Published just over a year after Israel’s 2008 attack on Gaza and drawing on a wealth of evidence Finkelstein’s book is first and foremost a stunning indictment of that attack.

Norman Finkelstein, This Time We Went Too Far (OR Books 2010), 208pp.

Norman Finkelstein is an academic who has written and spoken widely on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Along with Noam Chomsky he has been one of America’s most outspoken critics of Israel. Published just over a year after Israel’s 2008/9 attack on Gaza this book is first and foremost a stunning indictment of that attack. Finkelstein presents a mass of evidence drawn from reports by human rights organisations, soldiers’ testimonies, statements from Israeli officials, news reports, UN documents and in particular the Goldstone report.

Altogether the effect is an onslaught of undeniable condemnation. In this respect This Time We Went Too Far does two things: it blasts away any remaining shred of apology for Israel, and it condenses, out of the evidence, a powerful lament for a great human tragedy. The titles of the two chapters which contain the bulk of the indictment testify to the first part: Whitewash and Of Human Shields and Hasbara (the Hebrew word for propaganda). A quotation from Gandhi at the end of the book indicates the second: ‘Massacre of innocent people is a serious matter. It is not a thing to be easily forgotten. It is our duty to cherish their memory’.

The balance sheet of operation ‘Cast Lead’ is one of massive, disproportionate destruction:
‘On the basis of extensive field research, nongovernmental organisations put the total number of Palestinians killed at nearly 1400, of whom up to four-fifths were civilians and 350 children. On the other side, total Israeli casualties amounted to ten combatants (four killed by friendly fire) and three civilians… Israel destroyed or damaged 58,000 homes… 280 schools and kindergartens,… 1,500 factories and workshops…’

There was no real resistance; Israeli soldiers’ experiences ranged from boredom and casual sadism to surprise at the extraordinary firepower deployed, uncommon even to members of the IDF: ‘IDF testimonies recalled ‘the hatred and the joy’ , and ‘fun’ and ‘delight’ of killing Palestinians.’ Another soldier said: ‘there was a point where D-9s were razing areas. It was amazing. At first you go in and see lots of houses. A week later, after razing, you see the horizon further away, almost to the sea’.

Individual atrocities were widespread, and Finkelstein is able to document that Palestinian civilians, ‘including women and children, were shot at short range when posing no threat to the lives of the Israeli soldiers’. The destruction was deliberately intended, with the design of the operation coming from the highest levels. Finkelstein quotes an exchange between a BBC reporter observing that Israel ‘imposed 100 times more casualties on Gaza in three weeks than they did on you’ and Interior Minister Sheerit responding: ‘that’s the idea of the operation, what do you think?’. Just after the ceasefire Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni ‘bragged that “Israel demonstrated real hooliganism during the course of the recent operation, which I demanded”.’

This exhaustive factual account is the core of the book but, as Finkelstein acknowledges, it isn’t enough in itself. Finkelstein wishes the book to be more than a ‘lament’, since he sees the attack on Gaza as a turning point in world public opinion, such that ‘the prospects have never been more propitious for galvanising the public not just to mourn but also to act.’

The rest of the book, sandwiched around his account of the attack itself, is dedicated to explaining the strategic logic behind Cast Lead and the tensions leading up to it. Finkelstein offers a picture of the recent shift in public opinion, the growing movement for Palestinian solidarity, and gives advice on how to continue and extend these developments. Within this agenda there are three main touchstones around which Finkelstein orientates his arguments: 1. international law; 2. liberal Jewish opinion, particularly in the US; and 3. the idea that the scale of destruction unleashed by Cast Lead effectively shocked people into action. While all three are important aspects of the forces at play, raising them up to the point where they become the principal bases of the Palestinian cause, as Finkelstein seems to do, is problematic.

Finkelstein is not uncritical of international law. At one point he goes as far as saying that ‘in a rational world the locution “laws of war” would make as much sense as “etiquette of cannibals”.’ Yet he still places a somewhat disproportionate emphasis on the importance of UN resolutions, international legal bodies like the ICJ and most of all the Goldstone report. He criticises US and Israeli exceptionalism in the face of international law but never quite makes the essential point. The US and Israel go unchecked in their disregard for the rules because international law has a certain degree of US dominance built into it. This itself flows from the dynamics of imperialism. International law is not a neutral field, a simple set of rules, but an institution that has formed within an imperialist system.

US dominance can effectively neutralise international law, and just as easily manipulate it. To take an example from the book, Finkelstein recounts how the US and Israel were able to put pressure on the Palestinian Authority (PA) over its support of the Goldstone Report’s recommendations: ‘Acting on direct instruction from President Mahmoud Abbas, the PA representative on the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) effectively acquiesced in killing consideration of the Goldstone Report’. The PA had to reverse its stance later, but this episode underlines the fact that the reasons to cite international law are essentially tactical. International law is a contested space that includes a strong bias towards the US and other imperial powers.

It is certainly worth trying to make use of international law in the right circumstances, but only with a clear understanding of its limitations. The danger is that far from serving to unify people as Finkelstein intends, reliance on the processes of international law could have a profound demobilising effect. The recent UNHRC resolution endorsing the Goldstone Report is a small victory on the way to something bigger, but we should still expect the US to block action on it at the Security Council. And of course just because we support the findings and recommendations of the Goldstone report doesn’t mean we shouldn’t wholeheartedly oppose UN sanctions on Iran or the UN-supported occupation of Iraq.

International law (or universal human values) is not the only reason Finkelstein puts such high store in the Goldstone report. He sees in Goldstone a welcome return to a ‘classical’ Jewish liberalism that ends an era of ‘blanket Jewish support for Israel’. Moreover, ‘because of Goldstone’s credentials, Israel could not credibly play its usual cards – ‘anti-Semite’, ‘self-hating Jew’, ‘Holocaust denier’. . . In effect his persona neutralised the ideological weapons Israel has honed over many years to ward off criticism.’ For Finkelstein the wider shift in Jewish opinion makes the prospects of the Palestinian cause and a ‘just and lasting resolution’ of the whole conflict better now than they ever have been.

The shifts in Jewish opinion with regard to Israel, particularly in America, that Finkelstein documents are revealing and important. But in describing liberal Jewish opinion as the key to any movement for a just peace (presumably a movement for solidarity with the people of Palestine) Finkelstein confuses cause and effect. The turning of the tide within this particular section of international public opinion is symptomatic of a much larger movement. Broadly speaking this is the global antiwar movement. The Palestinian cause now has a higher profile because the issue of Palestine has been swept up in the war on terror. The corresponding shift in public opinion is due largely to the way in which this political connection has been made and reinforced by the movement against the war.

An implication of Finkelstein’s title, ‘this time we went too far’, well reflected in the text, is that what was decisive about Israel’s attack on Gaza was simply the level of destruction. The massive destruction of Cast Lead made it an event from which people couldn’t turn their eyes. However, one only has to look at comparable violent moments in Israel’s history, like the war on Lebanon in 1982, to see that the widespread outrage surrounding Cast Lead involved other factors apart from the level and nature of the violence itself. Significantly in 1982 the largest protests against that war were in Israel itself, with one protest bringing hundreds of thousands of Israelis out onto the streets of Tel Aviv. While international solidarity campaigns like the PSC here in the UK were founded around the events of 1982 they did not yet have the mass appeal they have now.

In effect Finkelstein recognises this when he notes that ‘it is not so much that Israel’s behaviour is worse than it was before, but rather that the record of that behaviour has finally caught up with it’. But why did the record catch up now? The global protests around Gaza in 2008/9 were part of a chain of decisive moments from the Jenin massacre in 2002 to the second war on Lebanon in 2006. Israel’s repression of the second Intifada was swept up in the discourse of the war on terror due to the clear support of the Bush administration. The fate of the Palestinians became visibly tied to US intentions for the whole of the Middle East, including its plans to attack Iraq. Palestine became a cause of common struggle for a large number of those opposing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The global antiwar movement has been a rising sea lifting the Palestinian cause.

Alistair Cartwright

Alistair Cartwright is an activist with the Stop the War Coalition and a member of Counterfire.