Gaza: An Inquest into its Martyrdom is a passionate and painstaking attempt to counter Israeli deception over the Palestinian struggle, finds Oliver Eagleton
Norman Finkelstein, Gaza: An Inquiry into its Martyrdom (California University Press), xvi, 419pp.
Since the last U.S. election, the Western commentariat has described Russia as the sole origin and primary purveyor of ‘fake news’. Yale history professor Timothy Snyder claims that Vladimir Putin invented a series of disinformation tactics designed to spread confusion and relativise truth. This diffusion of lies created such disorientation that, according to Snyder, the Russian population could be manipulated into a state of paranoia; fearing international conspiracies against them and looking to the Putin regime for stability.
A shrewd analysis to be sure. But liberals who see Russia as the founder and promoter of modern propaganda neglect the extent to which Western allies have employed similar strategies. They also ignore equivalences between their caricature of the Russian – a gullible lemming who believes the fabrications of a repressive state – and their own condition.
There is no better illustration of this point than the widespread acceptance of Israeli hasbara (propaganda aimed at Western audiences). Each time the Netanyahu administration commits an atrocity in Gaza, it pedals a series of falsehoods and distortions which elicit minimal scepticism from the British media.
The effect of these distortions on public discourse can be subtle. For example, the BBC has repeatedly described the ongoing massacre of Gazan protesters as ‘border clashes’, recycling the conceit that we are witnessing a two-way confrontation rather than a simple slaughter of civilians. (Al Jazeera’s Hamid Dabashi notes that ‘a live bullet does not “clash” with a defenceless body’.) The broadcaster also repeated the IDF lie that snipers responded to Palestinian ‘rioting’, and offered no comment on the discredited assertion that Israel ‘opened fire in self-defence’. Meanwhile, The Times printed baseless claims that gunmen ‘retaliated’ against Gazan aggression, and The Guardian reported that recent airstrikes targeted Hamas ‘militant sites’, ignoring the humanitarian anti-blockade boats that were incinerated by Israeli missiles.
State deception and the media
This capacity to twist and reshape the truth is enabled by a culture of craven submission to official Israeli sources; one which Westerners should interrogate before ridiculing the sycophancy of Putin’s followers or condemning their economical approach to truth. If Russia’s propaganda machine has capitalised on rising geopolitical tension to instil fear and credulity in its citizens, Israeli hasbara uses Islamophobic fantasies of the bloodthirsty Arab mob to advance its own agenda. In both cases, a sense of threat is harnessed to dull one’s critical instincts until the state-sanctioned narrative seems plausible. The only difference is that Russia has legitimate cause to fear Anglo-American jingoism, while Israeli terror at unarmed protesters is entirely trumped up.
For an extensive analysis of twenty-first century hasbara – and how it infects the language of Western journalists, politicians and human rights groups – Norman Finkelstein’s new book is a valuable resource. Those aware of Finkelstein’s record will be circumspect about his latest work, given the academic’s bizarre reinvention as a men’s rights activist (defending divorcees accused of domestic abuse) and his crankish article on the Labour antisemitism debate (in which he wrote that it is ‘just plain common sense’ to believe that ‘Jews have too much power in Britain’). However, when one takes Gaza: An Inquest into its Martyrdom on its own terms, its passionate and painstaking attempt to counter Israeli deception deserves our close attention.
The book evaluates several documents produced in response to Israeli war crimes, from the official justification for the Mavi Marmara attack in 2010 (when naval commandos executed nine aid workers for violating the Israeli blockade) to Amnesty International’s report on the 2014 invasion of Gaza. Finkelstein’s sustained engagement with these texts exposes the process by which unscrupulous Israeli PR is transmitted by supposedly independent outlets.
Amnesty, it turns out, owes much of the data in its ‘neutral’ reports to Israeli government sources whose veracity is never questioned. The NGO overstates Hamas’s military capability based on false IDF conjectures; it makes excuses for Israeli attacks on hospitals, schools and ambulances because the IDF claims (with no supporting evidence) that these constitute ‘military targets’; it repeats Israeli legal arguments that the killing of Palestinian civilians is justified by a legitimate military objective; and it reproduces Israeli government accusations regarding Hamas’s use of human shields, ignoring reams of contrary evidence.
When one scans the footnotes of Unlawful and Deadly – Amnesty’s indictment of Hamas for violations of international law – one is struck by the astounding volume of information copied directly from IDF and Israeli Foreign Ministry press releases. What would happen if a respected human-rights organisation used nothing but Hamas propaganda to substantiate its criticism of the Israeli government? Would it be respected for much longer?
Accepting the official frame
The United Nations and Human Rights Watch fare no better beneath Finkelstein’s critical lens. But, counterintuitively, it is their condemnation of Israel which contains the most telling glimmers of hasbara. Both bodies describe Israel’s ‘disproportionate’ or ‘indiscriminate’ use of force, and censure the IDF for its failure to ‘limit civilian casualties’ (pp.330-1), demonstrating a level of bravery and honesty which is often absent from reports on Israel-Palestine.
Yet, writes Finkelstein, any level-headed examination of the facts reveals that ‘disproportionate’ and ‘indiscriminate’ are not words which reflect the nature of Israeli firepower. Nor can it be said that civilian deaths are caused by IDF negligence. For Israel’s strategic aim is to inflict maximal suffering and destruction on the Gazan population. Its decision to gun down 205 Gazans at the border fence, target key infrastructure through airstrikes, and murder a record number of Palestinian children this year is entirely proportionate to that objective – as is its repeated use of white phosphorous munitions in populated areas (a tactic rarely mentioned by Western liberals who advocate intervention against Assad’s chemical arsenal).
Finkelstein argues that deliberate attacks on civilians are carried out for two political ends. First: to punish the people of Gaza for electing Hamas and turn the former against the latter by equating its rule with danger, misery and catastrophe. This aim is openly acknowledged by Israel’s Defence Minister, who said last April that: ‘There are no innocent people in the Gaza Strip. Everyone has a connection to Hamas’, and everyone will therefore be targeted until the group loses its political foothold. As a landmark UN report concluded, Israeli ‘violence against civilians’ is part of a ‘systematic and deliberate’ policy whose purpose is to:
‘bring about a situation in which the civilian population would find life so intolerable that they would leave (if that were possible) or turn Hamas out of office, as well as to collectively punish the civilian population’ (pp.88-9).
Second: Israel is desperate to avoid another intifada by establishing its ‘deterrence capacity’. The recent border protests show that Gazans’ will to resist is powerful and resolute, and Israeli expansion could not continue if a Palestinian self-determination struggle gains political traction. So, any nascent acts of resistance must be suppressed, often pre-emptively, by overwhelming force. ‘It [should be] possible’, in the words of Israel’s former Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai, ‘to destroy Gaza, so that they will understand not to mess with us’ (p.22).
In this vein, the Israeli Foreign Minister explained in 2008 that any prolonged ceasefire ‘harms the Israeli strategic goal, empowers Hamas, and gives the impression that Israel recognizes the movement’ (p.35). Nonviolent protest is the fastest route to Palestinian statehood. The best way to prevent that outcome is thus to pacify the population – and goad Hamas into retaliatory rocket strikes – through the calculated infliction of pain. What those who believe in ‘the peace process’ fail to grasp is that Israel will never agree a ceasefire which enables political self-organisation for the Palestinians.
The reason that Amnesty, the UN and HRW often ignore these arguments (aside from occasional moments of clarity which Finkelstein generously acknowledges) is the blindfold of hasbara, whose obscuration is so effective that it stops observers from seeing Israeli crimes even when they are admitted by high-ranking government ministers. Incidentally, this contradiction between brazen disinformation and open admission is not accidental. It is a quirk of Israeli propaganda that, while it conveys the country’s unwavering humanitarianism to the West, it must simultaneously establish its ‘deterrence capacity’ in the region. Which means that, for example, the Israeli Justice Minister can extol the value of ‘personal liberties and human rights’, stress the importance of ‘enabling the Palestinians to live their lives independently’, and then publish a statement which reads:
‘Behind every [Palestinian] terrorist stand dozens of men and women, without whom he could not engage in terrorism. They are all enemy combatants, and their blood shall be on all their heads. Now this also includes the mothers of the martyrs, who send them to hell with flowers and kisses. They should follow their sons, nothing would be more just. They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there’.
Gaza accepts that many journalists and NGOs are motivated by a genuine instinct to find the facts, hold authority to account and redress injustice. But it observes that, despite the public endorsements of genocide which emanate from the Israeli cabinet, the majority of Western commentators uphold a series of ‘red lines’ which support their imperial narrative: Israeli attacks on the innocent are unintentional; Palestinian suffering is an accident and not an aim; and high civilian casualties are a military failure as opposed to a political objective.
Finkelstein dismantles these precepts along with the prejudices that sustain them. He describes his investigation as a ‘fastidious undertaking born of a visceral detestation of falsehood, in particular when it is put in the service of power and human life hangs in the balance’ (p.xiii). Indeed, the inquest itself is dedicated to The Truth, which Finkelstein boldly asserts is ‘on the side of Gaza’. ‘If this book rises to a crescendo of anger and indignation’, he writes, ‘it’s because the endless lies about Gaza by those who know better cause one’s innards to writhe’ (p.364). Yet throughout his dense treatise – which the author admits requires ‘infinite patience’ given its methodical fixation on facts and details (p.xiii) – there are extraordinarily moving moments in which the resounding Truth of Gaza does something wholly different to one’s innards: fortifies them, blending rage and pathos with hope and determination. If disinformation is weaponised by Israel to avoid accountability, Gaza mobilises Truth in its fightback.
Strategies of resistance
There are questions over how this fight should be conducted. Finkelstein’s tome frequently blurs the boundary between evidence which points to the Truth, and evidence which constructs a legal case. It is dubious whether the latter constitutes the most effective form of solidarity with the Gazan people, since the US, UK and EU either passively accept or actively endorse what is already recognised as Israel’s persistent violation of international law. The International Criminal Court has chucked out cases pertaining to the crimes which Finkelstein documents, and the UN has been powerless to enforce resolutions calling for the end of Israeli occupation or the establishment of a two-state solution.
In this context, when political interests and power relations impede legal justice, Truth can become an object for lawyers and historians to uncover many years from now. It can be fossilised by the forces of reaction, and lose its potency in the present. ‘The author holds out faint hope that [his findings] will find an audience amongst his contemporaries’, reads Finkelstein’s conclusion:
‘Still, the truth should be preserved … Perhaps one day in the remote future, when the tenor of the times is more receptive, someone will stumble across this book collecting dust on a library shelf, blow off the cobwebs, and be stung by outage at the lot of a people’ (p.365).
While this address to the future is poignant, it comes too close to an abandonment of the present; an abandonment initiated by the despair that’s rightly felt by anyone (such as Finkelstein) who sees international law as the primary mechanism to improve Gaza’s condition.
Yes, legal redress has its role. But it should supplement a strategy of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience against the Israeli state. In the US and UK, opposition to the imperialist agenda which enables Israeli expansion is an effective form of solidarity with Gaza. It is mass demonstrations and direct action, both here and in the Middle East, which require the rousing and emboldening effect of Gazan Truth. Evidence must first win ordinary people to a struggle, and then (perhaps) win over judges in the ICC. It should be deployed to strengthen the resolve of Gazans marching on their border and shatter the hasbara that legitimises their murder. This is a prospect glimpsed and then eclipsed by Finkelstein, who writes that:
‘if the people of Gaza, on the one hand, and global public opinion, on the other, are mobilised, galvanized, and organized; and if a cause guided by truth, fortified by law, animated by righteousness, and bending towards justice can unleash, as history is testament, an irresistible moral power able to defeat, disarm, and diffuse brute force; then a small miracle might yet come to pass (p.364).
It is up to Finkelstein’s readers to decide whether they believe that such a miracle could happen. Along with the residents of Gaza, they must determine whether the Truth of the Israel-Palestine conflict will be a relic or a reality, a historical fact or a political force.
Oliver Eagleton is a journalist living in London.
Oliver Eagleton is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Jacobin, Novara and openDemocracy, as well as Counterfire.