Current Affairs Legal Editor Oren Nimni talks to Norman G. Finkelstein, author of Gaza: An Inquest Into Its Martyrdom.
Current Affairs: You’ve commented recently with what’s going on in Gaza about not only the massive starvation and deprivation of the people in Gaza as far as material resources, life, and those sorts of things, but also a starvation of solidarity. There actually hasn’t been that much solidarity in the United States and internationally for what’s going on in Gaza. There really hasn’t been a growth of solidarity for the Palestinians, as the situation escalates and the situation in Gaza just continues to deteriorate beyond belief. Why? Why is the situation for Palestinians different than the situation for black South Africans, or other stiuations where there has been solidarity out of the U.S. and the international community. What’s different about this?
Norman Finkelstein: Well, I did say in the book that I anticipated, or I expected that if mass nonviolent resistance emerged in the occupied territories, it would still be a very difficult uphill battle. First of all, because there are so many humanitarian crises now in the Middle East that the suffering of the people of Palestine in general, and Gaza in particular seems to pale by comparison, or at any rate, doesn’t have that kind of moral salience and urgency that it once before did. So, first of all, there is the drastic diminution of the salience of the Palestine question. Secondly, large parts of our world are now supporting Israel, and are actually urging and exhorting it to crush the people of Gaza. And that includes the Saudis, the Gulf in general. It includes the Egyptians. It includes the Palestinian authority in the West Bank. So the Palestinians and their cause, in particular, in Gaza, is more isolated than ever. Thirdly, there is this regrettable aspect of human nature, of which the most acute observer was Gandhi. Gandhi said the only thing that galvanizes a public into action is when they see human suffering. In particular, when they see people get killed for a just cause. And there was simply not a sufficient amount of bloodletting, even in the first weeks of what was called The Great March Of Return. There wasn’t sufficient bloodletting as to excite and arouse the passion and indignation of the broad public. On the other hand, it was perfectly obvious that there was going to be a big massacre on May 14th. And one wishes that people had acted on the inexorable logic of where things were going. There was going to be a massacre.
CA: Israel said so.
NF: Right, Israel said they’re not crossing the border. The people of Gaza were determined. They were going to cross the border. Well, that’s a very combustible situation. But the solidarity movement, like I guess, the broad public, can’t be moved into action unless there is a massive bloodletting. Since May 14th, there have been more demonstrations, and there has been more solidarity on the broad public level, and also on the level of the solidarity movement. There are the additional factors. I would not call them major factors, but I would call them factors. Nonetheless, the solidarity movement has been effectively hijacked by the BDS campaign. And the BDS campaign was wholly irrelevant to the events that exploded in Gaza. And so people who were kind of fixated on BDS and BDS campaigns, which is the whole of the solidarity movement has been hijacked by BDS, they didn’t know how to react. So you had this preposterous result that as the Great March of Return began, the BDS issues a statement that the most effective tactic now is an arms embargo on Israel. Because an arms embargo conforms to their program of sanctions against Israel. But it had nothing whatever to do with the reality that Gazans were facing. You needed mass demonstrations, you needed sit-ins, you needed vigils. You need mobilizing the public in order to put sufficient pressure on Israel so that it wouldn’t commit a massacre on May 14th. Instead, they’re telling people to coordinate an arms embargo. It was so completely irrelevant. And the other factor was I mentioned that the moral salience of the Palestine struggle has been drastically reduced. I mentioned that its humanitarian dimension has also been overshadowed by what’s going on elsewhere in the Arab world. I mentioned the abandonment or betrayal of the leading Arab states of people of Gaza. I mentioned the inactivity of the solidarity movement. And then there’s one other very big factor. The complete passivity of the West Bank, to the point of what you might call treachery and betrayal. On May 14th, there were 1,000 people demonstrating in the West Bank. That was the day of the moving of the embassy.
CA: As Gaza has slipped further and further into just more deplorable conditions, and the crimes against Gaza continue to mount, the West Bank has been relatively quiet. What is the end goal for the Palestinian Authority and the West Bank? There seems to be a separation in solidarity and in action between what is going on in the West Bank, and Israeli focus in the West Bank. The Israeli focus seems to be largely on Gaza. And I guess my question is so what’s the end goal of Israel?
NF: Israel has achieved its goal in the West Bank. It’s succeeded. The Oslo Process, which was designed to create a collaborator class that would pacify the population. It succeeded. There is a privileged caste now in the West Bank. There is now a very efficient security apparatus trained mostly by the Jordanians and the CIA. There is a dearth of civil society organizations because Israel, the E.U., and the U.S. co-opted anyone and everyone in the West Bank who showed leadership ability, who showed intellectual acumen, they would just fish them out, give them a computer terminal in Ramallah, give them a cubicle, pay them by West Bank standards a very high salary, and effectively said, “you can do whatever you want on the web, just chill.”
Ramallah now probably has one of the highest living standards in the world. There are scores of NGOs. And live a relatively good life there. And so the whole potential leadership class of the civil society organizations now occupy cubicles in Ramallah, and cafes at night. And so in time the First Intifada, and I lived there then, everybody belonged to a political party. Political party was part of your C.V. Actually, it was the top item, the first item on your C.V. And then everybody belonged to this union, or that mass organization. There was a rich array of civil society organizations which disappeared immediately as the First Intifada broke up, and there was a kind of leadership vacuum, because the former leadership at that point was in Tunis. There were all these other organizations which moved right into action. This whole array of civil society organizations. Now there’s nothing.
CA: It does seem like Israel has largely attained its goal for what they want in the West Bank, and is moving to attain its goal in what they want in Gaza, perhaps.
NF: It wants to attain that goal in Gaza. That’s why the key demand has been to replace Hamas with the Palestinian Authority as the ruling group in Gaza. They will have more difficulty because of the level of poverty in Gaza is such that it will be hard to pacify their population. But they’ve succeeded in the West Bank, which is another reason why, as I insisted all along, that BDS is a facade. They claim to represent Palestinian civil society, and they have appended to what they call the 2005 Call. They have appended to it the endorsements of some 200 civil society organizations. And I kept saying yes, it’s an impressive list, until you come to realize that each signatory on that list represents two people. So they’re a shell organization. And the proof of the pudding is in the eating. So what happened? We have an outbreak of mass nonviolent civil resistance in Gaza, and the thing that Israel fears most in the short term is that it spreads to the West Bank. Because that would be a re-enactment of the First Intifada, which means massive amounts of Israeli troops and reserves would have to be brought in, which for Israel is a problem. Well, there are no demonstrations.
CA: No, the West Bank has been largely silent. In the United States we talk a lot about what the role of the United States to put pressure on Israel with regards to Gaza and with regards to the West Bank is. But what do you see as the future for the left in Israel and for civil society organizations like Adalah, for example, or for political players in the Knesset like the Joint List, do you think that the left in Israel has any position to push back?
NF: There’s no more point in investing hope or energy in converting Israeli society than there was in investing hope and energy in converting the southern white power structure during the Civil Rights Movement. The South wasn’t going to be converted [except through external pressure]. And at some point, for various political reasons, Lyndon Johnson felt compelled to support the Civil Rights movement, and bring to bear all sorts of external pressures, which of course were stimulated by the resistance of African Americans in the South. But on their own, they couldn’t do it. They know that they couldn’t break the back of the South, because left to its own devices, the South would have brought to bear overpowering brutality and violence against the nonviolent resisters. The South was trying to make an appeal to the whole of the United States—I mean, the African Americans themselves, the Civil Rights Movement, and appeal to the whole of the United States, and to some extent, to the world, to say that this system is immoral, this system is unjust, this system is in breach of our constitutional rights, so the system has to be broken.
It’s the same thing with the Palestinians. Don’t waste your time on Israel or Israelis. They are like those vicious racists, those mean people in the American South. What you have to try to do is bring to bear international public opinion on Israel. And Israel is very sensitive to that international public opinion and invests quite a significant amount of resources to try to—
CA: It has a big P.R. campaign, and you know under the Obama presidency obviously, any time he wanted an Israeli operation to stop, he would just let them know, and that would be fine, and he could stop it whenever he wanted, but that would be only invested when it was politically advantageous to him.
NF: He wanted to pretend to be a progressive. Which is one of the reasons he hated Bernie Sanders so much, because he wanted the mantle of being the prophet of progressive ideas and along came Bernie, this 70-something Jew from Brooklyn, New York, and he was winning the hearts and galvanizing the spirits of young people, which is what Obama wanted.
CA: So Bernie is interesting because he is the only major politician really to comment on the brutality of the Israeli regime on the people of Gaza, at this point, but also, when he does so, he also front loads the “well there was some ‘violence’ from Hamas,” which doesn’t justify the massive violence by Israel. Bernie is a fairly major politician. Is the fact that he’s even talking about it an important shift?
NF: Well, first of all, by impulse and instinct, Bernie is a fairly decent guy. He is also, in addition, a politician. And he’s a politician who now has very serious presidential ambitions, and quite possibly will be the next president of the United States. It’s a serious possibility. It’s not a certainty, of course, but there is a good possibility that he might be. If you look at the Democratic Party now, the Democratic Party and the question of Israel is significantly shifting. It’s now about 25 percent support Israel, about 25 percent support the Palestinians, and 50 percent take no position. However, among the Bernie wing of the Democratic Party, it’s lopsidedly pro-Palestinian. It’s about 29 percent pro-Palestinian, 16 percent pro-Israel. So when you factor in all of those percentages, not just by virtue of instinct and impulse, but also by virtue of his base, he has to speak out on what Israel is acquitting itself of in Gaza. His initial statements, in my opinion, were not bad.
CA: They were better than I expected, to be honest.
NF: But there was an element of disingenuousness when he talked about the Hamas violence. I attacked him very aggressively for that. And then it was noticeable that his next statement, on May 15th or 16th, I can’t remember, he dropped the phrase about the Hamas violence. There was also the statement signed by him and Dianne Feinstein. There was also a statement signed by six or seven members of Congress, which wasn’t bad. The important point is that the shifts in public opinion generally are finding expression inside one of the major political parties, and that’s in the Democratic Party. So that is a critical change, and one which bodes well for the future, that it will no longer be blind bipartisan support for Israel, the Republican Party will be the party of blind support, and the Democratic Party will be one of different shades of criticism. Schumer, I think, he will represent a stratum of the Democratic Party which is heavily enthralled to the Israel Lobby. But there will now be gradations of criticism with the Bernie base of the party, the most critical of Israel.
CA: Shifting to the ways that we might put external pressure on Israel. In the book, in the appendix, you talk about the international legal case against the blockade and the occupation. I wanted to hear from you about the strength of that case, and also about the extent to which we want to rest our push against the Israeli occupation on international law or international legal norms, or whether those are just a good strategy right now. But maybe we shouldn’t put all of our eggs in the basket of whether what Israel is doing is a legal crime, as opposed to whether it’s a moral crime.
NF: I never put any eggs in the legal basket, per say. Legal victories of the Palestinians—they are weapons in the struggle for public opinion, because they lend legitimacy, moral and legal legitimacy and authority to the struggle. So you can say the legal opinion is the occupation is illegal. The legal opinion is Amnesty International, human rights law, they say the blockade constitutes a form of collective punishment, which is a flagrant violation of international law. And you can invoke those legal victories in the course of the mass struggle. But in the absence of a mass struggle, I never thought you could win. You know, lawyers, they become so obsessed with winning the legal battles, when many of the legal battles have already been won. The Palestinians won the legal battle over the legitimacy, the legality of the wall that Israel was building in the West Bank. They won that in July, 2004. What came of it? Nothing. The Palestinians have won. They’ve won the Goldstone Report—a very powerful weapon. They did nothing with it. They had the resolution in 2016 in the security council on the illegality of the settlements, the one that Obama abstained from. They have in their dossier lots of legal victories. They’ve done nothing with them. Even if by some miracle, Fatou Bensouda, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, did prosecute Israel, which she won’t, and even if by some larger miracle, she found them guilty, which she won’t, but if she did, it’s another paper victory. It’s very important, paper victories, but only if they are part and parcel of a mass struggle, which is trying to win public opinion. And you can present to public opinion these legal victories in order to command legal and moral authority. Which is to say, to do exactly what the Zionists did. Zionists, they latched onto the Balfour Declaration, then the partition resolution. Every time they had a legal, moral victory, they then exploited it to the hilt in order to win over public opinion to their cause. These were certificates of legitimacy that the Zionist movement was able to acquire, and then to exploit. And they were very successful at it.
CA: And conservative movements are often better at utilizing law, or legal victories in order to make moral claims. But it’s true that the Civil Rights Movement in the South had this pairing of legal victories with building of a mass movement to actually enact those.
NF: With the Civil Rights Movement, its moral legitimacy and legal legitimacy were squarely in the law. The Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing equal rights under the law, and then Brown vs. Board of Education, declaring separate but equal to be—they said separate cannot be equal and therefore the system cannot be legally validated. It’s important to remember Brown vs. Board of Education was in 1954. By the time of the first Civil Rights Bill in 1964, ten years later, only 1 percent of African Americans were attending integrated schools. Brown was a paper victory. It only became a real victory on the ground, a material victory, because of the Civil Rights Movement.
CA: Right, and to the extent that it did, because in Boston, schools are largely still segregated by income and neighborhood.
NF: It’s still a long way from being “not separate.”
CA: You’re right that there is that pairing between using the law as the moral foundation, but needing the mass movement to build and push. In the book you document out an expansive history of the subjugation of Gaza at the hands of Israel from Operation Cast Lead, Operation Protective Edge. What is your goal with this book, and what do you see as the future for Gaza?
NF: The goal of the book is very simple. The goal of the book is to preserve the truth. I believe in that, and I say in the book, it’s the least that’s owed the dead and the martyrs. The truth of what they endured, what they suffered at the hands of Israel should not be effaced, it should not be forgotten. I wanted to chronicle that record of martyrdom that the people of Gaza have had to endure at the hands of the State, which at this point, I can’t resist, much as I wish I could, I can’t resist the conclusion that it’s become positively satanic, and positively maniacal in its determination to crush the people of Gaza, to engage them in what even their own senior military and security officials acknowledge is an unlivable situation. I want that to be documented. I want that record to be preserved. I had little if no hope that they would finally figure out, the people of Gaza, as I say in the book over, and over again, the only option they have is mass nonviolent resistance. And I said it once, I said it twice, I said it three times, you have the right to armed resistance, but as a matter of political prudence, it won’t work. I said, the strategy of what’s called international diplomacy, the so-called peace process, well we don’t have to convince anyone any longer — that’s a dead end. And that left only one strategy unless you’re a complete imbecile and you believe that BDS is going to liberate Palestine. And that was mass nonviolent resistance.
CA: With your view of the history, it seems like there’s a couple of ways forward, right? One is Israel is successful at provoking people in Gaza into using methods that the international community would find too violent to support, and then Israel gets its green light to wipe out more of Gaza. Or, Gaza is successful at resisting those and continues in nonviolent mass movement building, and then perhaps something happens, or Israel is just successful at starving them into the sea.
NF: Well, and that’s a logical move by Israel. It’s going to be threatened. If Hamas doesn’t stop the nonviolent protest, they’re going to assassinate the leadership of Hamas, hoping that a new level of leadership will be sufficiently lunatic that they will start up the rocket attacks again.
CA: They have a record of assassinations, of course.
NF: They assassinate all these moderates. Just like in 2012 at Pillar of Defense, it began with their assassination of Ahmed Jabari, who was actually working with Israel to maintain the cease-fire along the Gaza border. So I think the next likely move is going to be to assassinate the leadership. Because they threatened to. They threatened that on May 14th, when the head of Hamas went by helicopter to Egypt, and there he was told by Egyptian security that he was conveying the threat from the Israeli government that if you don’t stop the demonstrations, we’re going to assassinate your leadership. So I think the leadership of Gaza knows that this strategy is working. However, they won’t be baited or goaded into resuming the so-called rocket attacks. But there is a good chance they’re going to be killed.
CA: Do you think the move of the embassy and Trump’s support of Netanyahu is going to push Israel to take further, more extreme violent action more quickly than they normally would, or that really, Israel’s interaction with Gaza is really not that much influenced by what Trump is doing?
NF: I would tend towards the latter. It is true, as Professor Chomsky points out correctly, that tiny differences make a very significant difference when it’s a system or an organization commanding huge amounts of power. The differences between the Democrats and the Republicans might be a flea’s hop on many issues, but a flea’s hop, when you have that much power, does mean a significant difference in terms of numbers of people killed. And the fact that there were mild remonstrations by Obama and Secretary of State Kerry against Israel did put some brakes on Israel.
Not much, but something. Now there is nothing.
If you appreciate our work, please consider making a donation, purchasing a subscription, or supporting our podcast on Patreon. Current Affairs is not for profit and carries no outside advertising. We are an independent media institution funded entirely by subscribers and small donors, and we depend on you in order to continue to produce high-quality work.