the law. They have the right to resist, and they have the right to use force in their resistance. Now you know, Gandhi advocated for the Jews during World War II, during the height of the Nazi Holocaust. He said they should have gone nonviolently. He says that. I actually, I have mixed feelings about what he says there, but now is not the time to get into that. He’s been very violently attacked for what he said about the Jews should have gone quietly to their death.
The point I’m making is, does anybody tell the people in Warsaw not to have engaged in an uprising?
AARON MATÉ: Well, the difference there, though…
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Does anybody tell them…
AARON MATÉ: The difference is, it wouldn’t have mattered what the Jews in World War II did anyway. They would’ve been forced into the ovens no matter what.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Yeah, but nobody would, nobody denies them the right.
AARON MATÉ: Of course not. Listen, that’s not the point.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN It is the point to me.
AARON MATÉ: The point of contention here is that Hamas’ two choices are not lie down and die, or…
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: It’s politically inexpedient what they’re doing. I have no doubt about that.
AARON MATÉ: Yeah, and they’re solely responsible for the consequences of, of their decisions.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: No, they’re not responsible.
AARON MATÉ: Yes they are.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: They are politically responsible. They are not legally responsible and they’re not morally responsible. They have the right. They have that right. And they reserve, and in my, not my opinion, the law is they have the right. Now, there is the question, as I said, the weapons are indiscriminate. That’s technically, it’s illegal under international law. In my opinion, as I said, their effectiveness is almost entirely symbolic.
Number two. There’s a second aspect. And here, it’s the only place in the book where I do disagree with international law. Well, one place. There’s another place where I have a partial reservation. And the problem is this, and I’m sure you’ll understand it’s perfectly obvious. What does it mean to say a weapon is indiscriminate? What does that mean? A weapon can’t be objectively indiscriminate. It can only be relatively indiscriminate. As compared to another weapon, this weapon is indiscriminate. But in and of itself, a weapon can’t be indiscriminate because a weapon in 1940 which would have been described as discriminate, in 2010, it’s described as indiscriminate. Why? Because technology has improved and what seemed to be discriminate 50 years ago now seems indiscriminate because we have what’s called precision weapons.
AARON MATÉ: Your point here is that if Hamas wasn’t occupied, they would be in a position to access precision weapons. Unfortunately, because of their position…
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Or if they weren’t poor. It discriminates against poor. It discriminates, these laws discriminate against poorly endowed fighters, and richly endowed fighters get to conduct wars. So, then what does that leave us? It leaves us in a kind of ridiculous argument or a ridiculous conclusion. It really is a case of a reductio ad absurdum.
So, you have the human rights organizations, for example the UN Human Rights Council. What do they say to Hamas? Well they say, “Hamas, you can’t fight in densely populated areas.” Which is not the law, incidentally, but let’s leave that aside. “So, you should go to non-densely populated areas,” basically vacant areas of Gaza. There are a couple. A few vacant areas. Now, go to the vacant areas, but you can’t use any of your weapons because your mortars are indiscriminate, and your so-called rockets are indiscriminate. So, you can’t use any of your weapons. Now you have a problem. As John Dugard, the leading authority on international law in Israel/Palestine conflict, as…
AARON MATÉ: Who is from South Africa.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Yeah, South Africa. He’s called the father of human rights in South Africa, an extremely principled, a very special human being. But that’s another story. John Dugard says, “We have an unusual situation here. We have an occupation that externally maintained,” Israel occupies by virtue of the fact that it controls the airspace, the sea space, the borders. But it’s all external, it’s by remote control.
“You have to go to vacant spaces,” says UN Human Rights Council, “You can’t use those rockets. You can’t use the mortars because they’re indiscriminate weapons,” and we can only use precision weapons. And then, how do you fight an external occupation? You can’t do it. So, in effect, you’re saying Palestinians don’t have any right to armed self-defense. Then just be honest about it. Just say, you don’t have that right because you’re not rich enough to afford precision weapons. You don’t have that right.
The only thing that wasn’t recommended to them, the Palestinians, it’s not just Hamas, it’s the whole population. The only thing that’s not recommended to them is they should line up like ducks to be shot down by Israeli planes and rockets. That to me is a reductio ad absurdum.
AARON MATÉ: I get it. You’re pointing to the hypocrisy and the, yeah. It’s totally hypocritical and it’s a flagrant double standard. There’s no argument there. The point of contention here is again, even though Hamas is representing an occupied people, an occupied people have every legal right to defend themselves.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Armed force to defend themselves.
AARON MATÉ: To use armed force. My concern is conflating legal rights with morality, and morality includes being responsible for consequences of your actions. So, if you know, even if you have every right to launch rockets or to authorize the launching of rockets, or to allow it to happen. If you know it’s gonna provoke a response, even though we’re sitting here in the West, we don’t live under occupation. Do we have the right to criticize Hamas?
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: But Aaron, you’re really nixing cause and effect. You say it’s gonna provoke a response. They were provoked into responding. It’s Israel that breaks the ceasefires. They were provoked into responding and then what are they supposed to do?
AARON MATÉ: They don’t have to fire rockets. They don’t.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: They don’t have to and you know what? I wish they didn’t. I do. Because I do believe it plays into Israel’s hands. However, I will never criticize them for it. And you know why? And I’m gonna tell you why. Because the people support it. And I’m not gonna tell those people, if the people were to condemn Hamas, and by now there does seem to be a strong sentiment, they want to avoid at any cost another Israeli attack. So, if Hamas were to attack now, in violation of the will of the people of Gaza, I would oppose it. I would oppose it.
AARON MATÉ: You’re confident that a majority of Gazans support Hamas and the other faction’s decision…
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: When Israel is attacking them, yes they do. There’s no question about that. Exactly as what happened in Lebanon when Israel attacked in 2006. Even though Lebanon is a very divided country. But when the attack occurred, all the polls showed 70, 80% of the people of Lebanon supported their country when it was coming under a foreign invasion by these marauders, these vandals, this Mongol army. Of course they supported them and it was the same thing in Gaza. At the end, I’m gonna be faithful to the facts, ’cause I don’t fear the facts. My credo in life is, I never quarrel with facts. By the end, yes, the people were broken. Their spirits were broken, and now they dread the prospect of another attack. And Hamas is very careful. Hamas is effectively now playing the role of the Palestinian Authority. It’s policing Gaza to make sure there are no attacks from inside Gaza, because they know another attack, first of all, it’s a disaster for them, but the people don’t want it.
But so long as the people want it, I support it 100%. They have the right to resist that Mongol army.
AARON MATÉ: No challenging the right, but again, the question is…
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: It’s not politically expedient. It’s not politically prudent. I have no doubt about that. But I will never tell a person in Gaza, you don’t have the right.
AARON MATÉ: Fair enough.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: I won’t ever tell them that.
AARON MATÉ: If the people of Gaza…
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: When I hear you tell Jews they don’t have the right to use, maybe for all I know, in the Warsaw ghetto they were using indiscriminate weapons. Who the hell knows and who the hell cares?
AARON MATÉ: They would have every right too. The question is only, again, I have to repeat myself. If Palestinians had been given a choice back in 2014, do you want us to fire rockets back, or should we try to organize under these horrible conditions some sort of mass civil resistance?
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: I wish they did. It wasn’t at that point in time an option.
AARON MATÉ: Okay.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: It’s not so easy. It’s not so easy to do those things.
AARON MATÉ: Is it even a moral decision? Exactly.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: And the people don’t believe in it. I talk to them all the time about it. Every time, and they don’t wanna hear it from me. Whenever I talk about international law, even though we’re separated by thousands of miles, I could see the eyes rolling. This guy’s talking to me about international law? We’ve had a blockade here for twelve years. Nothing gets in, nothing goes out. He’s talking to me about international law? How about if he had to give his children water that’s poisoned? As Sara Roy wrote, “The children of Gaza are being poisoned every day.” 95% of the drinking water in Gaza is unfit for human consumption. Is that international law? He’s lecturing me about international law? No, I’m not gonna do that. I’m not going there. I’m gonna be lecturing them about the law? I try. I do. But I can understand, it’s not just skepticism. It’s disgust. It’s disgust.
AARON MATÉ: So, as Westerners, it’s not our place to even ask the question that I raise, whether or not…
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: It’s not our place to tell them.
AARON MATÉ: Right, not our place to tell them. But do we even have the right? Is it even moral to ask the question, given the fact that we’re not living under occupation?
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: I tell them all the time. I say it all the time. I don’t give orders, but I say, “It’s not working. It’s a myth.” I’m with Amilcar Cabral, who was the head of the liberation movement in the tiny little place which nobody ever heard of anymore called Guinea-Bissau. And he once gave a speech, and the speech came to be titled “Tell No Lies, Claim No Easy Victories.” And I’m not gonna tell lies. There are no rockets. Hamas churns out all of these videos of people with rockets. Everybody believes it. It’s all theater.
AARON MATÉ: We’ll leave it there. Join us in the next part. The book is “Gaza: An Inquest Into Its Martyrdom.” The author is Norman Finkelstein.