April 25, 2010

Book Review: ‘This Time We Went Too Far: Truth & Consequences of the Gaza Invasion’

Norman Finkelstein begins his new book—This Time We Went Too Far: Truth & Consequences of the Gaza Invasion—debunking the oft-repeated claim that Israel waged Operation Cast Lead in order to stop Hamas from firing rockets into Israeli cities. If Israel's goal had been to stop the the rockets, Finkelstein writes, then it wouldn't have broken the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire with Hamas. (Israel did this on November 4, 2008, when a group of Israeli soldiers entered Gaza and killed six Palestinian militants. Until then, Hamas had been abiding by the ceasefire agreement and had even worked to stop rogue groups from firing rockets.) Moreover, if Israel's goal had been stopping the rockets, then, instead of opting for war, it would have agreed to renew the ceasefire agreement in early December.

So why then did Israel wage its December 2008-January 2009 assault on Gaza? More than anything else, Finkelstein writes that Israel, still embarrassed by its poor performance in the 2006 Lebanon War, sought to restore its deterrence capacity. In order to accomplish this, it felt the need to utterly devastate Gaza, dealing a heavy blow to, not just militants, but also civilians and civilian infrastructure. In doing this it hoped to so badly intimidate Arabs, in both Gaza and the entire region, that they would “not even conceive of challenging Israel’s freedom to carry on as it pleased, however ruthlessly and recklessly.”

To demonstrate that Israel targeted the civilian population and its infrastructure, Finkelstein first describes the level of destruction resulting from the invasion: “Beyond the civilian casualties, Israel destroyed or damaged 58,000 homes (6,300 were completely destroyed or sustained severe damage), 280 schools and kindergartens (18 schools were completely destroyed and six university buildings were razed to the ground), 1,500 factories and workshops, several buildings housing Palestinian and foreign media (two journalists were killed while working, four others were also killed), water and sewage installations, 80 percent of agricultural crops, and nearly one-fifth of cultivated land.”

Israel also destroyed 30 mosques, one of the Gaza’s three flour mills, and a chicken farm that supplied one-tenth of the Strip’s eggs. Noting that the destruction of the chicken farm resulted in the death of 65,000 chickens, he writes: “After the invasion was over Israel alleged that the death and destruction appeared indefensible only because ‘there is a limit to the amount of intelligence it can share with commissions of inquiry without compromising operational capabilities and intelligence sources.’ If the world only knew what was in those chickens….”

Finkelstein proceeds to point to statements by Israeli officials who claimed that Israel used “sophisticated precision weapons” during the conflict, that it possessed an “intelligence gathering capacity” that “remained extremely effective,” that “99 percent of the firing that was carried out [by the Air Force] hit targets accurately,” and that it only struck one building in error. “In other words,” Finkelstein writes, “Israel was able to pinpoint its targets on the ground and, by its own admission, could and did hit these designated targets with pinpoint accuracy. It thus cannot be said that the criminal wreckage resulted from mishap or from a break in the chain of command. What happened in Gaza was meant to happen—by everyone from the soldiers in the field who executed the orders to the officers who gave the orders to the politicians who approved the orders.”

Lest his readers have any lingering doubts, Finkelstein continues to pour on the evidence. In one heavily footnoted chapter after another, he details how numerous IDF soldiers confessed to seeing their fellow soldiers commit war crimes, how Israel continually hampered the efforts of relief organizations, and how it targeted minarets, “which, being too narrow for snipers to ascend, had no military value.” He also devotes a chapter to the allegation that Hamas used civilians as human shields, noting that this claim is based solely on the tortured confessions of Palestinian detainees and has been contradicted by the investigations of numerous human rights organizations. Pointing to an Amnesty International report, he then notes that Israeli soldiers, on the other hand, “used civilians, including children, as ‘human shields,’ endangering their lives by forcing them to remain in or near houses which they took over and used as military positions. Some were forced to carry out dangerous tasks such as inspecting properties or objects suspected of being booby-trapped” (Amnesty’s words).

Much of This Time We Went Too Far is simply a distillation of what has already been made known by the Goldstone Commission, human rights organizations, and numerous Israeli soldiers. But this is precisely the book’s strength; by condensing this information, Finkelstein has provided activists with an incredibly potent weapon for peace. Making use of such documents as the 550-page Goldstone Report can be a daunting task, but Finkelstein has done the work for us, giving us an accessible, 143-page analysis of the invasion.

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