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Israel's War on Palestine: It's Bad, but Is It 'Genocide'?

Why don't human rights groups call Israel's actions "genocide"? We asked and they wouldn't say.

Photo by Charles Davis

“It's heartbreaking to see,” said US President Barack Obama of the death and destruction his government has helped the state of Israel deliver to the people of Gaza. It's “really heartbreaking,” said US Secretary of State John Kerry of the nearly 2,000 innocent people killed by the Israeli military with weapons provided by the US government. “The loss of children has been particularly heartbreaking,” said Susan Rice, US Ambassador to the United Nations, of dead little boys and girls—more than 400 of them—being stacked on top of one another in a freezer meant for ice cream because Gaza's morgues are overflowing with corpses.


There are a lot of words that one could use to describe the collective punishment of a stateless people living in what a top United Nations official describes as an “open-air prison,” but “heartbreaking” is perhaps the most inadequate, suggesting that there's a certain tragic inevitability to Israel's bombardments of Gaza, to which the only proper response is a shrug and a shake of the head. It's acceptable to lament Israel's killing of innocents, but the repeated bombing of UN schools packed with thousands of frightened civilians is, according to the harshest respectable critics, a strategic error—a case of “good intentions” paving the way to hell on Earth for Palestinians—not a reason to withdraw support for the settler-colonial project in Palestine or to “delegitimize” the idea of a state explicitly founded on ethnic supremacy.

Israel's brutality is, of course, tragic, and the killing of babies is never a good look, but it's more than just heartbreaking folly. “It is a moral outrage and a criminal act,” according to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Widely viewed as an ally of the US and Israel, Ban nonetheless has labeled Israel's deliberate targeting of UN schools in Gaza a “gross violation of international humanitarian law.”

Amnesty International has likewise accused Israel of committing “crimes against humanity” over its targeting of hospitals, ambulances, and first-responders, saying the state should be referred to the International Criminal Court for prosecution. And Human Rights Watch has accused Israel of “blatantly violating the laws of war,” with the group documenting numerous instances in which Israeli soldiers went out of their way to shoot fleeing civilians. But no Western official has called the terrorizing of 1.8 million people living in Gaza an “act of terrorism,” though it is openly intended to bring about political change and punish the people of Palestine for electing the wrong leaders. And while you'll hear the word at protests, the leading human rights organizations have refrained from calling it “genocide."


Defenders of Israel will say that's because it's the wrong word to use. Writing in the Jewish Daily Forward, New York attorney Inna Vernikov goes with Merriam-Webster in defining genocide as “the deliberate killing of people who belong to a particular racial, political, or cultural group.” That's inappropriate with respect to Gaza, she argues, because Israel isn't to blame for the killing—the Palestinians are. Absolutely, the “people of Gaza are under siege and are being denied basic rights to freedom, movement, education, and life,” but Vernikov argues that it’s their own fault: “Those rights are denied them by their own government, which they selected for themselves.”

While “you made me hurt you” is a favorite of abusive spouses and nation-states, even dusty old international law—drafted by the world’s most abusive powers—holds that innocent civilians may not be killed for the crime of voting the wrong way, though as with many other things criminalized by international law, that has of course happened, usually at the hand of the imperial powers (and de facto jurists).

Journalist Michael Wilner also believes it's wrong to use the “G-word” with respect to Gaza. “Genocide is what happens when a people are discriminated against, corralled, and led to slaughter,” he writes in the Jerusalem Post, a paper published in the state of Israel—a state that bulldozes Palestinian houses while giving subsidized homes to American settlers of Jewish descent, ethnically cleansed 80 percent of the indigenous population upon its founding, imprisoned millions in militarily occupied ghettos, and just slaughtered one out of every 1,000 people living in Gaza. Wilner means to suggest what Israel has done isn't as bad as some other terrible things in the world, but a bad thing need not be the worst thing in the world in order to still be a bad thing.


Map via Wikimedia

“It's important to remember that you don't need millions of dead bodies and a Nazi industrial system of extermination to constitute genocide under the relevant convention,” writes Sam Husseini of the Institute for Public Accuracy, a Washington-based media watchdog. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines "genocide" as inflicting on a group “conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” As the very title of the treaty suggests, a genocide need not be anywhere near completed—the destruction need not be “in whole”—for genocidal behavior to merit the label. What matters is the motivation, not the body count.

“While conflict has many causes, genocidal conflict is identity-based,” says the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, an expert on such things. “These conflicts are fomented by discrimination,” as well as “hate speech inciting violence.”

Now, consider: Israel is a state that openly discriminates on the basis of identity, denying Palestinian refugees the ability to visit their old villages in what is now Israel while granting citizenship to anyone with a Jewish mother who wants it. Israel is a state where the deputy speaker of parliament openly calls for replacing the indigenous population of Gaza with Jewish settlers, and where a leading newspaper just published an article titled “When Genocide Is Permissible.” It's the sort of place where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu feels comfortable calling the 20 percent of the population that isn't Jewish—the indigenous people who weren't pushed out—a “demographic threat” to apartheid, their continued reproduction posing a serious challenge to continued ethnic supremacy west of the Jordan River. So why are people afraid to use that word: “genocide”?


Amnesty International spokesperson Natalie Butz said that the language her group typically employs is "war crimes and crimes against humanity," which she said both sides in the conflict have committed (though with a wildy varying degree of success). She said that "we want the situtation referred to the International Criminal Court, which is the international institution with jurisdiction over war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide," but did not respond when asked why Amnesty doesn't refer to Israel's actions as "genocidal." Human Rights Watch was also reluctant to explain its linguistic decisions. Their press office would only say that the group "condemns Israel for committing war crimes in Gaza but does not refer to its actions as genocide," which I, of course, already knew because I asked them why they do that.

Not getting very far by asking the groups to explain themselves, I turned to Ali Abunimah, publisher of The Electronic Intifada, a news site devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The popular definition tends to make people automatically dismiss or diminish claims that anything short of Holocaust-scale extermination of human beings can be considered ‘genocidal,’” said Abunimah, author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine. By using the word “genocide,” some may simply be looking to avoid appearing insensitive, to avoid the appearance that they're equating an awful situation in Palestine with one of the worst crimes humanity has ever known, the genocidal killing of 6 million Jews.


Indeed, some might point out, and many people do, that the slaughter in Gaza isn’t even the worst contemporary case of mass murder. Syria’s civil war has left more than 100,000 people dead, with atrocities committed by both Bashar Assad and the rebels fighting against him. But that’s a civil war being fought to preserve a regime’s hold on power, not to eliminate ethnic minorities. It’s horrific, but it’s not genocide—it's a fight for power, not a fight to extinguish an ethnicity—and, crucially, there’s no shortage of people willing to condemn what’s happening there.

It takes no courage in the west to condemn the crimes of the Syrian government or, for that matter, the Islamic State. Israel, on the other hand, is supported by a super power that gives it a $3-billion-a-year allowance for weapons that it then uses to carry out war crimes. It has nuclear weapons. As journalist Max Blumenthal argues, Israel’s not David but Goliath—and right now it acts with impunity.

It’s not just the thousands of people—Palestinians—that the state of Israel has killed over the years in its regular assaults, dwarfing the handful killed by Hamas’s rockets. Israel has, for decades, been carrying out what Israeli historian Ilan Pappé describes as an “incremental genocide,” one that has since 1948 seen Palestinians steadily removed from their land, their homes destroyed, and their families forced into fenced-in refugee camps, for no reason other than that Palestinians were born to the wrong mothers.


Map via Wikimedia

“It's been going on for a long time, the killings, the incredibly awful conditions of life, the expulsions that have gone on [since 1947], when 700 or more villages in Palestine were destroyed, and in the expulsions that continued from that time until today,” said Michael Ratner, president of the left-of-ACLU Center for Constitutional Rights, in an interview with the Real News. “It's correct and important to label it for what it is.” And that label, he said, is “genocide.”

It's in these types of situations that the supposedly civilized nations—the ones that go to war for petroleum, not to ethnically cleanse—are supposed to invoke their “responsibility to protect.” In Libya, that meant dropping bombs from the safety of the sky and leaving it worse than it was before. No one wants that. Israel should not be bombed. But Israel can be prosecuted for being an apartheid state carrying out a slow genocide. Western governments can stop blocking legal actions aimed at providing consequences for genocidal behavior and stop giving Israel the weapons it uses to slaughter Palestinians.

At the very least, Israeli leaders should be as afraid to travel abroad as a Bashar al Assad or Dick Cheney, fearing that at any airport, at any time, somone could come up to them, slap on some handcuffs, and carry them off to a war crimes tribunal. But it's best not to wait for the political establishment to act. Indeed, it's all too clear that the United States, the country in the best position to protect the people being bombed by its client-state—which has a responsibility to do so—has no intention of protecting any Palestinians. It's up to the people, then, to make Israel a pariah, something that can be accomplished in part by calling its behavior what it is. There's a lot of war and evil in this world, but kicking people out of their homes and bombing them because of who they are—because they aren't the same ethnicity—has a specific name: "genocide."

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