On Tuesday, the Yale Political Union invited the controversial Israel critic Norman Finkelstein to debate the U.S.-Israel relationship and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more broadly. I applaud the YPU for seeking to tackle an important and contentious topic. However, the manner in which the speaker addressed this topic proved disappointing. Finkelstein’s speech reflected problems endemic to all sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conversation today — a lack of appreciation for the situation’s complexity, a proclivity towards oversimplification and a tendency to hold the relevant parties to differing standards of conduct.
Finkelstein supports a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine and perceives Israel’s conduct as the primary roadblock to this vision’s realization. In his view, Israel’s policies toward Palestine — from military strikes to occupations and blockades — are immoral, illegal and purely vindictive: “The goal [is] to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population.” Finkelstein cites statistics such as civilian deaths and building demolitions to demonstrate Palestinians’ disproportionate suffering.
Thanks to superior technological and military capabilities, Israel can sustain low civilian casualty rates in conflict. In 2014, the Palestinian-Israeli civilian death ratio was tallied at approximately 260 to one. But other facts are worth observing here too. If we consider the ratio of civilians to combatants killed, then Israeli military operations look more limited in comparison to nearly all NATO or other Western military operations. During the 2008–09 Gaza War, the Palestinian civilian-combatant casualty ratio was between three to 10 and six to 10, depending on your sources. In comparison, Iraqi civilians died at an eight-to-10 ratio over the course of the war. NATO’s invasion of Yugoslavia yielded a rate between four to one and 10 to one according to most sources.
Death toll comparisons alone can leave the impression that Israel acts only with vindictiveness against Palestine. But this understanding that Israel goes to great lengths to minimize non-combatant deaths, to the point where it achieves greater success than nearly any other western nation, reveals reality is clearly more complex than the picture Finkelstein paints. At a minimum, not observing these relevant facts serves to hold Israel to a different standard from what generally applies to actors internationally.
Finkelstein isn’t wrong to impose high standards for Israeli conduct, nor to observe that Israel doesn’t always abide by its own best practices. However, he does this conversation a disservice when he ignores information that sheds light on an actor’s motives and tactics.
He argues Israel’s reliance on airstrikes in response to Hamas’ rockets is unwarranted in the first place because Jerusalem has the means to end the conflict peacefully by lifting the blockade on Gaza. Israel views the blockade as a means of preventing weapons and militants from flowing across the border. However, Finkelstein notes blockades have also restricted benign goods such as chocolate and potato chips.
Israel’s blockade is certainly harsh and linked with human rights abuses; these policies ought to be open to reasoned criticism. However, what seems unreasonable is casting Israel as an irrational, wholly malicious actor as Finkelstein did: “If Israel wanted to stop [Hamas’] rocket attacks, it merely had to obey international law [by ending the blockade],” he claimed, implying no motive other than “just revenge” could incentivize Israel to act as it does.
This analysis seems overly simplistic. For one, others share Israel’s assessment that Hamas-controlled Gaza is dangerous. Egypt, too, enacted a partial blockade and restricted access to Gaza in 2007, fearing militancy overflow — even without Hamas vowing to destroy Egypt as it has Israel. Statements from Hamas officials better warrant security concerns. According to one ranking Hamas official in 2009, Hamas projects impressions of wanting talks for reconstruction and reconciliation but “the hidden picture is that most of the money and effort is invested in the resistance and military preparations.”
Focusing on Israel’s unreasonable blockade restrictions is important. But focusing just on those things, and insisting there’s no motivation for a blockade beyond pure vindictiveness, distorts reality.
Similar inaccuracies characterized Finkelstein’s discussion of Israel’s destroying tunnels dug from Gaza. Finkelstein asserted that “no reason whatsoever” exists to think Palestinians use tunnels for violence. This, however, is false. Hamas has used tunnels to launch attacks against Israelis multiple times in 2014 alone. As early as 2006, Hamas militants used tunnels to transport an Israeli soldier to Gaza.
Certainly, there are more moral courses of action that Israel should pursue in the current conflict — including in areas not raised here, like Israel’s torture record. We as a society must hold critical conversations regarding all these topics. Regrettably, Finkelstein’s approach precluded this critical dialogue and served to reinforce mutual misunderstandings. The YPU, and other organizations on campus, should keep inviting influential participants in our nation’s discourse. But we should hold them accountable, much like we would rigorously scrutinize their writings in a seminar.
Ben Della Rocca is a senior in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .