Norman Finkelstein: Fatou Bensouda Has Done Everything In Her Power To Prevent An Investigation Of The Israeli Crimes By The ICC
Above Photo: Norman Finkelstein. Credit: Antti Jauhiainen/ Flickr
Slava Zilber: I would like to interview you about your new book. Could you please explain the title: “I Accuse!: Herewith A Proof Beyond Reasonable Doubt That ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda Whitewashed Israel”
Norman Finkelstein: As you know, Israel has been occupying Gaza since 1967, which is more now than a half-century. Israel has imposed an illegal, immoral, and inhumane blockade on Gaza since January 2006, and Gaza is rapidly becoming – it might have already become – physically an unlivable space. Now, it’s important to keep in mind that the population of Gaza is more than half children. And 70 percent of the population consists of refugees and children of refugees and successive generations of refugees.
So you have a population more than half of which is children, 70 percent of which is refugees and successive generations which for more than half a century has been living under a brutal Israeli occupation and since 2006 has been living under an illegal, an immoral, an inhuman blockade that has rendered Gaza, in effect, physically unlivable.
Now, in the course of the occupation and the blockade, there have been several incidents as they are called in international law jargon. They have been referred to the International Criminal Court, the ICC. And the chief prosecutor is named Fatou Bensouda. And Fatou Bensouda has been desperately trying to quash these complaints – the technical term is referrals – to the ICC.
And on one of the two complaints, there have been proceedings that have gone on since 2013, which is more than six years ago now. A complaint was filed with her office. And Bensouda has repeatedly declared that she will not launch an investigation of the complaint filed with the ICC. And the case is closed. She said that twice now. But there are forces within the ICC which have been pushing back against her clear whitewash of Israel. And so she declares the case closed, then other forces say ‘not so fast,’ and other forces within the ICC say Bensouda has to reopen the case. And it has been going back and forth. Now, there is supposed to be an important intervention by Bensouda on December 2nd. And I wrote the book with one, very specific purpose in mind and that is to expose Bensouda’s lies, her falsifications, her fabrications, her misrepresentations in this systematic and methodical whitewash of Israel and to force her to either investigate Israeli crimes which to date she refuses to do or to step down from office.
Why does the International Criminal Court whitewash these crimes? To what extent is it about Bensouda? You have spoken very critically about her predecessor, Mr. Luis Moreno-Ocampo. To what extent is it about the ICC? Has there been outside influence? You spoke about the retraction of the Goldstone Report.
Richard Goldstone was the South African judge who was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate Israeli war crimes and crimes against humanity after Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9. After Goldstone issued a devastating report on Israel’s crimes during Operation Cast Lead, he came under a vicious attack by Israel and its apologists. And, for reasons which aren’t entirely clear, he then was forced to retract the report, whether he succumbed to the pressures that were exerted on him or he was blackmailed. I am inclined to believe the latter. Whether it was external pressures or internal blackmail, he succumbed. At that point, a lot of the human rights community got very nervous that, if you attack Israel, the Mossad and various other Israeli agencies are going to dig deep into your closet in order to find skeletons that can tarnish and, worse, destroy your reputation. So I think part of the reason Bensouda has been lying, fabricating, falsifying is the fear that she will become the target of the very same agencies that brought down Richard Goldstone. And also the US has made plain under the Trump administration – they have said literally, in no subtle language: If the ICC investigates the United States or Israel, the US will destroy the ICC.
So there are both personal motives, the fear that the many skeletons in Bensouda’s closet will be exposed to public view, and the institutional fear that the ICC itself will be under attack. On both those grounds, she has done everything in her power to prevent an investigation of the Israeli crimes by the ICC.
Recently, there has been a scandal regarding the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. There was an official report and then another report [an engineering assessment] was leaked. And now two whistleblowers have come forward.
Is there an organization that still has integrity on the issue of Israel/Palestine, which is not just a puppet of outside powers and can be objectively trusted to report on the human rights abuses?
It’s a question of degrees and gradations. Amnesty International can be very good, but it can be very bad. Human Rights Watch can be very bad, but occasionally it can be quite good. B’Tselem under its previous leadership – the executive director was Jessica Montell – was quite bad, but under its current leadership, [Hagai] El–Ad, the Israeli physicist, its record has been very good. So these kinds of organizations are subject to – always – a lot of external pressure. Sometimes they resist, and sometimes they succumb.
Have you contacted the people involved in this process at the International Criminal Court? Can people write petitions? Can people reach out and make a plea?
I have tried to contact a few of the individuals, not many. However, we have an expression in English: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” And I rather then see the finished product. Quite a few of them are serious. They don’t just read the cover and the blurb. And so I am hoping once they read the book, they will be convinced that I’ve made an overwhelming case and then hopefully will act on it. So it is a little bit premature to expect any action. They have to read my argument. And then we will see what they say. And we will see what they do.
What would the symbolic and the practical value of the indictment be?
It depends. Sometimes, symbolism can have a real, material impact. If the prosecutor is sufficiently embarrassed that she has to press ahead with an investigation, then a diplomatic conflict will erupt, and then we will have to wait and see what comes of it. The US, along with Israel, will push hard against the ICC. And then we’ll have to see how hard the ICC pushes back or whether it succumbs. It’s a battle, but it’s a battle about to cast light on Israeli crimes against Gaza. And that would be a good thing.
Is there a realistic prospect of somebody being put on trial and possibly convicted?
No, it’s not a realistic prospect. A realistic prospect is [that] pressure will be exerted on Israel to lift the blockade in order to avoid an investigation. It will be quiet backroom discussions: ‘You know, this guy makes a big case. A lot of people are very angry. They are calling me a liar. They are calling me a whitewasher. So maybe you can just lift the blockade so we can avoid this mess because I really don’t want to investigate you, you know. I don’t really have a choice now.’ So maybe it’ll put pressure on Israel to lift the blockade. But no indictments. That’s not possible. The ICC only indicts Africans. That’s why they call it the International Caucasian Court.
One could argue that this whitewashing by Ms. Bensouda and her predecessors is basically the function of this court. It’s fulfilling its function as International Caucasian Court.
I know a very good jurist, one of the leading international law jurists in the world. He is very respected. And I talk to him privately. He says the ICC is not a court; it’s a joke. It’s so corrupt. It’s so contemptible, just put into power to prosecute war criminals, for sure, but criminals in the great scheme of things who don’t really compare to, say, a Tony Blair, a George Bush or any of the others who are culpable for massive war crimes and crimes against humanity.
In recent years and now during the presidential election, do you see a shift when it comes to discourse about Israel and Palestine and the issue you address in your book? Are reactions different now?
We could see of the leading candidates it is pretty much down the middle. Two candidates, Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, are of the old world, 100 percent support for Israel, basically abetters and appeasers of war crimes. And two candidates, Elizabeth Warren and in particular Bernie Sanders, have adopted a much more critical approach towards Israel. Elizabeth Warren is still pretty weak, but she issued a good statement on the recent Israeli massacres in Gaza. Bernie Sanders has, in general, been very decent.
So you see within the leading presidential candidates a manifestation in their statements of the split within the Democratic Party between the old guard, blind supporters of Israel, and the new constituencies in the Democratic Party which are more willing to out the Israeli criminality.
What is next for you, Prof. Finkelstein?
I don’t know. It depends on what happens in the world. For the moment, I am focused on the Bernie Sanders candidacy. If he wins, it’s a game changer. We will be living in a new country. I should amend that. We will be living in a country in which the left will have the potential to exercise serious institutional power and that would be a very good change. So let’s wait and see what happens.