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2006-06-29

AIPAC v. Norman Finkelstein: A Debate on Israel’s Assault on Gaza

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We host a debate on the situation in Gaza with Norman Finkelstein, a professor of political science at DePaul University in Chicago and author of "Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History" and Josh Block, the Director of Media Affairs for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). [includes rush transcript]

  • Norman Finkelstein, professor of Political science at DePaul University in Chicago. His latest book is "Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History."
    - Website: NormanFinkelstein.com
  • Josh Block, director of Media Affairs for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we continue our coverage, we’re joined now by two guests. Here in our Firehouse studio, Norman Finkelstein, Professor of Political Science at DePaul University in Chicago. His latest book is called Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History. And on the telephone, we’re joined by Josh Block, Director of Media Affairs for AIPAC — that’s the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — speaking to us on the line from Connecticut. Josh Block, let’s begin with you. Your response and the latest, the last thing that Chris McGreal said, saying human rights groups, the Palestinian leadership, Mahmoud Abbas talking about this as collective punishment and a crime against humanity.

JOSH BLOCK: Well, clearly the concern is the reaction from those same folks when it comes to the murder and kidnap of Israeli citizens. From many perspective, American or otherwise, an attack inside Israel, unprovoked, that resulted in the murder of two Israelis and not the capture, Amy, but the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier is, in and of itself, an act of war.

And clearly the Israelis tried for several days, 48 hours, 36 hours, of intense diplomacy with the aid of the United States, the French — and I should add that this young man who has been kidnapped is also a French citizen — to secure the release from Hamas, the terrorist group that has him. And by the way, in high irony, the government of the Palestinian Authority, run by the same terrorist group, so a government that’s charged with fighting terrorism is itself a terrorist group that’s responsible for his kidnapping. So after 48 hours and 36 hours of difficult and unproductive diplomacy, clearly the Israelis felt that they needed to act in their own defense.

And I think the question is what is the reaction from these same human rights groups when it comes to the condemnation of terrorism or other acts? And clearly — and I don’t speak for the Israelis, but they must have felt that this was an important thing to do to help isolate and prevent the movement of this terrorist groups from moving the captive or kidnapped Israeli soldier around the Gaza Strip.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Finkelstein?

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: I think it is useful to begin with what the human rights groups have to say about this. Let’s leave aside the background for a moment and look narrowly at the incident that triggered the Israeli invasion. Let’s see what Hamas did not do, what the Palestinian militants did not do. Number one, they did not liquidate the corporal, which Israel routinely does, namely its political assassinations. That’s a war crime under international law. Israel routinely does that. Hamas did not do that to the corporal.

Number two, they didn’t kill the corporal while trying to arrest him. Israel routinely does that. If you look at July 2005, B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, they put out a very hefty report entitled "Take No Prisoners." And the report shows Israel routinely, during so-called arrest operations, kills Palestinians, documents a case of a Palestinian who was wounded, on the ground, no weapon. Israel killed him. Hamas didn’t do that to the corporal.

It said by this — by [inaudible], it said that they took him hostage, they kidnapped him. Okay. Israel routinely takes Palestinians, Lebanese hostage. In fact, Israel was the only country in the world, in 1997, which legalized hostage-taking. The liberal head of the Israeli High Court, Aharon Barak, he said it’s legal, legitimate, under international law to take what he called bargaining chips in order to get prisoners, Israeli prisoners being held by the Lebanese. The decision was reversed in 2000, but Israel continued to hold Lebanese hostages until 2004. So, at worst, Hamas is being accused of what Israel legalized and routinely does.

And finally, let’s talk about those 9,000 Palestinians who are effectively hostages being held by Israel. 1,000 of them are administrative detainees.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about prisoners.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Yes. Administrative detainees who are being held without any charges or trial. And the other 8,000 are being held after military courts have convicted them, almost always on the basis of confessions which were extracted by torture. So if we’re going to look simply at the numbers, we have one hostage on the Palestinian side, and effectively we have about 9,000 on the Israeli side.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and then we’ll get a response from Josh Block of AIPAC. Dr. Norman Finkelstein is Professor at DePaul University in Chicago.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about the siege in Gaza. Our guests are Josh Block, a spokesperson for AIPAC, which is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, speaking to us from Connecticut; and Professor Norman Finkelstein, teaches political science at DePaul University in Chicago, is in our Firehouse studio. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Josh Block, before break, Norman Finkelstein was talking about the lack of proportionality in looking at the issue of prisoners and hostages on both sides. Your response to that?

JOSH BLOCK: Well, I think the first thing that he said was that we should ignore the context in which this attack took place, and I think that’s a major flaw with his commentary over time. I’m not surprised to hear him talk about things in those terms, considering he’s called Hezbollah, which is the number one killer of Americans outside of al-Qaeda, a heroic organization.

You know, ultimately, the question for Israel is, what is its responsibility as a government? And any government, whether it’s our or theirs, has the duty to protect its citizens. Hamas and Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, other terrorists groups, have been conducting an unremitting campaign of terrorism against Israeli citizens. Hamas is an organization that fundamentally believes, deep in its core, that Israel does not have the right to exist. When they talk about an occupation, they’re talking about Tel Aviv. That’s why when this terrorist attack took place, it took place not in the Gaza Strip or in the West Bank, but inside Israel itself.

They infiltrated Israel, digging a tunnel from underneath a home into the country of Israel, where they attacked soldiers who were not engaged in an offensive operation against any Palestinian. They murdered two of them, and they kidnapped one of them. And they’re holding him captive, hostage. That is an act of war. It’s a provocation. And it comes as a culmination of months and months of terrorist attacks and rocket attacks against Israeli citizens, who were not engaged in any offensive effort, who are simply going ahead and living their lives. And that kind of terrorism is unacceptable, and forces a response from any responsible government.

The Palestinian Authority has the responsibility to secure the release of this individual, this soldier. And failing that, the international community has to continue to put pressure on the Palestinian Authority to fulfill those obligations. Again, Hamas is the government of the Palestinian Authority, and it is sanctioning and conducting terrorism. That’s not an acceptable situation, and it cuts against the entire grain of fundamental international conduct.

AMY GOODMAN: Norman Finkelstein, I’d like to you respond to that and also the timing of this operation, coming hours after Fatah and Hamas announced that they had agreed on a document that implicitly recognized Israel within its 1967 borders.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, I want to first take note that Josh didn’t respond to any of my claims about Israel taking hostages, about 9,000 —

JOSH BLOCK: That’s because they’re ludicrous claims. They don’t merit a response.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: I respected your time, Josh. I respected your time. Please do the same for me. He didn’t respond to any of my claims about Israel taking hostages, routinely killing Palestinians taken prisoner, and so on and so forth.

So let’s turn to the issue that Josh wants to address, namely the context. I’m very happy to do so. Let’s look at the context. Since Israel withdrew from Gaza in September 2005 ’til today, the estimates run between 7,000 and 9,000 heavy artillery shells have been shot and fired into Gaza. On the Palestinian side, the estimates are approximately 1,000 Kassam missiles, crude missiles, have been fired into Israel. So we have a ratio of between seven and nine to one.

Let’s look at casualties. In the last six months, approximately 80 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza due to Israel artillery firing. Now, on the Israeli side, we hear all of these terrible things about these Kassams. Even Shlomo Ben-Ami, yesterday on your program, who I respect, he said what’s Israel to do about these Kassams? What does the record show? I mentioned a moment ago, 80 Palestinians killed in six months. There have been exactly eight Israelis killed in the last five years from the Kassam missiles. Again, we have a huge disproportion, a huge discrepancy.

Now, Josh says Israel has a responsibility to protect its citizens. I totally agree with that. But Hamas is the elected government of the Palestinians. They have a responsibility to protect their citizens. They have a responsibility to get back their 9,000 hostages. They have a responsibility to protect their Palestinian civilians, who are being daily attacked by Israel. Josh says that the —

JOSH BLOCK: If I might, Amy, I’m ready to respond to that.

AMY GOODMAN: Josh Block of AIPAC.

JOSH BLOCK: Yeah, first of all, the folks that have been arrested for participating in terrorist activity against innocent Israeli civilians have been arrested for criminal activity. They were not kidnapped because they were doing their responsible civic duty and no offensive position against the Palestinians. In fact, those who, again, are in Israeli jail are there for conducting terrorist activity. Among the people that he mentions that have been killed, were killed because they were participating in terrorist activity, shooting missiles, planning terrorist attacks against Israel. Those folks were not innocent civilians who were killed in suicide bus bombings or have had missiles fall on their kindergartens. There’s a moral equivalency that your guest is drawing that is fundamentally out of proportion.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: May I ask Josh a question?

JOSH BLOCK: It’s totally disproportionate and fundamentally incorrect.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: May I ask Josh — I’d like to ask you a question, Josh. 1,000 of those Palestinian prisoners being held by Israel, according to B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, 1,000 of them are administrative detainees. That is, there have been no charges leveled against them. How do you know what they’re being held for?

JOSH BLOCK: Fundamentally —

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: No, answer that question. There have been no charges and no trials.

JOSH BLOCK: I’m about to, if you would give me a second to answer —

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: How do you know what they’re being held for?

JOSH BLOCK: But instead you’re trying to filibuster the question. Fundamentally, the Israeli army and the Israeli government arrest Palestinians who are engaged in terrorist activity. That’s a proven fact.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: No, I don’t think that’s a proven fact. It would be a proven fact if there were court trials.

JOSH BLOCK: It is. It is a proven fact.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: How do you know what administrative detainees are being held for? Israel doesn’t say, so how do you know?

JOSH BLOCK: I fundamentally understand the facts, which clearly you do not, which are that Israel takes fundamental legal action to arrest individuals who are engaged in terrorist activity directed against its citizens. There is no moral equivalency to be drawn between a country acting in defense of its citizens and those engaging in terrorist activity in an effort to stabilize and destroy that free and peaceful society.

Look, Amy and Juan, as a Liberal Democrat who is a long-time listener of this program, I fundamentally believe that the audience and you are in a position to understand that liberal fundamental values, which are celebrated in Israel — freedom of the press, women’s rights, gay rights, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion — are denied to those living in Palestinian areas and throughout the rest of the Arab world. There’s an asymmetry that’s involved in the Middle East, which is a country of Israel that is based on fundamental free values, that is not replicated in the Arab world, where education systems inculcate children with hatred and teach them that martyrdom and death is preferred over science and math and education.

And fundamentally, after Israel’s disengagement from Gaza less than a year ago, when the Palestinian people and the Authority that leads them had the chance to build a better life for their citizens, they chose not to do that. They destroyed the greenhouses, the economic infrastructure that was provided. They then took the opportunity not to fight terrorism and to provide security for their people and went the other direction. That’s why when these attacks take place through the very arteries, the crossing points and the cargo points that benefit the Palestinian people, Hamas is intentionally harming their own society. That is the fundamental dynamic, none of the other speciousness that we’re hearing from our other guest today.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But, Josh Block, I’d like to ask you, on the targeted assassinations that Israel has often participated, has often executed in Palestinian territories, we hear repeatedly of innocent civilians. Putting aside the fact whether the people who were targeted were actually terrorists or not, because we have Israel’s reporting that they are, but the innocent civilians that are inevitably killed in these missile attacks, how is that justified as not terrorism against a civilian population?

JOSH BLOCK: You’re absolutely right. Those incidents are deeply regrettable. I think any one of us would say that. And I think any American, any Israeli, would say that innocent people who are killed as a result of a military action unintentionally, that’s a tragedy. But there’s, again, a moral difference between an army — Israel’s military goes to great lengths to prevent those kinds of incidents, and if you look at the number of preventative attacks that Israel has carried out with the number of those who have been incidentally and unfortunately killed in those incidents, there’s a tremendous preponderance of occasions when, in fact, Israel has gone to great lengths not to harm innocent civilians.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have a minute. We gave Josh Block the first word. Professor Norman Finkelstein, the last.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, the question is whether or not there is a significant difference between what Israel does and what the Palestinians do, apart from the fact that Israel does it in a much higher proportion than Palestinians. If you indiscriminately fire on a civilian population, which Israel routinely does, under international law — and here I can quote the president of Tel Aviv University, Yoram Dinstein, who’s one of the leading international experts on these matters; he says, "There’s no difference whatsoever between intentionally targeting civilians and indiscriminately firing into a civilian crowd."

JOSH BLOCK: Fair enough.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: He says both of them are terrorism. So if Hamas —

JOSH BLOCK: If terrorist were attacking —

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: So if Hamas blows up a bus, as it used to do in Tel Aviv, that’s terrorism. If Hamas were to say, "We didn’t intend to kill the civilians. We intended to blow up the bus," people would laugh. But if Israel drops —

JOSH BLOCK: If terrorists attack —

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Allow me to finish. Allow me to finish. If Israel drops a one-ton bomb on a densely populated neighborhood in Gaza, as it did in July 2002, and it said, "Oh, we didn’t intend to kill the civilians. We can just intended to kill a Palestinian terrorist —

JOSH BLOCK: And later apologized for the incident.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: It would be considered as preposterous as if Hamas said "We only intended to blow up the bus."

JOSH BLOCK: I’m sorry. First of all, there has been no apology from Hamas for those incidents. Israel apologizes when things like that happen.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Israel didn’t apologize. As a matter of fact, Ariel Sharon hailed the bombing of Gaza City —

JOSH BLOCK: That’s another specious lie.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: — that time as one of the greatest acts in Israeli history.

JOSH BLOCK: Again, a lie.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. I want to thank you, Josh Block, for joining us, spokesperson for AIPAC, American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in Connecticut; and Professor Norm Finkelstein, here in New York, teaches at DePaul University in Chicago. His book is called Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History.

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