A Genocide Foretold. (Spring 2024)

If Israel’s justification for its murderous assault on Gaza is to be believed, its aim is to eliminate Hamas.  However, the number of civilians deaths, through bombings and starvation, and the comprehensive destruction of Gaza as a liveable space tells a different story, as do the relentless military and settler attacks throughout the West Bank, where Hamas is not a significant force.  Israel’s long-term agenda is to destroy the Palestinians’ connection to the land by removing the land from the people and, should the opportunity arise, the people from the land.  


Pre-1948 Zionist settlement activity, relied mainly on the Jewish National Fund (JNF) purchasing land from its Arab owners and evicting Palestinian tenant farmers to make way for Jewish settlers. Where the eviction met with resistance, the JNF called on the British-run police force to enforce the tenants’ removal. Once in JNF ownership, the land could not be resold or leased to Palestinians.  Such piecemeal ethnic cleansing over nearly four decades secured, by the end of 1947, only about 7 per cent of Palestine’s total land surface.  It required widescale use of terror and destruction of Palestinian villages, in what is now known as the Naqba, to establish the territorial and population base for a Jewish state.   


Israel’s conception through ethnic cleansing was widely applauded in the West as arising both causally and as a moral imperative, from the long history of Jewish people seeking sanctuary, first from antisemitic pogroms in the Russian empire, then from persecution in Nazi dominated Europe and, after the war, from a resurgence of antisemitism in parts of eastern Europe. For their part, the liberal democracies restricted entry to Jewish refugees, preferring them to be diverted to Palestine. These factors are undeniable, but they do not account for the process which turned Jews seeking sanctuary into settlers with the aim of replacing, rather than living alongside, Palestine’s indigenous people. 


It was the Zionist movement that, under British rule, transformed Jewish immigrants into a colonising force by integrating them into institutions formed to develop a separate Jewish economy and, eventually, on that basis, a state.  Accordingly, in addition to the JNF taking over land, the kibbutzim formed exclusively Jewish agricultural collectives and the Histadrut (the Jewish Federation of Labour), excluded Palestinian workers from the enterprises that it owned and, as far as it could, also from those privately owned by Jews.  


The 1930 Royal Commission’s report, noted: “The policy of the Jewish Labour Federation is successful in impeding the employment of Arabs in Jewish colonies and in Jewish enterprises of every kind.”  In addition, funding from Zionist organisations abroad provided Jewish settlers with subsidized housing, welfare support and much better funded schools than was provided for Palestinian children by the British-run Palestine government.   


It was the Zionist movement’s drive to build a Jewish state, not compassion, that led it, in the aftermath of World War 2, to recruit Jews from the Displaced Persons Camps.  Zionist leaders had been inclined to be dismissive of the galut Jews considering them, much like antisemites, as sickly and weak.  But to prepare their armed forces to establish the Jewish state, they turned to recruit from the camps the young and relatively fit.  This is how it came about that from those who had survived the gas chambers, the concentration camps and the ethnic cleansing in Europe, the personnel were enrolled to carry out, only a few years later, the massacre and expulsion of Palestinians.


In December 1948, when the Naqba was still unfolding, the United Nations Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention of the Crime of Geocide. Member states, in their deliberation, had in  mind the Nazi’s extermination policies.  The Convention defined genocide as, “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.  It emphasised the deliberate physical destruction of a group but, Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish legal scholar who had fled from Nazism to the US in 1941 and was the Convention’s principal architect, proposed that genocide should also encompass the destruction of the culture and communal life of the targeted group. The victorious imperial states successfully manoeuvred, however, to restrict the scope of what should be deemed genocidal and in subsequent years succeeded in narrowing its interpretation to the physical destruction of ethnic groups.  This would exempt from the category of genocide mass civilian deaths that are inflicted in self-defence and not in the deliberate targeting of an ethnic, religious or national group. The US saw in this formulation a way to differentiate its bombing and mass killing of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki from those perpetrated by the Nazis.  The self-defence argument has come to be routinely used by Israel to justify its murderous assaults on the civilians of Gaza.


Something of Lemkin’s original intention has remained, nevertheless, even in the narrowed down version in which genocide came to be interpreted in international law.  The systematic targeting for destruction of national or ethnic groups had not been captured previously under war crimes because it refers to mass killings that exceed the pursuit of a military objective.  Studies of Lemkin’s work over the last couple of decades have pointed out that while his focus was on the atrocities carried out under Nazi rule, his perspective drew on the anti-colonial movement’s critique of imperial conquests and, particularly, of their elimination of indigenous societies through colonisation.  He acknowledged in his research notes that this had occurred, for example, in Ireland, through the eviction of Catholic landholders and in the Americas, by European colonisers’ environmental destruction, resource pillaging and the seizing of the indigenous people’s land.  Highlighting the connection between genocide and settler colonialism, Lemkin wrote in his work, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: “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.”  He noted that Nazi Germany had colonised land in western Poland and expelled Polish villagers to replace them with ethnic Germans.   


In public memorialisation of Nazism, its imperialist dimension and specifically its so-called General Plan for the East, which aimed to ‘Germanize’ Poland and Ukraine are ignored and genocide largely functions as a synonym for the Holocaust.  For example, in Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration, alongside the Holocaust, half a dozen other genocides receive token acknowledgment but none that might question the Western liberal democracies’ own record of conquest and colonization.  Unsurprisingly, the prospect that Israel is to be judged under the Genocide Convention by the ICJ, on a charge initiated by South Africa, outraged the editor of the Washington Post (26th Jan. 2024): “This is a gross misreading of genocide; indeed, it is a perversion of the term. It would be appalling applied against any state, but it is especially offensive wielded against Israel — a country that was forged in the ashes of the worst genocide in human history…”.   The writer of a blog linked to The Times of Israel (17th  Jan 2024) vented his anger with the Lemkin Institute for the temerity of accusing Israel of carrying out genocide in Gaza: “Is it even conceivable that an institute named after Raphael Lemkin would accuse Israel of committing genocide?”


Lemkin’s interest in the link between settler colonialism and genocide has been revived mainly by Australia-based scholars responding to the civil rights campaigning of the country’s indigenous people and this, in turn, has impacted on the study of Zionism.  But the human rights lobby and the liberal  commentariat shows a marked reluctance to consider Israel as a form of settler colonialism.   The reports of Amnesty International (2022), Human Rights Watch (2021) and B’Tselem (2021) marshal overwhelming evidence to demonstrate that the Israeli state’s racist practices across historic Palestine constitute a system of apartheid but, in their combined total of nearly 500 pages, the terms settler colonialism or colonisation are not used once.  


The word apartheid describes the discriminatory practices of Israel’s political rule but the antagonism that this system seeks to manage arises from an economy in which capital investment and labour are organised to further a Jewish demographic and economic dominance. Israeli settler colonialism rests internally on a coalition of political forces whose commitment to racial exclusivism is mobilised through both material and imaginary gains at the expense of the Palestinians; for external support, it depends on the US and its allies equipping it as a military force that can overcome Palestinian resistance and counter, more widely, any challenges to Western power in the Middle East.        


The founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, confided in his diary, in 1895: “We must expropriate gently the private property on the estates assigned to us.  We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border, by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it employment to it in our own [sic] country… Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly.”  With the impunity accorded to Israel by its Western backers, discretion and circumspection have been long discarded: the Palestinians face pogroms and ethnic cleansing in the West Bank, and mass killing in Gaza.  Israel’s genocide, foretold by Herzl and inherent to all settler colonial projects, is there for all to see.