After Israel Decimated Gaza, Human Rights Defenders Failed It (4/4)
In his new book “Gaza: An Inquest into Its Martyrdom,” Norman Finkelstein argues that Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the UN Human Rights Council, and other defenders of international law have succumbed to Israel’s pressure and whitewashed its crimes in the Gaza Strip
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News, I’m Aaron Maté. Our guest is Norman Finkelstein, author of the new book ‘Gaza: An Inquest Into Its Martyrdom.’ Norman, a large component of your book is how human rights organizations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and also the UN Human Rights Council and-
N. FINKELSTEIN: International Committee of the Red Cross …
AARON MATÉ: But how various-
N. FINKELSTEIN: British Medical Journal, The Lancet …
AARON MATÉ: Especially some UN commissions of inquiry set up to look into war crimes in the occupied territories have betrayed the people of Gaza. That would surprise many people who would think of human rights groups like Amnesty and see them condemn Israeli actions many times, accuse Israel of war crimes. Explain your criticism of the international human rights community here, maybe starting with the Goldstone Report, which was the commission that was established after the 2008-2009 Israeli attack on Gaza, [Operation] Cast Lead.
N. FINKELSTEIN: Okay. First of all just as context I think the most important part of the book is the last quarter, which deals with the human rights organizations and their performance after Operation Protective Edge. Prof. Chomsky who even at the ripe age of 89, he did read the whole book. I know it because it took him some time. He started I think on a Sunday and he finished it on a Friday. It took him time to get through it, which for me was a gratifying sign. It showed me that he was reading it slowly, carefully. He said the last part on the human rights organizations, I hope you’ll forgive me for quoting a private email and he is very proper about those things, you’re not supposed to, but I think he will forgive me. He said the last part was spectacular, the analysis of what the human rights organizations did. I was not happy to write that part, I was so angry.
I was so pained by what happened because anybody who knows my work over the last 35 years will note I’ve always relied on those human rights organizations. I’m a person of the left and we’re supposed to be skeptical of human rights, bourgeois human rights organizations, the liberals. I kind of rejected that. I thought their work was good, I thought it was honest. It had its limits but it was good.
When Operation Cast Lead happened in 2008-9, the human rights community really rose to the occasion. One person estimated — his name just slips my mind. It’ll come back to me in a moment –but there were about 300 human rights reports on Operation Cast Lead. Desmond Travers. He was in the Goldstone, or commission. They were quite good, Human Rights Watch alone produced seven really solid reports. Amnesty produced one excellent report, the 22 Days of Death and Destruction. Then of course the climax was the Goldstone Report commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council. Goldstone, the Goldstone Report was devastating in its detail and in its conclusions which found that Israel’s goal was to [crosstalk 00:03:56]-
AARON MATÉ: Terrorize, humiliate.
N. FINKELSTEIN: Punish, humiliate and terrorize-
AARON MATÉ: The people of Gaza.
N. FINKELSTEIN: People of Gaza. Then as we all know it was a very painful day, almost as if the gods were mocking us on an April 1st, April Fool’s Day. Goldstone dropped a bombshell in the Washington Post and he recanted the report.
AARON MATÉ: He carefully recanted. Obliquely.
N. FINKELSTEIN: It was opaque. It was an opaque recantation but recantation nonetheless. He did it without consulting his three other colleagues on the commission.
AARON MATÉ: Who stood by the findings.
N. FINKELSTEIN: Who stood by the original findings. I devoted quite a lot of space to the Goldstone Report itself but also to his recantation and it’s quite clear if you go through it the recantation was not based on any evidence. The only reasonable conclusion is that either he or a member of his family was somehow blackmailed into recanting. Readers can be the judge for themselves.
AARON MATÉ: Part of what made his conclusion so powerful is that he was a committed Zionist Jew, great friend of Israel so his “credentials” were impeccable. You couldn’t accuse him of being a left winger or having a pro-Palestine bias. Which then you’re saying also that helps explain how he was ultimately blackmailed, you say, or pressured, at minimum, into recanting. What was the impact of that report?
N. FINKELSTEIN: Well the impact actually was tremendous. The impact was the human rights’ organizations got scared. “Why did he recant?” people were saying. Well it couldn’t be what he said because he claimed there was new information which Gold said denied what was in his original report. There was no new information, go through it. He didn’t come up with any new information. So people think, “Well, you have to be careful of Israel.” As the Mossad has all sorts of supporters, and so what happened was-
AARON MATÉ: In the case of Goldstone, he faced personal backlash. His synagogue in South Africa tried to ban him from his own grandson’s bar mitzvah. So even in his social circle there was extensive pressure after the initial [crosstalk 00:06:34].
N. FINKELSTEIN: His daughter is Israeli. As I said, the circumstances of the recantation are murky. My conclusion, which I don’t make explicit in the book, but I’m just telling you now, is he was probably somehow blackmailed into recanting. The consequences were very noticeable. They were noticeable because of what happened after Operation Protective Edge, an ex-major Israeli operation in 2014. As you will perhaps know this in the proportions of the book the first hundred or so, maybe about 100 pages are devoted to Operation Cast Lead because there was such a huge amount of material to work with. Whereas for Operation Protective Edge in 2014 it’s just one chapter. I have to admit it’s not a lot of sources. There were only about … Literally there were only about 10 human rights reports. Human Rights Watch was missing in action. They wrote one unmemorable, little report, 15 pages, on the attacks on schools. Amnesty, it was in action. It did write four and then later a fifth report, but the reports were complete apologists for Israel. And then the Human Rights Council. Originally there was a pretty reputable-
AARON MATÉ: Just Amnesty quickly. Your main contention with them is that yes, they do document Israeli attacks on Gaza’s civilians, but then they take pains to say they don’t know whether or not Israel’s military reasoning was … It may have been justified or not. The farthest that they go in your rendering is this word ‘disproportionate.’
N. FINKELSTEIN: To put it simply — because I know we’re rushed for time — they make the worst case for Hamas and the best case for Israel. Whenever Israel has no case to make for itself — because yeah, if you remember, Israel barred human rights organizations entering Gaza — whenever Israel had no case to make for itself, Amnesty took it upon itself to make the case for Israel, which makes no sense at all.
AARON MATÉ: [Crosstalk 00:09:01]. You point out that they often even defer to Israeli press releases and briefs as the-
N. FINKELSTEIN: As the evidence. Do we consider Hamas press releases as evidence? So why would we attach any significance to any importance, any evidentiary value to an Israeli press release. But the worst part of it is they are fabricating pretext for Israel when Israel itself doesn’t make a case. If Israel doesn’t make a case and Israel prevents human rights organizations from visiting the crime scene, then it seems to me the reasonable conclusion is you’re guilty as charged. But what Israel, what the human rights organizations — in particular Amnesty — did was it said, “Well since Israel hasn’t told us anything we just have to wait and see. We have to suspend judgment. But if you suspend judgment then you simply are incentivizing Israel not to admit human rights organizations. Because Israel would have two choices, if it admits these organizations then they’re convicted of committing a crime. If it doesn’t admit them then it gets an agnostic verdict, we don’t know what happened. If I were a state I would choose not to admit them and get the agnostic version rather than get the conviction. So what organizations ended up doing was they incentivized Israel not to admit human rights organizations, because instead of getting convicted of a crime they got an agnostic version. We’ll have to wait to see what an investigation shows.
AARON MATÉ: Speaking of which, speaking of incentivizing, you also argue that because they refuse to hold Israel to account — unlike what they did in previous operations which you say the criticism of Israel in previous operations did ultimately impact its operations and did get it to halt to show some relative restraint. Because there was no such investigative zeal in this case, and in fact some exculpatory actions on the part of the human rights groups, that actually incentivizes Israel to carry out further atrocities in the future.
N. FINKELSTEIN: Yeah because there’s no … Look, human rights organizations, they did act as something of a deterrent. Let me just conclude: the biggest deterrent of Israel ironically turned out not to be Amnesty, which failed them, not Human Rights Watch which failed them, not the International Committee of the Red Cross under Jacques de Maio, ICRC’s representative who was a disgrace. Not Moreno Ocampo from the ICC who was a criminal prosecutor.
AARON MATÉ: He’s a former prosecutor, former international prosecutor for the [crosstalk 00:12:28].
N. FINKELSTEIN: He was their chief prosecutor for the International Committee of the Red Cross. For the International Criminal Court, excuse me. Not the Lancet, the British medical journal editor of which Peter Horton was another-
AARON MATÉ: He recanted as well, he published a letter-
N. FINKELSTEIN: Recanted. The really impressive ones were strangely enough an Israeli organization, it was Breaking the Silence. Breaking the Silence, its testimonies were totally devastating. I mean they were-
AARON MATÉ: This is an Israeli group who gathers the testimonies of soldiers who served in Gaza.
N. FINKELSTEIN: Yeah. And the interesting thing is, the soldiers’ testimony, these are not leftists. They’re not contrite. They’re not apologetic. They’re just, “Well, this is what happened.” And they’re very matter-of-fact that what Israel did in Gaza, the word that keeps recurring over and over and over again, was insane. Insanity, insane. Crazy, nuts, lunatic. That’s the words they keep using. But Israel had a real problem with Breaking the Silence because they were Israeli and they were the soldiers, they were there. And then Israel unleashed, ’til this day, ’til right now as we speak, this brutal campaign to crush Breaking the Silence. Because Breaking the Silence is the last line of defense by human rights organizations. Amnesty capitulated, HRW capitulated, all the NGOs capitulated, Human Rights Council capitulated.
So the last chink in the armor, the last barrier, excuse me. The last barrier for Israel is the Breaking the Silence. It was very interesting because all the human rights organizations, they ignored Breaking the Silence. Isn’t that funny? This is an Israeli organization, it’s Israeli soldiers, they have no motive whatsoever to lie. They served there but when you read the Human Rights Organization reports, the few that came out, not entirely but they’re almost entirely ignored. Why? It’s for the reason you mentioned before we came on the air. They wanted to come out with an equivocal conclusion. They’ll say, “Yes, some of it was disproportionate, some of it was indiscriminate but they weren’t targeting civilians.” Because that’s, in a court of public opinion, it’s the worst charge. Most people, they don’t get very riled up by disproportionate attacks or even indiscriminate attacks.
But targeting civilians — in a court of moral public opinion, not the law — it crosses a threshold. When you read the Breaking the Silence one report after another report … Excuse me, one testimony after another testimony after another testimony after another testimony, they keep saying, “Our orders were shoot to kill anything that moves and even if it doesn’t move. Shoot to kill anything that moves and even if it doesn’t move.”
AARON MATÉ: ‘Anything that moves,’ if I recall right, is a phrase that they repeated many, many, many times.
N. FINKELSTEIN: Yeah, over and over again. It’s hard to have an equivocal conclusion when you have operational orders like that, or rules of engagement like that, shoot to kill anything that moves. What they did, people of Gaza as you mentioned in your introduction, 70% of them are refugees. And children of refugees. They lost their homeland, the last thing they have now is in the wreckage of their lives. The last thing they have is their home. They lost their homeland but now they have their last possession is their home. When you read the descriptions of what Israel did, these homes, these 18,000 homes, they weren’t destroyed in disproportionate attacks or indiscriminate attacks. Israel went into neighborhoods, roped off the neighborhoods, brought in the D9 bulldozers and just flattened whole areas to the horizon. Just flattened entire areas. This was not collateral damage in a war.
This was the systematic destruction and pulverization of a people and of their last possession. That’s what you see. I’ll tell you, in the longest chart I have in the book it goes for three and a half pages is describing what happened to their homes. You’ll laugh when I tell you this. I had to go around and ask five or six friends to choose the best passages because it began as ten pages. Ten pages of descriptions of how they systematically, methodically flattened these homes. That’s what Breaking the Silence is all about. Now the worst of it is Amnesty puts out a report called Families Under The Rubble in which it pretends that each time Israel targeted a home it’s because there was a Hamas militant there. That was just such a fantastical, flagrant, despicable and disgusting lie.
AARON MATÉ: Don’t they just posit the question of whether or not there was a Hamas militant there? They don’t affirm every single time there’s a-
N. FINKELSTEIN: How would they know? They go around, ask a neighbor. Do you think there was a Hamas militant, yeah maybe there was a Hamas militant there. Even if there was this is not a question that Israel knew a Hamas militant was there. Are you telling me there were Hamas militants in 18,000 homes? And is that what the Breaking the Silence reports showed? There were no militants anywhere. No, it was disgusting but I can’t completely blame them. I have to be honest and I’m careful about it, because I know they’re in a difficult position. In the past Amnesty used to back HRW, HRW used to back Amnesty.
AARON MATÉ: In terms that they would both put out reports, corroborating each other.
N. FINKELSTEIN: On all the controversial issues. I’ll watch your back, you’ll watch mine. In this particular case HRW was missing in action and I know Amnesty was scared. It was in the firing line. But what it did was unacceptable. It would have been better if they just shut up. I want to just end on one point.
AARON MATÉ: Let me ask you Norman, let me ask you two questions as we wrap. Why do you think Amnesty and HRW capitulated as they did? And even though they did and even though their rendering of the Israeli attacks you think did immense damage, you still end the book with some hope. Why do you still hold out some hope for the people of Gaza, even despite not just the suffering they endured but the fact that they were abandoned by people who were once their defenders?
N. FINKELSTEIN: Why the human rights organizations did it I think first and foremost, they were scared after what happened with Goldstone that the Israelis would dig up dirt. It’s a real problem. I know that sounds not a particularly elevated explanation but we’re dealing with real human beings. Goldstone was a star and then Goldstone was destroyed. They did it to several others. I’d go through the record of a guy named Christian Tomuschat. The did it to a guy named Schabas. They were taking them down. Everybody’s got skeletons in their closet and then you begin to wonder and especially in our age where so much information is on the web and Israelis are pretty good on the computer, you begin to worry. I think that’s not elevated, it’s not … It doesn’t have grandeur, it’s ugly, it’s slimy. But Israelis are good at that. I think that’s the main reason.
Second reason is because the Palestinian leadership itself killed the Goldstone report and so there was a feeling among human rights organizations if nothing is going to come of our reports because ultimately they’re supposed to produce results. But if the Palestinian authority itself is killing any action, which is what it did in the UN, the Palestinian-
AARON MATÉ: At the behest of the Obama administration and Israel who they were heavily [crosstalk 00:22:00].
N. FINKELSTEIN: Hillary Clinton boasted that she killed the Goldstone Report and they worked together. But you have to remember the Palestinian authority were very happy to see Gaza attacked in 2008, nine.
AARON MATÉ: So that it could actually wipe out Hamas.
N. FINKELSTEIN: Hamas, right. So they were happy. And the third reason was that by the time Cast Lead … Excuse me, by the time Protective Edge came around in 2014 Israel didn’t have a pure record. Its purity had vanished. It seemed almost redundant to expose yet another Israeli massacre in Gaza because we had become kind of inured to it. This is what Israel does, it’s a lunatic state, it goes in, destroys everything in sight. That’s Israel’s modus operandi. So there was a feeling I think of redundancy, do we really need to document this again? We did it already during Operation Cast Lead. This is Operation Cast Lead maybe times two or times 1.5. So there was a feeling of, it’s redundant, it’s unnecessary. But I think the main reason was the fear of what happened to Goldstone could happen to one of us. I know they’ll deny it, they’ll say, “Oh, you have no evidence of that.” That’s true.
AARON MATÉ: Given all this and again going back to my last question-
N. FINKELSTEIN: I just want to … One last point. I’m just going to give you a brief, very quickly an anecdote. I teach a course for free at a local library in New York, at Brooklyn Grand Army Plaza Library. Not worth going into, I was teaching a class in free speech and the subject of Israeli atrocities came up. One person in the audience, he said, “Well Israelis would never target children.” Then the person I invited, who was a very prominent professor and also as expression has it public intellectual, you would call him left liberal by current standards. He said, “Yes, yes of course, they would never target children.” It’s like, no matter how much evidence you present once you have this thing fixed in your mind there was no way to dissuade people. It’s a very sorry commentary on the capacity of reason and facts to convince or persuade.
Because you take the case, so it’s supported last week. There was a guy in Gaza, he has no legs, he’s carrying a Palestinian flag and an Israeli sniper, right through the head. Kills him, fires a bullet right through his head, kills him. Okay, that seems pretty horrible. Israel would never do that, it would never fire a bullet in the head of a paraplegic. 2002, during Operation Defensive Shield outside Jenin, there’s a Palestinian in a wheelchair. He has a flag up, a flag. He’s on the main road. A tank comes and it just flattens him. A guy in a wheelchair holding a flag, just flattens him. You might remember because I had the debate with Alan Dershowitz at Democracy Now and Alan Dershowitz said, “Israel committed no war crimes during Defensive Shield.” So I cite this incident, he says, “It never happened.”
It’s kind of like, you see this stuff, it’s documented by Israeli soldiers who are not even leftists. Do you know what they write in those testimonies? They said, “We dropped so many bombs, so many rockets,” he said, “It was so cool. It was so cool what we did.” They’re not even [crosstalk 00:26:03]-
AARON MATÉ: This is video game language. So listen-
N. FINKELSTEIN: It’s not even contrite.
AARON MATÉ: So even if there are many people out there with the blinders that make them incapable of processing all the atrocities, like those are documented in your book. The point is that this book documents all of them and it shows a moment in history in which a people were attacked, “massacred” in your words.
N. FINKELSTEIN: Not were, are. Continuing.
AARON MATÉ: Are and continuing. Given all this, given this horrible history and the obstacles there are to acknowledging it, I shouldn’t use the word hope, because hope is irrelevant as Chomsky says. But what is the path, the possible path to justice? Briefly, as we wrap.
N. FINKELSTEIN: I’m not a religious person but I certainly go by the adage, “God helps those who help themselves.” You can’t liberate Palestine from the outside, nor should you be able to. I mean at some level of course, if they’re facing a genocide then of course liberate from the outside. But as a general rule you neither can nor should you. People have to free themselves because that’s the only way that they will stay free. There’s no hope so long as the Palestinian people have given up and right now their spirits are completely depleted. In Gaza if you read the polls, all the young people want to leave. Anybody or anyone who can get out, they want out. The polls show about 80%, 70% of the young people want to just get out. It’s an inferno, they want to flee the inferno.
West Bank, it’s a more complex strategy, more subtle strategy. What Israel and the international community did was, it scooped up everybody in the West Bank with any talent, any ability, any skill as, say, an organizer, gave them a computer terminal and a cubicle in Ramallah and said, “You can be as revolutionary as you want on the social media. Just don’t do anything.” There’s no leadership anymore, there are no mass organizations any more in the West Bank. Ramallah has one of the highest living standards in the world, it’s a good life there. It’s a different strategy but the result is the same. There’s no organization, there’s no leadership and the people have given up on collective action. It’s every man for himself. There are obviously exceptions, the ever-noble and inspiring Ahed Tamimi and her family. There are exceptions.
AARON MATÉ: Palestinian teenager who’s currently detained by Israel for slapping an Israeli soldier who had assaulted her and-
N. FINKELSTEIN: I don’t care if they assaulted her. They should slap every Israeli in the West Bank.
AARON MATÉ: Her cousin had just been shot in the face.
N. FINKELSTEIN: They deserve ten smacks and they also deserve to be spit on. They’re occupiers. But there are exceptions, but right now their spirits are broken. I’m despairing but my close comrade and friend Alan Nairn, he keeps saying to me, “These things happen in waves. It disappears and then out of nowhere you’re just surprised.” There was a new insurgency and the people discovered the courage and the will to resist.
AARON MATÉ: The book is ‘Gaza: An Inquest Into Its Martyrdom.’ The author is Norman Finkelstein. Thanks so much for joining us.
N. FINKELSTEIN: My pleasure.
AARON MATÉ: Thank you for joining us on The Real News.