December 2, 2023
A growing number of academics, legal scholars and governments are accusing the Israeli government of carrying out a genocide against Palestinians in Gaza.
The word “genocide” is seen and heard at pro-Palestinian protests across Canada and the U.S. A rally in Toronto was attended by a coalition called Jews Say No to Genocide. In the U.S., members of the group Jewish Voice for Peace have accused Israel of carrying out a genocide in their names.
Globally, too, the word is being used more frequently. The presidents of Colombia and South Africa have levelled the accusation. Last week, a group of UN human rights special rapporteurs warned of a “genocide in the making.” Last month, a UN human rights official resigned from his post, calling the situation a “textbook case of genocide.”
Why are some using the term?
The term was codified by the UN in the 1948 Genocide Convention and defined as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” Those acts are not limited to killing members of the group — causing “serious bodily or mental harm,” among other actions, can also constitute genocide.
Since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks on Israel, which killed an estimated 1,200 people, Israel has killed around 14,000 people in Gaza and displaced 1.5 million more, according to the UN. Two-thirds of the dead are estimated to be women and children.
But a high death toll alone is not proof of genocide. Legal experts say one key element is intent.
“The intent that we have observed is extensive and it comes from all quarters of the Israeli state,” said Anisha Patel, a legal researcher with the group Law for Palestine — which provides legal analysis on international law as it relates to Palestinians.
Patel says it has identified more than 400 instances “from all levels of the Israeli elite” expressing what the organization considers evidence of genocidal intent.
They include statements by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately following the Oct. 7 massacre, in which he described Gaza as “the city of evil.”
“We will turn all the places in which Hamas deploys and hides into ruins. I am telling the people of Gaza — get out of there now. We will act everywhere and with full power,” Netanyahu said in a televised statement.
The UN, the World Health Organization, the International Red Cross and other international groups, have repeatedly stated that Palestinians in Gaza have nowhere safe to go.
Raz Segal, associate professor of holocaust and genocide studies at Stockton University in New Jersey, said there are “dozens of pieces of evidence that show intent to destroy,” per the UN convention.
“Israeli leaders and senior army officers have done exactly what they said. So Gaza today, particularly the north but not only the north, is rubble,” said Segal.
“We’re talking about, indeed, conditions calculated to bring about the destruction of the group.”
‘Elements of genocidal thinking’
Adam Jones, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia Okanagan and author of a textbook in genocide studies, says use of the term has erupted since Oct. 7, but that the extremes of both parties to the conflict have shown “genocidal strands and ideologies” going back decades.
“I believe that the events of Oct. 7 qualify as a genocidal massacre of Israelis. I also think that the Israeli response, and indeed long standing Israeli policy towards the Gazan population, evinces elements of genocidal thinking and increasingly practice,” he said.
“When we see phenomena such as the massive destruction of infrastructure, the threats to clean water supply and the increasing threat of epidemic disease — all of which is being inflicted quite knowingly and with full awareness of the possible consequences by the Israeli leadership — I think alarm bells need to be going off.”
Is Canada complicit?
Canadian Palestinian Muhannad Ayyash is a professor of sociology at Mount Royal University who studies violence and colonialism. He says what’s happening in Gaza is “a deliberate genocidal operation” and that Canada is complicit by having not called for a ceasefire.
“So it is partaking in the U.S. effort to not de-escalate the situation and give the Israelis a blank diplomatic cover so that they can carry out this operation without much international pressure. So [Ottawa is] part of the U.S. protective umbrella for the Israeli state to carry out the genocide.”
The Liberal government has said Israel has the right to defend itself, though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pushed for temporary pauses in fighting and called on the Israeli government to “exercise maximum restraint.”
The U.S. and Canada have long stood by Israel, or at a minimum refused to condemn its actions. In October, the UN General Assembly passed a motion calling for an “immediate and sustained ‘humanitarian truce'” in the fighting. The U.S. voted against the motion; Canada abstained.
On Thursday, an Ottawa law firm representing Canadians with families in Gaza served the government with “notice of intention to prosecute” Canadian officials who have been complicit in or “aided and abetted in war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide.”
The firm “thought it necessary … given the seriousness of Israel’s crimes in Gaza which include the killing of our clients’ family members,” said Yavar Hameed, the lawyer behind the notice.
‘A number of costs’
But there are those who view the accusations of genocide as not only inaccurate, but potentially harmful.
Dov Waxman, chair of Israel studies at UCLA, says that while the death toll in Gaza is “unacceptably high,” he does not believe the Israeli military is deliberately targeting civilians. He says he believes there is a risk of “genocidal action,” but that using the term at this point risks creating a “boy who cried wolf” situation.
“In order to make those warnings credible we need to not then characterize the existing situation as yet.”
Accusing Israel of genocide also contributes to a narrative that portrays the country as “exceptionally evil,” said Waxman.
“It’s particularly weighty and significant to accuse Jews of perpetrating genocide as themselves having been the victims of genocide.”
‘Clearly not a genocide’
The Israeli government refutes allegations of war crimes by claiming the country is acting in self defence. Several times, Netanyahu has likened Israel’s fight against Hamas to the Allies’ fight against the Nazis in the Second World War.
The CEO of the Jewish advocacy group B’nai Brith Canada, which also lobbies on issues relevant to Israel, says using “genocide” to describe the current situation in Gaza is “factually inaccurate and it is absolutely wrong.”
“Every country, when faced with the horrors and the savagery of what Hamas perpetrated, would act to wipe out that threat to ensure that its civilians are safe from that threat in the future,” said Michael Mostyn. “That is what Israel is doing. That is clearly not a genocide.”
Since 2007, Israel has maintained a blockade of Gaza, virtually cutting off the territory from the outside world. According to the UN and many human rights groups, Gaza is an occupied territory. This, along with the scale of casualties, delegitimizes Israel’s claim of self-defence according to some critics including Patel, at Law for Palestine.
“Even if this was their defence … It’s the dis-proportionality of the attacks, the absolute lack of distinction between civilians and civilian objects,” said Patel.