One Massacre Too Many

by Jamie Stern-Weiner

Norman Finkelstein's new book on the Gaza massacre, 'This Time We Went Too Far', is a damning chronicle of both the invasion itself and the cynicism and wilful blindness of those who defended it.

First published: 24 March, 2010 | Category: Foreign policy

“...a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population, radically diminish its local economic capacity both to work and to provide for itself, and to force upon it an ever increasing sense of dependency and vulnerability.” – The Goldstone Report [.pdf]

“I can promise you that throughout the war, there were many times that civilians walked by us and we never shot at them.” – IDF officer

On December 27 2008, after years of “protracted collective punishment” had produced a “humanitarian implosion” [.pdf] of “unprecedented” proportions and reduced the territory to almost complete dependency on international aid, Israel invaded Gaza. It opened with a co-ordinated air assault “at around 11.30am, a busy time, when the streets were full of civilians, including school children leaving classes”.[1] The attack took people in Gaza by surprise, violating as it did an informal truce agreed the day before. Most of the targets struck were located in “densely populated residential areas”, and dozens of people were killed in a matter of minutes. As one Israeli analyst observed, the IDF “intended to kill a great many [people] ... and succeeded”.[2] Over the next three weeks the Israeli military assaulted Gaza from land, air and sea. Trapped on all sides, the population had nowhere to flee. By the time the bombing stopped, some 1,400 Palestinians had been killed, most of them civilians, including hundreds of children.

Norman Finkelstein's latest, This Time We Went Too Far: Truth & Consequences of the Gaza Invasion, is a damning chronicle of both the invasion itself and the cynicism and wilful blindness of those who defended it. He adopts a similar approach to that of his previous book, Beyond Chutzpah, using high-profile defences of Israel's conduct as a foil to examine the realities of what Israel did. Finkelstein made his name as a 'forensic scholar', and he skewers a few of the more ridiculous of Israel's defenders with his trademark sarcasm and wit.[3] His dissection of influential military analyst Anthony Cordesman's 'strategic' report on the invasion – essentially a regurgitation of Israeli press releases – is particularly satisfying. Throughout the book Finkelstein goes out of his way to rely on impeccable, mainstream sources – the Goldstone Report, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the testimonies of Israeli soldiers – and even official Israeli ones. His method is straightforward: he takes each claim made by Cordesman and others in Israel's defence and juxtaposes them with what the mainstream, authoritative accounts conclude.[4]

The cumulative effect is devastating. Cordesman claims that the IDF “clearly discriminated between military and civilian targets”. But Amnesty International concludes that the massive destruction of civilian infrastructure was “to a large extent deliberate ... and an integral part of a strategy”, while Israeli soldiers have repeatedly testified that (quoting one) “the object of the operation was to wreak destruction on the infrastructure”. Lawrence Wright assures readers of the New Yorker that “the Israeli military adopted painstaking efforts to spare civilian lives in Gaza”. But human rights organisations report that Palestinian civilians, “including women and children, were shot at short range when posing no threat to the lives of the Israeli soldiers” (Amnesty), some while “waving a white flag” (Human Rights Watch), and the Goldstone Report similarly finds that “Israeli armed forces ... carried out direct intentional strikes against civilians”. After announcing that he would refrain from passing “legal or moral” judgement on Israel's conduct, Cordesman declares confidently that “Israel did not violate the laws of war”. But Human Rights Watch documents Israel's criminal explosion of white phosphorus “over populated areas, killing and injuring civilians, and damaging civilian structures”, while the Goldstone report charges Israel with numerous war crimes, including “wilful killing, torture or inhumane treatment”, “extensive destruction of property ... carried out unlawfully and wantonly” and “use of human shields”.

Israel's attempts to explain away the destruction receive the same treatment. The claim that the destruction of residential homes was a result of Hamas 'booby-traps' is belied by the Israeli military's own admission that the “scale of destruction” was legally indefensible. Similarly, after exhaustively investigating the ubiquitous claim that Hamas used Palestinian civilians as 'human shields', Amnesty International found “no evidence” to support it. It did, however, find plenty of evidence that Israel used “civilians, including children”, as human shields – a “war crime”. Finkelstein effectively rebuts the various attempts to smear the Goldstone report, but the book's real strength is to demonstrate that Goldstone's conclusions merely echoed those of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel and the many other independent investigations of Israel's conduct that had already taken place.[5]

Relying, again, entirely on mainstream and official Israeli accounts, Finkelstein debunks the myth that Israel invaded Gaza in response to rocket attacks from Hamas. In fact, Israel invaded after unilaterally violating a ceasefire that even an official Israeli publication concedes Hamas was “careful to maintain”, and despite numerous offers from Hamas to agree to another. Why, then, did it invade? Finkelstein identifies two main objectives. First, after Hizbullah forced Israel out of Lebanon in 2000 and then humiliated it in 2006, Israel needed to restore its 'deterrence capacity'. Not yet confident that a re-run of the 2006 Lebanon war would yield substantially different results, and having failed to recruit the US for an attack on Iran, “it was time to find another target, and Gaza, poorly defended as ever, fit the bill”. As a former Israeli minister explained, “[then-Israeli Defense Minister Ehud] Barak's real foe is not Hamas ... it is the memory of 2006”. But since Hamas was too weak to serve as a serious test of Israel's military might, Israel could only restore its deterrence capacity by “demonstrating the amount of sheer destruction it was prepared to inflict”. In other words, the horrendous civilian death toll and damage to civilian infrastructure were not incidental to the attack – they were integral to Israel's objectives.[6] This explains the apparent paradox, whereby Israeli officials on the one hand went to great lengths to conceal the destruction in Gaza from the international community,[7] and on the other openly boasted of the “disproportionate” destruction they inflicted.[8]

Apart from restoring its deterrence capacity, “Israel's main goal ... was to fend off the latest threat posed by Palestinian pragmatism”. [9] As serious observers of the conflict - from the Congressionally-funded US Institute for Peace and the Army War College to former President Jimmy Carter and former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy – have long recognised, Hamas has moved to a position where, in the words of its supposedly “hard-line” leader Khalid Meshaal, it “accept[s] a state on the 1967 borders”.[10] Just as Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 in order to thwart the PLO's “peace offensive”,[11] so Israel invaded Gaza to crush the threat posed by a well-organised, credible Hamas that was pushing for a negotiated settlement but would accept nothing less than the international consensus two-state solution – a consensus Israel strongly rejects. As Finkelstein writes,

“Israel needed to provoke Hamas into resuming its attacks, and then radicalize or destroy it, thereby eliminating it as a legitimate negotiating partner or as an obstacle to a settlement on Israel's terms.”

Far from invading to stop the Qassams, then, Israel invaded precisely to provoke them, to shift the conflict with Hamas away from the political terrain, where Israel has virtually no international support,[12] to the military one, where it reigns supreme.

But Finkelstein does not just provide an account of Israel's atrocities in Gaza – he also “sets forth grounds for hope”. The Gaza massacre provoked unprecedented opposition around the world – in Britain, students occupied buildings in more than a dozen universities across the country –but, as Finkelstein documents in the second part of the book, this opposition did not come out of the blue. Rather, it “marked the nadir of a curve plotting a steady decline in support for Israel”, not only in Europe, where Israel consistently ranks among the least popular states in the world, but also in the US.[13] Most strikingly, American Jews are becoming increasingly ambivalent or even hostile towards Israel, to the point where less than half of young American Jews polled in 2007 answered that they would consider the destruction of Israel a “personal tragedy”.[14] As Finkelstein documents, the Gaza massacre brought the generational differences within the Jewish community into stark relief: while the Old Guard - Michael Walzer, Alan Dershowitz, Marty Peretz – expressed their usual support for Israel’s attack, the journals aimed at the liberal Jewish intelligentsia (New York Review of Books, New Yorker, etc.) largely kept quiet. Meanwhile the new generation of liberal Jewish bloggers and commentators - Ezra Klein, Glenn Greenwald,[15] Dana Goldstein, Matt Yglesias – strongly opposed the attack from the outset.

Finkelstein argues compellingly that behind this trend away from support for Israel lies a fundamental contradiction between liberal values and Israel's policies.[16] American Jews are overwhelmingly liberal, and as the realities about Israel's human rights record become increasingly difficult to ignore, they are finding it increasingly difficult to reconcile their values with support for Israeli policies. Judge Richard Goldstone himself – a Jewish liberal and self-declared "Zionist” who serves on the Board of Governors of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and who (in his own words) has “worked for Israel all of my adult life” - is perhaps the perfect personification of this phenomenon. Goldstone didn’t want to have to accuse Israel of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity in Gaza - but given his liberal values, given his respect for the rule of law and given the realities of what Israel did, he had no choice. In short, as Finkelstein puts it, “Goldstone's intervention signalled the implosion of that unstable alloy – some would say oxymoron – called liberal Zionism”.

Finkelstein places great importance in this regard on an “unprecedented” post-invasion report by Amnesty International, which systematically documents the use of foreign-supplied weapons in the Gaza massacre and calls for a comprehensive international arms embargo on Israel. If there is one criticism I have of the book, it is that it doesn't explore in enough detail the role of Israel's “wilfully gullible patrons”, in particular the US and the EU. Israel's assault could only have taken place with the military and diplomatic support of its international sponsors, and in any case was merely the culmination of long-held policies in which the 'international community' – Britain included – was heavily complicit. Though Finkelstein refers to the role of external actors occasionally,[17] a more extended discussion would have been useful, particularly given the book's likely readership.

Despite being largely concerned with either human rights reports on Israeli conduct or public opinion polls, the book is a gripping read, written in a clear, engaging style and punctuated throughout with witty barbs and pointed humour. A brief interlude provides a refreshing change in tone, with Finkelstein recounting, in a much more frank and personal style, his visit to Gaza several months after the invasion. Here we see the fierce sense of moral justice and outrage that underpins Finkelstein's work. Far from undermining the rest of the book, this enhances it, and places it in a necessary context. For instance, while Finkelstein's modus operandi in this and other works is to analyse Israel's conduct using the framework of international law, as determined by the most authoritative bodies in that field, here, in a moving passage, he forces us to confront the limitations of that approach:

“I am aware that according to the 'laws of war' they [i.e. “Hamas militants”] are 'legitimate' military targets. But in a rational world the locution 'laws of war' would make as much sense as 'etiquette of cannibals.' It is probably true that violent conflicts would be more lethal and destructive in the absence of these laws, but it is also true that, in their pretense of neutrality, they obscure fundamental truths…

Whether from conviction, frustration, or torment, these young men have chosen to defend their homeland from foreign marauders with weapon in hand. Were I living in Gaza, still in my prime and able to muster the courage, I could easily be one of them.”

In a recent interview with Democracy Now Finkelstein recalled watching television debates with his mother during the Vietnam War. At their conclusion the participants “would get up and shake hands and pat each other on the back, and it was like—for my mother, it was so appalling. You're debating life and death and dropping napalm on kids, and then at the end you just get up and shake hands like it's not serious.” This visceral humanity shines through the entire book, and stands in marked contrast to the moral bankruptcy-posing-as-detached objectivity of the likes of Cordesman and Walzer. Finkelstein ends with a quote from Gandhi:

“Massacre of innocent people is a serious matter. It is not a thing to be easily forgotten. It is our duty to cherish their memory.”

This book performs that service with characteristic flair and scholarly rigour, but it does more than that. In following the Goldstone report and the International Court of Justice in pushing human rights and international law to the centre of discourse on this topic, and in highlighting the fundamental incompatibility of Israel's actions with the liberal values many of its international supporters hold dear, Finkelstein points the way towards a solution to the conflict. As he argues in the final passage, if we eschew ideological sloganeering and litmus tests, and focus instead on the overwhelming political, legal and human rights consensus outlined above, if we constantly bear in mind that what we aspire to is “a settlement enabling both parties, everyone, to live proud, productive and peaceful lives”, then, as Finkelstein argues, victory remains within our grasp.

Norman Finkelstein's new book on Israel's 2009 assault on Gaza, 'This Time We Went Too Far: Truth & Consequences of the Gaza Invasion', is available exclusively from OR Books at www.orbooks.com.

Jamie Stern-Weiner studies Social and Political Sciences at the University of Cambridge. He is a member of the New Left Project editorial team and maintains a personal blog at http://heathlander.wordpress.com


[1] Amnesty International, cit. Finkelstein, N. This Time We Went Too Far (OR Books:2010). Hereafter 'Finkelstein'. 35.

[2] Reuven Pedatzur, cit. Finkelstein. 35. http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1053607.html

[3] The Henry Jackson Society's Robin Shepherd, for instance, who argues that Israel is criticised in the West “not because of anything it had done” but because totalitarian Marxists and left-liberal sympathisers have made common cause with “militant Islam” and “ancien régime bluebloods” to destroy liberal capitalism. “Thus,” as Finkelstein writes, “it is to be understood that behind the condemnation of Israel by Amnesty International and the International Court of Justice, Nobel peace laureates Jimmy Carter and Mairead Corrigan Maguire, the Financial Times and the BBC, lurks the evil hand of the radical leftist-fanatic Islamic-landed aristocratic nexus”. “For those who want to learn more,” Finkelstein adds, “Shepherd 'highly' recommends Alan M. Dershowitz's The Case for Israel.” Finkelstein. 107.

[4] It is interesting in this light to consider the frequent dismissal of Finkelstein's work as “controversial”. This description may indeed apply to his opinions, but the vast bulk of Beyond Chutzpah and This Time We Went Too Far consists not of Finkelstein's personal views but with the conclusions of the most mainstream, authoritative sources on the topic.

[5] In fact, compared to those reached by the other major investigations into the Gaza massacre, Goldstone's conclusions were generally conservative. Finkelstein discusses this point in his recent lecture in Prague, viewable here. See also Finkelstein. 190fn11.

[6] As the Goldstone report put it, Israel's was a “deliberately disproportionate” attack anchored in a military doctrine that “[viewed] disproportionate destruction and creating maximum disruption in the lives of many people as a legitimate means to achieve military and political goals”. Cited in Finkelstein. 128.

[7] For example by banning all foreign journalists from entering Gaza, imposing what one journalist described as “the most draconian press controls in the history of modern warfare”. Cited in Finkelstein. 90.

[8] Then-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, for instance, boasted that “Israel demonstrated real hooliganism during the course of the operation”, explaining that “Hamas now understands that when you fire on [Israel's] citizens it responds by going wild – which is a good thing”. Cited in Finkelstein. 79.

[9] For articles to this effect, see my 'Thwarting Palestinian moderation' and Finkelstein's 'Foiling Another Palestinian “Peace Offensive”: Behind the bloodbath in Gaza'.

[10] Finkelstein includes the full text of a letter from Hamas to President Obama, partly informed by his conversations with Hamas officials, in the appendix. The letter states that Hamas's position is in line with that of “the international community ... as expressed in the International Court of Justice, the United Nations General Assembly and leading human rights organizations”, and calls for engagement with “all parties ... without preconditions”.

[11] The phrase used by Israeli strategic analyst Avner Yaniv to describe how Israel perceived the PLO's acceptance of a two-state settlement in the late 1970s. For more, see Finkelstein, 49-50, and Chomsky, N. Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel & the Palestinians (Pluto Press:1999), 198-209.

[12] In Livni's words, an extended truce with Hamas “harms the Israeli strategic goal, empowers Hamas, and gives the impression that Israel recognizes the movement”. Cited in Finkelstein. 50.

[13] Where, it should be noted, popular opinion has long been to the left of state policy – a 2009 poll, for example, found that three-quarters of Americans oppose Israeli settlement building. For more, see Finkelstein. 108.

[14] The most recent poll [.doc] of American Jewish opinion, conducted for the liberal Jewish lobby J Street, further confirms this trend. The poll found that a majority of American Jews support active US engagement in the 'peace process' even if that were to entail publicly expressing disagreement with Israel, and even if it were to entail public expressing disagreement with only Israel. A large majority are in favour of the US “exerting pressure” on both sides to make compromises, and respondents were “evenly split” on support for the US exerting pressure only on Israel.

[15] These bloggers' opposition to the Israel's attack brought upon them the standard smears used to silence critics of Israel. For instance, Glenn Greenwald was accused – along with this author – of antisemitism in a report published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (for my response, see here).

[16] Slate Editor Jacob Weisberg has similarly argued that “the instinctive solidarity that American liberals, many of them Jews, have long felt with Israel is on the decline”, a fact he blames primarily on “Israel’s occupation of Arab lands and its settlements policy”.

[17] See pp. 94-5, 103, 114 and 116.

All comments are moderated, and should be respectful of other voices in the discussion. Comments may be edited or deleted at the moderator's discretion.

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?