Genocide in Gaza? Notes Toward an Answer

by Adam Jones

Finalized on 26 January 2009; posted to the listserv of the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS).


* Recently I raised a series of questions on the IAGS Facebook page and listserv: Is the "genocide" framing appropriate in the case of the Israeli assault on Gaza? What might Raphael Lemkin say on the subject? If genocide has occurred or is occurring, what is our responsibility as genocide scholars and activists, and why have we failed to speak out? What follows is a series of observations constituting not a final answer, but an attempt to clarify the questions.

My judgments in this matter are not clouded by any personal or sentimental attachment to either Israel or Palestine. I am of Canadian and British nationality, and for what it is worth, I have passed through a process of recognizing a genocidal strand in the heritage of both my home countries. I have travelled extensively in Israel/Palestine and throughout the wider Middle East, including freelance reporting from the region during the first Intifada (see

(1) Are Israeli policies genocidal?

* I have no satisfactory answer for this question. I waver between "quite possibly" and "not exactly." But Israel has undoubtedly inflicted egregious atrocities on Palestinian Arabs as a national-ethnic group, including widespread and systematic crimes against humanity (torture, arbitrary imprisonment, forced displacement, etc.), and possibly genocide. These crimes require investigation, intervention, and prosecution.

* With reference to the atrocious assault on Gaza in 2008-09, I propose a rule of thumb. If a lethal assault by members of a group against another group inflicts a total death toll among the victim population that is approximately 100 times greater than among the perpetrator population; if a majority of victims are civilians, killed at an approximately 300-to-1 ratio to civilians of the perpetrator group; if children under 17 constitute a fifth to a third of total victims; and if close to two billion dollars in damage to material property and infrastructure is inflicted (see sources cited below), this should *automatically* trigger investigation as a possible case of genocide.

* Among the conceptual issues that may be relevant to an overall evaluation of Israeli policies:

- How central is mass murder to our understanding of genocide? My own preferred definition of genocide, adapting Steven Katz's, emphasizes mass killing, and this accounts for some of the hesitation I feel in assigning the term "genocide" to Israeli policies as a whole. (See But what "mass" is sufficient? How relevant is it if the body count is finely calibrated over long periods, and "only" sporadically and locally annihilatory?

- The UN Genocide Convention includes murder as a strategy of genocide (Article 2(a)), but also includes (Articles 2(b) and 2(c)) strategies of inflicting "severe bodily or mental harm" on members of a group and imposing "conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part." (Virtually identical language to that of 2(c) defines the crime against humanity of "extermination" in the Rome Statute of the ICC.) Do these legal understandings of diverse genocidal strategies move us closer to an understanding of genocidal *structures* and *processes,* as well as the discrete *events* that are more commonly studied? Under Israeli siege and occupation, Palestinians have been confined to impoverished refugee camps, or parcelled out to apartheid-style bantustans. Tens of thousands have been incarcerated, frequently under torturous and otherwise abusive conditions; Gaza continues to be quite literally the world's largest prison, with 1.5 million inmates. The territories and resources of the Palestinian territories have been uprooted and looted, and hundreds of thousands of colonists have usurped the land. On top of this are the innumerable petty frustrations and humiliations of life under conditions of incarceration (Gaza), military occupation (the West Bank), and forced exile (the Palestinian diaspora). The question is: do these diverse measures, inflicted over decades, add up to genocide?

- The dimension of colonial occupation and indigenous resistance appears highly pertinent. Core Israeli attitudes and policies toward Palestinians seem part-and-parcel of colonial tradition: the displacement and supplanting of indigenous populations, and their confinement to "reserve"-like spaces; constant "Indian wars" waged against "rebels" and "terrorists"; a widespread racism and sense of civilizational superiority. The exploration of colonial/indigenous genocides is probably the most significant conceptual and historiographical advance in genocide studies over the past decade. If Israel is indeed part of this heritage, might we move closer to an understanding of Zionist policies and their destructive impact?

- Is there a measure of moral equivalence between the "sides" in the conflict? I concur with Yehuda Bauer's assessment, paraphrased by Gerald Caplan, that "a quarter of all Israelis and all Palestinians harbor genocidal feelings towards each other." The massive disparity in military resources has produced a wildly disparate death-toll among Arabs (especially Palestinians); but many Israeli Jews have also been killed, in what bear the hallmarks of genocidal massacres. It seems realistic to imagine a fullscale genocidal campaign being directed against Israeli Jews if the power imbalance were reversed. Israeli Jews thus have a right to establish political and military arrangements that guard against this. They have no right, though, to inflict crimes against humanity or genocide in their quest for security. And a facile moral equivalence should probably be avoided, as Ed Majian argues: "While I agree that genocidal attitudes exist on both sides, what's critical is the causes for these attitudes. On the one hand, Zionism is an ideology (possibly a genocidal ideology) which gathered support from the need for Jews to protect themselves. On the other, resistance to Israel's persecutions has begun to take on a genocidal character which was born, perhaps, out of daily suffering. The two attitudes originate in different places and Arabs did not always hold such a genocidal (to use that loosely) attitude. In fact, they were among the first to welcome fleeing Jews. Perhaps it would be worth going back to analyze Zionist slogans such as 'a land without people for a people without land' -- was this genocidal? And when did the attitudes of Arabs begin to change?" (Personal correspondence, 25 January 2009)

(2) What would Raphael Lemkin say?

* Lemkin's definition of genocide, already cited by Ed Majian and Hasmig Tatiossian in their January 19 "Formal Letter Regarding Silence and the IAGS," is probably the most eloquent passage in the entire genocide-studies literature. It is worth revisiting:

"Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members 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 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. Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group. Genocide has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor. This imposition, in turn, may be made upon the oppressed population which is allowed to remain or upon the territory alone, after removal of the population and the colonization by the oppressor's own nationals."

It is impossible to predict with any confidence what Lemkin would have said about the Palestinian-Israeli case. But it can be argued that if *any* definition of genocide fits the protracted, multidimensional character of the Israeli attack on Palestinian society, Lemkin's does.

(3) If it is genocide, what is our obligation as scholars and activists, and why have we failed to speak out?

* Why has the genocide-studies community been largely silent?

- Divisions on the issue are profound. They reflect not only differing ideological positions, but legitimately diverse understandings of genocide and interpretations of available evidence.

- The Palestinian/Arab "side" in the equation by now contains its own genocidal or proto-genocidal element, though it lacks the means to realize genocidal designs on a scale beyond isolated massacres. Demonizing the Palestinian enemy, or a resort to bland moral equivalence, is thus relatively easy, and for various reasons appealing.

- Genocide studies arose from Holocaust studies, and the Holocaust ever since has maintained a privileged place in our understanding of genocide. There is a widespread reluctance to apply the term "genocide" to those (Israeli Jews) who inherited the mantle of the Holocaust, and who use it (among other things) to justify their most violent policies. In genocide studies, as in public and political debate, this has enshrined a powerful taboo -- one of the most powerful in the entire discourse.

- As we witnessed on this listserv with Steven Baum's rant (January 20), anyone who raises these questions in public and within IAGS is likely to be lumped together with anti-semites, witch-hunters, pogrom-launchers, etc. Highly aggressive opponents may be mobilized by the powerful pro-Israel lobby, to vilify critics of Israeli policies and atrocities. Younger genocide scholars, who are probably more receptive to far-reaching criticisms of Israel's conduct, are especially vulnerable to negative career consequences.

* I believe that if it is held that Israeli policies toward Palestinians are genocidal, then our obligations are obvious. I would add: even if our indictment is other than genocide (e.g., war crimes, crimes against humanity), the obligation still exists -- both personal and international -- to denounce, intervene, sanction, and prosecute.

Adam Jones, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Political Science
University of British Columbia Okanagan
Kelowna, BC, Canada


* Gaza - death toll: The Palestinian Human Rights Centre lists 1,285 Palestinians killed, 895 of them civilians, including 280 children (more than one-fifth of total casualties). Hamas claims over 1,300 total killed, 400 of them children (approaching one-third of total casualties). "Thirteen Israelis were killed: 10 soldiers and three civilians hit by Hamas rocket fire"; thus an approximately 300-to-1 ratio of civilians killed (895 to 3). See

* Gaza - physical/infrastructural damage: "... More than 21,000 buildings and apartments have been wholly or partly destroyed, including at least 219 major factories, among them several industrial sites, including food processing plants. Palestinian surveyors said an initial estimate shows overall damage of $1.9bn. ..."

* Yehuda Bauer and "A quarter of all Israelis and Palestinians ...": see Gerald Caplan, "Israel and Palestine -- the Never-Ending Crisis", The Globe and Mail, 13 January 2009.