Controversial Israel-Palestine scholar Norman Finkelstein spoke at UTM on March 5 about the “humanitarian catastrophe” unfolding in the Gaza Strip. He spoke specifically on the question of whether Israeli soldiers have a right to self-defence when enforcing the “Gaza ghetto” — he argued that they do not under international law.

“I look forward to hearing from those of you in the room who disagree with me on minor or major points,” he began, squinting out into the packed room.

After completing his doctorate at Princeton University and authoring 12 books, Finkelstein is relatively well-known but has not taught in a North American university for over a decade due to the controversy around his scholarship.

His work focuses on the Israel-Palestine conflict, centring his analysis from the Palestinian perspective. He is a polarizing figure — throughout his career, he has been accused of antisemitism, anti-Zionism, and being a self-hating Jew.

Both of Finkelstein’s parents were Holocaust survivors. He has alleged the existence of a ‘Holocaust industry’ that exists to exploit the legacy of the Holocaust for Israeli and financial interests. A frequent target of pro-Israel outlets and writers, Finkelstein has been pushed to the margins of academia.

Finkelstein has spoken extensively about the Gaza conflict, and he began his talk by saying, “In the spirit of solidarity with those who are in the midst of resisting, overwhelmingly non-violently, I think it is the most important thing to focus on.”

He then provided a brief overview of the nearly year-long protests held by Gazans near the blockade wall — the barrier separating the Gaza Strip from Israel proper — and the Israeli response.

Background on the resistance in Gaza

On March 30, 2018, tens of thousands of Gazans began to assemble along the barrier between Gaza and Israel. Organizers frequently reiterated the peaceful nature of their protest, though some demonstrators did take violent action, such as throwing stones and Molotov cocktails. In response, the Israeli army deployed tanks and snipers.

According to Amnesty International, various human rights groups and on-the-ground videos have clearly shown that these snipers “shot unarmed protesters, bystanders, journalists and medical staff approximately 150-400m from the fence, where they did not pose any threat.”

The central issue behind the protests is a demand for Gazans’ right of return. Of Gaza’s nearly two million residents, over 70 per cent are refugees or descended from refugees of the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. Palestinians refer to this war as the ‘Nakba,’ or the catastrophe, and it displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

Israel occupied the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Six-Day War and withdrew from the area in 2005. Since 2007, Gaza has been largely governed by Hamas, which Public Safety Canada describes as “a radical Islamist-nationalist terrorist organization.” Much of the international community views Gaza as still being under de facto military occupation by Israel, but Israel denies this.

The unemployment rate in Gaza is the highest in the world. Despite not having any skyscrapers, it is one of the most densely-packed urban areas on Earth. The water is increasingly contaminated. Some predict that a cholera or typhus epidemic will soon break out. And the population of Gaza is overwhelmingly young — nearly half of all Gazans are under 18.

According to the United Nations, the Gaza Strip will be uninhabitable by 2020 due to deteriorating living conditions.

Finkelstein on the Gaza conflict

While Israel and most mainstream media outlets call the barrier between Israel and Gaza a “border fence” or “border wall,” Finkelstein rejects this vocabulary.

In an interview with The Intercept last May, he argued that it simply isn’t accurate to call the barrier a border fence, as that presumes two sovereign states on either side. “Is it calling things by their proper names to say that the Palestinians in Gaza are trying to breach a border fence? No,” he said. “Palestinians in Gaza are trying to breach a concentration camp fence. They’re trying to breach a ghetto fence. They’re trying to breach a prison gate.”

Finkelstein’s talk hinged on one central question: “Do the Israeli guards of the Gaza ghetto, do they have a right to self-defence?”

He paused and looked out into the audience, almost as if expecting a response. Finkelstein looked down at his notes, then back up. Again, he asked: “Do the guards of the Gaza ghetto, do they have a right to self-defence?”

He argued that they do not. Finkelstein claimed that, according to international law, no state has the right to use force in a struggle against a group claiming self-determination. As such, Israel does not have the right to use force of any kind against Gazans on the border — even if protesters were to use violence en masse. In fact, Finkelstein told listeners, Gazans have the right to use force in their struggle for self-determination, but the overwhelming majority choose not to. 

To move forward, solidarity with protesting Gazans is key, said Finkelstein, especially as the March of Return protests approach their first anniversary.

Despite the decades of oppression and increasingly tenuous living conditions, Finkelstein still has hope for the people of Gaza.

Public discourse around Israel is changing, he said, albeit slowly. For one thing, North American Jewry — especially young Jews — feel increasingly distant from Israel. In addition, discussions of disproportionate Israeli influence on US policy are finally being had.

For all his cynicism, Finklestein retains a measure of faith in human responses. “The fact of the matter is,” he said, “if you live in a relatively democratic society, enough of the truth manages to make it into the mainstream, such that Israel’s record being so ugly, the cause has become indefensible.