At the time of writing, inter-communal violence is escalating in Jerusalem, and there is much talk of the possibility of a third intifada being launched from the occupied West Bank. Norman Finkelstein's new book, Method and Madness: the Hidden Story of Israel's Assaults on Gaza is focussed instead on where the conflict has in recent years been most visible - the Gaza strip. The book details Israel's three ‘wars’ in Gaza  – Operation Cast Lead (2008-09) Operation Pillar of Defense (2012) and Operation Protective Edge (2014). The book includes substantial material on the 2009 report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict (more commonly known as the Goldstone report). And judge Richard Goldstone's partial retraction of its conclusions in April 2011. The book also provides analysis of the Israeli assault on the Mavi Marmara of the Freedom Flotilla in 2010.
The 'Madness' of the title refers to Israel's deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure in the course of its assaults on Gaza. Though Israel’s attacks on the civilian population of Gaza are contributing to the gradual erosion of Israel’s international standing, they are, as Finkelstein demonstrates, not simply an expression of the irrationality of an increasingly fanatical society. Rather Finkelstein shows that the violence is in the service of an entirely rational strategy vis a vis Israel’s adversaries. By engaging in periodic bouts of bloodletting, Israel seeks to restore its ‘deterrence capacity’ regarding its state and non-state enemies. Israel simultaneously uses violence to undermine the prospects for peace on terms that, occasional rhetoric aside, Israel finds unacceptable (the two-state solution on the 1967 borders).
The first illustrative example of Finkelstein’s thesis is Operation Cast Lead (2008-09). Finkelstein locates the cause of the conflict not in Hamas’s ineffectual rocket fire (which Israel had itself provoked by breaking a ceasefire) but instead in the need to strike fear into Hamas and its regional adversaries following the debacle of its 2006 war with Hezbollah, coupled with the need to head off a Hamas ‘peace offensive’. Israel's continued illegal occupation depends upon the pretence that it has no partner for peace. However, the actions of Hamas prior to Cast Lead were making that fiction increasingly difficult to maintain. Hamas had abided by the ceasefire and (even in the view of high Israeli intelligence officials) was moving towards acceptance of the two-state solution on the 67 borders.
After the conclusion of the conflict, the Goldstone report described Cast Lead as a “deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population.” However, as Finkelstein notes, one does not need to consult UN inquiries or the analysis of human rights organisations to get a good picture of what the operation amounted to. Finkelstein quotes the comments of Israel's then Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni towards the end of the operation:
“Hamas now understands that when you fire on [Israel's] citizens it responds by going wild – and this is a good thing... Israel demonstrated real hooliganism during the course of the recent operation, which I demanded.”
The bare statistics also give a pretty clear indication of what sort of 'war' Cast Lead was – in the course of the operation 1,400 Palestinians were killed, amongst them 300 children. Israel, by contrast, suffered ten military casualties (four of them due to ‘friendly fire’) and three civilian deaths.
In the spring of 2011 Judge Richard Goldstone made a partial retraction of the conclusions of the UN report that bears his name. Goldstone's rationale for his retraction was that new information that had come to light since the issuance of the report called his initial findings into question. However, as Finkelstein amply demonstrates, what information did come to light, in fact, served to further buttress the conclusions of the report (which incidentally Goldstone's three colleagues stood by). It seems reasonable to suppose, as Finkelstein does that the intense criticism and pressure Goldstone was subjected to in the wake of the report was the real cause of Goldstone’s otherwise inexplicable about-turn.
Blood on the high seas
In 2010, the International Freedom Flotilla sailed to Gaza in an effort to break the Israeli blockade of the territory – in force since Hamas checked a US-backed Fatah coup in 2007. In the dead of night, Israeli commandos rappelled onto the deck of the Mavi Marmara – a Turkish ship carrying 10,000 tons of supplies and 700 passengers. In the course of the operation, Israeli soldiers shot dead eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American. As Finkelstein notes, Israel could easily have boarded the ship in daylight or disabled the ship and towed it to port – instead it launched a dramatic Entebbe style commando raid in the middle of the night. Finkelstein argues that Israel’s intentions in selecting this heavy handed approach were firstly to raise the costs of international solidarity and secondarily to make up for Israel's recent military setbacks. Incredibly, as Finkelstein recounts, the Israelis had rehearsed the raid for weeks and even constructed a model of the Mavi Marmara in preparation for their daring operation. In spite of their best-laid plans, the Naval commandos still managed to botch the mission – three soldiers were captured by the unarmed passengers, and the incident became an embarrassing PR disaster for Israel.
In November 2012, Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense – an eight-day aerial assault on the Gaza strip. The operation began with the usual implausible claims from Israeli officials that Israel was acting purely in order to defend itself from Hamas rocket fire. From the beginning of 2012 only one Israeli had been killed by Palestinian projectiles whilst 78 Palestinians had died in Israeli air strikes (not to speak of the massive suffering inflicted by the illegal land and maritime blockade). The real reason for Israel's assault was a shift in the balance of power in favour of Hamas. In Egypt Hamas's ideological cousins, the Muslim brotherhood, had come to power, Turkey had become an increasingly vociferous critic of Israel and the Emir of Qatar had visited promising hundreds of millions of dollars for Gaza. Although Hamas's increasing international respectability was the occasion for Israel's assault it also had the effect of limiting the scope for Israeli aggression. As Finkelstein details, Turkey and Egypt made it clear that they would not acquiesce in an Israeli ground invasion. Egypt's less punitive control of the Rafah crossing meant that international media had a strong presence in the territory. Furthermore in the wake of the Goldstone report, Israel genuinely feared the possibility of Israeli leaders being indicted by the International Criminal Court. Consequently ‘only’ seventy Palestinians were killed in the course of the operation. The eventual ceasefire was a severe defeat for Israel – it called for a mutual ceasefire, not the unilateral ceasefire Israel had wanted. It did not include any preconditions regarding Hamas's arsenal of rockets, and it included veiled references to lifting the blockade. The Obama administration went along with the text of the ceasefire, not because of any new found qualms regarding the violence of America's Middle Eastern vassal, but because the administration was courting the new Egyptian government.
Writing in 2012 on the change in the balance of forces in the region and the somewhat hopeful implications for the Palestinian struggle Finkelstein commented: ‘The days of Cast Lead are over’. Sadly this was decidedly premature. The coup in Egypt, the comparative decline in Arab concern for the Palestinians as domestic crises overtook them, and the increasing isolation of Hamas set the stage for a return to the extreme violence of Cast Lead.
Operation Protective Edge
Once again, as Finkelstein describes, Israel launched Operation Protective edge in the context of improving prospects for peace. At the end of April 2014 Hamas and Fatah had formed a national unity government, as part of which Hamas did not oppose President Abbas's support for the US and EU preconditions for negotiations: recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence and acceptance of past agreements. In June three Israeli teenagers were killed in the West Bank (where they would, of course, not have been had Israel not spent decades transferring hundreds of thousands of Israelis to illegally occupied territory). The killing of the three teenagers provided the pretext for heading off the fearful prospect of a meaningful peace process. A rogue Hamas group over which, as Israeli leaders knew, the Hamas leadership had no control carried out the atrocity. As in the case of Cast Lead OPE took a fearful toll on the Palestinians – more than 2000 Palestinians were killed, including some 500 children. However, Hamas's improved military tactics exerted a significant toll on the IDF – 66 Israeli soldiers died in the course of the fighting.
Finkelstein concludes his book with an impassioned plea for the Palestinians to engage in mass non-violent demonstrations to end the occupation. To his credit he does not shy away from describing what this would actually mean: Palestinian martyrdom on a massive scale in order to make international support for Israel untenable. However, the improved performance of Hamas’s military wing during OPE is likely to encourage Hamas to believe that the military option remains a feasible strategy.
Any advocate for the Palestinians is going to be a marginal figure within American political culture, but Finkelstein is probably more marginalised than he has ever been. A vocal critic of the so-called one-state solution and the ambiguous objectives of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) Finkelstein has come in for a great deal of criticism for holding to his position.
Regardless of what one thinks of Finkelstein’s stance on a solution to the conflict, or his view on BDS, he remains one of the most perceptive critics of Israel’s increasingly barbarous occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. It would be a minor tragedy if his latest book were to be ignored because his views on a solution to the conflict are out of fashion.
Alex Doherty is a co-founder of New Left Project and a graduate student in the War Studies department of King's College London. He has written for Z Magazine and Open Democracy amongst other publications. You can follow him on twitter @alexdoherty7