The excellent Palestinian analyst Nadia Hijab recently published a thought-provoking column in which she explored the question of whether the Israelis’ treatment of the 1.5 million Palestinians constitutes genocide, as defined under international law.
Her conclusion in this thoughtfully argued piece is that it does. She notes that the international Genocide Convention, signed by most of the world’s governments in 1948, defines genocide as any of a list of five kinds of acts, “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.”
The list of qualifying acts includes these three,
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part…
Hijab argues that in Gaza Israel commits all three of these kinds of act, with the required, added genocidal intention, as defined above.
She also quotes a very revealing passage from the Polish-American legal scholar Raphael Lemkin, who in the 1940s was the first to coin the word ‘genocide’ and to define it. It was largely through Lemkin’s tireless organizing efforts that the Genocide Convention was convened and that it adopted its historic treaty, which lays on all parties to the convention– including the United States– a positive and universal duty to “prevent, suppress, and punish” any acts of genocide.
The Lemkin quote Hijab cites is this:
“genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation…. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be the disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.”
Her comment: “It is hard to conceive of a better description of what is going on in Gaza.”
The report issued last September by Judge Goldstone’s fact-finding commission into the acts committed by Israel in and toward Gaza over recent years– including during last winter’s ferocious assault– made no mention of acts of probable genocide, though it did identify a number of acts committed by both Israel and some of the armed groups in Gaza that, in the opinion of this very expert commission, constituted probable war crimes or crimes against humanity.
Why would it matter if genocide were added to this bill of particulars?
From the point of view of victims it may or may not matter too much. Being killed, or having the foundations of the life of the group you belong to quite systematically destroyed, is certainly bad enough, with or without the additional genocidal intention on the part of the perpetrator. (Ask the survivors of various horrendous massacres in the Democratic republic of Congo or elsewhere about that.)
But if what the Israelis have been doing in Gaza is judged to be genocide, then the nations of the world have not only a moral duty but also a legal duty to intervene to “suppress” those acts– that is, to do everything they can to end their being committed.
That is exactly what needs to happen. We need to stop Israel committing these very harmful acts. Our government here in the U.S. should be using all the levers of its national power to lift the siege of Gaza– and beyond that, to end the Israeli military occupation of Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem that has given Israel wide powers over the lives and livelihoods of those territories’ residents and has therefore allowed these very harmful, quite possibly genocidal, acts to occur.
In many ways, ending the ongoing commission of these atrocious acts is more important than questions of trials and punishment, which can be deferred until later. But the commission of these acts is ongoing. It can and should be stopped.