Following the announcement that Israel is facing a possible International Criminal Court war crimes probe over its 2014 assault on Gaza, Democracy Now! invited Finkelstein into their studio to give an extended interview.
Click here to watch the first section of the interview and read the full transcript on the Democracy Now! website.
Norman Finkelstein is the son of Holocaust survivors. A leading scholar on Israel-Palestine and veteran political activist, Finkelstein is the author of many books, including The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Human Suffering and Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel Is Coming to an End. His latest book is titled Gaza: An Inquest into Its Martyrdom.
The full interview lasts more than 90 minutes and was broadcast in two parts [January 10th and 19th] – it is embedded below with all sections kept in the original sequence. For the purposes of clarity, however, I have decided to republish a selection of what Finkelstein said under three separate headings: criticisms of human rights organisations, of the UN and Ban Ki-moon in particular, and of recent US administrations. For the same reason, sections from the interview are cut and pasted not always in the original sequence. I very much encourage readers to watch to the full interview.
Click here to watch the second section of the interview and read the full transcript on the Democracy Now! website.
The big lies
The Big Lie about Gaza is that it’s an aggressor, that Gaza is aggressing against Israel, and Israel is reacting in self-defense. It’s a double lie. The first lie is, most of the Israeli attacks on Gaza don’t even have anything to do with Gaza. So, if you take Operation Cast Lead, in 2008, ’09, why did Israel attack Gaza? Not because of Gaza. Not because of anything Gaza did. The Israelis were very honest. This is revenge for Lebanon. In 2006, Israel suffered a major defeat in Lebanon against the Hezbollah, the Party of God. And then Israelis began to panic. They’re losing what they call their deterrence capacity. And their deterrence capacity simply means—it’s a fancy, technical term for the Arabs’ fear of us. […]
The second big lie is, what does Gaza consist of. When you read the official reports, even when you read the human rights reports, they talk about this big arsenal of weapons that Hamas has accumulated. Number one, how do you know how many weapons they have? If you knew how many weapons they had—have, then you must know where they are. And if you know where they are, then Israel would preemptively strike. If it’s not preemptively struck, it’s because it doesn’t know anything about the weapons. Israel plucks numbers out of thin air, and then all the official media, and even the critical human rights organizations, repeat these numbers. They talk about Grad missiles and Fajr missiles.
What is Gaza? What are its weapons? What is its arsenal? Let’s take the last attack. We have exactly—we know exactly how much damage was done by these weapons. There were 5,000 so-called rockets and 2,000 mortars fired at—mortar shells fired at Israel. So, altogether, that’s 7,000 projectiles. You know the damage done? Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it had a diary, listing all the damage done each day. Five thousands rockets, 2,000 mortar shells. One house was destroyed. One house. How is it possible that 5,000 rockets and 2,000 mortar shells can only destroy one house? Because they’re not rockets. They’re fireworks. They’re enhanced fireworks.
Click here to watch the third section of the interview and read the full transcript on the Democracy Now! website.
On justifications for the 2014 military offensive
Well, Benjamin Netanyahu says two things: Number one, Israel had no option, and, number two, that it used the minimum amount of force. Well, let’s look quickly at those two points.
Point number one, everybody agreed that the reason they went—once the fighting began, Hamas had one goal. The goal was to end the siege of Gaza, to lift the siege. Under international law, that siege is illegal. It constitutes collective punishment, which is illegal under international law. The siege has been condemned by everybody in the international community. He had an option. He didn’t have to use force. He simply had to lift the siege. And then there wouldn’t have been a conflict with Gaza.
Number two, he claims he used minimum force. There’s a lot to say about that. You can decide for yourself whether it’s minimum force when Israel leveled 18,000 homes. How many Israeli homes were leveled? One. Israel killed 550 children. How many Israeli children were killed? One. Now, you might say, “Well, that’s because Israel has a sophisticated civil defense system, or Israel has Iron Dome.” I won’t go into that; I don’t have time now. But there’s a simple test. The test is: What did the Israeli combatants themselves see? What did they themselves say?
We have the documentation, a report put out by the Israeli ex-service—ex-combatant organization, Breaking the Silence. It’s about 110 pages. You couldn’t believe it. You know, I’ll tell you, Amy, I still remember when I was reading it. I was in Turkey. I was going to a book festival. I was sitting in the back of a car and reading these descriptions of what the soldiers did. My skin was crawling. I was like shaking. Soldier after soldier after soldier. Now, bear in mind, you want to say they’re partisan, the soldiers? Read the testimonies. They’re not contrite. They’re not remorseful. They’re just describing what happened. There’s no contrition. These aren’t lefties, supporters of BDS. What do they describe? One after another after another says, “Our orders were shoot to kill anything that moves and anything that doesn’t move.” One after another after another says, “Israel used insane amounts of firepower in Gaza. Israel used lunatic amounts of firepower in Gaza.”
Click here to watch the final section of the first part of the interview and read the full transcript on the Democracy Now! website.
Human rights organisations
In my opinion, Israel has a problem, has always had a problem. The problem is, it keeps getting bad press, because when it keeps carrying out these massacres or these shootings, it gets bad press. And so, obviously, what’s the solution? Eliminate the press, eliminate the witnesses. So, during Operation Cast Lead in 2008, ’09, they prevented any reporters from coming in. So, for three weeks, it was a free-for-all. Then, after Operation Protective Edge, they didn’t let any human rights organizations in, so they couldn’t see what was the damage done. So, then the human rights organizations, what they did was, in my opinion, crazy. They said, “If Israel doesn’t let us in, we have to give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they didn’t commit the war crime.” But that just incentivizes Israel not to let human rights organizations in. You get an agnostic verdict rather than a guilty verdict. […]
There were no human rights reports. Human Rights Watch published—for Operation Cast Lead in 2008, ’09, it published seven quite substantial reports. After Operation Protective Edge, it published one tiny report, one tiny report of 15 pages. Amnesty International was the only major human rights organization that published major reports, but they were all whitewashes of Israel. They were a disgrace. I go through them systematically. The Amnesty chapter is one of the longest chapters in the book. Just going through it, as I said, Gaza is a big lie composed of tiny lies.
Blame on both sides? Look at the numbers…
And the main propaganda, even—or especially by the human rights organizations, is the pretense that there’s blame on both sides, there’s blame—there’s death and destruction on both sides. But when you look at the numbers, I mean, it’s just ridiculous to put them in the same category. I gave you a chart, you know, to illustrate the numbers in Operation Protective Edge. Civilians killed, roughly 1,600—1,600 to six, civilians killed. Houses destroyed, 18,000 to one. Children killed, 550 to one. You go down the list. How can you create balance out of a balance sheet like that? You know? Out of a grotesquely imbalanced balance sheet like that? And what the human rights organizations do is they simply inflate what happened on the Israeli. So, for example, you take Amnesty International. One child was killed. One child was killed. They describe the child’s death over two pages. So, you say, “OK, you know, it’s a child’s death. What’s wrong with two pages?” Well, then let’s have balance. Five hundred fifty Palestinian children were killed. Did you give that 1,100 pages? […]
You take Operation Protective Edge. Again, there is no evidence. I’ve read through all the human rights reports. None of them finds any evidence of human shielding. What they do claim they find is—there’s a technical term under international law that when you’re engaging in a military combat, you have to take feasible precautions to protect civilians, and that if you fighting in the vicinity of civilians, you are then guilty of a violation of international law. It’s not a war crime. It’s a violation of international law. They claim Hamas fired or attacked Israel in the vicinity of civilians, so is guilty of not taking all feasible precautions, which is different than human shielding, which is a conscious practice of, as it were, inserting a human being between you and the enemy, for which there’s no evidence. […]
But then, Amnesty says something outrageous—in my opinion, outrageous. You know what it says? It says that Hamas should go to open areas and fight in the open areas of Gaza. Now, on its face, that might sound reasonable, except for, number one, there are very few open areas in Gaza; number two, the law does not say you have to do that. The law does not say you have to relocate all your troops in an open area. But then, number three, Gaza is not occupied internally by Israel. Gaza is surrounded by Israel, and it’s an occupation that is executed externally. So, here’s the problem. […]
Now, international law—according to these human rights organizations, they all say all of Hamas’s weapons are illegal under international law, because they’re indiscriminate. The law is, you can’t use indiscriminate weapons. Hamas’s weapons are very primitive, to say the least. So, international law says its so-called rockets are illegal, its so-called mortar shells—its mortar shells are illegal. Now, what are you left with? Amnesty says to Hamas, “You have to go into an open space, but you can’t use any of your weapons.” But if you can’t use any of your weapons, because they’re indiscriminate, how do you defeat an externally controlled occupation? The only thing Amnesty didn’t tell them to do was to line up like ducks and let the Israeli airplane come in and mow them down.
Now, you might smile at that, but that’s literally—that’s where you’re left. That’s where you’re left, with what these human rights organizations are saying. It’s not to defend Hamas. It’s just to look at the law objectively, rationally, and ask yourself, “Is what—are what the human rights organizations saying fair? Is it true?” All the human rights organizations, they’ll always say Israel used disproportionate force. They’ll say Israel used indiscriminate force.
But there’s one thing they’ll never say. You know what they’ll never say? Israel targeted the civilians. Because that’s the no-no. You see, under international law, indiscriminate attacks are war crimes. Disproportionate attacks are war crimes. Targeting civilians are war crimes. That’s the law. But then there’s public opinion. Public opinion, it’s willing to turn a blind eye to disproportionate attacks. Actually, how can you even prove an attack is disproportionate? It’s almost impossible. They’ll even say, yeah, indiscriminate attacks, because it’s hard to separate civilians from soldiers. The one thing public opinion won’t tolerate is the targeted attack on civilians. That’s exactly what Israel does in every one of its massacres, and that’s exactly the thing that the human rights organizations—now, not during Operation Cast Lead, now, after the Goldstone debacle—that’s the one thing they all shy away from. They don’t want to say Israel targets civilians. […]
Israel is always targeting children. You have so many cases, like you have children playing on a roof. Right? A drone comes in. Human Rights Watch says—its report was called “Precisely Wrong,” after Operation Protective Edge—excuse me, Operation Cast Lead. The drone comes in. Human rights report says the drone can see very clearly what it’s targeting. The drone, it could—up to the very last minute, very last minute, it could divert. Goes right for the kids.
UN and Ban Ki-moon
In 2014 there was a more notorious incident when an Israeli gunboat targeted a group of children playing games on a beach. The murders were carried out directly in front of a hotel packed with reporters.
So, what does the U.N. Human Rights Council report say, the one by Mary McGowan Davis? “Israel didn’t take all feasible precautions.” All feasible precautions? There was no battle going on. There was no—there was no combat. There were only children there. “We don’t know why Israel mistook these children for militants.” […]
Yeah, when [Ban Ki-moon] was U.N. secretary-general, he does all the bidding for the United States when it comes to Israel-Palestine. I don’t want to go through—I can’t go through this whole sordid record, but the—Israel attacked seven U.N. shelters, which were housing civilians during Operation Protective Edge. And then, on August 3rd, finally, Ban Ki-moon has to say something. And he says, “This is a disgrace, this is outrageous, attacking civilian shelters.” August 3rd, Obama, he no longer has a fig leaf. Ban Ki-moon backed out.
And now—and now Obama is alone on the world stage. So, August 3rd, the same day, Obama attacks Israel for the shelters, bombing the shelters. And now, Netanyahu, the day before, August 2nd, he says, “I’m not leaving Gaza.” After Obama says, “You can’t do this,” he leaves. Same day, August 3rd. Now, it is true, it did go on for another three weeks. It went on for another three weeks because you entered into the negotiation period, where Israel always brings in its most force to try to extract the best terms.
Click here to watch part two of the interview and read the full transcript on the Democracy Now! website.
US administrations past and present
On the bipartisan support for Israel
Well, it’s a little complicated question, how U.S.-Israeli policy works. But in general, you could say, when major U.S. national interests are at stake, the Israel lobby has very little power. We saw that, for example, during the negotiations over the agreement with Iran. That was a major U.S. international interest. The lobby was dead set against it. Netanyahu was dead set against it. But the agreement went through. And many of Israel’s strongest supporters—Dianne Feinstein, Nancy Pelosi, the whole gang—they supported the agreement.
But when a major U.S. interest is not at stake, the lobby is quite powerful. So you take, in this particular case, it was clear the Saudis, which is a U.S. major interest, didn’t care what the U.S. did with Jerusalem. They gave the green light: “If you want to give it to Israel, that’s fine with us. We don’t care.” So, no U.S. natural interest is at stake, and so Trump does what anybody does: He rewards his donors. In this case, it was Sheldon Adelson, the casino billionaire, who was strongly supporting the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel.
But we have to bear in mind, it wasn’t just Trump. You know, sometimes the media wants to pile up on Trump. And they forget it’s not just Trump. Charles Schumer, the current Senate minority leader, Schumer was constantly attacking Trump, right after he got elected: “Why aren’t you recognizing Jerusalem as the undivided capital?” When Trump did recognize it, Schumer, Charles Schumer, he said, “He did it because of me. I was the one that urged him to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.” So that’s the Senate minority leader speaking. And for the same reason—if you look at Schumer’s money, he gets it mostly from conservative, right-wing Jews and from Wall Street, the same sources of income as Trump, the same streams of income.
And on these questions, a lot of the Democrats, including Schumer—or especially Schumer, I should say—are worse than Trump. So, for example, after the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, when Israel killed the passengers aboard the humanitarian vessel, the Mavi Marmara, killed 10 passengers, Charles Schumer, he went before a group of Orthodox Jews, and he said, “The people of Gaza voted for Hamas. They voted for Hamas, and therefore economic strangulation is the way to go.” Now, bear in mind what that means. We’re talking about a population, more than half of which are children, who are living under a medieval siege. And what he’s effectively saying is we should continue starving them, until they vote or get rid of Hamas. Now, what do you say about something like that?
Look, the Obama administration was—played a really wretched role in all this. Let’s just take the obvious examples. Operation Cast Lead, it ends on January 17th. Now, remember, Obama was elected in November 2008. Operation Cast Lead ends January 17th, 2009. Obama didn’t say anything after he was elected. Do you know why it ends January 17th? Because Obama signals to the Israeli government, “Don’t mess up my inauguration, January 20th. I don’t want any distractions. You’ve got to end the operation.” That’s why they ended.
Now, you go to Operation Protective Edge, 2014. Every day, Obama or one of his officials said, “Israel has the right to protect itself. Israel has the right to protect itself,” as Israel is leveling Gaza. There was no—actually, there was no comparison between Protective Edge and Cast Lead. It was so much worse.
They’re using this moment—with Trump in power, they’re using this moment to try to eliminate as many witnesses as they can, keep everybody out. They want to do to the West Bank what they did to Gaza. It’s very hard for an outsider to get into Gaza. And now, the Israelis are carrying on in a very brazen way—the land grabs, the merciless killings of civilians, the brutal killings of civilians. And so, they want to clear the field of any witnesses. And they’re using the Trump presidency as a moment to seal off Gaza from any—excuse me, seal off the West Bank from any potentially hostile witnesses, to turn the West Bank into what they turned Gaza into. It’s hermetically sealed. There’s no way to witness the crimes as they unfold in real time.
And on the threat of the U.S. cutting off millions of dollars to UNRWA
First of all, you have to bear in mind that 70 percent of Palestinians in Gaza—let’s just call them Gazans—70 percent of Gazans are classified as refugees. That means, technically, actual refugees and children of refugees. But under the categorization used in Gaza, they’re all classified as refugees. So that’s 70 percent. Secondly, half of Gaza’s population, or slightly more, are children. And so you have this overwhelmingly refugee child population, and they rely overwhelmingly on UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.
UNRWA is financed between 25 and 30 percent by the United States, and that comes to about $300 million a year. And so, the threat of cutting the money to UNRWA would be—it would be devastating for an already devastated population, overwhelmingly children. Nonetheless, I would like to keep things in proportion. So, it would be a catastrophe, no doubt about it, if UNRWA is defunded by the United States. However, let’s look at the numbers. We’re talking about $300 million annually. Mohammad bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, he paid $500 million for a yacht. That would have covered all of UNRWA’s expenses, American—the American portion, for more than a year. He paid $450 million for a da Vinci painting. That would have covered all U.S. expenses, again, for more than a year. He paid $300 million for a house in Versailles. That would have covered all the U.N. expense—UNRWA expenses by the United States. And God only knows how much money he paid for Tom Friedman’s column in The New York Times.