Norman Finkelstein is an American scholar, political activist, and author. He is an expert on the Israel-Palestine Conflict, the politics of the Holocaust, and the life and beliefs of Mahatma Gandhi. He earned his Ph.D in Political Science from Princeton University and has held teaching positions at a number of different universities. Since speaking out against the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Finkelstein has been a vocal critic of Israeli and American military policies, especially as they apply to Palestine. He agreed to talk with Eric Bailey from the Torture Magazine on August 2, 2013.
Bailey: As a human rights magazine, one of our common themes is the targeting of civilians in conflict zones, but there is some disagreement about what defines a civilian or what constitutes targeting them.
International Humanitarian Law defines a civilian as anyone who is not a member of a nation’s armed forces, but, despite the name, this isn’t accepted everywhere. It’s also disputed how International Humanitarian Law treats non-government militant groups and this dispute has allowed some countries to deny captured militants of their rights as prisoners of war. Some countries also extend civilian status to military personnel who are not on active duty.
As it applies to the Arab-Israeli Wars, about which you have considerable expertise, the last few decades have largely involved fighting between the Israeli military and various non-government militias in Palestine and Lebanon, and all parties seem to define civilians differently. Israelis sometimes treat children throwing rocks as if they were actual guerrillas and sentence them to life in prison, while Palestinian militants claimed that a nightclub, popular with off duty Israeli soldiers, was a legitimate military target for a suicide bombing during the Second Intifada.
Both for conflicts involving Israel and for warfare in general, do you have any recommendation for how to address these differences in how civilians and legitimate military targets are defined?
Finkelstein: Well, I’m going to give a relatively simple answer to a long question. These become highly technical issues and you can read through the scholarly literature on the subject and you end up nearly losing your mind trying to figure out what is and what isn’t permissible and how one does and does not define civilians and combatants.
So in that situation, what do you do? I’m going to answer you in a matter of practicality: When you look through the human rights supports, (and here I’ll speak in my own domain of expertise, namely the Israel-Palestine Conflict) in fact, notwithstanding the dizzying amount of space that is expended trying to work out these definitions, in fact there is very little disagreement even between Israel and its critics on these definitions. Where they disagree is on the facts. “Were there civilians in this mosque or were there also combatants?” “Were there or weren’t there arms being stored in this school?” These come down to factual questions in most instances.
I have read through the human rights literature on both sides. I’ve heard what groups like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, B’Tselem, Al-Haq allege, and I have read Israel’s responses, which are always very extensive. If you look at the allegations versus the rejoinders, there is very little debate on the technical, definitional side. Where there is debate is on the factual side.
For example, in the case of the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish vessel that was part of the Freedom Flotilla that tried to enter Gaza, at the end of the day Israel killed nine of the passengers. There wasn’t really any debate about whether they were or weren’t civilians. What they debated were things like whether the passengers had weapons, who initiated the hostilities, and so on and so forth. So in most instances, I don’t see that there is much need to argue over the definitions. The only place where the issue of definitions has really come up is for the question of targeted assassinations and whether they are legal under international law. That one area aside, my impression is that, although there are all these complex definitional attempts by human rights organizations, I really don’t find it, as a matter of practicality, to be a major issue. The issue is the facts.
Bailey: Speaking of matters of practicality, I’d like to ask you a couple of questions regarding something you said in a 2011 interview with the Palestinian Chronicle. In response to being asked to “unequivocally condemn” attacks against Israeli civilians, you said, “It is impossible to justify terrorism, which is the targeting of civilians to achieve a political goal. But it is also difficult to make categorical statements of the kind you suggest. I do believe that Hezbollah has the right to target Israeli civilians if Israel persists in targeting civilians until Israel ceases its terrorist acts.”
This comment seems to advocate the long held view that reciprocity for attacking civilians can serve as a deterrent and actually save lives. Am I interpreting you correctly and do you still stand behind what you said?
Finkelstein: Well, there are several issues there. First of all, just for the sake of clarity, let me refer you to the technical term, which under International Law is “Belligerent Reprisals”. This is when a country or armed group has the right to engage in what are called “reprisals” in the face of attacks against their civilians, allegedly in order to stop their opponent’s violations of International Law.
Now this whole issue came up during the 2006 Israeli attack on Lebanon and Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, made a speech in which he said, “If you don’t stop targeting our civilians, then we’re going to start targeting yours until and unless you stop targeting our own.” Well, Human Rights Watch, in one of its several reports on the 2006 War, condemned Hezbollah and Nasrallah in particular for making that threat and said that it was illegal under International Law. And there were several human rights sources cited in their report.
I proceeded to check what these sources themselves said on the legality of Belligerent Reprisals. I checked two sources – the ones that Human Rights Watch cited in its report. These are the Standard Customary International Humanitarian Law, Volume One: Rules, which is put out by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and a book written by a fellow by the name of A.P.V. Rogers, called Law on the Battlefield. I checked both cited references and both of those sources state clearly that, under International Law, Belligerent Reprisals are not yet illegal. So I made the obvious point that according to Human Rights Watch’s own sources they can’t condemn Hezbollah for violating International Law when their own sources show evidence to the contrary. I might add that the two main opponents to banning Belligerent Reprisals are the United States and the U.K. Both the U.S. and the U.K. have stated that Belligerent Reprisals are not violations of International Law.
So now let’s proceed to the second question. I have given you what I understand to be the law, but now there is a second aspect to the question, namely my personal opinion. My own personal opinion is this: as a matter of vindictiveness or the “eye for an eye” theory of justice, Belligerent Reprisals cannot be justified. I am as vindictive as the next person. I tend towards the Old Testament, moral judgment, never to forgive, never to forget, an eye for an eye, but I recognize that as a moral issue, it’s wrong. It’s one thing, what my impulses tell me, but it’s another thing, what my moral and ethical code says, and it is clearly wrong as a moral issue.
But then there is a third side of the question, and that’s whether it actually works. Because if in fact you do attach value to every human life and Israelis, with their high tech weaponry, are treating Lebanon like they’re shooting fish in a barrel, and they’re targeting hospitals, ambulances, civilian infrastructure, and killing massive numbers of civilians, then there is an argument to be made for the use of Belligerent Reprisals to stop these attacks. Consider the case of the 2006 Lebanon War where there were 1,200 Lebanese people killed and over 1,000 of them were civilians, while on the Israeli side, 160 people were killed and 120 of them were combatants. The ratios are completely reversed in both absolute and relative numbers. Absolutely, you have over 1,000 civilians killed versus 40. Relatively speaking, the victims of Israel’s attacks are overwhelmingly civilian, while the victims of Hezbollah’s attacks are overwhelmingly combatants.
So can you actually deter your adversary from targeting civilians by targeting their civilians? Consider again the explicit statement Nasrallah made during the 2006 War. Based on past experience, it was entirely valid because there were past occasions where Israel attacked Lebanon, such as Operation Accountability 1993 and Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1996, and in each case Israel violated the implicit terms of the cease-fire by targeting civilians. At that point, when Israel started targeting civilians, Hezbollah then started targeting Israeli civilians and it escalated into a war until a new cease-fire was signed. So if it actually does work to deter attacks on civilians and you do believe in the equality of human life, as I do, then I think there is an argument to be made. I’m not saying that I endorse the argument, but I would be lying if I denied that there was an argument to be made, and not based on an Old Testament “eye for an eye” kind of logic, but on the basis of the equality of human life.
Bailey: Can you think of any historical examples of a conflict where Belligerent Reprisals actually resulted in a cessation or reduction of attacks on civilians?
Finkelstein: My answer is a simple no. I’m not aware of any such example. I prefaced my previous answer with the word “if”. If it actually works to decrease civilian casualties then I could see an argument for it.
Bailey: Continuing with the example of the 34 Day War and the similar 2008 War in Gaza, these conflicts demonstrated considerable disagreement about what constitutes the “targeting of civilians”. Hezbollah used rocket fire to effectively blockade Northern Israel, while Israel used its military to blockade Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, and all parties have called their foes monsters for having done so.
Israel, Hezbollah, and Palestinian militant groups have all accused their opponents of targeting civilian cities and towns, of striking humanitarian infrastructure such as hospitals and water treatment plants, and of using indiscriminate weapons. Israel has been condemned for its use of cluster bombs, while Hezbollah and Palestinian groups like Hamas have been condemned for their use of thousands of unguided and inaccurate rockets to target Israeli urban centers, as well as their use of landmines, which have a similarly deadly post-war reputation to cluster bombs.
Israel continuously argued that most of their attacks on Lebanese and Palestinian urban areas were because militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas were using their own civilians as human shields. However, there are also pictures of Israeli children visiting Israeli artillery batteries and writing some less than loving sentiments for Hezbollah on Israeli artillery shells. Israeli artillery units were also hit by rockets during the war and had such an event happened when these children were present, certainly both sides would blame the other.
So what do you make of all this? Are they all right? Are they all wrong? It seems like traditional military tactics of cutting off the enemy’s supply lines, firing upon the enemy wherever he is, and taking up defensive positions in and around towns and cities are all now being condemned as crimes against humanity, but is that reasonable?
Finkelstein: No, I don’t think that we have to throw our hands in the air in despair and say, “Who knows who is telling the truth?” In the case of Gaza there were about 200 or more human rights reports that came out on that massacre. There was a voluminous amount of human rights reporting that came out of that assault on Gaza, or what Amnesty International called “22 Days of Death and Destruction”. So what are the basic facts about what happened? I will list them and then you can judge for yourself by looking at the human rights reports, because what I am about to say now, to my knowledge, is undisputed.
First, there was an Israeli blockade of Gaza.
Second, the blockade was producing a humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
Third, there was a cease-fire in effect, beginning in June 2008.
Fourth, one of the terms of the cease-fire was that Israel would gradually lift the blockade.
Fifth, Israel did not abide by the terms of the cease-fire and did not gradually lift the blockade.
Sixth, on the Israeli side, they acknowledged that Hamas was careful to observe the cease-fire. Though Hamas met its terms for the cease-fire, Israel did not meet its fundamental term to gradually lift the illegal blockade of Gaza. Then, on November 4, 2008, Election Day in the United States, when everybody’s attention was riveted on the historical election, Israel invaded Gaza and killed six militants, knowing full well that the killings broke the cease-fire and would evoke a Hamas rocket assault on Israel. That is, in fact, exactly what happened. Throughout Hamas’ retaliation and subsequent war, Hamas was willing to negotiate a new cease-fire if Israel would abide by the terms it had already agreed to in June of 2008 of gradually lifting the blockade of Gaza. Israel refused and invaded.
On the Israeli side, there were thirteen casualties (three civilians and ten combatants) and of the ten combatant casualties, four were killed by friendly fire. On the Palestinian side, 1,400 people were killed and up to 1,200 of those killed were civilians and approximately 360 of those were children. In terms of the destruction of infrastructure, on the Israeli side, just one house was almost destroyed. On the Palestinian side, about 6,000 homes were destroyed, not to mention the entire infrastructure of Gaza, which was reduced to rubble. By the end of the attack, Israel had left behind 600,000 tons of rubble.
In the face of those facts, which to my knowledge nobody disputes, it’s hard for me to understand how any rational person could throw their hands up in despair and say “Who knows where the truth is?” It’s quite clear what happened in Gaza. It was a massacre. That to me is a remarkably simple and straightforward description of what happened. It was a protracted massacre over 22 days, but a massacre nonetheless. As one Israeli soldier put it, when he was asked what it was like to be fighting in Gaza, he said it was like a child with a magnifying glass, burning up ants. Well, that doesn’t sound to me like a very complex moral question.
Bailey: No it doesn’t, but that does bring up an issue that every major power seems to have faced since the 1980s in that whenever an advanced military power like the United States, Russia, or Israel go to war, it is against a foe that is so technologically inferior that the conflict seems to inevitably have extremely lopsided casualties, whether it be in regard to combatants or civilians. Do you think that having a more powerful military or having access to superior military technology creates a greater burden of responsibility on one party over another to protect civilians?
Finkelstein: Well, there are two separate issues. One issue is the pretext for going to war. I have to again exercise a degree of linguistic caution. There was no war in Gaza. There was a massacre in Gaza. Remember, a child with a magnifying glass burning up ants is not, to me, a description of a war. So first of all, was there any justification for Israel to attack Gaza? The answer is no, there was none. They had no pretext, no grounds, no alibi. It was a pure, unadulterated, unmitigated act of aggression against the people of Gaza. But that still leaves the second question. How do you assess the morality of bringing to bear a massive arsenal of high-tech weaponry against an armed force which is basically lobbing fire crackers at you? That is basically all the Hamas rockets amount to. Here, in my opinion, the Laws of War are absolutely ridiculous. They use standards of proportionality and precision, which effectively make every weapon used by the lesser power illegal. So what does that mean concretely?
There is a term in International Humanitarian Law called “indiscriminateness”. That is, if you use an indiscriminate weapon, (a weapon that can’t discriminate between civilians and combatants) its mere use means you have committed a war crime, even if it hits a military target, because the weapon itself is indiscriminate. Well, what does it mean to say a weapon is indiscriminate? How do you judge whether a weapon is discriminate or indiscriminate? The answer is very simple: they use the standard of the most sophisticated technology.
So let’s say I have a piece of technology that is able to hit its target with 100\% accuracy, just for argument’s sake. That then becomes the standard for discriminateness. In that case, if you have weapons that only have a 60\% rate of accuracy, it becomes, by law, indiscriminate, and you’re committing a war crime even if you hit a military target. So what happens is that the International Humanitarian Law immediately makes illegal any kind of resistance to a technologically superior power. That’s crazy! If you don’t have enough money or American aid to purchase the most sophisticated technology, you can’t resist at all.
Bailey: That would certainly put any resistance group in a bind.
Finkelstein: That’s correct! When Human Rights Watch put that question in one of its reports (I think it was the report on the 2006 War because they said that all of Hezbollah’s missiles were indiscriminate) they said that the militants can go to the border and fire with their rifles. Oh that’s really fair!
Bailey: I also want to get your insight on some of these issues from the perspective of your study of Gandhi. It’s interesting to contrast your statements in support of the rights of the Palestinians, Lebanese, etc. to defend themselves with deadly force with your study of Gandhi’s views of “courageous nonviolence” and self sacrifice. Can you talk a little bit about what Gandhi actually believed in regards to nonviolence? Also, can you clarify your own opinion in regard to this subject?
Finkelstein: Well, the first point to make is that Gandhi himself would support the right of the Palestinians and Lebanese to use armed force to resist foreign invaders. The problem is that people talk about Gandhi, cite Gandhi, and refer to Gandhi as a source for inspiration, but without understanding Gandhi. Even scholars do this. Just the other day, I read an article by an up-and-coming Gandhi scholar, who is Indian and has a prominent academic position, and as I was reading his article I just thought to myself, “This man has clearly not read a single work of Gandhi and hasn’t a clue what he is talking about.”
But let’s get to the issue that you raised. Gandhi, of course, was an advocate for nonviolence. About that, there can be no doubt. And Gandhi understood himself to be a principled advocate of nonviolence. However, it is an error to assume that being a principled advocate of nonviolence means one is a categorical opponent of violence. The two are not the same. Gandhi made many exceptions (I don’t think he would have used the word “exception”. I think he would have used the term “distinctions”.) in trying to convey what he means by nonviolence.
Number one, Gandhi’s view was that if you are faced with an adversary who has overwhelmingly superior force and power on his side, then if you resort to force against what Gandhi describes as “impossible odds”, he says that, in his mind, that’s not violence. It’s a kind of attempt to die with dignity. In the Collected Works of Gandhi you can find several examples. I’ll give two, which your readers will immediately understand.
The first example he gives is of a woman who resists a rapist by biting him, pinching him, kicking him – a woman who uses violence to resist an assault on her person by a rapist. Gandhi says that the bites, the pinches, the kicks, in the end aren’t violence. It’s the woman trying to summon from inside herself the kind of moral resources she needs in order to die with dignity.
A second example he gives is when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. He said that the Nazis had their colossal war machine with their Luftwaffe and their Wehrmacht, and on the other side you have these Poles who had a few tanks and light infantry. He said that when the Poles resisted the Nazi invasion in 1939, using violent force, to him that’s not violence. That’s simply the Poles trying to go down with dignity. It didn’t for him constitute violence.
So that’s his first distinction. The second distinction, he says, is that he can advocate nonviolence, but he has no moral right to insist that others use nonviolence and are otherwise deserving of condemnation. He says this because “the accepted canons of right and wrong” say you are allowed to use violence.
So if people resort to violence, he can’t condemn them because under the accepted canons of right and wrong they are allowed to. What he can say is that they shouldn’t use violence, which is different from saying that they can’t use violence. He can try to persuade them, he can say that they cannot join his ranks unless they are committed to nonviolence, but if they choose not to join his ranks (as many Indians, including those Indians who famously cooperated with the Japanese to liberate India from British rule, chose not to do) he still supported them to the end.
Actually, one of those Indians who cooperated with the Japanese, and is therefore considered a traitor by American standards, was viewed as a hero throughout the Indian Independence Movement and Gandhi supported him. There was no dispute whatsoever on that score.
This issue came up in the 1930s when the Palestinians entered into an armed revolt against British rule and the Zionist mandate of the British at that time. When Gandhi was asked to condemn the Palestinians resort to violence, he refused. He said that, according to the accepted canons of right and wrong, the Palestinians had the right to use armed force to evict an occupier. He said that he wished they would use nonviolence, but if they choose otherwise, he has no right to condemn them.
There is another critically important aspect to Gandhi that is seldom understood for the simple reason that nobody reads Gandhi’s work. Gandhi’s highest value was not nonviolence. People often don’t know that because they don’t read his work. Yes, Gandhi attached a lot of importance to nonviolence. There is no question about that, but Gandhi makes it overwhelmingly clear, if you read his writings, that his highest value was courage.
He found nothing more despicable than cowardice. He said that, if you don’t have the inner moral strength to resist nonviolently – if you can’t find the inner, moral resources to take the blows nonviolently – then you sure better hit back and hit back hard, because there is nothing more despicable, nothing more unworthy of a human being, nothing more contemptible in a human being than to run away.
He says the one thing that is even more contemptible than running away is to run away and then, when asked why you’re running, to say that it’s because you believe in nonviolence. No, Gandhi said that you’re not running away because you believe in nonviolence. You’re running away because you’re a coward and there is nothing more despicable than a coward.
Actually, if you read his writings, there is one place where Gandhi actually uses quite violent language and he uses this violent language, not to condemn those who use violence, but to condemn those who are cowards. You’ll see in his works that he’ll say things like, “A coward does not deserve to live.” He’s pretty tough on that issue. Bear in mind that he is not using that sort of language against a Genghis Khan or a Hitler. He’s using it against cowards!
Now you might ask the question, which often comes up, if Gandhi is so tough on cowards and he says that you should use force and violence in order to resist assaults on your dignity if you don’t have the strength to be nonviolent, isn’t that a contradiction in terms? Because doesn’t it take more courage to fight on the field of battle than it does to be nonviolent?
That seems pretty straight forward, so let’s say that you take a conscientious objector, who says he won’t go to war, and he nonviolently refuses to go to war, certainly people would say that that guy is a wimp compared to somebody who is willing to go fight on the battlefield. So how does Gandhi reconcile holding courage to be his highest value with his nonviolence, if in fact it takes more courage to be violent than to be nonviolent?
That’s the obvious objection, but the fact is that the only reason people make that objection is because they don’t understand what Gandhi means by “nonviolence”. When Gandhi talked about nonviolence, he said the following: Let’s take the case of two combatants on the battlefield. Each of them has a weapon. Each of them has a 50/50 chance of surviving the battle. Either one soldier will kill his opposite or his opposite will kill him.
So what does that mean when it comes to nonviolence? For Gandhi, nonviolence meant that, and I’m almost quoting him word for word, you are supposed to smilingly and cheerfully march into the line of fire and get yourself blown to bits. That’s what Gandhi meant by nonviolence. In Gandhian nonviolence, you don’t have a 50/50 change of surviving. You have no chance of surviving at all! You are supposed to march into that line of fire and get yourself blown to bits.
And as you can clearly recognize, that does take more courage than being the soldier on the battlefield, who at least can hope that he or she has a 50/50 chance of coming out alive. In Gandhian nonviolence you don’t have any chance of coming out alive. You are supposed to get yourself killed, or as he put it, get yourself blown to bits. So Gandhi is being consistent when he says that he both ranks courage as the highest of human values, (In his writings he showed a lot of admiration for ancient Sparta because he thought the Spartan soldiers had a lot of courage. He admired soldiers who were willing to go to battle and put their lives on the line.) while also advocating nonviolence, because he thought nonviolence requires more courage.
Bailey: When Gandhi said that the ideal of nonviolence is to march forward and cheerfully get blown to bits, did he make this comment before or after the Second World War?
Finkelstein: That was always Gandhi’s position. In one of my books I excerpt his position from 1919 to 1947 and that shows that it’s not like he changed his views on this over time. This was consistently his opinion.
Bailey: I’m interested to hear your opinion of his opinion, given that both of your parents were Jews, in Poland, during the Second World War, and as I understand it took part in the Warsaw Uprising.
Finkelstein: No, they did not take part; I want to be absolutely clear. Part of being faithful to my parents’ memory is not to exaggerate their role. My parents were in the Warsaw Ghetto until the uprising was put down. Then after it was put down about 30-40,000 Jews were deported to Majdanek concentration camp and my parents were among those who were deported. My mother was in the headquarters of the resistance, what was called the Jewish Fighting Organization. The headquarters was Mila 18 – that was the name of the street. Actually Leon Uris wrote a novel based on that bunker. My mother was in the bunker on Mila 19 and so her bunker connected with the bunker on Mila 18, but she was not part of the resistance and neither was my father.
Bailey: Oh, I see. I apologize and let me rephrase the question. What is your opinion of Gandhi’s views, given your knowledge of the Holocaust?
Finkelstein: Well, I’m watching closely now what is happening in Egypt (the Muslim Brotherhood protests are going on now) because, to me, Egypt is probably the greatest test of Gandhian nonviolence in the modern world. There has never been anything quite like it. You have masses of people – tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands – who have already endured two massacres and are determined to go to their deaths, nonviolently, in order to achieve the restoration of democratic rule in Egypt. Their death, their martyrdom, is real. It is imminent. It could be happening as we’re speaking now, which would be the wee hours of the morning in Egypt, and I’m watching to see. Can it achieve the results that Gandhi claimed it would achieve? Gandhi said that, even in the face of the Nazi persecution of the Jews and the Nazi occupations, at some point the nonviolence would break the will of the violent oppressors. I am a skeptic on that, in general. I don’t think that that is the case.
You can see that the Muslim Brotherhood has been so successfully demonized that large sections of the population would probably want to see them wiped out, but you have to look at very specific circumstances. The Nazis were able to put off what they did because it was in the midst of a war and the war gives all sorts of carte blanche that it’s very hard to replicate in a relatively peaceful situation. The Nazis also functioned in darkness. Most Germans, of course, knew that grave crimes were being committed by the Nazi regime, but most of them probably didn’t know the details of the colossal genocide that was occurring. They always had the excuse of the “fog of war”. In the case of Egypt, that excuse isn’t available. There is no war going on. I’m not saying that you can extrapolate from Egypt to the Nazi Holocaust, because the war gave a kind of carte blanche. So I won’t say that if the Muslim Brotherhood succeeds that it would have worked for the Jews.
My guess is that the U.S. has given the putschists (led by General Sisi) the green light for one more massacre. There will probably be several hundred people killed, but if the Brotherhood manages, by some miracle, to stay nonviolent even after the next massacre, I think that will be the last one. I don’t think the putschists can get away with yet another massacre after that.
The reason I mention this, as it may seem like a digression, is that one of the points Gandhi made, which I found to be quite compelling, is that nonviolence can achieve anything that violence can achieve, but at a far lesser cost. I am dubious that nonviolence could have achieved very much during World War Two because it was in the middle of a war and wars give everybody the pretext to drop all pretences of humanity. However, in the case of Egypt, which is not a wartime situation, and which is in the eyes of the International Community, I think Gandhi is basically right. Let’s say the Muslim Brotherhood had resorted to weapons. They would have been wiped out! The Army would have come in with helicopter gunships and all the other weapons the U.S. supply them with, and they would have wiped out the Brotherhood. I think there will probably be another massacre, with several hundred killed. If they manage to remain nonviolent, number one, I think the government will have to capitulate, and number two, far fewer people will have been killed than if the Brotherhood had resorted to weapons.
Bailey: So you feel that the Muslim Brotherhood’s best bet is to remain nonviolent and simply absorb this next anticipated massacre and that doing so will both save lives and give them the victory they desire?
Finkelstein: There are two “ifs” to consider. One is if they remain nonviolent, which will be very tough. If they do, I think they can achieve, probably, a significant victory; a full victory, no, but there may be a restoration of the Brotherhood with guarantees of immediate presidential elections or some compromise like that. The Army, though, will be finished. Right now the U.S. is giving Sisi a green light. That’s why Secretary of State Kerry said the other day that the Army didn’t commit a coup, it just restored democracy. The U.S. is giving the Army one more crack at the Brotherhood. They killed about 60 people the first time, about 120 people the second time, (That’s Obama bringing democracy to the Middle East.) and now the Army has a green light to go into the triple digits and kill even more people.
If the Brotherhood can absorb that (I’m not even saying that they should. I’m just saying that if they can) then I think they can win a significant victory and achieve most of their demands, and they will have given less blood than they would have, had they given the Army a pretext to wipe them out. I do think it is the most spectacular test, ever, of Gandhian nonviolence – a willingness to die for the cause, staying nonviolent, and staying nonviolent in the face of two previous massacres. That’s pretty impressive.
Bailey: I want to get one last question in, regarding the recent Israel-Palestine Peace talks. Do you have any optimism for these talks and are you concerned at the exclusion of Hamas and therefore the de facto exclusion of the entire Gaza Strip?
Finkelstein: There are no peace talks and I’m not trying to be hyperbolic or polemical about it. There are no real peace talks going on for a very simple reason: There is nothing to talk about. In the negotiations in Annapolis in 2008, over which Condoleezza Rice presided, each side presented their final positions.
The Israeli position was that they wanted to annex 10\% of Palestinian territory, they wanted to annex the critical water resources, they wanted to annex some of the more arable land in the occupied Palestinian territory, they wanted to annex the urban center of East Jerusalem, which is occupied Palestinian territory, and they refused to even negotiate on the issue of the refugees. Israel said that the refugees had to be handled by some international consortium, for which Israel would contribute some money, but that’s about it. That’s the Israeli bottom line offer. In common parlance it’s called the annexation of the major settlement blocks in the West Bank. The Palestinian side had quite reasonable proposals for ending the conflict, but Israel has rejected all of them.
The most enigmatic aspect of the current talks in Washington is, for the life of me, and I’m not being facetious here, I can’t imagine what they are talking about. There is nothing to talk about. There is a clear record, we know what the impasse was, and there is not the slightest reason to suppose that Israel is going to give any ground from its bottom line offer. It’s building a wall in the West Bank that absorbs 9.5\% of Palestinian territory and Israel has repeatedly said that they are building their final border. They’re not going to give ground on any of that. I can’t even imagine, since this has already been rehashed in Annapolis, what they would even say to each other.
This has nothing to do with negotiations. What it basically has to do with is three things: On the Palestinian side, they have to go to Washington because Washington pays the bills. The Palestinian economy goes from one crisis to another, because there is no economy. How can there be an economy in a territory with a roadblock every four feet, where Israel controls everything that goes in and everything that goes out, and where the main center of economic life, East Jerusalem, has been cut off from the West Bank? The whole economy survives from handouts from the International Community and the United States simply says that if the Palestinians don’t come to Washington, the U.S. will stop paying their bills. So that’s the Palestinian incentive for going to Washington.
On the Israeli side, the main incentive is that the International Community likes to see people negotiate. So all you have to do is look like you’re negotiating and all the threats of sanctions, the new E.U. guidelines, and all the rest are immediately put on hold because, “See? The Israelis and the Palestinians are negotiating for peace so we shouldn’t impose sanctions.” This way Israel can go to the negotiating table to placate the International Community without actually having to do anything.
In the case of the U.S., which is obviously orchestrating these so called talks, their motivation is pretty clear. If you look at the history of negotiations, in 2000 President Clinton entered into the negotiations in a big way because he was trying to find something to redeem his administration after the Monica Lewinsky Affair. He thought that this affair had stained the reputation of his administration and he hoped that achieving an Israeli-Palestinian would redeem him. Under the George W. Bush Administration, the main orchestrator of the talks at Annapolis was Condoleezza Rice, who was the Secretary of State. The second Bush administration was a complete and total disaster and Rice was hoping that by solving the Israel-Palestine Conflict she could redeem her name, but she wasn’t successful either. Now Obama, despite being a stupefying narcissist, is perfectly aware that his is a failed presidency. In fact it is a disastrous presidency.
Not only is it a disastrous presidency in general, but it is also a disaster from the point of view of his narcissism. He likes to cast himself in the image of Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, yet by the end of his presidency he is going to be remembered as the drone president, abroad, and domestically as the president who acted as the Pontius Pilate who crucified Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning.
And Obama is smart enough to know that Snowden and Manning will be remembered as heroes, the so to speak abolitionists of our time, and he is going to be remembered as their persecutor. He’s enough of a narcissist to not want that as his legacy so he delegated to John Kerry – not with much hope, but still hoping that Kerry can pull a rabbit out of the hat – to make peace between Israel and Palestine. If he does, Obama will get credit for it and it will lift the cloud over his legacy.
Kerry is likewise hopeful that his mission isn’t a lost cause. The Arab World is now shattered. Whatever the U.S. says the Arab League agrees. Hamas has been reduced to a nullity because it put all of its eggs in the Muslim Brotherhood’s basket and that alliance has failed. Hamas was the main opponent to the collaborators among the Palestinians, i.e. the so called Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian People themselves have never been so despondent, more despairing, more depressed, and more depoliticized with the Palestinian Authority having never been so enthralled to the U.S. than it is now.
So between the three national motivating factors and the perceived opportunity brought about by a broken Palestinian People and Arab World, Kerry and Obama are hoping that there is some possibility of ramming through the Israeli terms for resolving the conflict. That is their hope. Whether it will succeed or not, I don’t know, but it’s possible.
Editor’s note: This interview was conducted on August 2, 2013.
Twelve days later, on August 14th, Egyptian Army and Police personnel attacked two Muslim Brotherhood protest camps in Cairo, slaughtered those protestors who refused to flee, and totally routed the rest. Casualty estimates place the dead at between 595 and over 2,600, with at least an additional 4,000 wounded. Following this massacre, the low levels of anti-coup violence spiked with attacks that included the ambush and killing of two dozen Egyptian Police on the Gaza border and an RPG-7 anti-tank rocket attack on civilian freighters in the Suez Canal.
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