I was not surprised that my recent article which, in part, discussed Mahmoud Abbas’ assertion that Israel committed genocide in Gaza caused some controversy and discussion. Indeed, I was gratified by it.
This is an important question, one that goes well beyond the rhetorical issue and one that I did not delve nearly as deeply into as I probably should have in my piece. Richard Falk’s article in The Nation has now done that job for me. I don’t always agree with Falk, but in this case, I think he and the Tribunal got it exactly right. I see this even though I get the sense from this piece that the Tribunal, and possibly Falk as well, believe in their hearts that genocide was committed in Gaza, while I do not.
One point bears some stress. Falk points out that genocide is regarded as “the crime of crimes.” Some of the debate over the use of this word to describe not only the Gaza horror of 2014 but the occupation more broadly has centered on the legal definition of genocide. I maintain that Israel’s crimes do not reach that level. But beyond the legal semantic question is the very important colloquial understanding of that word.
When people hear “genocide” they think of the Nazis, Rwanda, the Khmer Rouge and the Armenians. These were all incidents where huge numbers and huge percentages of particular populations were exterminated. As Falk points out, the legal definition actually holds a higher standard, where intent to annihilate a particular group must be proven. But colloquially, the understanding most people have of genocide plainly doesn’t fit Gaza. That’s the biggest reason I disagree with the use of that word.
But there was also a demonstrably “genocidal atmosphere” in Israel over the summer, whether it be tweens proudly stating that killing Arabs is a good thing, to plans put forth by Knesset members to empty Gaza of Arabs to statements by another MK that all Palestinians are legitimate targets. That makes the accusation worth investigating. So does the fact that the attack happened in the context of an ongoing blockade of Gaza which left Gazans nowhere to flee to, either outside their borders or within the sardine-can-like Strip.
When the Tribunal did so, they came to this conclusion, as described by Falk: “Despite these factors, there were legal doubts as to the crime itself. The political and military leaders of Israel never explicitly endorsed the pursuit of genocidal goals, and they purported to seek a ceasefire during the military campaign. The tribunal convincingly documented the government’s goal of intensifying the regime of collective punishment, but there was no clear official expression of intent to commit genocide. The presence of genocidal behavior and language, even if used in government circles, is not by itself sufficient to conclude that Protective Edge, despite its enormity, amounted to the commission of the crime of genocide.”
I think that’s right. You make your own decision, but I strongly urge us all to hold the accusation of “genocide” to the highest standard, because there is nothing worse.