Over the past year, human rights groups like B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch published damning reports on Israel’s systematic oppression of the Palestinians. For the first time, these groups called Israel an apartheid state. What was new in this terminology is that they not only called the Occupation apartheid, but Israel itself an apartheid state “from the river to the sea.” In effect, this has normalized use of the term and concomitantly downgraded Israel to a pariah status.
This could impact the International Criminal Court investigation of Israel for war crimes committed since 2014. This period includes Operation Protective Edge (2014), which murdered 2,300 PaIestinians, and the Great March of Return (2018), in which IDF snipers mowed down thousands of unarmed PaIestinians, killing several hundred and permanently maiming thousands. Normalizing the use of the term apartheid also legitimizes the notion of Israeli war crimes.
This is why Israel has declared war on those it calls “delegitimizers”: those like the PA, and Palestinian human rights groups cooperating with the ICC tribunal. It is why Israel has falsely smeared the non- violent BDS movement as anti-Semitic, and even as terrorist. It is why Israel’s defense minister designated six Palestinian rights organizations as terror groups despite offering no credible evidence to support the claim.
Israel does not fear the groups themselves. It fears a massive decline in support which will transform Israel into a latter-day South Africa. Just as it eventually was compelled to end apartheid and adopt majority rule, Israel fears the dismantling of the Judeo-supremacist state and the elevation of Palestinians to full equal status with Israeli Jews. It would mean the end of the Zionist dream of a Jewish state and the accompanying system of Jewish privilege.
Amnesty International’s new report, Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians, is yet another nail in the coffin of Israel as a racist, supremacist state. It follows on the two earlier ones I mentioned. It also offers the imprimatur of the world’s largest human rights organization, which spent four years researching and preparing the just-released 280-page study. The B’Tselem and HRW reports broke new ground in portraying not just the Occupied Territories themselves, but all of Israel from the “river to the sea” as an apartheid system. This alone made pro-Israel groups and individuals howl with rage. Amnesty goes even farther in declaring that this apartheid system goes back much farther than 1967, when the Occupation began, but to 1948 itself and the founding of the State.
This is especially disturbing especially to liberal Zionists who seek to differentiate between the evil of the Occupation, while defending the origins of the Zionist state as just and democratic. Amnesty throws a spanner in the works in defining Israel from its inception as an apartheid regime. That’s why the Israeli government (presumably) either stole or received from an internal source an advanced copy and launched a pre-emptive campaign against it, calling it anti-Semitic. The Israelis then disseminated the document to leading Israel Lobby groups in the US and UK, which dutifully acted as Israel’s domestic agents, launching their own fusillades at it.
But the attacks have not diverted world attention as critics had hoped. The anti-Semitism charges were a charade and convinced no one of their credibility. The report has been received as the serious, probing, deeply-researched paper it is.
It’s worth speculating on how the Israeli government obtained the report. Either it hacked into the Amnesty servers and stole it; or Israeli agents persuaded or paid an Amnesty official to give it to them. The latter possibility is difficult to believe given how tightly the document was protected internally. While broad sections of the Amnesty network, including Amnesty’s Israel chapter were consulted on the preparation of it; the text itself was closely guarded within a narrow circle. That could very well mean that Israel’s vaunted cyber-hacking assets were employed to steal the document from Amnesty. If so, it would mean that the UK Board of Deputies and the American Jewish Committee trafficked in stolen documents in order to smear the organization from whom they were stolen. Not a pretty picture.
Is Israel Engaged in Genocide?
Now a new(ish) term is bruited about regarding Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. It is especially sensitive considering the suffering of the Jewish people in the Holocaust. Genocide was first devised by Jewish Holocaust survivor, Raphael Lemkin, as a term in the aftermath of this mass extermination:
…Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
- Killing members of the group;
- Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
- Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
- Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
…There must be a proven intent on the part of perpetrators to physically destroy a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. Cultural destruction does not suffice, nor does an intention to simply disperse a group. It is this special intent, or dolus specialis, that makes the crime of genocide so unique. In addition, case law has associated intent with the existence of a State or organizational plan or policy, even if the definition of genocide in international law does not include that element.
Importantly, the victims of genocide are deliberately targeted – not randomly – because of their real or perceived membership of one of the four groups protected under the Convention (which excludes political groups, for example). This means that the target of destruction must be the group, as such, and not its members as individuals. Genocide can also be committed against only a part of the group, as long as that part is identifiable (including within a geographically limited area) and “substantial.”
Levine further quotes Lemkin:
“…Genocide can be carried out through acts against individuals, when the ultimate intent is to annihilate the entire group composed of these individuals…Moreover, the criminal intent to kill or destroy all the members of such a group shows premeditation and deliberation and a state of systematic criminality which is only an aggravated circumstance for the punishment.” The objectives of such a plan would be “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.”
Lemkin deliberately eschewed a definition that singled out Jews as unique victims or the Holocaust as a unique historical event. Instead, he offered a broad definition which permitted its application to future tragedies. The wisdom of his approach has been vindicated by subsequent genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, Myanmar, Bosnia and elsewhere.
Though distinguished scholars of genocide and human rights/international law have argued for applying the term to the Israeli-PaIestinian conflict, it has been viewed as a bridge too far by many others.
Tantura and Zionist Historiography
But it is time to re-examine the issue in light of recent events and historical evidence. Last week, Israeli documentary filmmaker, Alon Schwarz premiered his new film, Tantura, at the Sundance Film Festival. It recounts a massacre during the Nakba in which a Palmach unit slaughtered over 200 unarmed Palestinian civilian residents of the central Israeli village of Tantura. The remaining 1,000 residents were driven from their homes into permanent exile. Many fled to Lebanon, where they remain refugees to this day.
This single incident was part of a carefully orchestrated plan to expel nearly 1-million indigenous Palestinian residents of Israel. Tantura was an integral part of a Zionist campaign of rape, pillage, murder, and forced expulsions known to Palestinians (and the world) as the Nakba. There were similar massacres of Palestinian civilians which resulted in 1,100 deaths leading up and during to the 1948 War. About 300 Jews were killed in similar Arab-initiated massacres. The historical record shows that while the killings of Palestinians were part of a military campaign conducted by the Palmach and rightist militias, the Palestinian attacks were largely sporadic revenge attacks responding to massacres by the Yishuv forces.
The Nakba and the Yishuv’s plan to expel and murder hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were the first elements in a long series of subsequent events which, taken together, constitute genocide. In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that Alon Schwarz, the film’s director, vehemently disagrees with the use of the term genocide in relation to the events at Tantura in particular, and Israeli treatment of Palestinians in general. While such vehemence from an Israeli disappoints me, it does not surprise me. In its day, the charge of apartheid against Israel was enough to brand you as a traitor to, and enemy of Israel. And as you’ll see below, Teddy Katz’s research drove the Israeli veterans of the massacre mad, and they campaigned vigorously to destroy him (and succeeded). Ironically, it took Schwarz’s film to redeem him.
What’s especially important about Tantura is the battle over Zionist historiography that accompanied it. In 1998, a University of Haifa graduate student, Teddy Katz, began researching a master’s thesis on the Tantura massacre. At the time, the prevailing view among Zionist historians was that there was no massacre or that the killing was the result of a battle between militias on both sides. Katz did something rarely if ever done before by Israeli historians. He went into the field, searching for survivors, both among the villagers and the Alexandroni Brigade veterans. He found many and conducted scores of recorded and transcribed interviews, which became his final thesis. His reviewers gave him a grade of 97 and considered it excellent work.
But in 2005, after finding the academic work in the University archives, a Maariv reporter wrote a story about the incident. Thus began a torturous legal process in which the Israeli veterans sued Katz for slander. Some of them were the same ones Katz had interviewed, who had confirmed the massacre.
He had earlier had a stroke and his family feared for his health under the added stress. Under pressure, he signed a legal settlement recanting his work. Hours later he renounced the settlement. But the die was cast. The Supreme Court rejected his appeal to nullify it. And so Teddy Katz’s academic career was left in shambles. The University, in an act of supreme cowardice, convened a new committee that failed Katz.
But Tantura has changed everything and redeemed Katz. There is nothing like the visual power of a camera to attest to history. Schwarz returned to the same individuals Katz had interviewed and persuaded them to unburden themselves. And they did. Now there is definitive documentary evidence of the massacre and the correctness of Katz’s historical account.
The importance of this lies in the battle to determine the Zionist historical narrative. Will a false account be perpetrated by the victors seeking to erase not only their original victims, but the overall crimes of Nakba? Similarly, will they succeed in their campaign to whitewash history in the minds of the world, and convince it that the Zionist cause was just and moral?
Further Definitions of Genocide
In consideration of the term genocide, it is important to recognize that it applies not only to mass extermination of a people. It also applies to systematic acts of cultural, religious and ethnic erasure resulting in the suppression or elimination of traditions. Mark Levine wrote:
…The use of the term “genocide” by Palestinians and those struggling against the long-term, systematic and criminal oppression and persecution suffered by Palestinians since 1967 (and indeed, since 1948), is necessary to force a conversation that would otherwise remain very difficult to begin.
Israel has done this in spades. Besides the wholesale expulsion of the Palestinian people from its homeland (Nakba), along with the destruction of over 400 villages, tens of thousands have been killed by Israeli forces since 1948. In addition, Israel has dispossessed hundreds of thousands of their lands through state theft. It has further destroyed the homes of thousands of others in East Jerusalem, the Negev and West Bank, in order to eliminate a Palestinian presence there, and to assure a Jewish majority throughput various regions of Israel. Further, Israel has refused to repatriate the 750,000 indigenous Palestinians expelled or their direct descendants. It has also refused to offer reparations for the theft of their homes and lands.
Add to this the refusal of Israeli leaders to recognize a Palestinian state. Such refusal, and the refusal to accept a single democratic state for Jews and Palestinians, constitute another example of an effort to destroy the possibility of Palestinian agency and sovereignty.
Taken as separate, discreet phenomena, these might not qualify as genocide. But when taken in the aggregate, they amount to a systematic campaign to eliminate a major part of the Palestinian people and its presence in Israel-Palestine. The fact that this incremental genocide (a term coined by Israeli historian, Ilan Pappe) has not yet succeeded in fully accomplishing its goal does not detract from the fact that genocide has, and is occurring. As the US Holocaust Museum has determined: “public incitement to genocide can be prosecuted even if genocide is never perpetrated.”
The Center for Constitutional Rights argues that Israel is committing genocide:
Prominent scholars of the international law crime of genocide and human rights authorities take the position that Israel’s policies toward the Palestinian people could constitute a form of genocide. Those policies range from the 1948 mass killing and displacement of Palestinians to a half-century of military occupation and, correspondingly, the discriminatory legal regime governing Palestinians, repeated military assaults on Gaza, and official Israeli statements expressly favoring the elimination of Palestinians.
CCR quotes the eminent genocide scholar, Martin Shaw offering his judgment even the pre-state Yishuv engaged in genocide:
“We can conclude that pre-war Zionism included the development of an incipiently genocidal mentality towards Arab society…
Israel entered without an overarching plan, so that its specific genocidal thrusts developed situationally and incrementally, through local as well as national decisions. On this account, this was a partly decentred, networked genocide, developing in interaction with the Palestinian and Arab enemy, in the context of war.”
Francis Boyle, a professor of international law brings this up-to-date:
For over the past six and one-half decades, the Israeli government and its predecessors in law – the Zionist agencies, forces, and terrorist gangs – have ruthlessly implemented a systematic and comprehensive military, political, religious, economic, and cultural campaign with the intent to destroy in substantial part the national, ethnical, racial, and different religious group (Jews versus Muslims and Christians) constituting the Palestinian people.
An important element of genocide is not just actions or policies, but an expressed will to commit genocide by political or military leaders. Thus, incitement to genocide is also included within the Genocide Convention. Levine offers examples of this in his essay. And there have been more recent examples of this, such as a recent statement by former IDF southern commander, Lt. Gen. Yom Tov Samiah. In this tweet, he refers to the 1948 Palmach expulsion of Palestinians and Bedouin from the Negev. He is commenting on efforts by Palestinian lawmakers in the Knesset to connect unrecognized Bedouin villages to the electric grid, apparently considering it akin to an existential threat to the nation itself:
‘Soon we will have to revive Operation Yoav to liberate the Negev [fr Bedouin]. If we continue at this rate, we will have to reconquer Negev & Galilee. Civil war is upon us and everyone’s obsessed with the fahrkochteh Omicron.”
In 2008, during Operation Cast Lead, then deputy defense minister Matan Vilnai (a member of the so-called left Zionist Labor Party) actually used the Hebrew word for Holocaust (“Shoah”) in calling for a Palestinian genocide:
“The more Qassam [rocket] fire intensifies and the rockets reach a longer range, they will bring upon themselves a bigger shoah because we will use all our might to defend ourselves.”
While defenders of Israel might argue that this is simply overheated rhetoric used during all such military operations, this is precisely how actual genocides begin. They don’t just come from thin air. The ground must be prepared for such mass violence through incitement of the sort the Nazis used in the 1930s leading up to the Holocaust itself.
The Times of Israel even published an article claiming that genocide is “permissible” in the case of the Palestinians. Once the article aroused a furor in the media, the outlet removed it.
In determining the definition of genocide and whether it applies to Israeli policy, it is also critical to distinguish between a legal standard for genocide which would govern actual prosecution of Israeli military and political leaders in international criminal courts; and a standard that examines the issue from a moral perspective. Just because Netanyahu, Olmert, Gantz and Halutz aren’t brought before the ICC tribunal in the Hague and convicted for genocide does not mean that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian is not genocide. If that were true, in every case of genocide in which no national leaders were convicted, genocide did not happen. We know that this is simply wrong in history and in practice. The Armenian and Rohingya genocides are examples.
We must call it what it is, no matter how much of a taboo there may currently be. The Holocaust, horrific as it was, does not absolve Israel of responsibilty for its crimes against the Palestinian people. Nor does suffering such a heinous tragedy mean that Israel is incapable of wreaking a similar tragedy on another people. Israelis may resist such terms and be enraged at being associated with them, but the same opprobrium earlier met the use of terms like apartheid and war crimes. For decades, Israel argued that they were inappropriate, prejudicial and even blood libel. But eventually, they became accepted and normalized as references to Israel and its campaign of Palestinian oppression. The same process will follow with the term genocide.
Levine has laid out a path to follow to achieve such legitimacy:
In the case of Israeli actions against Palestinians, a two-fold strategy would seem to be called for: First, educate the public about the extent and severity of Israeli crimes and the applicability of existing international conventions and laws, such as those against apartheid, racial discrimination, persecution, and crimes against humanity. Israel`s routine and long-term violation of these laws already carries profound legal consequences should they be applied. Second, call for an expansion of the legal definition of genocide to allow crimes involving ethnic cleansing and the mass killing of presently unprotected groups (i.e., those based on culture or political affiliation), as well as politicide, to become part of the legal epistemology and jurisprudence surrounding genocide.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.