Israel's atrocities in Gaza - Book review

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Gaza: an inquest into its martyrdom

Norman G Finkelstein

University of California Press 2018, £27.95

In the opening sentence of his preface to the book, Finkelstein writes ‘This book is not about Gaza. It is about what has been done to Gaza’ and it is, as its jacket states, a meticulously researched inquest into Gaza’s martyrdom. The book records in great detail the death and destruction meted out by Israel in the 2008/09 ‘Operation Cast Lead’, the 2010 attack on the Mavi Marmara and 2014 ‘Operation Protective Edge’, detailing the hypocrisy of the UN, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in covering up for Israel’s war crimes. As he states in the preface: ‘What has befallen Gaza is a human-made human disaster ... Gaza is about a Big Lie composed of a thousand, often seemingly abstruse and arcane, little lies. The objective of this book is to refute that Big Lie by exposing each of the little lies ... If the evil is in the detail, it can only be confronted and disposed of in methodical parsing of logic and evidence. The reader’s forbearance must in advance be begged, as perusing this book will require infinite patience.’

The book is certainly not an easy read, but Finkelstein has done a great service in providing to the world a historical record of Israel’s atrocities in Gaza.

He starts by briefly looking at the history of Zionist terror in Gaza from the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, through the ‘Suez crisis’ of 1956 and the occupation of Gaza in 1969, to the first Intifada, the Oslo Accords and then the second Intifada, leading up to the launching of ‘Operation Cast Lead’ by Israel on 27 December 2008. As Finkelstein says, ‘the road to modern Gaza’s desperate plight is strewn with multiple atrocities, most long forgotten or unknown outside Gaza’. As an example, over a thousand Palestinians were killed during the four-month Israeli occupation of Gaza that accompanied the Israeli attack on the Suez Canal in 1956, undertaken in alliance with Britain and France.

Finkelstein does not hold back in his views on the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), who agreed the Oslo Accords. Using quotes from former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, he states the aim of the Accords was not to construct a ‘peace process’ but to ‘groom a class of Palestinian collaborators’, a process which has been extremely successful. In 2005, Israel pulled out its settlers and troops from Gaza, beginning the blockade which has been continuously tightened since. In 2006, as a rejection of the rampant corruption of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Hamas won a majority in Palestinian elections that were described by former US President Jimmy Carter as ‘completely honest and fair’. The response of Israel, supported by the US, Britain and the EU was to impose even tougher economic sanctions on Gaza.

In 2007, after Hamas defeated a coup attempt by elements of Fatah in Gaza which had the support of Israel and imperialism, the screw on Gaza was tightened even further. The impact is well documented by Finkelstein. Before Cast Lead was launched on Gaza on 27 December 2008, at least 158 non-combatants had been killed by Israel that year, around 8,000 prisoners detained including 390 children, electricity provided for less than eight hours a day, water supplies connected only once a week with 80% unfit for human consumption, food security and medical supplies at an all time low.

Using figures from human rights groups, Finkelstein documents the loss of human life and economic destruction meted out by the Israelis during Cast Lead. Over 1,400 Palestinians were killed, 80% of whom were civilians, and 350 children. Almost half of Gaza’s 122 health facilities, including 15 hospitals, were damaged or destroyed. 29 ambulances were attacked and 16 medical personnel were killed. The two top floors of Al Quds Hospital were destroyed, Al Wafa and the European Hospitals in Khan Younis were hit by tank shells, missiles and thousands of bullets. Israel destroyed or damaged 58,000 homes, 280 schools and six university buildings. Factories, agricultural centres, electrical, water and sewage facilities were targeted. As Finkelstein says, Israel did not just attack Gaza’s civilian population and its humanitarian support system, it also systematically targeted Gaza’s civilian infrastructure.

Tsipi Livni, Israeli Foreign Minister at the time, declared later that Cast Lead had ‘restored Israel’s deterrence... Hamas now understands that when you fire on Israel’s citizens it responds by going wild – and this is a good thing... Israel demonstrated real hooliganism’. The many subsequent reports by NGOs overwhelmingly condemned Israeli actions, contradicting its official claims. For instance, Amnesty International refuted Israeli stories that Hamas had used civilians as ‘human shields’, presenting evidence that Israeli soldiers were the guilty parties.

In 2009, the Goldstone Report was published as the culmination of a ‘fact finding mission’ set up by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate violations of human rights during Cast Lead. Goldstone was a former judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa and a Zionist, but his report was as Finkelstein puts it, ‘a searing indictment not just of Cast Lead but also of the ongoing Israeli occupation’. The Report found that much of the destruction carried out by Israel had been premeditated, and concluded that the Israeli assault constituted ‘a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorise 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 Report found that Israel had committed war crimes and numerous violations of international law.

As expected, the Report prompted a torrent of abuse from all sections of the Israeli political spectrum and from defenders of Zionism and the Israeli state internationally. The US under President Obama led the attack, while the PA refused to push the issue within UN bodies. Then on 1 April 2011, Goldstone himself distanced himself from the report he himself had written. The consequence of his action became evident in 2014 when none of the major human rights organisations were prepared to point the finger at Israel for the crimes that accompanied Protective Edge.

Finkelstein goes through the events of 31 May 2010 when a humanitarian flotilla en route to Gaza was attacked in the middle of the night in international waters by Israeli commandos. Nine passengers on the Mavi Marmara were shot and killed by the Israeli troops. Israel attempted to portray its murder of unarmed human rights activists as an act of ‘self defence’. This blatant lie is exposed by Finkelstein as he goes through the facts. The Mavi Marmara was firstly attacked by commandos in boats firing tear gas, smoke and stun grenades. Then helicopters, hovering above the ship, opened fire before any commandos dropped down onto the decks. Israel’s determination to enforce a naval blockade of Gaza at any cost is clearly linked to the land blockade and has, as Finkelstein states, ‘a political objective of bringing Gaza’s economy to the brink of collapse’.

In the last section of the book, Finkelstein looks at the devastating effects of Operation Protective Edge, launched by Israel on 8 July 2014. The assault lasted 51 days, leaving more than 1,500 civilians dead, including 550 children. Israel fired 20,000 high explosive artillery shells, 14,500 tank shells, 6,000 missiles and 3,500 naval shells into Gaza during this period, destroying 18,000 homes. The President of the International Committee of the Red Cross is quoted after touring Gaza: ‘I’ve never seen such massive destruction before.’ The depths of destruction and the racist views of Israeli soldiers are expressed in eyewitness accounts published by the Israeli NGO, Breaking the Silence. ‘You’re shooting at anything that moves – and also what isn’t moving, crazy amounts...It also becomes a bit like a computer game, totally cool and real.’

Finkelstein points to the UN report of 2015 which says that on the present trajectory Gaza will be uninhabitable by 2020, and quotes an Israeli official who in 2016 said that another war on Gaza was inevitable. However, he also points to the continuing resistance of the Palestinian people: ‘Gaza’s richest resources are its people, the truth and public opinion’. He calls for a mass non-violent movement in Gaza which can confront the border fences and which can link with international solidarity, ‘if the people of Gaza, on the one hand, and global public opinion on the other, are mobilised, galvanised and organised...then a small miracle might yet come to pass…if we all persevere to end the occupation’. For anyone who wants to know the real facts and truth of Gaza, this is the book to read.

Bob Shepherd