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In his groundbreaking new book “Gaza: An Inquest into Its Martyrdom,” Norman Finkelstein argues that Israel, with U.S. backing, has caused a “humanitarian disaster” in Gaza, and that international human rights groups have failed to uphold justice for its besieged people

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AARON MATÉ: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. The Gaza Strip is among the world’s most densely populated areas and for more than 50 years of Israeli occupation, it’s also been one of the world’s most continuously tormented. For more than a decade, Israel has imposed a crippling blockade and launched multiple military attacks, including two ground invasions. In these years, thousands of Palestinians have died and tens of thousands have lost their homes. More than 70% of Gaza’s residents are refugees or the children of refugees, and more than half are children. Just last year the U.N. warned the Gaza situation is so dire that it may be unlivable in the next few years. 95% of Gaza’s water is unfit for human consumption.
Now one conventional way to explain all this is that Gaza’s residents are caught in a crossfire between an Israeli government that sometimes goes too far and a ruling Hamas faction that rejects Israel’s existence and terrorizes Israelis with rocket fire.
Well, a new book challenges this narrative and it argues that what has befallen Gaza is a human-made humanitarian disaster by Israel and Israel only. Along with the backing of the US and the complicity of many others. That complicity includes not just governments but also international human rights groups. The book is called ‘Gaza: An Inquest into Its Martyrdom,’ by Norman Finkelstein, author of many books on Israel-Palestine and one of the world’s leading scholars on the topic. Norman is here and in the studio for his first interview on the book. Welcome, Norman.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, thank you for having me.
AARON MATÉ: Thank you for coming down and joining us. Let’s start with the subtitle, why “An Inquest Into Its Martyrdom?” What do you mean by that?
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, it’s very popular nowadays to talk about the agency of victims and that you shouldn’t just cast them as victims, but you should also seem them as agents. And it is true that, within certain limitations, the victims of crimes, they have a certain amount, you could say, of agency. So, Nelson Mandela, he manages to preserve his dignity while in Robben Island. Frederick Douglass manages, at one point, one of the famous moments in his slave narrative, to actually engage in a fist fight with his slave owner. I think his name was Covey, C-O-V-E-Y.
But the big picture is, if you’re a prisoner or a slave, there are real limits to your agency. Your fate is being decided by somebody else. Gaza has been described, even by the conservative British Prime Minister, David Cameron, he said it’s an open-air prison. And when you’re a prisoner, you have very little agency. Gaza hasn’t been an active agent in its history for the past 50 years. It’s been on the receiving end, it’s been the recipient of Israeli policy and, in fact, most of the time what happens in Gaza, these what are called wars, they have very little to do with Gaza.
AARON MATÉ: Okay. Before proceeding, it might be useful just to give a little bit of background sketch. I told a little bit of it in the intro, but just to flesh out a little bit more. So, since 1967, Gaza has been occupied by Israel, along with the West Bank. There’s a lot of history but fast forwarding to 2005, Israel disengages from Gaza, pulls out its soldiers and its settlers there. And what now it will say is that it’s no longer the occupying power because it withdrew. But instead of getting peace from Gaza, all it’s gotten is rocket fire and attacks. So, respond to that very widespread narrative.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, there are three aspects: You used the word “disengage,” which I would say is more neutral than the typical term, which is withdraw. Israel didn’t withdraw from Gaza and, with all due respect to you, it didn’t disengage from Gaza. It redeployed. What it did was it removed its troops from the heart of Gaza, along with a relatively small number of settlers, about 6,000 settlers, and then it redeployed on the periphery of Gaza. So, the proper analogy, in my opinion, is imagine you have guards in the prison, and then the guards in the prison, they take the keys, throw it to the prisoners, the prisoners get out of the cell. But then the guards, they leave the prison, slam shut the prison gates and then they redeploy outside the prison. So, would you say that they have left the prison? No. The inmates are still confined or still incarcerated. It may not be in their cells.
So, to continue the analogy, yes, for the first time after Israel redeployed from Gaza, Palestinians are able to use the beach. It’s true, they had more space but the essence hasn’t changed. And it’s important to keep in mind that, without exception, every major human rights organization has characterized the situation in Gaza as an occupation after 2006, when Israel completed its redeployment, continued to characterize it as an occupation. And even the quite conservative leading Israeli international law authority, Yoram Dinstein, he said the occupation continues. The claim that the occupation doesn’t continue, it’s not even marginal, it doesn’t exist among the respected, reputable and responsible human rights organizations.
AARON MATÉ: Okay. So, even if you-
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: And then there was just a second question as to Hamas, as you called, the narrative says, “Continued to firing rockets at Israel.” It’s just not true. What happened was the day after Israel completed its withdrawal, Hamas fired a couple of like victory rockets, you know, celebrating what they called the end of the occupation, here I’m referring to Hamas. But after that, all the incidents, virtually all the incidents between Israel and Gaza were initiated by Israel, and it’s well documented.
AARON MATÉ: Okay. And you go through this in the book. Let’s get into that. You argue that the reason why Israel initiated these multiple flare-ups with Hamas is not actually because Hamas was threatening Israel, but because Hamas was basically being politically pragmatic, coupled with the fact that Israel wanted to showcase for both the Palestinians and its neighbors that it could do what it wanted. It had a strong “deterrence” capacity. So, explain that.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Yeah, that’s exactly right. You can’t make a generalization about all the Israeli assaults or massacres in Gaza, but you can make some general points acknowledging that there are some deviations in the pattern. So, let’s take a concrete case. Let’s take Operation Cast Lead, which began I think December 26, 2008, and continued to January 17. 22 days of death and destruction, as Amnesty International called it. Why did Israel attack Gaza?
In fact, it had nothing to do with Gaza in the first place. Israel had suffered a major setback in Lebanon in 2006. The Party of God, the Hezbollah and effectively, it’s called a tie, but effectively it was a Hezbollah victory. And it was a huge humiliation for Israel. But beyond the humiliation was the political side. It diminished Israel’s what it calls deterrence capacity. And deterrence capacity is just a fancy technical term for the Arab world’s fear of Israel. There was now a feeling in the Arab world, “Well wait, whoa. Israel can be defeated and defeated by a relatively small guerrilla army.” Parts of it are well-equipped, but in terms of numbers, it’s quite small. It was back then. I think it was about 6,000 fighters back then. And most of the fighters incidentally that Israel fought were not Hezbollah, they were militias. Hezbollah was saving its best fighters for an Israel invasion that never happened.
In any event, it was a huge humiliation to Israel and they were looking for somewhere where they could demonstrate their deterrence capacity, namely to show that it’s still the mighty Israel and look out, watch out. They weren’t going to tangle with Hezbollah again. They didn’t think they were ready for another engagement with Hezbollah, and so they chose Gaza to prove their deterrence capacity or to terrify the Arab world.
Now, I want to stress, I’m not speculating. One thing about the Israelis, until after Operation Cast Lead, the Israelis were very straightforward. They didn’t hide anything. They were actually quite brazen in how they talked about what they were doing. They kept saying Gaza is round two of the war in Lebanon. We’re going to attack Gaza in order to re-establish our deterrence capacity. This is nothing to do with Gaza. I mean, they say it. They’re very straightforward about it.
And the other concern they had, besides re-establishing their deterrence capacity, there’s a nice technical term by an Israeli political scientist, who’s since passed Professor Yaniv. I can’t remember his last name right now, it’ll come to me. In any event, he talked about the Palestinian peace offenses, that the Palestinians are behaving too peacefully, too reasonably, too diplomatically and then Israel fears that the international pressure will then be exerted on it to settle the conflict finally. So Israel-
AARON MATÉ: Just a point, that term comes from the war on Lebanon in ’82-
AARON MATÉ: -when the Palestinian Liberation Organization was based in Lebanon.
AARON MATÉ: And so, when the PLO was moderating its stance and moving toward a two-state solution in the late 70s, Israel began, as you documented, and also was documented in Chomsky’s book, Fateful Triangle-
AARON MATÉ: Israel tried to provoke a PLO attack for close to a year before finally launching the invasion of Lebanon. So, that’s the background to it, yeah.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Exactly, yeah. Now his name came back to me, Professor Avner Yaniv and his book was called Dilemmas of Security. And he said back in, as you said, 1982, Israel faced a peace offensive. The PLO, under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, was behaving too reasonably. He accepted the two-state settlement of the conflict and then Israel feared the international reaction to force them to settle.
AARON MATÉ: Right, okay. But now, even if you accept that about the PLO back then, people will look at Hamas and say, “Well, look, they have a charter that calls for destroying Israel.” Hamas has never formally endorsed the two-state solution in a sense that they still say they will not recognize Israel. They have accepted a state within the ’67 borders, but that’s not an actual recognition of Israel. So, how has Hamas launched its own version of a “peace offensive”?
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, you can make the argument that Hamas hasn’t been unequivocal in its stance towards resolution of the conflict. And then you can make the complementing argument that it’s been equivocal. But in international politics, it seems to me equivocal is enough to negotiate. If they’re equivocating, then they need to go to the negotiating table and see, well, what are they going to offer. And if they offer nothing, then of course you can make the argument that the equivocation was a fraud, that in fact, they never had any intention. But you have to go to the negotiating table first. Israel doesn’t want to negotiate, not because it thinks they don’t want a two-state settlement, they don’t want to go to the negotiating table because they fear it does want it. If you accept a compromise, but you’re not being offered anything, then there are others who are going to say you’re a traitor to the movement. So, how do you publicly accept a compromise before the other side is making an offer?
So, you know, it’s politically, if you ask me, of course they should just say we want two states, but I understand that politically it’s almost untenable because they know Israel will say no and then there will be other factions who will say you betrayed the cause because you made a compromise before the other side was willing itself to compromise. So, politically, I think it’s a difficult situation, though personally I wish they would drop the equivocation because it makes it much easier for us to argue, meaning people in the west.
AARON MATÉ: Sure. And by the way, it doesn’t help that Israel has never said we will recognize a Palestinian state in all the occupied territories.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: They never will.
AARON MATÉ: Yeah, so-
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, that’s the whole point and that’s why they’re accused. If they would come out for a compromise, then they’ll be accused of being traitors. I should add, there is the unfortunate legacy, namely the PLO and then the Palestinian Authority, they did accept two states and they got nothing for it. So, then Hamas thinks why should we do the same thing and get nothing for it?
AARON MATÉ: They accepted two states and then they got roped in taking part in further undermining whatever-
AARON MATÉ: -prospects are, but that’s another story, but-
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: No, it’s actually the same story, that’s a very important part of the story.
AARON MATÉ: Okay. What about Operation Protective Edge, of the summer of 2014? Because there’s a similar dynamic there, where Hamas enters even more into the political arena.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Yes, there was a Unity Government formed between the two major factions, one essentially the Palestinian Authority based in the West Bank and the Hamas based in Gaza. They formed the Unity Government at the end of April 2014 and this enraged Prime Minister Netanyahu. It was not the formation of the government, but the fact that the Europeans and the US refused to break off relations with them, meaning the Palestinian Authority, break off relations with the Unity Government.
So, Netanyahu was furious, and this was at the time of the Iran agreement also, and he didn’t want that agreement. The US and what was called Five Plus One, the five security council members in Germany, were negotiating with Iran, so they’re negotiating with Iran, negotiating with Hamas now, the Unity Government. So, Netanyahu’s in a rage.
And then some gifts fell into this lap. The first gift was some rogue Hamas faction kidnapped three Israelis in the occupied territories, kids-
AARON MATÉ: It was really teens.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Yeah, teens. I want to be clear about that, I don’t want to be accused later of whitewashing. Three Israeli teenagers and almost immediately killed them. Netanyahu was aware that they were almost immediately killed, but then he found it was a perfect pretext to provoke Hamas and then get it characterized again as a terrorist organization. So, he launched an operation called Operation Brother’s Keeper, killed Palestinians, rampaged businesses-
AARON MATÉ: And that’s billed as an attempt to find these three boys-
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Yeah, it was billed as an-
AARON MATÉ: Even though all reports indicate that he actually knew they were dead.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Exactly. It was billed as an attempt to find the kids, but he knew that they were dead, but here was a wonderful pretext, and that then set off a chain reaction not worth going into details, but it gradually degenerates and then begins Operation Protective Edge.
It’s interesting what happens next. It begins with the air assault and discriminate rocket attacks, artillery, on the civilian population of Gaza. But then there’s the question whether Netanyahu’s gonna launch the ground invasion. Ground invasion is always a problem for Israel because there’s no way to stop these “rocket attacks” except on the ground. So, you have to send in troops. But if you send in troops, you have two problems. Problem number one is, if you destroy everything in sight, indiscriminately just flatten the place, there are gonna be a lot of civilian deaths and that’s not gonna look, then there’s gonna be a lot of diplomatic pressure. But if you go in and you, so to speak, obey the rules of war, you’re gonna suffer a lot of military casualties and then there’s gonna be a lot of domestic pressure. So, if you obey the rules of law, you come under a domestic assault. If you go in like Mongol hordes, Israeli style, then you’re gonna have a lot of international support. So, Netanyahu doesn’t know quite what to do.
And then another gift drops in his lap, another apple drops in his lap, a gift. One thing about Israelis, which I don’t everybody understands, everybody grasps, is they’re extremely attuned to the US news cycle. And so, just as I mentioned earlier, the Obama election, they chose November 4th. On July 17th was the downing of the Malaysian airliner over the Ukraine.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Now, some people will think, what does the Ukraine have to do with Gaza? But in fact, it had everything to do with Gaza because Netanyahu now knew all the cameras would be riveted on the Ukrainian airliner that was-
AARON MATÉ: And the reason is because-
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: I mean, the Malaysian airliner that was-
AARON MATÉ: And the reason for that is because it was widely believed that the people who shot down the airliner were Russian-backed rebels, which means we could blame this on Russia and it could become a big thing as it was that summer. It was a huge issue.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Right. And exactly at that moment, the same night, the night of the same day, the airliner was downed the afternoon, and that night he launches the ground invasion. And the ground invasion was really quite horrible. The consequences of Operation Protective Edge, even though they’re largely forgotten now, Operation Cast Lead stands out much more. If you make the simple comparisons, in Operation Cast Lead 350 children were killed, Operation Protective Edge about 550 children were killed. Operation Cast Lead, 6300 homes were flat and pulverized, Operation Protective Edge it was 18,000. So, everything that we remember from Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and 9, it was sometimes in the order of 100, 200% worse during Protective Edge. Protective Edge was a genuine nightmare, what happened.
AARON MATÉ: You call it a massacre.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Oh, it’s much worse actually than a massacre, I think, because I remember, just to tell you my own skepticism. When Operation Protective Edge began, there was one of the spokespersons from one of the human rights organizations in Gaza, I can’t remember now his name. I think it was on Democracy Now!, he was interviewed and he said what’s happening now makes Operation Cast Lead like a party. I thought no, that can’t really be, but, in fact, it was. It was very striking to me that the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, I think he was the head of the ICRC. He toured Gaza after Protective Edge and he’s accustomed to war zones. He said he’d never seen the level of destruction inflicted on a place as what was inflicted on Gaza during those 51 days. And then you take the comparison because comparisons are meaningful. Israel, how many children were killed? One.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Yes. It was 550 to 1.
AARON MATÉ: Palestinian children to 1.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Children, one. And that one, just by coincidence, was killed in the last hour of the 51 days. Homes destroyed, Gaza 18,000, Israel one.
AARON MATÉ: My guest is Norman Finkelstein, the book is ‘Gaza: An Inquest Into Its Martyrdom.’ Join us in Part 2.

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Norman G. Finkelstein received his doctorate in 1988 from the Department of Politics at Princeton University.

He currently teaches at Sakarya University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies in Turkey.

Finkelstein is the author of ten books that have been translated into 50 foreign editions.