The Uses and Abuses of the Term ‘Genocide’ in Gaza

The contested word is invoked by both sides in the debate over the current war

The Uses and Abuses of the Term ‘Genocide’ in Gaza
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

The idea of “genocide” has long been present in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, but it has grown more prominent with every confrontation and is being invoked more widely than ever before in the destructive war that broke out Oct. 7. When used for political effect, it is invariably invoked in a maximal sense: For many Israel advocates, Hamas’ terrible massacres portend the total extinction of the Jews in the country; for many Palestine supporters, the horrific Israeli counterattack implies nothing less than the total elimination of Gaza’s population.

The response to these uses by many analysts is to recoil from the “g-word,” as though political hyperbole nullifies analytical utility. But “genocide” is a serious socio-historical concept and a powerful, if flawed, tool of international law. Scholars have many criticisms, but the one that’s most relevant to the current situation is the argument that the U.N. Genocide Convention is internally incoherent in defining genocide as the destruction of groups in general, potentially including the destruction of group social life but also — in the clause “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part” — indicating a narrow interpretation in which this counts only if it leads to physical destruction. Based on this narrow interpretation, it could be argued that if Israel does not aim to murder the whole Gazan population and its killing is incidental to its military goals, its war cannot be genocidal. But if we understand group destruction in the sense of social destruction, and killing as only one of its means, then the genocide perspective raises serious issues about the current war.

Both sides invoke the logic of war to protect them from such questions. Since Israel’s manifest aim in this war is to defeat Hamas, its defenders believe it has no case to answer; since Hamas’ attacks are extensions of its “resistance” to the blockade and the occupation, its partisans will brush aside any suspicion. Both sides pay lip service to the civilian-combatant distinction and Israel even codifies it in IDF practice, but many Israelis argue that Gazans cannot expect full civilian protection because they elected Hamas almost two decades ago, while Hamas denies it to Israeli civilians on the grounds that they are all “settlers.”

In the terminology of genocide scholars, the war is one of asymmetrical counter-genocide. Hamas’ killings of Israeli civilians constituted a wave of “genocidal massacres,” localized mass killings whose victims were defined by their Israeli-Jewish identity; their escalated rocket attacks are a more diffuse kind of anti-civilian violence that, in the current context, serve to sustain the terror of the original attacks. The purpose of these assaults in relation to the Israeli population as a whole appears to be purely exemplary — they cannot represent a threat of total destruction because Hamas is in no position to inflict that on Israel. (The concept of the genocidal massacre, first proposed by the pioneering genocide scholar Leo Kuper 40 years ago, is a logical extension of the notion in the convention that genocide can include destroying a group “in part.”)

Israel’s bombardment and escalating invasion of Gaza, in contrast, have affected the whole population of the territory, far more extensively and deeply (except in a moral and emotional sense) than the Israeli population has been affected by Hamas’ violence. Although tens of thousands of Israelis were displaced in the aftermath, they are being cared for by a powerful state and a well-organized society. In Gaza, on the other hand, not only did the death toll escalate quickly beyond that in Israel, but half or more of an already impoverished society was displaced within a matter of days and many of the essentials of life were rapidly undermined. The profound dislocation of both society and state organization has prevented adequate care for those forced to move, especially the wounded, sick and hungry — including children. The whole society has come to exist in a state of heightened terror, and whether it was Israel or Palestinian Islamic Jihad that caused the hundreds of deaths in the large hospital attack of Oct. 17, the victims were sheltering in its courtyard from Israeli bombs. Indeed, Israel has widely bombed hospitals, schools and other potential places of safety, including those to which it has itself directed civilians.

Israel doesn’t attack Palestinian civilians because it hates them, even if hatred is present. But its war, driven by both security and revenge (including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s need to expunge his humiliating failure to protect Israelis), nevertheless demonstrates genocidal intent. Hamas may be “the” enemy, but the population of Gaza is also an enemy — not only because of one vote 17 years ago but also because the dependence of Gazans on the state infrastructure that Hamas controls, Hamas’ repression of alternatives and the anti-Israel sentiment that Israel’s policies reinforce all reproduce a degree of support for the organization. It has become commonplace to refer to Israel’s “collective punishment” of Gazans, but this had long been evident in the blockade of the territory. The violence in 2009, 2012, 2014 and 2021 intensified this: Although always accompanied by the rhetorical distinction of civilians from Hamas, it manifested an implicit aim of degrading Gazan society along with its built infrastructure. While the blockade involved a deep repression of the society, the anti-civilian bombardments raised the question of its deliberate, partial destruction — that is, of genocide.

This partial destruction of the social as well as built environment was never merely “collateral damage”: It was intentional, and fully understood and developed through the series of assaults. As the political scientist Wendy Pearlman recently pointed out in New Lines magazine, the attacks evoked the “Dahiyah Doctrine” (named after a Beirut suburb that Israel pulverized in 2006), which endorses destruction of government and civilian infrastructure alongside overwhelming and disproportionate use of force to punish and deter attackers. In the current Israeli campaign, Pearlman noted, this approach is “intensified to a previously unimaginable degree.” The destruction is no longer partial but tending toward total. Because the armed organization exists within the population and controls the state administration, which in turn helps sustain the conditions of life (to the extent that they have been sustained under the conditions of blockade), Israel’s expressed determination to “totally” eliminate Hamas also amounts to an intention to partially destroy the conditions of life for Gazans and the very framework of Gazan society — as is already happening. This intentional destruction should be seen as genocidal in itself, but even in terms of the prevailing legal interpretations of the convention, this social destruction undoubtedly includes a genocidal element since it includes the deliberate partial physical destruction of the Gazan population.

We do not yet know how far this deliberate destruction of Gazan society will go. Nor do we know what the end state when Israel terminates its current campaign will be. Many in Israel’s ruling parties and media have expressed the aim of driving Palestinians out of the whole of historic Palestine and some have floated the aim of recolonizing Gaza. It is ironic that many criticize pro-Palestinian demonstrators for calling for the freeing of Palestine “from the river to the sea” (which, even if it were their aim, Palestinian forces have no chance of doing), when right-wing forces in Israel are actively taking advantage of the current crisis to extend their own agenda in precisely this direction.

Many commentators therefore perceive an intention to forcibly remove Gaza’s population from the territory, which is widely called “ethnic cleansing.” It is difficult to know at this stage how far this is actually Israel’s intent, and it is uncertain whether they will be able to force a major new expulsion, because it would be difficult to do this without expelling large numbers into Egypt, antagonizing not only it but also other Arab states as well as Western allies. But even the attempt would exacerbate the chaos and societal disintegration.

It may rather be in the West Bank, where armed settlers are taking advantage of the situation to terrorize and expel people, that the most forcible displacement of Palestinians will be seen in the current crisis. What is happening there reminds us that mass displacement through terror was involved in the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, consolidated through the refusal to accept the return of refugees. The displacement of what Palestinians term the Nakba involved the destruction of a large part of historic Palestinian society, including whole villages that disappeared from the face of the earth or re-emerged as renamed Jewish settlements. As in other cases of “ethnic cleansing,” including Bosnia (where the term originated), the ratio of the forcibly moved to killed (approximately 700,000: 5,000) was such that many do not examine it within the framework of genocide. But the Zionist forces clearly intended this destruction, and defining the episode by the relatively low level of killing diverts attention from this central goal, which has continued to drive Israeli dispossession activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in recent times. Taken together with events in Gaza, any large-scale exodus would represent a drastic escalation of the Israeli right’s drive for Palestine without Palestinians.

It is difficult to capture such a fast-moving situation from a genocide perspective. The crisis within Israel, the regional context and the contradictions of the U.S. and other Western positions are likely to affect this already highly fluid situation in any number of ways. But the radical disintegration of Gazan society will also serve Israel’s professed military goals, since it will make it difficult for Hamas to openly re-emerge with any strength. Although Israel claims to want to eliminate Hamas entirely, it must surely understand that it is unlikely to be able to do so. Instead, it may be desirable from Israel’s perspective for Gaza to re-emerge an even weaker, more threadbare and dysfunctional society than before, sustained to an even more minimal extent with the adhesive bandage of international aid, burying its dead and nursing its grievances in a state of hopelessness.

“Genocide” is generally under-deployed because states wish to avoid the responsibilities to “prevent and punish” that the convention imposes on signatories, but there is a special aversion to investigating its implications for Israel’s conduct. Western states continue to protect it out of a misplaced belief that Jews, having been prime historical victims of genocide, cannot also be its perpetrators. Israel’s current policies are rapidly destroying that conceit, however, and bringing closer the day when its leaders — as well as those of Hamas — will be brought to account for their crimes.

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