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13 APR 2024

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  • Ariana Sonsino

Is Israel Committing Genocide in Gaza?

Examining the complexities of accusations of genocide in the current Israel-Hamas war



Israel Jet Bombing


The Basic Facts


  • The term “genocide” was coined in 1944. It specifically refers to the systematic destruction of a group of people due to their identity.

  • Notable historical genocides include the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were murdered, as well as the Armenian, Rwandan, Cambodian, and Darfur Genocides.

  • The October 7 massacre by Hamas in Southern Israel and its aftermath have reignited historical debates over whether actions on either side constitute genocide.

  • Claims that Israel is committing genocide stem from its military operations in Gaza and the long-standing Egyptian-Israeli blockade on Gaza.

  • Claims of genocide are contradicted by Israel’s peace efforts, attempts to reduce civilian casualties, and steady population increase in Gaza.


 

What Is Considered “Genocide”


By definition, “genocide” refers to the “deliberate and systematic destruction of a group of people because of their ethnicity, nationality, religion, or race.” Acts of genocide fall into five categories, as noted by the UN Genocide Convention:


  1. Killing members of the group;

  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and

  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.


The term “genocide” was first coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer who originated the term to describe the Nazi’s systematic extermination of the European Jewish population during the Holocaust. He created it by combining ‘geno-’, from the Greek term signifying race or tribe, and ‘-cide’, from the Latin word for killing. The definition also extended to other historical instances of targeted actions aimed at destroying other groups of people. 


In 1948, the United Nations established the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, also known as the Genocide Convention, affirming “genocide” as an international crime. Notably, the definition of “genocide” is greatly contested and often difficult to apply uniformly.



Setting Precedent: Historical Instances of Genocide Around the World


Although the term “genocide” was only devised in the last century, instances of genocide have occurred throughout history. 


The first modern example was the Armenian Genocide (1914-1923), the result of the Ottoman government’s systematic extermination of 1.5 million Armenians, along with others. But perhaps the most well-known and extensively documented genocide was the Holocaust (1941-1945), carried out by Nazi Germany and resulting in the systematic murder of six million Jews and millions of others including Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals. 


In addition, the Cambodian Genocide (1974-1979), led by the Khmer Rouge, resulted in the deaths of about two million people, nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population at the time. The Rwandan Genocide (1994) saw an estimated 800,000 people killed by ethnic Hutu extremists in a hundred-day period.


Most recently, the Darfur Genocide (2003-present day) in Sudan has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Darfuris, predominantly from non-Arab tribes, and the displacement of millions more. 



How “Genocide” Became a Key Term in the Israel-Palestinian Conflict


One of the earliest documented uses of the term “genocide” in relation to the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians concerns the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982. In June 1982, during the Lebanon Civil War, Israel invaded Lebanon to destroy the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which had been launching attacks on Israel. 


The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) besieged the Sabra and Shatila neighborhoods and, according to Al Jazeera, provided aid to the local Phalange militia to carry out mass killings. The death toll was estimated at 2,000 to 3,500 civilians. On December 16, 1982, the United Nations General Assembly condemned the massacre and declared it to be an act of genocide. The declaration, however, was not universally accepted, with some member states and legal experts disputing use of the term “genocide” in this context. 


Another significant discussion of genocide took place in 2010, when historians Martin Shaw and Omer Bartov debated whether the events of the 1948 ‘Nakba’ should be regarded as genocide. The Nakba, meaning “catastrophe” in Arabic, refers to the mass displacement of Palestinians during the Arab-Israeli war in 1948. Many similar discussions followed, and some people today consider the Nakba to be the beginning of Israel’s purported genocide of the Palestinians. 


Since Israel began to retaliate for the October 7 massacre by Hamas, many condemn Israel for its military actions in Gaza. Recently, the director of the New York office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Craig Mokhiber, stepped down from his role, saying, “Once again we are seeing a genocide unfolding before our eyes and the organization we serve appears powerless to stop it.” He continued, “The current wholesale slaughter of the Palestinian people, rooted in an ethno-nationalist colonial settler ideology, in continuation of decades of their systematic persecution and purging, based entirely upon their status as Arabs … leaves no room for doubt.” 


In addition, some members of the US Congress have accused Israel of genocide. On November 3, US Representative Rashida Tlaib strongly criticized President Biden for supporting “the genocide of the Palestinian people.” 



Is Israel Committing Genocide Against the Palestinian People In Gaza? Sorting the Claims 


Even prior to the current Israel-Hamas war, the situation in Gaza was a source of tension and complexity. In 2006, the Palestinians elected Hamas as their government. Since 2007, when Hamas took over the Gaza Strip completely, evicting the PLO from the territory, Egypt and Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza for security reasons, mainly to prevent the smuggling of weapons and infiltration of terrorists. Because the blockade also limited movement, Gaza became known by some as an "open-air prison.” Both Israel’s and Egypt’s stringent border controls and joint blockade has led to shortages of resources, contributing to what some call a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Palestinians are also prohibited from operating an airport or seaport in Gaza. 


In response to the October 7 massacre by Hamas on Israel, the Jewish State declared war on Hamas. The current Israeli military operation aims to eradicate Hamas, including collaborators and Palestinians who participated in the massacre. The operation has included widespread airstrikes along with ground forces in Gaza, a densely populated area with more than two million residents, and the West Bank. Though the actual number of fatalities remains in dispute, the large amount of casualties resulting from this operation have led some to describe it as a genocide of the Palestinian people. While there is no specific amount of people killed that would automatically indicate a genocide is occurring, the magnitude of casualties being reported out of Gaza is causing great concern.


Apart from the Palestinian death toll, those who claim it’s a genocide also point to the third category of genocide: imposing conditions of life calculated to bring about a group’s physical destruction. At the onset of the current war, Israel’s military operations resulted in limitations on humanitarian aid into Gaza. Although several hundred trucks of humanitarian and medical aid have since entered Gaza, many view this situation as an indicator of genocidal efforts. 


Furthermore, many UN experts argue that, due to Israeli military operations, the mass displacement of Palestinians in Gaza, in addition to the number of casualties, points to a “genocide in the making”. 



The Case Against Palestinian Genocide in Gaza


Prior to the outbreak of this war, Israel made many notable efforts toward peace and stability in the region. In 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, removing its entire military presence and displacing over 8,000 Israelis who then lived in the area. This move, which ended 38 years of Israeli presence in the region, was intended to exchange land for peace, improve Israel’s security and international standing, and enable self-governance for the Palestinians. 


Additionally, Israel has historically provided essential resources, such as water and electricity, to Gaza and, before the imposition of stringent border controls, allowed for more freedom of movement for Palestinians between Gaza and other regions. Israel has also allowed Gazans to work in Israeli territory, issuing more than 18,000 work permits for Palestinians from Gaza. 


Moreover, the civilian population in Gaza has seen significant and steady growth. In fact, according to the Financial Times, the Palestinian population in Gaza has increased by two-thirds since 2000. This fact alone serves to disprove that genocide has occurred or is occurring. 


During this war, Israel has been and continues to be transparent in its efforts to reduce civilian casualties, even in the face of Hamas' use of its civilians as human shields and embedding themselves within the civilian population. The IDF has strict protocols aimed at minimizing harm to non-combatants, including intricate and multifaceted warning systems and targeted strikes on military positions. Israel also helps to evacuate civilians from areas of Gaza where military operations are necessary, notwithstanding Hamas’ attempts to prevent the evacuations. 


Furthermore, Israel has continued to facilitate the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza, ensuring the provision of medical and food supplies. 


Finally, the intent behind Israel’s actions must be considered in determining whether genocide is occurring. The Israeli government has repeatedly stated that its objectives in the conflict are twofold: to eradicate the threat posed by Hamas, an internationally recognized terrorist organization; and to secure the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas. This narrative underscores Israel’s position that its military actions are acts of self-defense against a recognized and ongoing terrorist threat, rather than an intention to systematically destroy the Palestinian population.  



Does Hamas’ October 7 Attack on Israel Constitute Genocide?


Whether an action constitutes genocide hinges on intent. With regard to the October 7 massacre and kidnappings, Hamas has unequivocally expressed–and continues to express–its intention to eliminate Israel and the Jewish people.


On October 19, US House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman, Michael McCaul, issued a declaration that Hamas had committed “acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes against the Jewish people and the State of Israel.” He continued, “Hamas’ actions were not just acts of ‘terrorism’ or ‘terrorist attacks.’ Rather, the assault was carried out by a genocidal organization and comprised nothing less than the full range of atrocity crimes under international law.”


In addition, John Kirby, spokesperson for the US White House National Security Council, called out a member of the press for inappropriately using the term “genocide” to describe Israel’s actions in Gaza. He explained, “Israel is not trying to wipe the Palestinian people off the map. Israel is not trying to wipe Gaza off the map. Israel is trying to defend itself against a genocidal terrorist threat. So if we’re going to start using that word, fine. Let’s use it appropriately.”


Even Hamas officials have not shied away from expressing the true intent of the massacre. Most notably, Ghazi Hamad, a member of Hamas’ political bureau, shared in a televised interview that Hamas plans to repeat the October 7 attack as many times as needed until Israel no longer exists. He stated, “Israel is a country that has no place on our land. We must remove it because it constitutes a security, military and political catastrophe to the Arab and Islamic nations. We are not ashamed to say this…We must teach Israel a lesson, and we will do it twice and three times.”


Since October 7, Hamas has persistently targeted Israeli civilians through rocket launches and coordinated shootings. Given these actions, and considering the criteria for defining genocide, which includes categorization and intent, Hamas' October 7 attack on Israel aligns with the established definition of genocide. 

 

Sources


Encyclopædia Britannica, genocide, November 22, 2023


United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, What is Genocide?, n.d.


United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Genocide Timeline, n.d.




BBC News, Rwanda: How the Genocide Happened, May 17, 2011


Yale University, Cambodian Genocide Program, n.d.


Yale University, Sudan, n.d.




Institute for Palestine Studies, The question of genocide in Palestine, 1948, 2010


United Nations, The Question of Palestine, n.d.







Human Rights Watch, Gaza: Israel’s ‘Open Air Prison’ at 15, June 14, 2022





Encyclopædia Britannica, Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, October 24, 2023




Financial Times, The Gaza Strip – in charts, October 16, 2023




Director of National Intelligence, Hamas, 2022




 

ariana sonsino

Ariana Sonsino


Ariana Sonsino, a Texas native, graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. Ariana now applies her diverse skills as the Marketing Manager at Awesome-Deloitte blending her background in both marketing and public relations. 

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