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Ghost of Gaza Haunts Israel: A Review of Norman Finkelstein’s new book “This Time We Went Too Far”

Alex Kane Apr 21, 2010

LEO GARCIA‘This Time We Went Too Far’: Truth and Consequences of the Gaza Invasion
By Dr. Norman Finkelstein
OR Books, 2010

In recent weeks, eyes around the world have been riveted on the standoff between the Obama administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the continuing construction of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem.

The dispute started when, as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was visiting, Israel’s Interior Ministry announced plans to build 1,600 new units of Jewish housing in East Jerusalem. Under international law, and according to the United States (at least in rhetoric), East Jerusalem is occupied Palestinian territory and the future capital of a Palestinian state, and both existing settlements and any prospective new ones are illegal. The Obama administration denounced the plan and has since presented the Netanyahu government with a series of demands, including freezing construction of the new settlements.

While much of the media has focused on the standoff and its implications for the “peace process,” less attention has been paid to the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip. Gaza, which is run by the democratically elected Islamist party Hamas, is under a crippling blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt. The 1.5 million Palestinians in the tiny coastal strip are also dealing with the aftermath of the devastating 2008–2009 Israeli assault on Gaza, which killed nearly 1,400 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians.

To Dr. Norman Finkelstein, an Israel/Palestine scholar as renowned as he is controversial, that invasion (dubbed “Operation Cast Lead” by the Israeli military) marked a turning point in how many Americans and Jews view Israel. “Public opinion now is ready to be reached. There’s a recognition that there’s something seriously awry in Israel,” Finkelstein told The Indypendent in a February interview.

The son of Holocaust survivors of the Warsaw ghetto, Finkelstein has been a tireless, outspoken advocate for the Palestinians since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. He is both revered by supporters of the Palestinian solidarity movement and demonized by supporters of Israel as a “self-hating Jew,” among other epithets. Even among moderate supporters of a two-state solution, he elicits strong responses, not all of them positive.

Despite his expertise, Finkelstein has been marginalized in the mainstream debate on Israel/ Palestine. He has endured a turbulent career in academia, most famously a bruising tenure fight at DePaul University, which he lost in 2007 when the university caved to pressure from powerful supporters of Israel.

In his prolific and rigorous writings, Finkelstein has waged incisive academic assaults against Israel’s defenders, most notably Alan Dershowitz, a lawyer and Harvard professor. Finkelstein’s latest, ‘This Time We Went Too Far’: Truth and Consequences of the Gaza Invasion, is no exception. The book takes aim at (among others) Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst for ABC News and the author of a number of books on the Middle East, for absolving Israel of war crimes in a “strategic analysis” of Operation Cast Lead he published with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Cordesman’s analysis, Finkelstein writes, “synthesizes Israel’s makeshift rebuttals to criticism of the invasion.”

The hot core of the polemic against Cordesman — and the defense of Israeli conduct he represents — is Finkelstein’s masterful command of international human rights law and a sharp exegesis of the United Nations report on the Israeli assault. Much more accessible than Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict (1995) or The Holocaust Industry (2000), This Time We Went Too Far spares readers the usual thicket of research from the annals of war documentation. Finkelstein’s work is clear, concise, well documented and burning with righteous anger, and he still devotes enough pages to developing a solid framework of historical context and critical analysis to give newcomers to this complex subject a working knowledge of the conflict’s dimensions.

When it comes to Israel, the political is always personal for Finkelstein, and facts and figures that anchor his research are humanized by accounts of his experience on the ground. In a moving passage, he describes visiting Gaza as part of a CODEPINK delegation in the aftermath of the Israeli assault, recalling an 11-year-old Palestinian girl lingering beside the demolished American International School. I visited Gaza and observed that very spot; the American International School remained in ruin, with only rubble left over.

‘This Time We Went Too Far’ is hardly light fare, though. Finkelstein saves an important commentary on the much-maligned Goldstone Report for the epilogue. Richard Goldstone, a highly respected South African jurist, has been demonized by the Israel lobby for his charge that Israel committed “war crimes,” in a report on the Gaza invasion commissioned by the U.N. His devastating indictment has earned him opponents across the political spectrum. (Alan Dershowitz, once a friend, made headlines when he called Goldstone an “evil, evil man” for his “despicable” report and he was a “traitor” to the Jewish people.)

Finkelstein argues that the publication of the report marks the “end of an apologetic Jewish liberalism that denies or extenuates Israel’s crimes” and “the emergence of a new era in which the human rights dimension of the Israel-Palestine conflict move[s] center-stage.” This point reflects one of the book’s central messages: “This book … sets forth grounds for hope. The bloodletting in Gaza has roused the world’s conscience. The prospects have never been more propitious for galvanizing the public not just to mourn but also to act.”

What’s missing from This Time is the voice of the Palestinian people. Finkelstein’s arguments would have benefitted from the powerful testimony Palestinians gave before the Goldstone mission. Also absent in is an adequate discussion of the growing “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” (BDS) movement against Israeli policy, a perfect example of the shift in discourse surrounding Israel/Palestine. Post-Gaza, the BDS movement has grown and received more international attention than ever before — an affirmation of Finkelstein’s view that the world’s perception of the Israel/Palestine conflict is undergoing a sea change.

The time is now to push for a lasting and just solution to the conflict. But Finkelstein’s emphasis on the “international consensus” to solve the conflict is problematic. It is true that international law, the United Nations, human-rights groups and the Arab states surrounding Israel all agree on what a just settlement would be: a twostate solution based on full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders and a “just” solution to the Palestinian refugee crisis. But with 500,000 settlers on Palestinian land, an illegal separation barrier that has effectively annexed a portion of the West Bank, a suffocating blockade of the Gaza Strip, and a scary rightward shift inside Israel, some have renewed the call for a one-state solution to the conflict. The facts on the ground make the campaign for international consensus implausible — more of an obstacle than a stepping stone to a solution. What’s needed now is the kind of unapologetic debate Finkelstein himself has always stood for, and to which ‘This Time We Went Too Far’ is yet another major contribution.