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February 24, 2011

We are living through splendid times – Norman Finkelstein

Eleanor Grant

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“The disorder now sweeping the Middle East is allowing the Arab people to breathe the fresh air of dignity,” said Dr. Norman Finkelstein, speaking at a Kitchener Ontario church on Feb. 17.

Just six days after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, he said it was too soon to call Egypt’s revolt a “revolution”.  He is hopeful but cautious – for there are powerful interests scheming to restore the system of Western-sponsored autocracies across the Arab world, a system in place since World War I. 

It can’t be changed in 18 days, or 180 days, he said – but the mass movement initiated by the young social media crowds will require the astuteness of an elder like El Baradei to see it through to true independence and democracy. 

Israel’s perennial strategy has been to create fear among the Arab people, said the controversial Jewish political scientist, who lost his place in the academic world when Chicago’s De Paul University denied him tenure in 2007 because of his probing books on Israel and the Palestinians. 

Israel’s strategy is now threatened, Finkelstein said – not because a democratic Egypt would rescind its 1979 peace treaty or because the Arabs would attack Israel.  No – Egypt was satisfied to get the Sinai back, so it will not initiate a war.

What threatens Israel is that the fear factor is no longer there.

The faces of the Egyptians have changed, he said.  People who were “dead souls” now have spirit again! 

If an array of democratic Arab countries should arise, where the governments listen to their people and where modern societies emerge, Israel won’t be able to push them around anymore.  Israel will no longer have the cover it needs from timid Arab leaders, to act unilaterally in the region whenever and however it pleases.  If the awakening continues to spread through the Arab world, Israel will soon have to deal with neighbours who are equals.  That prospect causes great nervousness in Tel Aviv.

Finkelstein retraced the events of Israel’s attacks on Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-9. 

In May 2000 Hezbollah successfully evicted the Israeli forces occupying southern Lebanon.  As a result, Israel feared that its “deterrence capacity” – its ability to instill fear – had been compromised. 

So it started planning the next round of engagement with Hezbollah.  He didn’t mention, but could have, that the brutalization of Jenin during Israel’s attack on the West Bank in April 2002, also served the purpose of restoring that edge of terror throughout the Arab world.

The pretext for a re-engagement with Hezbollah came in the summer of 2006.  Israel then unleashed 34 days of massive destruction of Lebanon’s infrastructure and killed 1200 people. 

But on the battlefield it was a loss for Israel, Finkelstein stated.  Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s “chutzpah” in gloating over Israel caused much angst in Tel Aviv.

So another act of terror was needed to restore Israel’s “deterrence capacity”, and this was the motive behind Operation Cast Lead, Finkelstein believes.

Every one of us remembers where we were the night of Nov. 4, 2008, when Barack Obama gave his stupendous victory speech.  But few of us were aware that on that day Israel launched an attack on Gaza killing six Palestinian militants.  It didn’t get much coverage in the media.  This attack broke the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, in place since June, and was followed by Hamas rocket attacks into Israel – the pretext Israel was waiting for.

The fury of the attack on Gaza in December and January was indescribable in its horror.  The soldiers all said they never saw an enemy to engage; yet “insane amounts of firepower” were used. 

The 1200 civilians who died could not have been human shields, because the vast majorities were killed inside their homes, Finkelstein said.  The fire was not “indiscriminate”, in fact it was deliberately targeted on necessities of life, such as Gaza’s only flourmill, and most of its cement-mixing plants, which would be needed to rebuild from the 600,000 tons of rubble.  And did I mention the white phosphorus, which burns the skin at a temperature of 816 degrees C?

Just before Obama’s inauguration, Israel “withdrew”, keeping 20 per cent of Gaza’s meager agricultural land as a military free fire zone.  Children are still being shot and killed there today as they venture into their families’ fields to gather a little produce. 

And the blockade of Gaza still continues.  Amnesty International pointed out that both Israel and Hamas were human rights violators, and therefore neither of them can legally receive weapons.  But this is not publicized anywhere.

 If the purpose was to restore fear of Israel, Operation Cast Lead was a success.  But Israel soon lost another psychological battle, with the flotilla massacre the following May. What was Israel’s mistake – attacking a ship on the high seas and killing nine unarmed activists?  Incurring yet another international outcry against IDF brutality?  No!  It was the capture of three of its men, and the way they looked like frightened children.  “This was the disaster,” Finkelstein said.  “Brutal is OK.  Incompetent is not.” 

Israel is not hurt by our thousands of well-documented accusations of brutality, excessive force, human rights violations, collective punishment, illegal occupation, killing of civilians, and on and on. 

Our accusations do not hurt Israel’s position, they strengthen it.  Being seen as brutal and fearsome is what Israel wants, in order to further its interests. 

Reflecting on Dr. Finkelstein’s speech, we realize that a whole new line of international response is needed, if Israel is to be brought to account for its deeds.  It starts with a new psychological turn, and no longer being intimidated.  It starts with the faces that stared down their police state in Tahrir Square.

Norman Finkelstein is very hopeful that an awakened and democratic Arab world may soon prove capable of such a new and fearless world-view.  That’s what he meant when he said, “We are living through splendid times”.

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