Interview with Dr. Norman Finkelstein on Gaza Now

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Dr. Norman Finkelstein, who should be Professor Finkelstein (if interest, please look into the record of the grotesque denial of tenure to Dr. Finkelstein at DePaul University), remains one of the foremost experts and independent scholars on the Israeli occupation and the crimes against the Palestinians.

Not only known for exemplary independent Scholarship, Finkelstein retains the moral fortitude, mental clarity, and persistence necessary to conduct the research on this topic in spite of the mass of public relations, or massive propaganda, intended to distort the image of the conflict and intentional destruction of his professional academic career. By the loss of one audience, though, he did garner another one.

By these intellectual and ethical standards, especially because of the autonomous existence in both regards, Finkelstein exists as a rare and formidable human being worth careful reading and deep consideration in the written word. His most recent book is considered the magnum opus and is entitled Gaza: An Inquest Into Its Martyrdom. 

Here we talk about the right of the Palestinians to extricate themselves from the currently or soon-to-be unlivable conditions with some modicum of contextualization.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: 70% of the current population of Gaza, more than 70 years later, are officially recognized as refugees. Approximately half of the population is comprised of children.

Also, it is one of the most densely populated places on Earth. Most of the water accessible to Palestinians is contaminated. In other words, 97% of the drinking water is unfit for human consumption.

Dr. Sara Roy, Senior Research Scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, describes this as slowly being poisoned by the contaminated water, where this implies about 1 million Palestinian children being poisoned by Israel.

Electricity is available only for some few hours per day. As Palestinians live in what has been called the world’s largest open-air prison – most can’t leave the Gaza Strip, their conditions have been reported as being unlivable by 2020. 

To set the groundwork for some of the other questions, what are some of the other layers to this issue needing explicit statement and repetition in the media?

Dr. Norman Finkelstein: I think that your statement covers a lot of the salient facts. The one fact that it omits – well, I guess, there are two salient facts that it omits – is the problem with exports.

The Gaza economy was largely dependent upon trade of its agricultural goods. Israel has, effectively, banned any exports from Gaza. There are occasional relatively minor and intermittent exceptions.

Once in a while, they will allow Gaza to export some strawberries, but then they will deny Gazans the right.

So, it makes for an unpredictable pattern, which means nobody is going to make contracts even on those limited numbers of exports because it is impossible to know if and when the contracts can be honoured.

So, there is a basic problem of exports. Then there is the other basic problem of what Israel designates dual-use items. Dual-use items are a list of items that Israel claims can be used for both civilian and military purposes.

This list of dual-use items includes, most critically includes, cement. It means Gaza is not able to rebuild from the devastation that Israel inflicted in 2014 during Operation Protective Edge.

It destroyed or made unlivable about 18,000 homes in Gaza. I am not sure what the current status is on the number. I don’t have them off the top of my head. The number that they have been able to rebuild of the homes that were totally flattened during Operation Protective Edge.

But the problem of cement. Also, there are various medical devices which are also classified as dual-use, which can’t make their way into Gaza.

The long of the short of it is: all of the representative or, I should say, all of the expert organizations monitoring the situation in Gaza, whether it be the International Monetary Fund, or the World Bank, or UNCTAD.

They all concur. There is a consensus. That the principle factor inflicting misery on Gaza is the Israeli blockade, the Israeli siege. Unless that siege is lifted, there is no possibility for any progress Gaza.

Jacobsen: Let’s take an example to indicate media reportage bias as well, as you noted elsewhere, in the past, the Hamas ‘rockets’ being asserted as rockets, but, in fact, being enhanced fireworks.

For those less aware, perhaps, on the style of framing the issue or distorting the truth, or simply lying, how have the cases of the enhanced fireworks or Hamas ‘rockets’ been reported, in general, in the Western media broadly speaking, in Israeli outlets, and in the other Middle Eastern news and opinion publications?

Finkelstein: Well, the Hamas rockets have effectively been a godsend to Israeli propaganda. Like fireworks on the fourth of July, they are a spectacle, but a spectacle with almost no military consequence.

If you take the case of Operation Protective Edge, Hamas allegedly fired 5,000 rockets at Israel, according to the official Israeli figures. Only 1 house was destroyed and a handful of others incurred some, apparently, minor damage.

This cannot be explained by the allegedly Israeli anti-missile defense system called Iron Dome because Iron Dome only deflected – I guess the official Israeli figure – is about 800 Hamas rockets.

In fact, it is probably much smaller, probably on the order of 50 or so were deflected or disabled. The fact of the matter is: these so-called rockets caused so little damage because they are not rockets.

At least, not rockets in the normal way conceived in the imagination. They are closer to fireworks, enhanced fireworks. Or, I guess, it was Foreign Affairs magazine, which called them bottle rockets.

The sort of thing when you were a kid that you would put in a Coke bottle and then set off, and light the fuse and it went into the air.

It is basically what they are. News media like to repeat the figure: several hundred rockets, several hundred this.

Like to repeat the “fear and terror” it induces in Israel, but almost never reports the actual damage, except for the fact that Israel will with a few photos, which are then supposedly representative of the damage done.

They are not really representative. They are exhaustive of the damage done. One photo is supposedly representative of thousands of cases of damage inflicted.

In fact, the one photo is also the only photo. The problem, of course, is the alleged or so-called Hamas rockets have been ballyhooed or deplored by both sides.

So, Israel deplores them as an existential threat. Hamas used to ballyhoo them as a major threat to Israel, echoing the Israeli claim that they were creating an existential threat. Both sides had a mutual stake in inflating the actual damage inflicted by these rockets.

Jacobsen: The attacks on Palestinians appear to become more visible and obvious to more of the wider populace of the world.

There continues to be completely or mostly nonviolent Palestinian protestors, who then are killed, at least, in the double digits in repeated incidents if not more.

In terms of attitudinal stances amongst, for instance, the general American populace and, in particular, American Jewry, how is this wider visibility of the killing of nonviolent protestors changing social attitudes about the Israel-Palestine conflict, as you have written, for example, on a growing disaffection of some American Jews with Israel?

Finkelstein: The major turning points in the Israel-Palestine conflict, as perceived by the broad public. The turning points have correlated or corresponded with the major Israeli bloodlettings among Palestinians, but also neighbouring Arab states.

If you go back, if you were to chronicle or chart the shifts in public opinion, the first major shift comes in 1982, at the time of Israel’s major invasion of Lebanon in June 1982. Israel killed between 15,000 and 20,000 civilians and Lebanese, overwhelmingly civilians.

The Israeli massacre in Lebanon climaxed in September with the Sabra and Chatila massacres in the refugee camps. The refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila.

At that point, it was the first major shift in public opinion. It wasn’t that a big slice of public opinion, but it was the first significant change in public opinion.

That’s when you might say the old left, the communist-oriented left, and the radical wing – maybe radical is too strong, the most militant wing of the anti-war movement. “Anti-war” meaning Vietnam and then its aftermath, what was the aftermath of the anti-war movement.

That sector of public opinion. People like Pete Seeger, Daniel Ellsberg, and assorted others. They came out against Israel publicly for the first time, making a strong statement of condemnation.

And then as time elapsed, the next major change comes in 1987 with the inception of the First Intifada and Israel’s massive use of force in order to quell an overwhelmingly non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation.

Then there was another – so to speak – defection from the Israel camp, another slice of public opinion you would say. Now, inroads are starting to be made in liberal mainstream opinion, not the left fringe but the substantial liberal opinion.

At the time, it would be magazines like The Nation magazine, The New York Review of Books. You begin to see wavering support for Israel.

The next big shift comes in the Second Intifada, beginning in 2000, when Israel used a massive criminal force in order to suppress the Palestinian resistance, often violent in this case, to the Second Intifada.

The next major turning points come with Operation Cast Lead in 2008/09, which had a very substantial effect on public opinion. And then, most recently, Operation Protective Edge in 2014. Unfortunately, the Great March of Return, a non-violent protest, that begin March 30th of last year, 2018.

They did not have the resonance they should have had in changing public opinion. Ironically, the picture I just chronicled or mapped out has changed somewhat because the major factor now driving alienation from Israel is not the various Israeli bloodlettings.

As I said, the Great March of Return has had a relatively marginal impact on public opinion.

The fact has changed things quite significantly is Benjamin Netanyahu, not just political alliance but his, ideological alliance with the alt-right internationally and, in particular, his ideological, not just political, alliance with Donald Trump.

When I say, “Ideological alliance,” it used to be said that if Israel used to make unsavory alliances, say the alliance between Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, the leading Labor Party leaders in Israel, who made alliances with South Africa.

These were said to be alliances of convenience because Israel was so isolated politically. It had to look for allies wherever it could find them. The current alliance between – open embrace more than alliance – Trump and Netanyahu is not an alliance of convenience.

It is an alliance based on shared values, perceptions, shared ideological worldview. It is the worldview of the alt-right. Israel is not even a typical alt-right state, because in most alt-right states there is some alt-left to balance out the alt-right.

We have a Donald Trump and a Bernie Sanders. In Brazil, there is a Bolsonaro, but there is also a Workers’ Party on the other side. In the case of Israel, you have an alt-right, and you have an alt-more-right.

There is no center. There is no left. It is an extremely right-wing state, currently – extreme right. Not just at the governmental level, but at the level of society.

Jacobsen: Following from the prior question, and looking into the extensive research into nonviolent protests, writings, and tactics of Mahatma Gandhi by you, why were the Gandhian tactics so effective?

How does this translate into the efficacy of the nonviolent protests and tactics of the Palestinians?

Finkelstein: Well, first of all, it is to the eternal credit of the Palestinians. That they have been able to hold out for so long and persist so long in their non-violent resistance.

It has been going on now for more than a year, the protests, which means they’ve lasted longer than, in an American context, the Montgomery bus boycott.

Which began with Rosa Parks who refused to sit in the back of the bus, that boycott, which is a crossroads, a milestone, in American history, lasted almost exactly one year.

The Gaza protests have now lasted for a year and one month as of now. No one can deny or gainsay the heroism or the courage of the people of Gaza.

The demonstrations have been overwhelmingly non-violent. Non-violent except for trivial things like throwing rocks or various sorts of implements which barely or do not even reach the Israeli snipers on the other side.

This has been documented, now, in a very authoritative, extensive, impressive UN Human Rights Council report on Gaza, probably the most impressive report that has been written on it, on the conflict thus far.

I would say in terms of its conscientiousness, its precision of language, precision of law. I would say it surpasses significantly the Goldstone Report on Operation Protective Edge. The report by Richard Goldstone, the South African jurist, which created a hysteria in Israel.

The current report is even better and also crosses certain red lines, which human rights organizations have been reluctant to cross up until now. It states explicitly and emphatically that Israel not just used disproportionate force.

Israel did not just use indiscriminate force, but Israel is intentionally targeting Palestinian children, Palestinian medical personnel, Palestinian journalists, Palestinian disabled people. It is intentionally targeting them for murder.

That’s an unusual acknowledgement. Although, anybody who has followed the conflict knew this all along. Human rights organizations have been very averse to acknowledging it. Now, this new report does.

The one really regrettable fact of these demonstrations is that they cannot succeed without international support. At some point, Israel is just going to mow down everybody, or wear them away, erode their will.

Unless, these demonstrations have an international resonance, which puts a pressure on Israel to stop the killing. The demonstrations cannot succeed. Unfortunately, the solidarity, the international solidarity, movement with Gaza did not rise to the occasion.

Consequently, it has, basically, been ignored, not just by the mainstream media, which is what one might expect. But they have been ignored by the solidarity movement. That, I think, is politically a disaster.

Jacobsen: In contrast to the nonviolent protest tactics of the Palestinians, what has been the main tactic of the Israelis?

Why does this require a pretext, even strained ones, to prevent poor international public perception, in line with the question on media reportage bias? 

Finkelstein: Well, Israel always claims it has a pretext. The pretext this time to the non-violent protest has been two-fold.

First of all, Israel periodically targets Hamas militants or Islamic jihadi militants in the hope of provoking a counterattack with these so-called rockets.

So, Israel can claim it is defending itself. In fact, what it is really hoping to do is end non-violent protests and get the Hamas to use its rockets, so Israel will then have another pretext to go in and slap Gaza.

So long as Hamas does not play along wit this dirty Israeli provocation, Israel has trouble finding a pretext to go into Gaza.

The problem, right now, is that in the absence of media coverage Israel barely even needs a pretext to continue to fire, or to kill and injure, with abandon in Gaza because nobody is paying much attention.

I should add that Israel is highly sensitive to public attention. It has been careful to limit the actual killings and instead have its snipers aim, for example, at the knee caps of Gaza protestors, so as to permanently maim them.

What’s called life changing injuries, which is basically a death certificate to those who get these injuries, it means that you’re disabled for life. You become a parasite in Gazan society. You have no future.

But these sorts of life changing injuries don’t get any media attention because, typically, it just says, “X number of people killed.” It may then say, “Wounded,” but “wounded” is somewhat or very misleading because these are not just wounds in general.

These are calculated, life changing injuries, permanent maimings for the demonstrators.

Jacobsen: During Operation Cast Lead from 2008-09, on the first day, in the first five minutes, Israel killed 300 Palestinian civilians. How does this compare or contrast with the current killings?

Why is this difference significant, in terms of the fewer numbers of Palestinians killed followed by the greater negative reaction by more of the world?

Finkelstein: Well, a war gives people or gives states carte blanche kinds of mass killings, which aren’t permissible in non-war situations.

And so, what Israel did in the first day of Operation Cast Lead is just quickly forgotten, whereas when you’re engaging in non-violent resistance, it’s much more difficult to conceal the magnitude of the horror that is being inflicted.

That is incidentally why the Human Rights Council report was able to state categorically that Israel was intentionally targeting civilians.

Had it been a war situation, and Israel intentionally targets civilians including children during wars, during Operation Protective Edge on July 12th, I think it was, when they killed the four children playing hide-and-seek in broad daylight on the wharf in Gaza.

That was killing children. However, the thing about non-violent protest. You can’t claim things like the fog of war and s-h-i-t happens in war. So, that kind of excuse, extenuation, doesn’t fly in those sorts of situations.

There was just so much video evidence, and eyewitness evidence, of kids being shot in the head as they were fleeing the perimeter fence of Gaza or disabled people being shot, or a person carrying the flag being shot.

There was no way to make the claim of, “Well, there was somebody shooting me or by that person.” All sorts of the usual excuses for Israeli killing.

They just weren’t available. So, the human rights organization, in this case the Human Rights Council, commission, was forced or felt free to report the truth.

Namely, that this was, these are, the targeted killings of children, medical personnel, journalists, disabled people, and so forth.

Jacobsen: UNCTAD and the IMF published several reports. The consensus is the proximate cause of the terrible conditions in Gaza emerging from the Israeli blockade with, perhaps, marginal responsibility of Hamas.

How does this violate international law as a form of collective punishment?

Finkelstein: Right, the Israeli claim that it is imposing the blockade as a matter of self-defense. I won’t go into the technicalities here. I don’t think Israel has any right to self-defense. I’m not going to go into that argument right now.

The simple matter is: how, for example, does preventing the export of strawberries serve a military purpose? How does preventing people who need cancer care from travelling abroad serve a military purpose?

It is quite clear that a purpose or the purpose of the blockade is to punish the people of Gaza by having elected Hamas into office and also to create the incentive, or to incentivize, the people of Gaza to remove the Hamas government and replace it with one that is more pliable to the U.S. and to Israel.

There are aspects of the Israeli blockade of Gaza that couldn’t possibly be explained, defended, on so-called military grounds. Even if it had the right of military grounds, which I don’t believe it does, but that is a separate question.

Even if it had the right of military self-defense, there are critical aspects of this blockade in particular with the exports, the denial of exports, or the denial of the right to travel for people in need of medical care, which clearly has no relationship to any notion of self-defense.

But are designed to collectively punish the people of Gaza, first, for having elected Hamas into office and, secondly, to incentivize the people of Gaza to rid itself of Hamas, and collective punishment is illegal under international law, I would say in the current case, since Gaza has already crossed the threshold or is approaching the threshold of unliveability.

The blockade has to be classified as a crime against humanity, as a population of 2 million, 1 million of whom are children, are effectively being confined into an area, which is not metaphorically and not poetically but literally, as described by relatively tame economic and human rights organizations, as being unlivable, as a physical fact.

So, if you are confining 2 million people in a literally unlivable situation, you’re not allowing them to leave. That’s consigning them to a slow or fast, depending on the circumstances, death. That has to be described as a crime against humanity.

Collective punishment can be defined as a crime against humanity in certain situations. The International Criminal Court has described it as a crime against humanity. I would say in the case of Gaza, right now, that it has crossed that threshold.

Jacobsen: Given the mostly child population, the entrapped locale and densely populated area, the urgency of unliveable conditions by 2020, and the right to extricate themselves, instead of idealized or fantasy ‘solutions,’ what are pragmatic steps for the Palestinians to remove themselves from this context, including removal of the blockade?

What would be the first and foremost step for the international support networks to assist the Palestinians in these practical steps? The Palestinians who are giving their lives.

Finkelstein: The last question, to me, is pretty straightforward. The answer has to be the international community has to force Israel to lift the blockade and put it in accordance with international law and enable the people of Gaza, who are currently being strangled, being throttled, to breathe.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Finkelstein.

Finkelstein: Okay, best of luck.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

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