Thursday, 7 August 2014

Gaza: you think that’s genocide? You ain’t seen nothing yet...

It’s interesting to see people throw the word “genocide” around when talking (or ranting) about the 2000 deaths at Israeli hands in Gaza. Indefensible, unjustifiable and quite probably criminal deaths. 2000 of them.

Let’s be absolutely clear.

Genocide is the deliberate extermination of a people. In other words, it’s the resolution of ethnic conflict by one people physically wiping out the other. Usually it’s accompanied by ethnic cleansing, where you can avoid being killed if you go away, abandoning everything you and possibly several generations before you have worked for, and settle for scraping a subsistence living in some miserable refugee camp somewhere.

Precisely that is happening right now, but not in Gaza. 130,000 members of the Yazidi sect have fled their main city of Sinjar in North West Iraq. 40,000 of them are now sitting on a mountain outside the city contemplating the unappealing alternatives of coming down and being murdered by Isis, or staying there and dying of thirst.

The Middle East's latest charmers: Isis at work in Iraq,
the nation where Bush accomplished his mission
Those who remain in the city have the third option of converting to Sunni Islam. That would certainly convince me. But then I prefer living on my knees to dying on my feet, on the basis that dying on your feet leaves you permanently on your back, whereas there is a chance of getting off your knees and back on your feet if you stay alive.

Even the figures of 130,000 and 40,000, shocking through they are, are on the smaller end of the scale of genocides. In Rwanda, for instance, estimates of deaths vary between 500,000 and a million. But Isis are just getting started. They showed their mettle by killing 1500 civilians in a single day (by comparison, it took the Israelis weeks to kill their 2200), and they have plenty of enemies other than the Yazidi: Shias (fellow Muslims), Christians, basically anyone who gets in their way.

Now it’s beyond a doubt that Israel has the capacity to be as genocidally effective as Isis. But if they had been in Gaza, there would have been hugely more deaths than there were. Whatever accusation we can make against the Israeli incursion, and we can accuse it of a great deal, charging it with genocide simply means ignoring what a genocide really is and what actually happened.

The UN has rightly said that the Israeli Defence Forces may have committed war crimes. It is, as I understand it, a crime to behave recklessly so that, even if an armed force is fighting legitimate military enemies, if it kills civilians through simple failure to take sufficient care, it has committed a war crime. That means no one needs to prove that they were deliberately targeting civilians: the mere fact that they didn’t take reasonable measures to protect them is enough.

It makes sense to investigate Israel on those charges. In the meantime, it would be a good move to suspend all arms exports to Israel. That might, indeed, force them to the table and oblige them to take a less violent line with their adversaries.

Nothing could be more necessary. That was brought home to me by an interview that John Alderdice, previously of the Alliance Party in Northern Ireland, gave to the BBC Today programme. With his experience of facilitating negotiations involving Protestant paramilitaries and the IRA in Ulster, he has no qualms about negotiating with terrorists. Indeed, he believes such negotiations are vital. He has personally held discussions, relatively recently, with Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas. Here’s what Alderdice said:

I understand the perspective that Israelis have. I would also of course say, “well there’s not much evidence that the Israeli Government’s way of working has actually helped.” And from a very early stage, one of the things that was part of the discussion, was that Hamas was saying, “look we’re prepared to engage, we’re prepared to engage in a kind of Western democratic style of things, and free and fair elections and forming governments, and even coalitions, and all of these kinds of things. If however this becomes impossible, we will not change our commitment to that, but we can let you know that there are people in our wider community who in any case want to burn the system not work the system.” So in the same kind of way as not engaging with Fatah for many years led to the rise of Hamas, trying to destroy Hamas will simply create something else.

Chilling words. And a salutary warning to us all. Israel’s decades-long attempt to crush Fatah led to the emergence of the far more vicious and dangerous Hamas. Now their long battle against Hamas may lead to something far worse still.

What might that far worse thing be?

Alderdice was in no doubt:

…and we’re seeing it developing: with Isis.

The fruits of Israel’s action is to generate the most violent and terrifying terrorist organisation the Middle East has yet seen. Israel’s action and that of the Western Powers in invading Iraq. And in time, it will be targeting the West as well as Israel.

Anyone who thinks what we’ve seen in Gaza over the last few weeks was genocide needs to think again. Because it’s going to fade into insignificance compared to what we may see in the months ahead. And let’s remember that it’s been brought into existence by Israel’s recklessness and our support for it.

That’s the biggest danger. Our task is to understand it, so that we can do something about it. And misusing terms like genocide to make them simple insults only muddies the waters.


Anonymous said...

The difference is that daily we get shown images of misery in Gaza whilst there aren't anything comparable concerning worse atrocities taking place nearby.
We know Israelis are not Nazis and their actions aren't really genocidal, but in our anger we lose some objectivity.


David Beeson said...

Yes, I see how the fallacy arises - the important thing is to combat it. We do need objectivity in assessing the Middle East, and above all to avoid falling into the camp, and the language, of one tribe or the other.

osf said...

Hi David! Those are good points, and I agree it's important to be clear with terminology, and not cheapen atrocities.

But I don't think it's the 2000 dead in the recent conflict that people are referring to when they say "genocide". When we see that scale of civilian deaths, and power stations, cardboard-box factories, hospitals and universities flattened, it is hard not to connect this to the land grab and bantustanization of Gaza and the West Bank over the last 70 years.

Which would be ethnic cleansing rather than genocide, though as you point out, the two often go hand in hand. But what really frightens me is what parts of the Israeli media and political block are saying. I can assume that a teenager blogging on the Times of Israel about "When is Genocide permissible?" is on the fringes of political debate, but that's much harder to do when a deputy speaker of Knesset writes a "Clear and Concise Solution" for driving 2 million Gazans into the Sinai desert.


David Beeson said...

Hi Hakin

Thanks for some useful and well-made points.

I'd answer that even a land grab isn't genocide. It seems to me that genocide is the greatest of crimes; to use the term for offences that are heinous but not as serious as genocide is to dilute a meaning that needs to be kept at full strength.

This is particularly true in the light of the very points you make in the second half of your comment. It has long seemed to me that there are people in Israel who would indeed favour genocide, and you give examples. It is precisely that fact that makes it vital to keep the term for what it really means.

There may come a time when Israel, if outside forces don't control it, does attempt genocide. At that stage, what we've seen in Gaza in the last few weeks will seem to have been mild. Certainly, there will be no way we will be able to confuse it with the real thing – so let's keep the term for the real thing.

As it happens, I think there is a much more likely outcome than genocide: the final, conclusive adoption by Israel of a one-state solution (i.e. the definitive abandonment of the two-state solution, which may well already be dead and, at best, is clinging to life by a few tendrils). That would mean the annexation of Gaza and the West Bank. Then Israel would have an Arab, Muslim population above 40% of the total and likely to become a majority within a generation or two.

The result will be tensions that will not be attractive to behold and might take the nation in the direction of genocide.

David Beeson said...

Hakim, sorry about the typo on your name... apologies