In Winter 2008-2009, Israel unleashed the full wrath of its military during Operation Cast Lead, a 22-day assault on the Gaza Strip with the stated purpose of halting Hamas attacks from the occupied territory. Support within Israel for the offensive was virtually unconditional, and Western leaders and opinion makers applauded the assault as an action necessary to discipline a belligerent adversary. Human rights groups, though, condemned the attack on humanitarian grounds. As they methodically documented in the event’s aftermath, ordinary Gazans – not Hamas – appeared to be the frequent and deliberate targets of Israel’s firepower.
This disparity between the official line and the considerable evidence of Israel’s violations of wartime conventions provides the foundation for ‘This Time We Went Too Far’, the new book by controversial Jewish-American historian Norman Finkelstein. In a writing style accessible to a wide audience, Finkelstein asserts that the Gaza operation was launched not to curb Hamas, but to restore Israel’s deterrence capability following its disastrous 2006 incursion into Lebanon.
To construct his argument, Finkelstein juxtaposes the Israeli narrative with post-conflict reports by well-respected human rights advocates, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Richard Goldstone. For the author, the credibility of claims similar to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s “The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) is the by far the most humane military” is irrefutably undermined by findings that the IDF fired white phosphorous on positions known to shelter noncombatants, such as a United Nations building,1 and the widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure in Gaza,2 among others.
The groups’ findings are also employed by the author to disprove what are judged to be knowingly false explanations for Gaza’s high civilian death toll, which is estimated at 1,400.3 During the campaign, Israeli officials routinely attributed this “collateral damage” to Hamas’s use of human shields in densely populated centers. Yet, as Finkelstein makes clear, no conclusive evidence has ever been presented to support this claim. In fact, post-conflict reports alleging the use of human shields solely cite official Israeli sources.
While the rights organizations’ conclusions buttress Finkelstein’s position, the most disturbing and damning accounts of officially-sanctioned noncombatant targeting is provided by IDF soldiers. Finkelstein’s selections from their testimony reinforce the contention that Israel misportrayed the realities of the combat. In one of the most memorable quotes, an IDF soldier likens military engagement in Gaza to taking a magnifying glass to an ant hill, ostensibly to emphasize the sheer vulnerability of those in Israel’s crosshairs. Other anecdotes confirm that commanders ordered soldiers to fire on anything that moved.
For Finkelstein, Israel’s lip service to human rights served to pacify the Western public while its actions on the ground were intended to warn its adversaries. Israel’s image of invincibility – once an essential component of the nation’s deterrence capability – was shattered following its defeat to Lebanon’s Hezbollah in 2006. For the first time since Israel’s formation, it was not the clear victor in a military engagement. Seeking to restore Israel’s formidability, leading decision-makers resolved to convey to its regional enemies that Israel’s security would be defended at all costs, even to the point of wantonly disregarding the humanitarian protocols of warfare. To put it more plainly, Finkelstein determines that the Israeli government regarded the lives of people of Gaza as merely pawns in a regional chess match.
Readers well-informed on Middle East politics will find few groundbreaking ideas presented in ‘This Time We Went Too Far’. Criticism of Israel’s conduct in Gaza has received – albeit limited – media exposure and the idea that the assault was a political-military response to Israel’s failure in Lebanon has been proposed by a number of other commentators. But, then again, the book’s intent is to forcefully rebut the narrative repeated ad infinitum by Israel and it’s unquestioning allies. By rehashing the facts of the Gaza siege, Finkelstein reintroduces a conflict that many in the United States and elsewhere in the West have either misunderstood or dismissed as another chapter of violence in the Holy Land. At its core, ‘This Time We Went Too Far’ is more than an attempt to raise awareness of the travesty befallen an occupied people. As addressedin the Foreword, “This book is not just a lament; it also sets forth grounds for hope.” Armed with the righteousness of truth, Finkelstein believes that individuals spurred to protest can “enable everyone, Palestinian and Israeli, to live a dignified life.”4
1Norman Finkelstein, ‘This Time We Went Too Far’ (New York: O/R Books, 2010), 77-78.