Since the escalation in violence between Israel and Hamas earlier this month, it has been nearly impossible to sign on to Facebook or Twitter without seeing an exchange of rhetoric between supporters and opponents of Israel’s latest military campaign against Hamas, known in English as “Operation Pillar of Defense.” Among the most extreme speculations as to Israel’s objective in conducting this campaign is the claim of genocide. This claim deserves to be analyzed in light of all available evidence.
When asked about the living conditions created by Israel’s military blockade of Gaza in an October 25 interview with PressTV, Irish human rights activist Derek Graham said, “The way it works is, the Israelis are creating slow genocide where they basically want to wipe out the Palestinians.” Since the latest round of violence between Israel and Hamas broke out, Graham’s claim of genocide has gained momentum, with the anti-Israel establishment using the term generously in the social-media front of this conflict.
These claims require us to look back at the internationally accepted definition of genocide, which is found in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. The Convention defines genocide as
[A]ny of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
It is true that the IDF has killed and harmed members of the Palestinian nation. However, absent the specific intention to destroy that nation qua nation, Israel’s actions cannot be considered genocide according to the accepted definition.
Both the blockade of Gaza and the current military campaign are carried out with a mission other than the destruction of any national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, either in whole or in part. The blockade of Gaza, which does bear partial responsibility for the stifling humanitarian conditions within Gaza, only began in 2007, when Hamas took control of Gaza and ousted members of the rival Fatah party. Hamas is a group whose charter states that “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it,” and the group’s incessant firing of rockets into civilian-populated areas in Israel appear to Israeli policymakers as an affirmation of Hamas’s commitment to its stated goal.
The current military campaign itself, despite how various parties may feel about its logic or its efficacy, is being carried out with the stated objective of disrupting the capabilities of militant organizations in Gaza, including Hamas. IDF spokesman Yoav Mordechai told the Jerusalem Post, “The first aim of this operation is to bring back quiet to southern Israel, and the second target is to strike at terror organizations.”
To date, Israeli forces have succeeded in assassinating Ahmed Jabari — commander of the military wing of Hamas — as well as 33 other militants in Gaza. It is true that 34 civilians and one policeman have also been killed in the process, and the legality and repercussions for such tragedies should be determined through the appropriate legal channels. But the claim of genocide all but evaporates in the face of the reality that Israel’s war — whether justifiable or not — is not one of extermination.
According to the current academic consensus, the question of whether any set of events can be considered genocide is not one of numbers or proportionality or cruelty; it is a question of intent. That the Nazi regime designed the Final Solution with the intent to exterminate European Jewry is well-documented. Similarly, the intent of the perpetrators of other genocides has also been preserved in historic documents and testimonies.
In 1915, Alma Johanssen, a German missionary working for the Red Cross in the Ottoman Empire, kept an account of her efforts to save Armenian children from Ottoman death marches. She writes, “I went to the Mutessarif and begged him to have mercy on the children at least, but in vain. He replied that the Armenian children must perish with their nation.” It is clear that the killing of Armenian individuals in the Armenian Genocide was part of a larger intent to eliminate the Armenian nation.
Similarly, in Rwanda in 1994, Hutu farmers were given direct orders from municipal and national leaders to take up their machetes against the Tutsi tribe. One perpetrator recalls, “The first day, a messenger from the municipal judge went house to house summoning us to a meeting right away. There the judge announced that the reason for the meeting was the killing of every Tutsi without exception. It was simply said, and it was simple to understand.”
In the case of Israel’s operations against Hamas, no such intent has been simply said, and nothing about the situation is simple to understand. Questions about why Israel decided to pursue such a course at this time and in such close proximity to the failure of Cast Lead in 2008-9 abound. Even more confounding is the chicken-and-egg question of who started this violent exchange and who is responsible to end it. These questions deserve robust analysis and both parties’ submission to the rule of law. However, a serious deliberation over whether Israel’s campaign can be considered genocidal does not hold up to honest analysis.
It is possible that the use of the term genocide in the case of the innocent people killed by Israeli forces in Gaza is merely a rhetorical device meant to rally support for the end of Operation Pillar of Defense and the blockade of Gaza. Such a tactic presumes that the death of innocent people is not tragic enough to muster public sympathy, and it obscures the true meaning of the word genocide. Genocide is a legal term that refers to the intent to destroy a discrete grouping of people, in whole or in part. The destruction of innocent individuals is no less condemnable than genocide. Those who hope for a just end to the conflict (myself included) should not rely on misrepresentations of facts and terms in order to convey the urgency of the mission. The most effective representation of the situation and the one most likely to sway the masses to come together in support of a peaceful resolution is one that stands up to all legal and historical analysis and holds the value of human life, regardless of nationality, above all else.