The terrorists on the West Bank who murdered the Fogel family and the war criminals from Gaza who aimed sophisticated mortars at a school bus had the support of an American academic who is widely admired by Palestinians, Europeans and radical Americans. Norman Finkelstein didn't wield the knife that slit the throat of the Fogel baby or fire the mortar that seriously injured a 16 year old and barely missed killing 30 other students, but he might as well have. Just days after the Fogel murders, and days before the attempted school bus massacre, Finkelstein advised his Palestinian admirers that terrorist groups like Hezbollah, and presumably Hamas and Islamic Jihad "has the right to target Israeli civilians…"
This is a remarkable statement even for Finkelstein, who has compared Israel to Nazi Germany.
Targeting civilians is a universal war crime, and inciting others to kill innocent civilians is at least deeply immoral, if not arguably illegal. Finkelstein is particularly close to the Hezbollah leadership having met with Hezbollah figures in Lebanon and declaring that "we are all Hezbollah." When he tells Iran's major surrogate that they have the right to target Israeli civilians, they become emboldened, if not incited. Israeli intelligence has just concluded that Hezbollah is preparing to fire 10,000 rockets at Tel Aviv. And now they have Finkelstein's blessing. And what is "right" for Hezbollah certainly can't be wrong for Hamas and other terrorist groups that seek to kill as many Israeli civilians as possible.
Finkelstein will claim, as he always does, that he was quoted out of context and that he qualified his opinion. Here is the precise answer he gave to the question:
Do you unequivocally condemn Palestinian attacks against innocent civilians?
"It is impossible to justify terrorism, which is the targeting of civilians to achieve a political goal. But it's also difficult to make categorical statements of the kind you suggest. I do believe that Hezbollah has the right to target Israeli civilians if Israel persists in targeting civilians until Israel ceases its terrorist acts."
Finkelstein is an expert at double-speak: to his American and European audiences, he emphasizes the qualifying language; but to his terrorist audiences, all that matters is his imprimatur on their right to target Israeli civilians.
Let's consider his qualifying language that terrorist groups have the right to target Israeli civilians "if Israel persists in targeting civilians until Israel ceases its terrorist acts." Putting aside the question of whether Israel targets civilians, as distinguished from targeting terrorists who hide among civilians, thereby creating the possibility that civilians will be inadvertently killed—it is still unlawful to retaliate against the deliberate killing of civilians by deliberately killing other civilians. If that were not the law, then Israel would have the perfect right to target Palestinian or Lebanese civilians for what nobody denies is the Hezbollah and Hamas policy of targeting Israeli civilians. Israel has no such policy, nor do they claim such a right—as Hezbollah, Hamas and Finkelstein do.
Consider the implications of the "right" asserted by Finkelstein. Any time one nation or group targets another's civilians (or is falsely accused of doing so, as is the case with Israel), the other nation or group would have "the right" to retaliate indiscriminately against civilians. Such an approach to the "right" of retaliation would make civilians the legitimate, indeed the primary, target of warfare. This is precisely the opposite of the entire trend of international humanitarian law since the end of World War II, which has been to prohibit the specific targeting of civilians, while recognizing the inevitability of civilian casualties in all wars, and especially in wars fought by terrorists who fight from behind civilian shields, as does Hamas and Hezbollah.
But have no fear, Finkelstein would reject the targeting of civilians as a general matter. He did not say that all nations or groups have the right to target any civilians. He said that his favorite terrorist group, Hezbollah, has the right to target the civilians of his least favorite country, Israel. And he means to make this distinction, since he consistently applies a double standard to the Jewish state.
Consider his attack on me for having advocated the destruction of homes used by terrorists in retaliation for those terrorists murdering innocent Israeli civilians. He compared my proposal to the Nazi bombing of Lidice in which hundreds of civilians were killed, despite the fact that my proposal involved the destruction of property only in retaliation for the taking of life. Moreover, the people whose houses would be destroyed were far from innocent. He characterized my proposal as "collective punishment" of innocent Palestinians and called me a "war criminal" for even suggesting it. But now he is legitimating the murder of Israeli civilians in retaliation for the inadvertent killing of civilians by the Israeli military in its efforts to prevent terrorism and rocket attacks against its civilians.
Finkelstein's latest outrage should make him a pariah among all decent people. Yet he remains a popular speaker on American and European campuses, as well as a valued advisor to Hezbollah and a close associate of Noam Chomsky. The time has come to reject Finkelstein pernicious views in the marketplace of ideas, and to reiterate the crucial distinction between the deliberate targeting of innocent civilians, regardless of their religion or nationality, and legitimate military actions that inadvertently kill civilians. It is this distinction on which the law and morality of just war has rested since St. Augustine.