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US and World Politics

Why Israel’s War Is Genocide

By Seth Ackerman

January 26, 2024—Since October, Israel has killed more than 25,000 Palestinians, an estimated 70 percent of them women and children, in what a leading scholar of aerial bombing has called “one of the most intense civilian punishment campaigns in history.” Israel has been killing more than five times as many Gazans per day as the Nazis did, per capita, in the London Blitzkrieg. It killed roughly fifteen times as many children in the war’s first two months alone as Russia did in Ukraine in the invasion’s first eighteen months.

The Associated Press, citing analysts who specialize in mapping wartime bombing damage, reported that “the offensive has wreaked more destruction than the razing of Syria’s Aleppo between 2012 and 2016, Ukraine’s Mariupol or, proportionally, the Allied bombing of Germany in World War II.” Israel’s campaign has destroyed the homes of a third of Gaza’s residents, damaged almost two-thirds of all dwellings, and displaced 85 percent of its population, or 1.9 million people, through forced evacuations. More than ten Gazan children per day, on average, are estimated to have lost one or both of their legs.

The carnage is entirely deliberate. As a leaked analysis by the Dutch defense attaché in Tel Aviv put it, Israel “intends to deliberately cause enormous destruction to the infrastructure and civilian centers;” this is what explains the “high number of deaths” among civilians.

Israel’s claim that the civilian destruction is the inadvertent consequence of strikes targeting Hamas fighters is merely “a fig leaf for harming the civilian population,” according to a detailed investigation of the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) targeting protocols published jointly by the Israeli news sites +972 and Local Call. Citing “conversations with seven current and former members of Israel’s intelligence community,” journalist Yuval Abraham reported that the IDF’s established procedure is to identify the type of civilian site it wishes to destroy, such as a residential high-rise, and then afterward search a database to find some link to a militant group.

Within the IDF, strikes of this nature are called “power targets.” “If you want to find a way to turn a high-rise into a target, you will be able to do so,” explained a former intelligence official quoted in the report. Official claims that such targets are tied to Hamas are “an excuse that allows the army to cause a lot of destruction in Gaza,” said a source who was involved in developing targets in previous rounds of fighting in Gaza. “That is what they told us.”

“It doesn’t get any worse”

In the current conflict, Israel has devoted special effort to destroying hospitals—which it openly admits to targeting. Of Gaza’s thirty-six hospitals, only sixteen remain partially functional, with occupancy rates “reaching 206 percent in inpatient departments and 250 percent in intensive care units,” the UN reports. “What we have been witnessing is a campaign that was planned. It was a plan to close down all the hospitals in the north,” said Léo Cans, head of mission for Palestine with Doctors Without Borders.

In the first half of January, aid groups planned twenty-nine critical missions to deliver emergency medical supplies to the northern Gaza Strip; twenty-two of them were refused by Israel. As a result of its attack on Gaza’s health system, “doctors operate on screaming children without anesthetic, using mobile phones for light,” the UN’s top human rights official said in Geneva.

In addition to direct attacks, “the Israeli government is using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare,” Human Rights Watch reports. “Israeli forces are deliberately blocking the delivery of water, food, and fuel, while willfully impeding humanitarian assistance, apparently razing agricultural areas, and depriving the civilian population of objects indispensable to their survival.” Israeli inspectors turn away aid trucks without providing a reason, and “if a single item is rejected,” the New York Times reported, “the truck must be sent back with its cargo and repacked to restart the inspection process.” The security alibi is bogus: as the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem notes, Israel is prohibiting humanitarian organizations from purchasing food from Israel itself, a step that would obviate the need for security inspections.

Alex DeWaal, a leading expert on humanitarian crisis response at Tufts University, wrote that Israel’s starvation of Gaza “surpasses any other case of man-made famine in the last 75 years” in terms of “the rigor, scale, and speed” of its blockade of needed supplies and destruction of humanitarian infrastructure. According to the UN’s famine prevention unit, the proportion of Gaza households experiencing a life-threatening lack of access to food is currently “the largest ever recorded” by the organization, and if current conditions continue, by May a minimum of twenty thousand Gazans per month will likely be dying of famine. “I have never seen something at the scale that is happening in Gaza. And at this speed,” said Arif Husain, chief economist of the UN World Food Program. “It doesn’t get any worse.’’

He is not alone in that view. “Officials at humanitarian and healthcare organizations with lengthy experience in major conflict zones said Israel’s war in Gaza was the most devastating they had seen,” the Washington Post reported in December. “For me, personally, this is without a doubt the worst I’ve seen,” said Tom Potokar, a Red Cross chief surgeon who has worked in conflicts in South Sudan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, and Ukraine.

“What’s happening right now in Gaza is beyond any disaster that I’ve witnessed at least in the last 15 years or so,” said Zaher Sahloul, a doctor who heads a humanitarian medicine NGO and worked in Aleppo during the battle for the city. Martin Griffiths, UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, called it “the worst ever,” adding: “I don’t say that lightly. I started off in my twenties dealing with Khmer Rouge . . . I don’t think I’ve seen anything like this before, it’s complete and utter carnage.”

“Stay and starve, or leave”

The reason the carnage is as great as it is, is that Israel is trying to kill or expel as much of the Palestinian population of Gaza as possible. Its direct attacks on civilians are part of a larger plan: to create “conditions where life in Gaza becomes unsustainable,” as Major-General Giora Eiland, an adviser to Israeli defense minister Yoav Gallant, put it. “Israel needs to create a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, compelling tens-of-thousands or even hundreds-of-thousands to seek refuge in Egypt or the Gulf,” the adviser wrote in October.

In the policy jargon of the Israeli government, this is referred to as “voluntary emigration.” It will be presented as a choice: in Eiland’s words, “The people should be told that they have two choices: to stay and to starve, or to leave.”

The “voluntary emigration” plan is not just a hypothetical scenario. It is government policy—although, as the pro–Benjamin Netanyahu newspaper Israel Hayom reported in December, “It is not discussed in these forums [official meetings of the Security Cabinet] due to its obvious explosiveness.” The plan was explored in an October 17 paper by an influential think tank close to the Netanyahu government, which spoke of “a unique and rare opportunity to evacuate the whole Gaza Strip.”

The same conclusions were advanced in an internal Intelligence Ministry paper, which found that the “transfer of Gaza residents to Sinai” could “provide positive and long-lasting strategic results.” According to Israel Hayom, the prime minister has tasked his confidant, Ron Dermer, the minister of strategic affairs, to “examine ways to thin out Gaza’s population to a minimum.” At a party caucus meeting of Knesset deputies in late December, Netanyahu personally pledged that he was working to “ensure that those who want to leave Gaza to a third country can do so,” according to news site Israel Hayom, adding that the matter “needs to be settled” because it had “strategic importance for the day after the war.”

These objectives are widely understood within the Israeli government and military. “Whoever returns here, if they return here after, will find scorched earth. No houses, no agriculture, no nothing. They have no future,” said the deputy head of the Civil Administration, Col. Yogev Bar-Shesht, on November 4. “All the civilian population in Gaza is ordered to leave immediately,” said Energy and Infrastructure Minister Yisrael Katz on October 13. “They will not receive a drop of water or a single battery until they leave the world.” “We are now actually rolling out the Gaza Nakba,” said Avi Dichter, the former head of Israel’s internal security agency, on Israel’s Channel 12 news, in a reference to the 1948 mass expulsion of Palestinians.

By law, Israel’s supreme authority in national security matters is the inner ministerial grouping known as the Security Cabinet; its decisions are binding policy. Dichter and Katz are currently members, as are Netanyahu and Dermer. Adding the two extremist ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, at least six of the fourteen members of the Security Cabinet are on record as being in favor of “voluntary emigration;” only three are generally believed to be opposed to it—Gadi Eisenkot, Benny Gantz, and Yoav Gallant.

“A textbook case of genocide”

There is a consensus among scholars of genocide that ethnic cleansing does not automatically imply genocide, but that the two often go together. According to Omer Bartov, an Israeli American professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at Brown University, “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.” From this he concludes that “the possibility of genocide is staring us in the face.”

There are many signs that this is already happening. Reports are multiplying of point-blank field executions of civilians by Israeli troops, such as a December 13 incident in which, according to eyewitnesses who spoke to Al Jazeera, “women, children, and babies were killed execution-style by Israeli forces” while they were sheltering inside the Shadia Abu Ghazala in northern Gaza. Or a December 19 incident, confirmed by the UN, in which soldiers “summarily killed at least 11 unarmed Palestinian men in front of their family members in Al Remal neighbourhood, Gaza City:”:\

“The IDF allegedly separated the men from the women and children, and then shot and killed at least 11 of the men, mostly aged in their late 20s and early 30s, in front of their family members. The IDF then allegedly ordered the women and children into a room, and either shot at them or threw a grenade into the room, reportedly seriously injuring some of them, including an infant and a child.”

These reports can hardly be surprising: the Israeli command authorities have clearly communicated to their troops that the objective of the war is to rid Gaza of Palestinians. The defense minister has announced, “I have released all the restraints.” Moshe Saada, a member of Netanyahu’s party who sits on the National Security Committee of the Knesset, recently rejoiced that even left-leaning Israelis now agree on the need for a policy of extermination: “Former colleagues who once fought with me on political matters,” he said, now “tell me, ‘Moshe, it is clear that all the Gazans need to be destroyed.’”

This is why other genocide experts, such as the Israeli historian Raz Segal, endowed professor in the study of modern genocide at Stockton University, are more definitive than Bartov. “What we’re seeing in front of our eyes is a textbook case of genocide,” Segal said. The same terms were used by Craig Mokhiber, the New York director of the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, a thirty-year veteran aid official, who called Gaza “a textbook case of genocide” in his October 28 resignation letter. Fifteen UN special rapporteurs—senior independent experts who are neither employed by the UN nor nominated by any government—released a statement in November calling the situation a “genocide in the making.”

Biden’s complicity

In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, Daniel Levy, a veteran Israeli negotiator who has served several prime ministers, urged the Biden administration to exercise “the very real diplomatic and military leverage at its disposal” to push Israel to accept a cease-fire. “That demand cannot be one of rhetoric alone. The administration should condition the transfer of further military supplies on Israel ending the war.” The former Israeli ambassador to France, Élie Barnavi, made a similar point in an interview last month: “You know, we can’t make war without munitions or replacement parts for our planes,” he noted. “Either a solution will be imposed or there won’t be one. The Americans, upon whom we’re extremely dependent, can force our government.”

Joe Biden, however, has made his choice, however reluctantly: he’s supporting Israel’s operation. On December 29, his administration approved an emergency weapons sale to Israel using a legal loophole allowing it to go around Congress—the second time it had done so that month. “Despite Netanyahu’s defiance, Biden is committed to persuading him through private appeals,” the Washington Post reported last week. “There is no serious discussion inside the White House about changing the strategy in any significant way, according to several senior admin officials and outside advisers.”

The choice Biden has made has earned him the sobriquet “Genocide Joe” in some quarters—an epithet many consider unfair. They have a point. There should be no rush to judgment. Like Antony Blinken, Brett McGurk, and the state of Israel itself, he is fully entitled to his day in court.

Jacobin, January 26, 2024

https://jacobin.com/2024/01/israel-gaza-war-genocide-biden