If It Is Not ‘Genocide’ In Gaza, Then What Should We Call It?

By Mohamed Harees –

Lukman Harees

‘You will be judged in years to come by how you responded to genocide on your watch’- Nicholas Kristof

Netanyahu essentially told Gazans to get out or die, a choice between expulsion and extermination, between ethnic cleansing and genocide – and while doing so has obliterated exit routes and fired on escaping convoys, leaving Gazans trapped. On October 20, Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, stood on the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing, between Egypt and besieged Gaza. Guterres was not the only international figure to travel to the Gaza border, hoping to mobilize the international community in the face of an ongoing genocide, in an already impoverished and besieged Strip. Many others did too. These efforts, however, paid little dividends. The seemingly endless UN Security Council debates, General Assembly resolutions and calls for action did little to alter the tragic situation in Gaza in any meaningful way. Overall however, the invocation of “genocide” is always a fraught act, and all the more so when discussing the actions of the state of Israel.

This begs the question, what is the use of the elaborate international political, humanitarian and legal systems, if they are unable to stop, or even slow down a genocide that is being aired live on TV screens all across the world? The Palestinian slaughter is unfolding in Gaza while the European Union, the United States and the United Kingdom are watching, not willing to condemn or stop it, and “calling it a humanitarian crisis, as if the weather caused it”, said Irish politician and European parliament member Clare Daly. There is no mistaking what this is: genocide. It may be the first genocide in history to be live-streamed on social media. Gazan impending genocide appear to have gone through the ‘10 stages of Genocide’ proposed by the Gregory H Stanton’s model on Genocide. 

In previous genocides, whether those accompanying the Great Wars or that of Rwanda in 1994, various justifications were offered to explain the lack of immediate actions. In some cases, no Geneva Conventions existed and, as in Rwanda, many pleaded ignorance. But, in Gaza, no excuse is acceptable. Every international news company has correspondents or some presence in the Strip. Hundreds of journalists, reporters, bloggers, photographers and cameramen are documenting and counting every event, every massacre and every bomb dropped on civilian homes. Gaza has been turned into a Hiroshima as a result of Western bombs, moral support and the blank political check handed to Israel by Western governments and leaders from the onset of the war, in fact, 75 years prior. Nothing will ever alter this fact, and no ‘strongly worded’ future statements will ever help the West in particular (in view of its close relationship with the Zionist regime) and the world in general, redeem its collective moral failure.

On October 28, Craig Mokhiber resigned from his position as the Director of the New York office of the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights in protest of the UN’s failure to stop “a genocide unfolding before our eyes in Gaza.” “The current wholesale slaughter of the Palestinian people, rooted in an ethno-nationalist colonial settler ideology, in continuation of decades of their systematic persecution and purging, based entirely upon their status as Arabs … leaves no room for doubt.” Mokhiber added: “This is text book case of genocide”. 

On 14 October 2023, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territory warned against “a repeat of the 1948 Nakba, and the 1967 Naksa, yet on a larger scale” as Israel carries out “mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinians under the fog of war”. Nearly 800 lawyers, scholars, and practitioners, representing a diverse range of perspectives from academia and practice, signed a statement warning of the possibility of genocide in Gaza, Palestine. This open letter underscored the gravity of the situation, pinpointing multiple instances where the state of Israel appears to have breached international law, in full public view and frequently with the endorsement of a certain political class and a servile media. 

Genocide is the intentional destruction of a people in whole or in part. In 1948, the United Nations Genocide Convention defined genocide as any of five “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. These five acts were: killing members of the group, causing them serious bodily or mental harm, imposing living conditions intended to destroy the group, preventing births, and forcibly transferring children out of the group. Victims are targeted because of their real or perceived membership of a group, not randomly.

The indictments and the Nuremberg Trials that followed World War II made reference to “genocide” in the context of crimes against humanity, particularly in relation to the crime of persecution and murder. However, at that time genocide was not listed as a separate crime in the Charter of the International Military Tribunal (Nuremberg Charter) and was used as a descriptive rather than a legal term. The first time that genocide was codified as an independent crime under international law was in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (hereinafter, the Genocide Convention). According to Article I of the Convention, “The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.” The Genocide Convention entered into force on 12 January 1951.

All states are bound as a matter of law by the principle that genocide is a crime prohibited under international law. The International Court of Justice has affirmed that the prohibition of genocide is a peremptory norm of international law from which no derogation is allowed. The Convention provides that individuals who attempt genocide or who incite to genocide “shall be punished, whether they are constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials or private individuals”. Many experts on genocide studies are speaking out about the genocidal intent of the Israeli regime. 

Alexander Hinton, UNESCO Chair on genocide prevention at Rutgers University in New Jersey, says genocide can be defined through three lenses: legal, social scientific, and conventional. However, experts say the legal definition is tricky because the threshold to prove genocidal intent is extremely difficult. Ernesto Verdeja, a professor at the University of Notre Dame who specializes in genocide says, “One has to prove that the perpetrator not only committed the actions, but they committed the actions with a very specific intention of destroying the group. That can be a high bar because very often people contribute to genocidal policies, even if that’s not their direct intention.”

However, the Israelis are not masking their language in any way. The New York Times reported on October 30 that “in private conversations with American counterparts, Israeli officials referred to how the United States and other allied powers resorted to devastating bombings in Germany and Japan during World War II … to try to defeat those countries.” A few days later, Israeli Minister Amichai … has openly declared that nuking Gaza is an option in his country’s genocidal war on the Palestinian people. Then PM Netanyahu has repeated his promise that the mass death inflicted thus far is “only the beginning.” The Defence Minister said that the Gaza strip is under “complete siege, and cut off from electricity, fuel, food and water. A Knesset member openly called for a second Nakba, referring to the mass displacement of Palestinians in 1948. Again, to deliberately create another Nakba would amount to genocide in Gaza. The rhetoric has made it down to the rank-and-file, too: an Israeli soldier said on national television that this war is not just with Hamas, but “with all the civilians.” This indiscriminate erasure of Palestinians in Gaza would, without doubt, be genocide – as an Israeli genocide scholar has himself stated. Even US voices are supporting the call for a ‘genocide’. A Florida state Republican lawmaker Michelle Salzman called for all Palestinians to die. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said that the US should place “no limit” to civilian casualties Israel might inflict in Gaza in response to the Hamas terror attack.

The precursors to genocide are actively unfolding before our eyes. On 10 October, the head of the Israeli army’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), Maj. Gen. Ghassan Alian, addressed a message directly to Gaza residents: “Human animals must be treated as such. There will be no electricity and no water, there will only be destruction. You wanted hell, you will get hell”. The same day, Israeli army spokesperson Daniel Hagari acknowledged the wanton and intentionally destructive nature of Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza: “The emphasis is on damage and not on accuracy.” Raz Segal, the program director of genocide studies at Stockton University, concretely says it is a “textbook case of genocide.” Segal believes that Israeli forces are completing three genocidal acts, including, “killing, causing serious bodily harm, and measures calculated to bring about the destruction of the group.” He points to the mass levels of destruction and total siege of basic necessities—like water, food, fuel, and medical supplies—as evidence. Israeli President Isaac Herzog during an Oct. 13 press conference said, “It’s an entire nation that is out there that’s responsible”.Segal says that this language conflates all Palestinians as “an enemy population,” which could help prove intent. Israeli American scholar Omer Bartov, one of the world’s leading experts on the Holocaust, says Israel’s brutal assault on the Gaza Strip is at risk of becoming a genocide.

Hinton adds that the more colloquial definition for genocide focuses on the idea of “large scale destruction and acts perpetrated against a population”, like what happens in Gaza. Many may point to the Holocaust as the best example of this, though genocide, based on this broader definition, has happened many times over since, in places like Rwanda and Guatemala. Verdeja says Israel’s actions in Gaza are moving toward a “genocidal campaign.” City University of New York professor Victoria Sanford compares what’s happening in Gaza to the killing or disappearance of more than 200,000 Mayans in Guatemala from 1960-1996, known as the Guatemalan genocide. Sanford and Segal were two of more than a 100 scholars and organizations that signed a letter urging the ICC to take action given the “Israeli intention to commit genocide visibly materialising on the ground.” Sanford is also one of three scholars who signed a declaration in support of a lawsuit announced on Nov. 13 filed by the nonprofit Center for Constitutional Rights. The war is one of asymmetrical counter-genocide,” wrote Martin Shaw, a distinguished genocide scholar, in New Lines Magazine. “

Of course there are few experts who differ. David Simon, director of the genocide studies program at Yale University, and Ben Kiernan, the director of the Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University however opine do not meet the very high threshold that is required to meet the legal definition of genocide.” Some scholars, like Verdeja, say that debates on whether the current conflict can be called a genocide are a “bad use of focus.” Part of that is because proving whether something is a genocide takes time, and does not actually stop people from being killed. Hinton agrees, noting that because genocide is seen as the crime of all crimes, people focus too rigidly on defining a particular moment as such. May be, legal jargon could be restrained until a thorough investigation is conducted. But thorough investigations are rarely conducted when it comes to Israeli crimes in Gaza or anywhere else in Palestine. Segal clearly points to how the U.S. government refused to call crimes committed against the Hutus in Rwanda a genocide. Without sticking to the truth, we’ll never have a truthful reckoning of how we arrived at the seventh of October, and how we go forward,” Segal says. “We need to name it for what it is.” 

It is imperative the world address these transgressions and hold accountable those who act with disregard for international law and for basic human decency, however flawed these might be. The world conscience cannot go numb and need to stop it. It is being marketed as Israel defending itself, even as the evidence tells us it is about collective punishment, real estate, ethnic cleansing and total annihilation of Gaza. When the West is complicit in the unfolding of the genocide, the rest of the world cannot watch. Colombia, Honduras and South Africa have all withdrawn their ambassadors from Israel, accusing its government of committing “genocide”.

It behoves on them to pressurize all relevant UN bodies, including the Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, as well as the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to immediately intervene, to carry out the necessary investigations and invoke the necessary warning procedures to protect the Palestinian population from genocide. All States should take concrete and meaningful steps to individually and collectively prevent genocidal acts, in line with their legal duty to prevent the crime of genocide. The Iraq war was marketed as fighting terrorism, and bringing democracy, but we know it was all about oil and money. Gaza Genocide is no different. When it comes to genocide there is no grey area. You are either for or against genocide.