Israel, Hamas and ‘Genocide’

Israel’s devastating response to the Hamas atrocities of Oct. 7th was predictable, yet it’s gone far beyond what most of us would have imagined. I still largely agree with the perspective of Hussein Ibish, a moderate Arab-American think-tank analyst, writing in The New Republic less than three weeks into the war:

By attacking southern Israel and essentially killing or kidnapping everyone they encountered, including Arab Bedouins and Asian laborers, Hamas effectively perpetrated two huge massacres: the first of Israelis on the day itself, and the second of the Palestinians being played out on a much grander scale by Israel.

The Palestinian People Should be Enraged at Both Israel and Hamas,” The New Republic, Nov. 1, 2023

What Hamas Stands For

It’s good to be reminded of what Hamas is about. Its founding 1988 Covenant was deeply antisemitic, resonating with both traditional religious bigotry and more modern conspiratorial thinking. The completely different tone of its 2017 charter is instructive, as it avoids specific antisemitic language but transfers its conspiratorial thrust onto “Zionism,” and is similarly fanatical in rejecting any ultimate peaceful coexistence with the “Zionist project.” For example:

16. Hamas affirms that its conflict is with the Zionist project not with the Jews because of their religion. Hamas does not wage a struggle against the Jews because they are Jewish but wages a struggle against the Zionists who occupy Palestine. Yet, it is the Zionists who constantly identify Judaism and the Jews with their own colonial project and illegal entity.

17. Hamas rejects the persecution of any human being or the undermining of his or her rights on nationalist, religious or sectarian grounds. Hamas is of the view that the Jewish problem, anti-Semitism and the persecution of the Jews are phenomena fundamentally linked to European history and not to the history of the Arabs and the Muslims or to their heritage. . . .

18. The following are considered null and void: the Balfour Declaration, the British Mandate Document, the UN Palestine Partition Resolution, and whatever resolutions and measures that derive from them or are similar to them. The establishment of “Israel” is entirely illegal and contravenes the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people . . . .

20. Hamas believes that no part of the land of Palestine shall be compromised or conceded, irrespective of the causes, the circumstances and the pressures and no matter how long the occupation lasts. Hamas rejects any alternative to the full and complete liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea. . . .

25. Resisting the occupation with all means and methods is a legitimate right guaranteed by divine laws and by international norms and laws. At the heart of these lies armed resistance, which is regarded as the strategic choice for protecting the principles and the rights of the Palestinian people. . . .

Hamas in 2017: The document in full; “The Middle East Eye”

Beyond its wordsmithing, we should consider the behavior of Hamas, undermining the peace-seeking efforts of the Rabin-Peres years, of Ehud Barak, and then of Ehud Olmert, with waves of violence that effectively elected Bibi Netanyahu in ’96 and returned him to power in 2009, while also bringing Arik Sharon to power in 2001 with the Second Intifada.

‘Genocide’ Is the Wrong Charge

Under the “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide,” passed by the United Nations General Assembly in Dec. 1948, genocide is defined as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” But Israel isn’t doing that. It is fighting a war provoked by a murderous military assault on its territory.  Way too many non-combatants have died, but Israel is not trying to exterminate the Palestinian people, “as such.”

It seems that Israel could make at least as strong a case for the charge of genocide against Hamas as South Africa has made against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague.  There are written documents, there’s a history of organizing and applauding successful attacks on Israeli civilians, there are the events of Oct. 7th, and there’s the vow to repeat as many Oct. 7th attacks as possible.

On Jan. 26th, the ICJ handed down its provisional ruling to further pursue South Africa’s charge against Israel for the conduct of its offensive in the Gaza Strip. It did not order an immediate ceasefire, but it is demanding that Israel report within one month on its efforts to more fully safeguard the lives of non-combatants and to facilitate more urgently needed humanitarian aid.

Part of the South African case is to contend that nasty statements by Israeli officials in the wake of Oct. 7th prove “genocidal intent.” A reasonable Israeli defense is that the intemperate statements of public officials were raw emotional reactions in the moment rather than official statements of policy.  And what was said by the current coalition’s most extreme right-wingers, e.g., to nuke Gaza or “transfer” all its inhabitants, were not actual policy statements of the cabinet.  (It’s been said that Israel’s government is not genocidal, but that it includes “genocidaires.”)

There’s an enlightening article in The Atlantic by Yair Rosenberg, a liberal commentator who knows Hebrew, indicating that journalists, prosecutors and judges are relying on flawed or incomplete translations of what seemed like damning statements by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and even Netanyahu. When Gallant was widely quoted as saying that “We will eliminate everything,” the full statement captured on video was ignored:

Gaza will not return to what it was before. There will be no Hamas. We will eliminate it all.

“What Did Top Israeli War Officials Really Say About Israel?” by Yair Rosenberg, The Atlantic, Jan. 21, 2024

Netanyahu invoked the name of “Amalek,” an ancient people regarded in the Bible as epitomizing evil. The South African charging document quotes Netanyahu as saying, “you must remember what Amalek has done to you, says our Holy Bible. And we do remember.” In linking those words to God’s command to King Saul in the Book of Samuel to destroy all the Amalekites, even their livestock, the South Africans allege criminal intent. (An earlier article in Mother Jones, “The Dangerous History Behind Netanyahu’s Amalek Rhetoric,” raises a similar concern.)

By way of contrast, however, Rosenberg argues that Netanyahu’s reference to “Amalek” was to the source text of Deuteronomy 25:17-18, drawing a parallel with the atrocities committed by Hamas on Oct. 7th:

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.

Rosenberg, op. cit., The Atlantic, Jan. 21, 2024

Although I don’t agree with the genocide charge, it seems clear to me that Israel is violating the standard of “proportionality” as recognized under international law — that civilian casualties inflicted in pursuit of a combat objective must be minimal and proportionate to the military value of the target. According to CNN (quoting a US intelligence source) Israel may be using too many “dumb bombs,” munitions that are not precisely guided to a target; in a separate report, CNN indicated that Israel has dropped more 2000 pound bombs than any military since the Vietnam War. These are especially disturbing facts, if true, given Gaza’s densely-packed population, but not the same thing as “genocide.”  It’s important that Israel’s wrongdoing is categorized correctly, and that Hamas be pursued for its crimes in the same vein.

The Need for a Ceasefire and 2-State Endgame

Things are so dire in the Gaza Strip today that even if Israel immediately stopped attacking and allowed in a massive amount of relief supplies, Gazans would continue to die in large numbers due to the lack of clean water, inadequate food, medical care and shelter — along with an overabundance of disease and over 65,000 people lingering with war wounds. Still, if Hamas survives Israel’s counteroffensive and stays in power, the security of Israel’s population will remain under threat.

There clearly is a need for one or more humanitarian ceasefires to get urgently needed supplies in and hostages out.  At the same time, there needs to be ongoing international diplomacy to end the fighting altogether.  

I’d like this to include an Israeli commitment to a two-state solution, but this won’t happen under the current government.  The solution that I’d like to see now is an internationally-supervised exit from Gaza of the Hamas leadership and any remaining cadres and fighters loyal to Hamas, and hopefully Islamic Jihad fighters as well.  This would more or less follow the precedent of the PLO exiting Beirut for exile in Tunisia, in 1982. 

No permanent ceasefire can work without a process removing Hamas from Gaza, and the door opening again toward a two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The events of October 7th prove that neither Hamas nor any other terrorist movement should ever govern the Gaza Strip again; by the same token, Netanyahu and his far-right allies need to exit Israel’s governance asap.   

The devastation wrought by Israel has weakened international support (even in the United States) for the ongoing pressure necessary to effectively remove Hamas from power. Unlike Netanyahu — who still insists that the war must continue indefinitely until Hamas is totally destroyed — the two former IDF chiefs of staff Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, centrist opposition leaders who have joined the emergency war cabinet, have indicated the need for a long-term ceasefire. Netanyahu’s constant nay-saying, including to a two-state solution, damages Israel diplomatically and politically almost as badly as Hamas has hurt Israel physically and psychologically.