It is a rare occurrence that an analytical treatise can navigate the humanitarian spectrum without falling prey to dissociation. Yet it is precisely this achievement which makes “Gaza: an inquest into its martyrdom” stand out in terms of valuable research, scrutiny and forthright denunciation of the political violence levelled by Israel against the enclave and its population.
Norman Finkelstein’s approach is direct and leaves no doubt about the aims of the book. The preface starts with a simple and succinct explanation of the book’s context: “This book is not about Gaza. It is about what has been done to Gaza.” Since the Oslo Accords, which Finkelstein brands as “collaboration building to facilitate a burden-free Israeli occupation”, Gaza has been subjected to several degenerative transformations which are usually discussed apart from the political decisions which, as Finkelstein states with reference to the illegal Israeli blockade, turned Gaza into “a walled hub of humanitarian donations”.
Without incisive scrutiny, such a description works in favour of Israel due to the fact that, as the author shows, human rights organisations have relinquished their aims through their subjugation to Israeli demands that reports conform, or at least vindicate, the security narrative. As Finkelstein discusses political violence in Gaza, notably the most visible aggressions commencing with Operation Cast Lead in 2008/9, there are predictable fluctuations by the international community and human rights organisations which have misrepresented Gaza intentionally by partnering with Israel’s propaganda.
Israel’s distortion, which the international community disseminated readily, has worked on different levels. On the one hand, there was a fast-paced diplomatic normalisation of Israeli belligerence in its perception of Hamas which, since its foray into politics, had modified its earlier stance to include dialogue. Finkelstein quotes Tzipi Livni stating that acknowledging Hamas’s political approach “harms the Israeli strategic goal, empowers Hamas and gives the impression that Israel recognises the movement.”
In persisting with this narrative, therefore, Israel was also able to utilise Gaza as an experimental area for its ongoing colonisation, weapons testing and deterrence capability. The latter, which ties directly into the security narrative, remains a constant reference throughout the book. Apart from its regional scope in deterring Hezbollah, deterrence itself became a metaphor for the increasingly disproportionate use of force levelled by Israel against Palestinians in Gaza. Coupled with the incessant lobbying at an international level to prioritise Israeli propaganda, the eventual subjugation and manipulation of facts by the international community and human rights organisations has resulted in the elimination of the obvious: Israel’s purportedly humanitarian concern when waging its deterrence displays were ultimately utilised to discredit Gaza and allow Israel impunity for its premeditated violence.
Finkelstein describes the dynamic: “While the erudite philosophers debated the correct interpretation of the laws of war and both sides tacitly imputed to Israeli the elevated motive of wanting to obey them, the actual premise of Cast Lead and the essential precondition for its success was the wholesale breach of these laws.”
It was only a matter of time before the UN’s Goldstone Report, which had found Israel guilty of war crimes, would be subjected to intense political bludgeoning by Israel and the US. Its detail and pinpointing of culpability instigated incessant lobbying to discredit its value at an international level. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deemed it “one of the major strategic challenges confronting Israel.” Finkelstein summarises its impact: “The novelty of the Goldstone Report was that in one stroke it catapulted Israel’s human rights record squarely into the court of public opinion.”
However, the author also notes that the subsequent disowning by Richard Goldstone of his own findings, which included a reversal of a previously clear statement regarding Israel’s war crimes, set the precedent for Israeli impunity. As Finkelstein says, “the singular distinction of Goldstone’s recantation was that it renewed Israel’s licence to kill.”
This precedent proved to be far-reaching. Israel’s attack on the Freedom Flotilla’s Mavi Marmara in 2010, during which nine activists were murdered (a tenth died later of his injuries), once again brought into perspective the deterrence and security hyperbole, aided as usual by its allies in the international community; a case in point is French philosopher Bernard Henri Levy, who Finkelstein refers to as denying the humanitarian impact of the blockade. The aftermath of investigations and manipulations availed itself of the impunity created by Goldstone’s repudiation of his investigations. Hence, Israel was able to defend its premeditated operation upon the false pretext of combating terror and, more importantly through the Turkel Report, uphold the repercussions as “collateral and proportional damage of a blockade targeting Hamas’s military capabilities.”
Finkelstein’s meticulous detail facilitates an understanding of timelines and sequences. Once Goldstone discredited his own report after an intense campaign at an international level, manipulation of international institutions and human rights organisations followed suit. The author illustrates how the UN availed itself of a strategy which acknowledged Israeli violence but diluted the impact through justification of such violence. The choice of UN officials for investigations was also paramount in ensuring a narrative that exonerates Israel. By the time Israel embarked upon Operation Protective Edge in August 2014, there was a sufficient monopoly at an international level regarding the prioritising of Israeli rhetoric at the expense of Palestinian civilians in Gaza. Israel’s selective approach in imparting its own version of the aggression included a strong emphasis upon terror and deterrence. Hence, the lauding of the Iron Dome missile defence system and the hysteria of what Israel termed “terror tunnels” which, predictably, Finkelstein notes, resulted in the international community advocating for Israel’s “right to defend itself” while requiring Hamas to relinquish its weapons.
Misrepresentation, as the author clearly shows, is more perilous than a lie. Played upon by human rights organisations, this tactic marked Gaza’s political and humanitarian isolation. Finkelstein embarks upon a thorough analysis of Amnesty International’s reports on Operation Protective Edge, insisting that, “By adopting Israel’s story line of a lethal Hamas rocket arsenal, Amnesty became, wittingly or not, a purveyor of state propaganda.” The book includes a lengthy rejection by Amnesty International of Finkelstein’s assertions, accusing him of misrepresentation. However, Finkelstein notes that the organisation’s refusal to consider premeditation of Israeli violence automatically results in presumptions of non-premeditation.
Finkelstein shows how the UN employed similar strategies under the auspices of neutrality. The UN report states: “The military capacity of the parties to a conflict is irrelevant to their obligation to respect the prohibition against indiscriminate attacks.” However, this premise was used as an indictment against Hamas, despite ratios which clearly indicate the severity of losses for Palestinians in Gaza. Israel’s precision targeting, as opposed to rudimentary weapons used by Hamas, should have been subjected to intense scrutiny regarding indiscriminate attacks.
It is a dire conclusion for Palestine. Apart from being eclipsed by other humanitarian crises in the region, Finkelstein’s book is a stark reminder of the facets which have incarcerated Gaza to an extent that its political voice has been rendered irrelevant by the international community. The unravelling of misrepresentation and collaboration to ensure Israel’s impunity at an international level are brought together as referenced, detailed facts. Finkelstein’s demolition of colonial and international propaganda vindicates his objective “to refute that Big Lie by exposing each of the little lies.”