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Israel, Gaza and the Spectre of Genocide

Israel appears to be seeking collective punishment for Hamas atrocities, and this is not self-defense under international law

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The spectre of genocide yet again haunts the Middle East. Last weekend Hamas committed a series of massacres, slaughtering 260 young people at a music festival and scores of residents of kibbutzim and other settlements.

For Jews, the horrific violence conjured the long history of pogroms which culminated in the Holocaust. For those of us who study mass violence, these were genocidal massacres whose victims were targeted because of their identities as Israelis and Jews, whatever political motives the perpetrators harboured. 

The atrocities were committed in the full knowledge of the shock they would cause, which has rightly been compared to 9/11, and the inevitability of a hugely violent Israeli response. It is testimony to the depth of political feeling that the reaction of some people has been to wave Palestinian flags.

I’m all for freeing Palestine, but first, the Palestinian cause needs to free itself from the shame of this genocidal violence – and Hamas’ mentality that justifies it, which sees all Israelis as ‘settlers’ and therefore not civilians.

There are unmistakably genocidal elements, too, in Israel’s violence and threats to Gaza. Unlike Hamas, it claims to distinguish civilians from the armed enemy, but the destruction of whole neighbourhoods, with an estimated 300,000 already displaced and a million ordered to leave their homes, speaks otherwise. Cutting off power, water and fuel until Israeli hostages are freed turns Gaza’s entire population into hostages. For Palestinians, this all evokes the Nakba of 1948.

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To all intents and purposes, Israel has abandoned serious discrimination for collective punishment. If the threats are carried out, it will be ‘deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction’, at least ‘in part’, as the Genocide Convention puts it, while extensively destroying Gaza’s social as well as its built infrastructure.

This is not self-defence as international law understands it, and Israel’s very legitimate grievance against Hamas does not justify it.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s catastrophic overreaction seeks not only to match the horror of the Hamas attacks but also to expunge the humiliation of his failure to prevent them. Not the least of the charges against the Hamas leadership is that they knowingly exposed their two million people to this terror. But the acquiescence of almost the entire Israeli political class in Netanyahu’s strategy of destruction is similarly immoral.

There are even fewer excuses for Western leaders who have rushed, often with electoral considerations uppermost, to offer uncritical support to Israel just as others refuse to condemn Hamas. Their attempts to open humanitarian efforts are necessary, but these are sticking plasters on rapidly swelling wounds and they will not prevent the huge death and suffering in which the West is making itself complicit. 

The 9/11 effect explains some of this, but it also speaks to the deep politicisation of attitudes to genocidal violence and war. Western tolerance of Israel’s destruction of Gaza puts it on a par with Chinese, Indian and Brazilian leaders’ acceptance of Russia’s assault on Ukraine.

This politicisation is not new, but there is a sense that the idea of impartially applying international norms, which became stronger after the Cold War, is now being comprehensively abandoned.

‘Genocide’ and Putin’s War of Destruction against Ukrainian Society

Professor Martin Shaw, author of two books on Genocide, explains how the synchronised attack on Ukraine’s people, culture and institutions, is escalating beyond war crimes

It was probably inevitable, given Ukraine’s need for allies, that Volodymyr Zelensky would align it with Israel in this crisis. But the situation Ukraine faces is closer to Gaza’s and there must be many in its towns and cities, viewing the Israeli bombardment, the rubble and the desperate civilians, who can feel this affinity.  

For those of us who do not face Zelensky’s pressures, it should not be a question of choosing between Hamas and Netanyahu, between genocidal massacre and counter-genocidal war. The normalisation of violence against civilians, which we see in so many conflicts across the world – from Yemen to Tigray to Sudan – must be robustly and consistently opposed. 

In this process, the idea of genocide must be returned from the political slogan it has too often become into the method of understanding, criticising and ending the violence of states and armed movements which was originally intended. Leaders who perpetrate genocidal violence must be held to account: many have argued this in the case of Vladimir Putin, but it also applies to the leaders of Hamas – and to Netanyahu.

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