What is genocide and is Israel guilty of it in Gaza?
The term ‘genocide’ has divided opinions about the application of this label concerning Israel’s war on Gaza.
As recently as Tuesday, Palestinian doctoral student Rabea Eghbariah’s 2,000-word essay commissioned by Harvard Law Review, which accused Israel of committing genocide, was blocked by over 100 editors. A letter published in the Guardian by prominent German and international figures influenced by the Frankfurt School of neo-Marxist “critical theory” against its most prominent living member, Jürgen Habermas argues what is unfolding in Gaza could amount to genocide.
Still, it is not that hard to argue that the rhetoric coming out of many Israeli officials is borderline genocidal.
Below is a sample of what Israeli leaders have said in recent weeks as their military relentlessly bombarded Gaza, killing over 14,000 people, over a third of whom were children.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Prime Minister: "You must remember what Amalek has done to you, says our Holy Bible — we do remember." In this quote, Netanyahu compares Palestinians/Gaza to the biblical Amalek tribe, biblical enemies of the Israelites. In Jewish commandments Israelites are ordered to ‘destroy the Amalek utterly, from man unto woman, from infant unto suckling’.
Yoav Gallant, Minister of Defence: “There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed. We are fighting animal people, and we are acting accordingly”
“Gaza will not return to what it was before. We will eliminate everything”
Isaac Herzog, Israeli President: “It is an entire nation who are responsible. This rhetoric about civilians supposedly not being involved is absolutely untrue… and we will fight until we break their backs”
Avi Dichter, Agriculture Minister: “We are now rolling out the Gaza Nakba. From an operational point of view, there is no way to wage a war- as the Israeli army seeks to do in Gaza- with masses between the tanks and the soldiers. Gaza Nakba 2023. That’s how it’ll end.”
Bezalel Smotrich, Finance Minister: “Voluntary immigration of Gaza Arabs to the countries of the world. This is the right humanitarian solution for the residents of Gaza and the entire region. A cell with a small area like the Gaza Strip without natural resources and independent sources of livelihood has no chance to exist independently, economically and politically in such a high density for a long time.” If not a call for genocide, this is certainly encouragement towards ethnically cleansing an area under the false guise of humanitarianism.
Amichay Eliyahu, Minister of Heritage: “There are no such thing as non-combatants in Gaza”, therefore a nuclear strike is “one of the options”. In response, Netanyahu temporarily suspended Eliyahu from cabinet meetings, however he has since returned.
Gila Gamliel, Minister for Intelligence: “To promote the voluntary resettlement of Palestinians in Gaza, for humanitarian reasons, outside of the Strip. Instead of funnelling money to rebuild Gaza or to the failed UNRWA, the international community can assist in the costs of resettlement, helping the people of Gaza build new lives in their new host countries. Gaza has long been thought of as a problem without an answer. We must try something new, and we call on the international community to help make it a reality.”
Nissim Veturi, Deputy Speaker of the Knesset: In a tweet on X, “[Israel must] do no less than burn Gaza. Who's left in Gaza? Are there citizens? There are only tunnels, Hamas, and accursed terrorists who murdered children and are holding children hostage. We have to crush Gaza, Gaza is Hamas."
Ariel Kallner, Member of the Knesset: In a tweet on X, “Right now, one goal: Nakba! A Nakba that will overshadow the Nakba of 48. Nakba in Gaza and Nakba to anyone who dares to join! their Nakba, because like then in 1948, the alternative is clear”
 “Nakba to the enemy now! This day is our Pearl Harbor. We will still learn the lessons. Right now, one goal: Nakba! A Nakba that will overshadow the Nakba of 48. A Nakba in Gaza and a Nakba for anyone who dares to join!..”— Yehuda Shaul (@YehudaShaul) October 17, 2023
Ariel Kallner - Likud MK pic.twitter.com/NCUL7lz38z
Meirav Ben-Ari, Member of the Knesset: “The children of Gaza have brought this upon themselves”
Giora Eiland, former general and former head of Israeli National Security Council: “In order to eliminate Hamas, “the entire population of Gaza will either move to Egypt or move to the Gulf. From our perspective, every building in Gaza known to have Hamas headquarters underneath, including schools and hospitals, is considered a military target…As a result, Gaza will become a place where no human being can exist, and I say this as a means rather than an end. I say this because there is no other option for ensuring the security of the State of Israel.”
Galit Distel Atbaryan, Member of the Knesset, Public Diplomacy Minister until October 12th: “Invest that energy in one thing, erasing all of Gaza from the face of the earth. Gaza needs to be wiped out”
Daniel Hagari, Israeli Army Spokesperson: “We are dropping hundreds of bombs on Gaza. The focus is on destruction, not accuracy”
Revital Gotliv, Member of the Knesset: On X, “Shell Gaza mercilessly”, called for use of a “Doomsday weapon” and “the crushing of Gaza.”
Officer Ghassan Alian, Head of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories: “Human animals must be treated as such. There will be no electricity and no water [in Gaza], there will only be destruction. You wanted hell, you will get hell”
Ezra Yachin, Israel’s oldest army reservist: “Finish them off quickly and leave no memory of them. Erase them, their families, their mothers and their children. These animals can no longer live”
What is defined as genocide?
According to the UN, genocide involves committing “acts with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”
The word, first coined by Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in 1944, includes “killing; causing bodily or mental harm; deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about a group's physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births; forcibly transferring children of the group.”
However, the word is inherently political. Biden’s characterisation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as genocide, while refraining from applying the same label to Israel’s attacks, illustrates that the term is rooted in “a long history of government officials making arguments about the minutiae of the definition” to fit their agenda, according to the IAGS.
What do scholars think?
On 17th October, 800 scholars signed a public statement warning of potential genocide in Gaza. The statement begins by acknowledging the gravity of this accusation: “We do not do so lightly, recognising the weight of this crime, but the gravity of the current situation demands it.”
Among the signatories is Israeli associate professor of Holocaust and genocide studies Raz Segal who described the situation in Gaza as “textbook genocide” in a recent interview with journalist Owen Jones. He goes on to explain that it is usually very difficult to prove the intent for genocide but that in the case of Israel’s attack in Gaza it is “unique” because “the intent is so clearly articulated throughout Israeli, media, society and politics” as seen in the sample above.
“The children in Gaza brought it upon themselves.“ https://t.co/BZad7bTVQR— Ahmed Ragab (@Ragab) October 17, 2023
Segal continued by stating, “anyone who follows Hebrew language sources is exposed to shocking, shocking language by members of parliament, journalists on social media, in public spaces.”
Now, over a month later, with the Gazan death toll exceeding above 14,000, many believe Israel’s actions qualify. Colombian President Gustavo Petro, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Holocaust scholars such as Raz Segal are amongst an extensive group accusing Israel as guilty of this crime.
Noura Erakat, an American activist and human rights lawyer also added her name to the list. On a recent Twitter/ X thread addressing Piers Morgan, she clapped back to those undermining claims on genocide, citing The UN Genocide Convention (1948) which criminalises “conspiring, inviting, attempting to commit, and complicity, in genocide.” Erakat goes on to argue that, “not a single person needs to be killed in order to demonstrate genocide.”
However, like most academic debates, not everyone agrees. “Specifically picking the crime the Jewish people have suffered, perhaps more than any other people in history, is not only to accuse us of a great crime but to negate our suffering as a people,” said law professor Eugene Kontorovich to the Times of Israel.
Micheal Sfard, an Israeli human rights lawyer, who has previously been critical of Israeli actions and wrote a legal opinion about the crime of Apartheid in the West Bank, says, “First and foremost, in order to commit the crime of genocide, one needs to have an intention to exterminate, in whole or in part, a group.” He adds that “in the 30 years of my activism and more than 20 years of litigation, I haven’t seen a shred of evidence that Israeli officials and decision-makers hold such an intention.”
Ultimately, only an international tribunal can establish guilt based on international law and due process.
However, Israel (and the US) is not a signatory to the ICC, and it is hard to see how their US-backed leaders will ever be held to account for alleged genocide or a long list of probable war crimes in the Palestinian territories over 75 years of occupation.