Norman Finkelstein went on Reddit two days ago to discuss the UN Human Rights Council report on the 2014 Gaza war. The scholar was at his incisive best. Below are substantial excerpts of Finkelstein’s critique. I’ve rearranged a couple of his answers, and removed the Reddit folks’ questions, unless they’re necessary to grasp Finkelstein’s meaning.
Q. This report seems to be less critical of Israel than the Goldstone report – do you think this report will have more or less of a negative impact on Israel?
Norman Finkelstein: The Goldstone report used more evocative language, came to more definitive legal conclusions, and was more comprehensive in scope. Also, Goldstone himself was a prominent liberal Jew, which meant the report was relatively immune to the usual smears and dismissals. This report reaches rather tepid and conservative legal conclusions. It also, in my opinion, grossly understates what happened. Here are two examples: (1) The BREAKING THE SILENCE testimonies by Israeli combatants emphasized that the D-9 armored bulldozers operated non-stop day and night demolishing Palestinian homes, when there was no military threat. It was just the systematic razing of homes which had no military justification whatsoever. Amazingly, there isn’t a single mention — not one — of the D-9 in the Report. Do a search on your own. Check home many times “D-9” appears in the Breaking the Silence testimonies versus the UN Report. Incidentally, these invaluable testimonies are barely cited in the Report, and the ones that are cited are the least revealing. At one point, the Report breezily dismisses them as “anecdotal.” Yet, Israel’s junk propaganda is constantly cited, as if it contained an ounce of credibility. (2) The Report never makes even one mention of the targeting of mosques, except to quote Israel as saying the mosques were legitimately targeted. 70 mosques were destroyed and another 130 damaged, yet it didn’t pique the Report’s curiosity. Imagine if Hamas had destroyed 70 Israeli synagogues. I don’t particularly like the term Islamophobia. Let’s just call it rank anti-Muslim bigotry.
A huge gap existed between the descriptions compiled in the report and the concomitant legal analysis in each section. The descriptions were graphic and compelling, but the legal analysis seemed to minimize Israel’s accountability. The reader senses that the person writing the legal analysis (probably [Judge Mary McGowan] Davis) was straining to be “fair,” to the point that it became unserious…
Let’s look at the raw data. 2300 Palestinians were killed, of whom 1,500 were civilians. 73 Israelis were killed, of whom 6 were civilians (one a guest worker from Thailand). 550 Palestinian children were killed, 1 Israeli child was killed. 18,000 Gazan homes were destroyed, one Israeli home was destroyed. Israel used 20,000 tons of explosives, Hamas used 20-40 tons of explosive. You get the picture. Yet, in the report, in the last section titled “IMPACT,” 60 percent is devoted to what Gaza endured, 40 percent to what Israel endured. You decided whether the proportions match the reality.
Although the report contains many graphic and compelling descriptions of Israeli atrocities, it grossly understates what happened. I would recommend that you read the Breaking the Silence testimonies instead. The Report keeps repeating Israeli propaganda, usually with sentences that begin, “The Commission notes that Israel said,…” as if this is to be taken seriously. Here’s one example. Israel fired 20,000 high-explosive artillery shells into Gaza. Israel alleges -and the Report quotes it– with a “few exceptions,” these shells were fired in open areas. First, that’s a documented lie. A study cited by the Commission itself said that, in its investigation, 95% of the artillery shells were fired in or near populated areas. The Report does NOT quote this finding of the study. Second, Israel alleges that Hamas abandoned all open areas at the start of OPE and congregated in populated areas. So, to believe Israel, it fired 20,000 high-explosive artillery shells in empty spaces. Why does the Report give credence to such nonsense? A second example. The Report claims that EVERY rocket fired by Hamas was intercepted by Iron Dome. It’s source? An official Israeli publication. It’s just laughable…
The Report is very cautious in the language it uses regarding Israeli war crimes. Nonetheless, virtually every section of the Report raises the possibility that Israel committed war crimes. If you open up the report, and do a search under “war crimes,” you will probably get at least 20 hits in the Israeli section of the report. In my opinion, Hamas should welcome the opportunity to go before the ICC and make its case. If it recruits talented, principled lawyers such as John Dugard and Alfred de Zayas, I think they could put forth a credible defense, at any rate, in the court of public opinion, which is the only court of importance. The US will of course side with Israel, not because of the Israel lobby, but because whatever Israel did in Gaza, the US routinely does around the world on an infinitely greater scale…
The Report found that, in the 15 cases of Israel’s air attacks on civilian residences, overwhelmingly Israel gave no warnings. But I still think this is the wrong emphasis. A few thousand homes were destroyed in air attacks or during battle. All told, 18,000 Palestinian homes were destroyed or made uninhabitable. It’s clear from the Breaking the Silence testimonies that this unfolded not on the battlefield, not in the heat of battle, not by aerial attacks, but just in the course of occupying Gaza’s border area…
There are clearly many instances where Israel targeted civilians (the Report acknowledges this), but mostly it was a terror campaign designed to break the spirits and resistance of Palestinians by inflicting the maximum amount of death and destruction. Another element is, Israel demands the right to fight cost-free hi-tech wars. So, it destroys everything in sight and kills everything in sight to avoid any casualties on its side.
Question re Hamas.
Hamas won parliamentary elections in January 2006. If Hamas is the big obstacle to resolving the conflict, why didn’t Israel end the occupation in the FOUR DECADES before Hamas came to power? If the people of Gaza do not object to Hamas arming itself, or using a tiny fraction of its resources to make these enhanced fireworks called rockets, then I don’t object. For the thousandth time, under international law, peoples struggling for self-determination have the right to use armed force to end an illegal, immoral and inhuman blockade and occupation.
Hi Norman, do you believe that the new report could lead to prosecutions of Israeli officials, or will it change nothing in the real world just like the Goldstone report, and soon will be forgotten?
In order to reach that point, the Palestinians must pass through a thousand procedural hoops. It requires a huge amount of conviction, commitment and conscientiousness to succeed. The Palestinian Authority is unable and unwilling to put in such an effort. It is hopelessly corrupt and compromised. If and when the moment of truth comes, they will do what their American paymasters tell them to do….
The Report says that the blockade of Gaza must UNCONDITIONALLY end. I agree on this point. The most important thing Israel should do is, stop carrying on like a Vandal state. That place has clearly gone over the cliff. Only mass international pressure can drag it back to sanity.
The purpose of the rule of law is supposed to be to replace MIGHT by RIGHT. But, if international humanitarian law dictates that only rich and powerful, countries, which can afford precision weapons, can use armed force, while poor peoples living under a brutal occupation de facto have no right of armed resistance, I don’t see how the rule of law is an improvement over the rule of might. Bear in mind, however, that the Report also denied to Gazans the right of NON-VIOLENT resistance. Look at para 483…
Thanks for all your questions. I’m heading home to finish my second reading of the UN Report.
P.S. Here is paragraph 483 of the Report:
In one case of the bombing of a residential building examined by the commission, information gathered indicates that following a specific warning by the IDF that the house was to be targeted, several people went to the roof of the house in order to “protect” the house. Should they have been directed to do so by members of Palestinian armed groups, this would amount to the use of the presence of civilians in an attempt to shield a military objective from attack, in violation of the customary law prohibition to use human shields. With regard to this incident, the commission is disturbed by the reported call by the spokesperson of Hamas to the people in Gaza to adopt the practice of shielding their homes from attack by going up on their roofs. Although the call is directed to residents of Gaza, it can be seen and understood as an encouragement to Palestinian armed groups to use human shields.