dr norman finkelstein spoke at le moyne college, in syracuse, last thursday. it’s a miracle he got to do so in view of the pressure that was put on le moyne to cancel the event. when an outright cancellation could not be achieved, the idea was floated that a panel should be set up to “discuss” finkelstein’s arguments. both those attempts at sabotage were foiled by local activists, thankfully, and we got to hear the man.
what i like about norman finkelstein is how he builds his case – deliberately, factually, with scientific precision and logic, with specific references and quotes, he constructs an argument that is solid and seems self-evident by the time he’s finished.
finkelstein began his lecture with the election of hamas in gaza, in what were unanimously believed to be fair and open elections. however, since the “wrong” party won, the united states and israel tried to back up a coup, which failed, and then imposed a blockade.
all military activities were halted on june 19, 2008 when a cease-fire was brokered by egypt under which hamas was to stop rocket and mortar attacks and israel was to lift the blockade on gaza. hamas stopped the attacks but israel reneged on its obligation.
on nov 4th, american election day, israel attacked and killed 6 palestinians inside the gaza strip thus ending the cease-fire.
hostilities resumed and israel initiated operation cast lead on december 27, 2008. finkelstein is particular about how the world should describe what happened in the following 22 days – it wasn’t a “war” but a “massacre”. why? finkelstein asked the audience to google “breaking the silence” and to read the testimony of israeli soldiers. time after time the soldiers repeat that they didn’t see anyone – there was no enemy, there were no battles, there was no fighting. of the 3,000 air missions flown into gaza, each and every plane came back to base. no plane was damaged. some of the soldiers’ metaphors: it was like playing video games, it was like hunting season, it was like a child burning ants with a magnifying glass. the word “insane” comes up over and over again: israel used insane fire power – the ground shook, soldiers were asked to exit the houses they were operating from lest they collapse. insane fire power. white phosphorous, which had been used before in 1982 in lebanon, was also used in gaza. white phosphorous burns at a temperature of 1,500 degrees F.
how about some stats to back up the claim that it was a massacre? ratio of israeli to palestinian deaths: 1 to 100 including soldiers, 1 to 400 when looking at civilians only. what about israel’s claim of hamas using human shields? more than 300 reports have been written about what happened in gaza by various human rights organizations. no evidence of human shields was found by any of them. autopsy reports confirmed that palestinians were not killed because they got caught in cross fire. rather they were bombed while they slept in their beds or they were air-targeted while they were at home.
after the 22 day-long gaza massacre, the blockade was not lifted. it became more insidious. gaza’s infrastructure had been completely destroyed (including its schools and hospitals, its only flour mill and its cement mixing plants) and there was no way to repair it.
we then come to the gaza aid flotilla which was the 8th or 9th attempt to break the blockade. finkelstein refuses to believe that israel’s motive was anything but violence.
why did israel not disable the ship’s propeller or engine? why didn’t they block the flotilla with their ships? if they didn’t expect any resistance, why did they launch a commando raid at 4 am? why did they use a unit that’s trained to kill? why didn’t they bring journalists along to document everything?
finkelstein believes that the answer is two-fold:
1) israel wanted to restore its deterrence capacity. what does that mean? they wanted to re-instill “fear” in the arab world after their defeat in lebanon.
2) israel wanted to cut turkey down to size. let’s not forget that 60% of the passengers on the mavi marmara were turkish. 95% were muslim.
one of finkelstein’s most ominous predictions is that israel will launch a highly spectacular attack against lebanon in the next 12-18 months, in order to make up for a string of failures (israel’s defeat in lebanon in 2006, the invasion of gaza which was seen as cowardice rather than a show of strength, and the assassination of a hamas leader in dubai which created innumerable diplomatic embarrassments). such an attack would be in line with israel’s fear of a new encirclement (hamas, hezbollah, syria and iran). israel is likely to initiate such an attack. syria and iran are likely to join the fray for they know that if lebanon is destroyed, they will be next. finally, the united states will be pulled into such a war in order to support its ally in the middle east. a terrifying scenario.
finkelstein emphasized the historic achievement of the gaza aid flotilla. that the words “the israeli siege of gaza is unsustainable” have now become common currency, is on account of the heroism of activists. he urged the movement for palestinian rights not to be distracted by “side shows” such as the peace process – which has allowed the gradual annexation of the west bank (42% of it is now occupied). the peace process is just a facade for an annexation process.
during Q&A, finkelstein was obviously confronted with the “one-sidedness” of his arguments. his answer was simple:
1) don’t blame the messenger for the message. there are over 300 human rights reports on the gaza massacre. finkelstein has read up to 10,000 pages of them. they r all consistent. he just quoted from them.
2) look at some stats: 100 to 1 dead, 6,000 to 1 homes destroyed – yes, that is one sided.
the metaphor of a child burning ants with a magnifying glass was critiqued. also, it was observed that maybe the “magnifying glass” was being used to look for gilad shalit. finkelstein’s answer:
1) ur beef is with the israeli soldier who used this expression. he was in the field and this was his metaphor. u should argue with him.
2) the ratio of prisoners held by each side: one gilad shalit to 8,000 palestinians. finkelstein challenged the audience to come up with the name of just one palestinian prisoner. silence. he also questioned the motive of bombing flour mills, cement plants and hospitals all the while looking for shalit. it doesn’t compute.
the only thing i didn’t agree with was finkelstein’s stance on BDS. he said that it was appropriate to boycott products made in the settlements (in the occupied territories) but a broad boycott of everything israeli didn’t make sense. his view is that israel is as legitimate a state as any other and therefore such a broad boycott would be discriminatory. i found this to be a weak argument. south africa, india, pakistan, cuba, iraq and iran are all legitimate states just like any other, yet they have all faced sanctions at different times. thus, sanctions do not imply state illegitimacy. in the case of south africa, BDS was proven to be an effective tool against apartheid. i refuse to believe that israel is “unique” in this regard. what worked for south africa, should work for israel. countries that view themselves as first world democracies don’t like to be treated like pariahs. BDS is a powerful, non-violent, international citizens’ movement that bypasses complicit governments and demands change. it gives one hope.
finkelstein finished on an optimistic note. he said that the pace of change is always glacial. it doesn’t happen overnight. it takes place through the slow accretion of knowledge. he talked about facebook. he said he had heard wonderful things about it and activists should use all the media now available to them to organize and educate. he said that activism didn’t have to involve self-sacrifice. to be part of something bigger than oneself is not a sacrifice. it’s a thrill.
well, the fact that 400 people turned up to listen to finkelstein on a rainy thursday evening was a small sign that things might be changing.