The New York Times
Nov. 10, 2023,
Bombed out area in northern Gaza. Credit: PBS News Hour
We Still Have Time to Stop the Worst
By Omer Bartov
Israeli military operations have created an untenable humanitarian crisis, which will only worsen over time. But are Israel’s actions — as the nation’s opponents argue — verging on ethnic cleansing or, most explosively, genocide?
As a historian of genocide, I believe that there is no proof that genocide is currently taking place in Gaza, although it is very likely that war crimes, and even crimes against humanity, are happening. That means two important things: First, we need to define what it is that we are seeing, and second, we have the chance to stop the situation before it gets worse. We know from history that it is crucial to warn of the potential for genocide before it occurs, rather than belatedly condemn it after it has taken place. I think we still have that time.
It is clear that the daily violence being unleashed on Gaza is both unbearable and untenable. Since the Oct. 7 massacre by Hamas — itself a war crime and a crime against humanity — Israel’s military air and ground assault on Gaza has killed more than 10,500 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, a number that includes thousands of children. That’s well over five times as many people as the more than 1,400 people in Israel murdered by Hamas. In justifying the assault, Israeli leaders and generals have made terrifying pronouncements that indicate a genocidal intent.
Still, the collective horror of what we are watching does not mean that a genocide, according to the international legal definition of the term, is already underway. Because genocide, sometimes called “the crime of all crimes,” is perceived by many to be the most extreme of all crimes, there is often an impulse to describe any instance of mass murder and massacre as genocide. But this urge to label all atrocious events as genocide tends to obfuscate reality rather than explain it.
International humanitarian law identifies several grave crimes in armed conflict. War crimes are defined in the 1949 Geneva Conventions and subsequent protocols as serious violations of the laws and customs of war in international armed conflict against both combatants and civilians. The Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court, defines crimes against humanity as extermination of, or other mass crimes against, any civilian population. The crime of genocide was defined in 1948 by the United Nations as “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.”
So in order to prove that genocide is taking place, we need to show both that there is the intent to destroy and that destructive action is taking place against a particular group. Genocide as a legal concept differs from ethnic cleansing in that the latter, which has not been recognized as its own crime under international law, aims to remove a population from a territory, often violently, whereas genocide aims at destroying that population wherever it is. In reality, any of these situations — and especially ethnic cleansing — may escalate into genocide, as happened in the Holocaust, which began with an intention to remove the Jews from German-controlled territories and transformed into the intention of their physical extermination.
My greatest concern watching the Israel-Gaza war unfold is that there is genocidal intent, which can easily tip into genocidal action. On Oct. 7, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Gazans would pay a “huge price” for the actions of Hamas and that the Israel Defense Forces, or I.D.F., would turn parts of Gaza’s densely populated urban centers “into rubble.” On Oct. 28, he added, citing Deuteronomy, “You must remember what Amalek did to you.” As many Israelis know, in revenge for the attack by Amalek, the Bible calls to “kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings.” The deeply alarming language does not end there. On Oct. 9, Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, said, “We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly,” a statement indicating dehumanization, which has genocidal echoes. The next day, the head of the Israeli Army’s coordinator of government activities in the territories, Maj. Gen. Ghassan Alian, addressed the population of Gaza in Arabic: “Human animals must be treated as such,” he said, adding: “There will be no electricity and no water. There will only be destruction. You wanted hell, you will get hell.”
The same day, retired Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland wrote in the daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, “The State of Israel has no choice but to turn Gaza into a place that is temporarily or permanently impossible to live in.” He added, “Creating a severe humanitarian crisis in Gaza is a necessary means to achieving the goal.” In another article, he wrote that “Gaza will become a place where no human being can exist.” Apparently, no army representative or politician denounced this statement.
I could quote many more.
Taken together, these statements could easily be construed as indicating a genocidal intent. But is genocide actually occurring? Israeli military commanders insist that they are trying to limit civilian casualties, and they attribute the large numbers of dead and wounded Palestinians to Hamas tactics of using civilians as human shields and placing their command centers under humanitarian structures like hospitals.
But on Oct. 13, the Israeli Ministry of Intelligence reportedly issued a proposal to move the entire population of the Gaza Strip to the Egyptian-ruled Sinai Peninsula (Mr. Netanyahu’s office said it was a “concept paper”). Extreme right-wing elements in the government — also represented in the I.D.F. — celebrate the war as an opportunity to be rid of Palestinians altogether. This month, a videotape emerged on social media of Capt. Amichai Friedman, a rabbi in the Nahal Brigade, saying to a group of soldiers that it was now clear that “this land is ours, the whole land, including Gaza, including Lebanon.” The troops cheered enthusiastically; the military said that his conduct “does not align” with its values and directives.
And so, while we cannot say that the military is explicitly targeting Palestinian civilians, functionally and rhetorically we may be watching an ethnic cleansing operation that could quickly devolve into genocide, as has happened more than once in the past.
None of this happened in a vacuum. Over the past several months I have agonized greatly over the unfolding of events in Israel. On Aug. 4, several colleagues and I circulated a petition warning that the attempted judicial coup by the Netanyahu government was intended to perpetuate the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. It was signed by close to 2,500 scholars, clergy members and public figures who were disgusted with the racist rhetoric of members of the government, its anti-democratic efforts and the growing violence by settlers, seemingly supported by the I.D.F., against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
What we had warned about — that it would be impossible to ignore the occupation and oppression of millions for 56 years, and the siege of Gaza for 16 years, without consequences — exploded in our faces on Oct. 7. Following Hamas’s massacre of innocent Jewish civilians, our same group issued a second petition denouncing the crimes committed by Hamas and calling upon the Israeli government to desist from perpetrating mass violence and killings upon innocent Palestinian civilians in Gaza in response to the crisis. We wrote that the only way to put an end to these cycles of violence is to seek a political compromise with the Palestinians and end the occupation.
It is time for leaders and senior scholars of institutions dedicated to researching and commemorating the Holocaust to publicly warn against the rage- and vengeance-filled rhetoric that dehumanizes the population of Gaza and calls for its extinction. It is time to speak out against the escalating violence on the West Bank, perpetrated by Israeli settlers and I.D.F. troops, which now appears to also be sliding toward ethnic cleansing under the cover of war in Gaza; several Palestinian villages have reportedly self-evacuated under threats from settlers.
I urge such venerable institutions as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem to step in now and stand at the forefront of those warning against war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and the crime of all crimes, genocide.
If we truly believe that the Holocaust taught us a lesson about the need — or really, the duty — to preserve our own humanity and dignity by protecting those of others, this is the time to stand up and raise our voices, before Israel’s leadership plunges it and its neighbors into the abyss.
There is still time to stop Israel from letting its actions become a genocide. We cannot wait a moment longer.
Mr. Bartov is a professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at Brown University.
Copyright 2023 Omer Bartov and the New York Times Company