All Writings
June 4, 2024

Accusing Israel Of Genocide Is Factually Wrong

The Israel-Hamas war, which was precipitated by Hamas’ savage attack on Israel, has tragically inflicted massive death and destruction on the Palestinians in Gaza. Although Israel’s retaliation is deemed disproportionate to the number of Israelis slaughtered by Hamas, Israel’s onslaught on Gaza should not be sinisterly classified as an act of genocide

I condemn in the strongest terms the death of any innocent Israeli or Palestinian, regardless of the circumstances that wrought their untimely death. However, righting the wrong in any violent conflict is never served by quickly jumping to conclusions and accusing one party or the other of committing crimes on the scale of genocide, as Israel has been accused of committing against the Palestinians. By definition, the Israeli invasion of Gaza and its continuing unfolding havoc and devastation do not meet the criteria of genocide.

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by the UNGA in 1948, defines genocide as “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.” [emphasis added]

The assumption is that clauses A and B apply to the Israeli army’s efforts to capture or kill Hamas operatives, as in pursuing that, thousands of innocent Palestinians were killed. And, no doubt, had Israeli forces been more cautious, especially at the initial stages of the war, many Palestinian lives would have been spared. But sadly, Hamas’ unfathomably barbaric attack brought to life images of the Holocaust to many Israelis and obscured both their moral values and rationality. For many Israelis, revenge and retribution were instinctive emotional reactions, and while some of the initial bombings were carried out with little or no consideration of the collateral damage they could cause, the intention, critical to the definition of genocide, was to eliminate Hamas terrorists, not the civilian population of Gaza.

One such horrific case is an Israeli air strike in Rafah on May 26, which hit a camp sheltering displaced civilians in Tal al-Sultan and reportedly killed at least 46 civilians, including 23 women, children and older persons. UN experts said, “These barbaric attacks are a flagrant violation of international law. They are also an attack on human decency and our collective humanity.” Although Israel claims that the strike on the camp was accidental, it is still inexcusable. But then, irrespective of how heart-wrenching the Israeli strike was, it is not akin to genocide.

It is essential to distinguish what constitutes genocide by definition and its consequences. One modern genocide occurred in Bosnia and Herzegovina in July 1995 at Srebrenica. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) ruled that “the intent to kill all the Bosnian Muslim men of military age in Srebrenica constitutes an intent to destroy in part the Bosnian Muslim group within the meaning of Article 4 and therefore must be qualified as a genocide.” [emphasis added] Up to 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were lined up and executed, nearly 2,000 are still missing, and up to 30,000 Bosnian Muslim women, children, and elderly persons were forcibly transferred.

Another fitting example is the Armenian Genocide which occurred between 1915-1918, when Armenians were forcibly deported from the eastern part of the Ottoman Empire, including through forced marches where they faced starvation and massacres. Those who survived the marches were sent to concentration camps near modern Turkey’s southern border with Syria. Over 1 million Armenians died over the period, with the rest of the Armenian population living in the diaspora. Currently, over 30 countries recognize the Armenian Genocide.

And, of course, in the Holocaust, 1933-1945, 6 million Jews and 5 million non-Jews were murdered over this period by Nazi Germany, including Roma, Sinti, homosexuals, religious leaders who refused to support the regime, and people with disabilities. The Auschwitz camps alone were responsible for the execution of 960,000 Jews from 1940-1945.

These acts against other groups of different ethnicities were characterized as genocides because they were “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Israel did not intend to destroy “in whole or in part” the Palestinians in Gaza but intended to destroy Hamas as a terrorist organization. What is deeply troubling, however, is the frequent nonchalant association of genocide with Israel as if it were a given, and often to cheering audiences without giving the matter and its implications serious thought.

In mid-May, I attended the Mailman School of Public Health graduation ceremony at Colombia University. I was shocked to hear the speech delivered on behalf of the student body. The speaker accused Israel of committing genocide against Palestinians five times in her presentation to the cheering of several thousand students, guests, and faculty members. To level such an accusation on that auspicious setting in an Ivy League university with a significant Jewish student body was appalling.

The normalization of associating genocide with Israel, as if it is a matter of fact, is extremely dangerous, mainly because the majority of non-Jews do not differentiate between Israeli Jews and diaspora Jews, which risks, in this case, the safety of Jewish students. Moreover, this sort of narrative expressed casually by anyone gives free rein not only to the Jews’ traditional enemy—white supremacists—but also to non-Jews who need easy prey to satisfy their innate hatred of Jews, and gives rise to endemic antisemitism.

Thus, although antisemitism existed from time immemorial, the spike of antisemitism is not accidental. The Gaza war and the escalating tragic death toll of Palestinians, coupled with the occupation and the frequent killing of Palestinians in the West Bank, give further credence to the antisemites’ contention that the Jews are the real enemy. Sadly, extremist right-wing Israeli officials, especially the two messianic lunatics Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, add fuel to the fire of antisemitism when they recklessly call for ridding all Palestinians from the “Land of Israel,” which is, of course, ethnic cleansing to the letter: “… a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas,” as defined by S/1994/674, the final report on crimes committed in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992.

In March, South Africa submitted a case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) accusing Israel of genocide, requesting provisional measures that the court order Israel to end its military operations in Gaza. In January, the ICJ determined in an order that it does have standing to “entertain the case,” which is not a ruling – just an acknowledgment of South Africa’s standing to present the case. The Court is also of the view that Israel must take all measures within its power to prevent and punish the direct and public incitement to commit genocide against members of the Palestinian group in the Gaza Strip.

In essence, the ICJ has not ruled that Israel has committed genocide but rather that it must take all possible measures to prevent genocide from taking place, which in some way, may well be attributed to the dangerously loose tongues of Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, who put Israel to shame in the eyes of the international community.

To be sure, Israel has not and is not committing genocide against the Palestinians, but the horror rained on the Palestinians is unspeakable by any definition. Unless they embrace humanity and peaceful coexistence, the continuing violent conflict and the massive losses both sides will continue to sustain are tantamount to nothing less than mutual suicide.