New Left Project Book Review–Method and Madness: The Hidden Story of Israel’s Assaults on Gaza

December 17, 2014

In Blog

The Method In Israel’s Madness

by Deborah Maccoby

Israel has gone on the rampage in Gaza three times in six years. Norman Finkelstein’s latest book is a devastating assault on the myths that make the massacres possible.

Method and Madness: The Hidden Story of Israel’s Assaults on Gaza, by Norman G. Finkelstein (New York and London: OR Books, 2014).

Israel’s assault on Gaza this summer—its third in six years—killed more than 2,000 people, nearly a quarter of them children. The devastation was, and remains, immense. ‘A whole indigenous economy has been all but destroyed’, reported Harvard’s Dr. Sara Roy in the aftermath of the massacre. ‘Gazan society has been reduced to almost complete aid dependence’. The sustained strangulation and repeated bombardment of an impoverished refugee camp is surely a kind of madness. But insanity often has its own perverse logic; and Norman Finkelstein’s latest book forensically exposes the twisted rationale behind Israel’s Gaza operations. Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.


Method and Madness is a collection of Finkelstein’s analyses after each onslaught.  Thus much of the commentary on Operation Cast Lead (2008-9), the United Nations inquiry (the ‘Goldstone Report’) into that operation (2009) and the attack on the Mavi Marmara humanitarian flotilla to Gaza (2010) is reproduced from Finkelstein’s 2011 book This Time We Went Too Far.  But bringing these pieces together in one book along with substantial unpublished and new material reveals a sustained pattern of behaviour driven by a consistent logic.  A 2011 chapter about Goldstone’s recantation and a 2012 piece written just after Operation Pillar of Defence take the story up to this summer’s Operation Protective Edge—the most savage of all the assaults, to which the final two chapters are devoted.


Finkelstein writes in the preface that ‘a trio of themes form the connective tissue of the book’s narrative’. First, each attack on Gaza was preceded by a pattern of deliberate Israeli provocations leading to Hamas retaliation by means of largely ineffectual rockets, which Israel then exploited as a pretext. Second, in each case, Israel managed to evade accountability from the international community. Third, each massacre ended in a stalemate and the continuation of the siege of Gaza.


Israel’s motivations have also remained consistent. Whereas Israel presents its offensives as reluctant responses to Palestinian aggression, the truth, Finkelstein argues, is precisely the opposite. Israel’s provocations and attacks typically follow Palestinian ‘peace offensives’—peace overtures that undermine Israel’s pretexts for rejecting a two-state solution and hence threaten it with the prospect of having to give up land in the West Bank. To forestall an unwelcome peace, Israel instigates a war and brands the Palestinians as ‘terrorists’ with whom no peace can be made. Finkelstein traces this pattern back to the 1982 war on Lebanon and takes the phrase ‘peace offensive’ from an Israeli analyst writing at the time. A second consistent objective behind Israel’s attacks on Gaza is to restore what Israel calls its ‘deterrence capability’ as the dominant power in the region.  Finkelstein traces this policy back to the Six Day War.  But whereas in 1967 Israel established deterrence by defeating the Arab world’s major military power, the enfeebled Israeli military of today must resort to Gaza as a demonstrative punching bag in lieu of taking on a more formidable enemy, such as Hezbollah.


Finkelstein explains 2008’s ‘Operation Cast Lead’ in these terms. Hamas had adhered to a four-month ceasefire that began in June 2008 and was signalling a readiness to accept the two-state solution. There was a prospect that the new US administration might put pressure on Israel to negotiate such a settlement. Furthermore, Israel was itching to reassert its ‘deterrence’ after the 2006 debacle in Lebanon and its failure to persuade the US government to attack Iran.  Israel therefore broke the ceasefire with a raid into Gaza on 4 November, 2008—when the eyes of the world were riveted on the election of Obama in the US—that killed four Hamas militants. Predictably, Hamas fired rockets in retaliation; Israel escalated the conflict and launched the massive onslaught.


The pattern repeated itself in Operation Pillar of Defence (2012). The new Middle East line-up produced by the Arab Spring had created a favourable regional environment for a buoyant Hamas. This, combined with Israel’s botched raid on the Mavi Marmara flotilla and a series of humiliating diplomatic failures, left Israel feeling an urgent need to assert its ‘deterrence capacity’. And so Hamas leader Ahmed al-Jabaari was assassinated while he was in the process of advancing a long-term ceasefire with Israel; the assassination provoked a barrage of Hamas rockets, followed by Israel’s large-scale assault.


Operation Pillar of Defence was, however, much more restrained than Cast Lead.  Israel did not launch a ground operation. Finkelstein points out that the only way that Israel can do so without large casualties among its soldiers, which do not play well with the Israeli public, is by shooting everything in sight and causing massive Gazan civilian casualties. Egypt and Turkey made it clear that they would strongly oppose another Cast Lead. The border with Egypt was open at the time, and so Gaza was full of journalists. Israel also feared another Goldstone Report—despite Goldstone’s recantation, the cogency of which Finkelstein spends a chapter demolishing.


Such is the prehistory of Operation Protective Edge.  Israeli ‘deterrence’ needed its regular topping up, and so Gaza was again pulverised. A secondary objective was to punish and subdue the population of Gaza and try to turn it against Hamas. Once again, the operation came on the heels of a Palestinian ‘peace offensive’.  Hamas had agreed to support a Palestinian unity government, which had won tacit support from the US and the EU.  Hamas did not oppose the new unity government’s endorsement of the negotiating positions set out by the US and EU: recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence and recognition of past agreements. Strong international pressure was again growing on Israel to negotiate a two-state solution and give up West Bank land.


One difference from earlier operations was that the launching of Operation Protective Edge relied to a large extent on opportunism. The Israeli government was waiting for an opportunity, and when three Israeli Jewish teenagers were kidnapped and murdered Netanyahu pounced. In the guise of a search and rescue operation—even though the Israeli government knew that the teenagers were dead—the Israeli army went on a rampage on the West Bank against Hamas and also attacked Hamas in Gaza. At this point the regular pattern took over: Israel’s operations in the West Bank provoked in response a barrage of Hamas rockets, leading in turn to a massive Israeli onslaught and massacre in Gaza.


A big question regarding Operation Protective Edge is, why did Israel launch the ground offensive? Why did the restrictions that prevented Israel from doing so in 2012 not operate in 2014? Finkelstein explains that Israel did in fact hold back from a ground invasion for some time; but once again Netanyahu took advantage of an opportunity. He could not resist the temptation of launching a ground invasion on the same day that the world’s media were focused on the downing of the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine. Another major factor was that Israel had accepted but Hamas had rejected a ceasefire deal brokered by the new Egyptian President, al-Sisi, with the assistance of Tony Blair (without any consultation with Hamas). Blair had come up with terms he knew Hamas would have to reject, thus enabling Israel to posture as a peace-seeker and present Hamas as the belligerent party. More broadly, Finkelstein points out that the whole regional situation had changed since 2012. The Morsi government in Egypt had been ousted by a military government strongly opposed to Hamas; Turkey was preoccupied with the situation in Syria; and the rise of ISIS during the summer made the EU receptive to Israel’s presentation of Hamas as an Islamist menace.


Another major and puzzling difference from previous operations against Gaza was the high number of Israeli military casualties. Finkelstein explains that this was an unintended consequence of the ground invasion. The Israeli army walked into a trap.  Hamas had constructed a highly sophisticated network of tunnels inside Gaza in preparation for an Israeli ground incursion, with many hidden points from which Hamas fighters emerged in order to engage the Israeli soldiers in street to street fighting. The Israeli ‘war’ aim abruptly changed from ‘stopping the rockets’ to ‘destroying the terror tunnels’; and the Israeli public was terrified out of its wits by the illusory threat of Hamas terrorists emerging from secret tunnels inside Israel and massacring Israeli civilians in their beds. (This probably also explains why the Israeli public continued to support Operation Protective Edge despite the large number of Israeli soldiers killed.) In fact, Finkelstein shows, the tunnels that concerned Israel were those within Gaza, which threatened its capacity to invade the territory unopposed, not those which crossed from Gaza into Israel. Of the twelve tunnels that passed under the border with Israel, Finkelstein makes the simple, commonsensical point that ‘Israel could easily have sealed them from its side, just as Egypt after the July coup sealed some one thousand tunnels passing from Gaza into the Sinai’.


The most controversial part of the book, which will no doubt earn Finkelstein much opprobrium, is his assertion that the rockets launched by Hamas against Israeli civilians are neither illegal nor immoral. He points out that international law has not yet come out in unequivocal opposition to ‘belligerent reprisals’ against civilians.  And, even though many readers are likely to have problems with it, he certainly makes a good case for his refusal to condemn the rockets in moral terms. Hamas rockets are only launched after deliberate Israeli provocations; and without the rockets, Gaza’s inhabitants would be forgotten, left to rot in their uninhabitable open-air prison behind the blockade. The rockets used in Operation Protective Edge were just ‘enhanced fireworks’—a largely symbolic gesture of defiance and resistance. Finkelstein quotes Hamas leader Khaled Mishal—‘our simple, home-made rockets are our cry of protest to the world’—and asks: ‘Do Palestinians have the right to symbolically resist slow death punctuated by periodic massacres, or is it incumbent upon them to lie down and die?’


Finkelstein’s refusal to condemn the rockets in legal or moral terms gives impact and resonance to his advocacy for non-violent resistance by Palestinians, and strongly differentiates it from the cynical calls on Hamas from supporters of the Israeli government to ‘renounce violence’ (calls that never include injunctions to Israel to renounce its provocations and massively greater violence). Unlike most of those who quote Gandhi, Finkelstein has not only read his writings but has written a book about them. Finkelstein suggests that Gandhi might not have been opposed to the rocket attacks:


Though powerless beside Israel’s armed might, Palestinians are often taken to task for not embracing a Gandhian strategy of non-violent resistance.  In 2003,  then-US Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz told a Georgetown University audience: ‘If the Palestinians would adopt the ways of Gandhi, I think they could in fact make enormous change very quickly’.  Whatever the merits of this contention, it should still be recalled what Gandhi actually had to say on the subject of non-violence.  He categorised forceful resistance in the face of impossible odds… ‘almost non-violence’, because it was essentially symbolic…..even if it were granted that Hamas rocket attacks did constitute full-fledged violence, it is still not certain that Gandhi would have disapproved.


Finkelstein’s argument against the rockets is purely practical: armed resistance hasn’t worked and is in fact exactly what Israel wants, in order to brand Hamas as terrorists, find a pretext for massacres of Gazan civilians and forestall any possibility at all—even on Israel’s own terms, as laid out in the Kerry initiative—of giving up land for peace.  Finkelstein is in a position to call for non-violent resistance without sounding disingenuous or patronising. He ends the book by proposing a mass non-violent march by the whole of Gaza’s 1.8 million people to the border crossings, with Gaza’s one million children at the front, timed to synchronise with mass demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of Palestinian solidarity activists who would surround the UN headquarters in New York and Geneva, calling for an end to the blockade. It is an inspiring suggestion, but will again raise many questions. After enduring so much, can Gazans be expected to summon up the strength to face the prospect of massacre again, even if it would result in far fewer casualties than another inevitable Israeli onslaught and would finally give them freedom?


To conclude: despite these controversial issues—which indeed add to the interest of the book—Method and Madness is a sustained and devastating onslaught on the myths and lies of Israeli propaganda. Against tanks, warplanes, drones, high-precision missiles and white phosphorus, Finkelstein deploys the weapons of white-hot anger, scathing irony, sanity, common sense, international law, rational logic, clear analysis and the truth.


Deborah Maccoby is a member of the Executives of Jews for Justice for Palestinians (JfJfP) and the UK branch of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD).


Top image: ‘Dar al-Fadila Association for Orphans, consisting of a school, computer center and mosque in Rafah serving 500 children, were destroyed by the Israelis during Israel’s assault on Gaza’, International Solidarity Movement (12 January, 2009), via Wikimedia Commons.