"Loyalty to petrified opinion never broke a chain or freed a human soul." - Mark Twain

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Israeli Practices toward the Palestinian People and the Question of Genocide

For a long time, people were hesitant to call Israel an apartheid state. Not that the term wasn’t used – we had “Apartheid Wall” and so forth, not to forget earlier works such as Apartheid Israel by Uri Davis. So far as I’m concerned, it’s fine to use such terms polemically to describe practices that one finds racist and odious. But any serious claim that the whole State of Israel was practicing apartheid, and so should be treated as an international pariah like apartheid South Africa, was not covered by this loose usage and seemed a step too far for jurists and politicians. Only recently has this obstacle been seriously breached, first by a South African study of Israeli policy in the occupied territories conducted by a team of international lawyers (which I edited) and later by the UN project in which I had the privilege of working with Richard Falk, where we found that Israel’s practices toward the Palestinian people as a whole indeed conform to international legal definitions of apartheid. There is now no need for weasel words like “analogy to” or “elements of” apartheid. Israel is, according to the definitions in international law, an apartheid regime. If anybody doesn’t think so (and Israel has marshalled a fleet of people, such as Benjamin Pogrund, to deny it), the analysis is right there for someone to pick apart. (Works by John Dugard, John Reynolds, Ben White and others have followed up on this: I don't mean to leave anybody out.)

I’ve remained chary, however, about using the term “genocide” for Israel’s practices toward Palestinians, a term arising more frequently these days especially regarding Gaza. Like all legal terms for crimes against humanity, “genocide” is specific to a certain aim: eliminating a group physically. I understand why people critical of Israel's policies want to use it; they want to emphasize that a whole people is under assault and indeed suffering physically, such that some are dying under conditions Israel imposes. But different ideologies, logics, practices and techniques operate in genocide relative to those operating in its evil cousins, such as ethnic cleansing. I therefore favor being careful with it in order to target these different logics appropriately. This isn’t to say that what is happening in Gaza doesn’t deserve immediate and overwhelming international action, only that we had best know exactly what we’re about so that the term “genocide” doesn’t blur past the point that people know what they are dealing with and how to stop it. And, not incidentally, Israel’s practices don’t accord with the definition of genocide in the Genocide Convention, which emphasizes the "physical destruction" of a group, "in whole or in part" (Article II). 

This caution has been significantly reduced, however, by my recently reading Lemkin’s Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. Lemkin was no mere commentator. He is usually credited with inventing the term “genocide” and presents it as his own neologism in his book. His analysis in this volume offers many precious nuggets: for example, he recognized how the Third Reich divided territory to control people: “The multiple administrative divisions of the occupied countries … serve the purpose of weakening and crushing the resistance of the captive nations by dividing and enclosing them in separate territorial units” (Preface, page x). Israel does exactly this by dividing Palestinians into different juridical and geographic "domains." 

More pertinent here is his description of genocide as a totalizing strategy. Anyone familiar with Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians will read his definition with a shock of recognition:

Genocide is effected through a synchronized attack on different aspects of life of the captive peoples: in the political field (by destroying institutions of self-government and imposing a German pattern of administration, and through colonization by Germans); in the social field (by disrupting the social cohesion of the nation involved and killing or removing elements such as the intelligentsia, which provide spiritual leadership—according to Hitler's statement in Mein Kampf, "the greatest of spirits can be liquidated if its bearer is beaten to death with a rubber truncheon"); in the cultural field (by prohibiting or destroying cultural institutions and cultural activities; by substituting vocational education for education in the liberal arts, in order to prevent humanistic thinking, which the occupant considers dangerous because it promotes national thinking); in the economic field (by shifting the wealth to Germans and by prohibiting the exercise of trades and occupations by people who do not promote Germanism "without reservations"); in the biological field (by a policy of depopulation and by promoting procreation [Israeli settlement?] by Germans in the occupied countries); in the field of physical existence (by introducing a starvation rationing system for non-Germans and by mass killings, mainly of Jews, Poles, Slovenes, and Russians); in the religious field (by interfering with the activities of the Church, which in many countries provides not only spiritual but also national leadership); in the field of morality (by attempts to create an atmosphere of moral debasement through promoting pornographic publications and motion pictures, and the excessive consumption of alcohol). [emphasis added]

Short of “mass killings” (on the German scale), most of this description is eerily close to Israel’s policies. (I’m curious about the last one – illegal drug use among Palestinians is one covert aspect of the occupation; is Israel involved?) The main point here, however, is that genocide is a system, not just one practice. The goal of eradicating groups as groups is sought through intersectional policies designed to debilitate groups and make them vulnerable to their own destruction.

Each of these policy areas he later elaborates and illustrates with examples, always stressing how they intersect and complement each other. These sections provide illuminating reading. For example, in the “Economic” sphere, he describes what Sara Roy has called “de-development”:

The destruction of the foundations of the economic existence of a national group necessarily brings about a crippling of its development, even a retrogression. The lowering of the standard of living creates difficulties in fulfilling cultural-spiritual requirements. Furthermore, a daily fight literally for bread and for physical survival may handicap thinking in both general and national terms. … In Slovenia the Germans have liquidated the financial cooperatives and agricultural associations, which had for decades proved to be a most efficient instrumentality in raising the standard of living and in promoting national and social progress. (85)

Physical destruction, the hallmark of genocide as it is understood today, was found by Lemkin to involve three techniques:

1. Food restrictions.” The German system to ensure racial supremacy included a policy to allot certain percentages of carbohydrates, protein and fats to each group, in declining proportions based on their place in the German racial hierarchy. For example, Germans received 100% of the meat allowance; Poles 71%; Serbs 36%; and Jews 0% (87-88). That Israel may have stooped o such a “scientific” approach is suggested by that infamous moment when Israelis planning the Gaza siege were heard to joke that a particular calorie count would be provided to people in Gaza, such that they were effectively “put on a diet.”

2. “Endangering of health. The undesired national groups … are deprived of elemental necessities for preserving health and life.” Lemkin cited here conditions among Poles in Poland, but also extreme overcrowding in the Warsaw Ghetto, which included a lack of heat and access to fresh air. “Such measures, especially pernicious to the health of children, have caused the development of various diseases.” (88) One must think of plummeting health conditions in Gaza. Another thought here is of the common Turkish denial of the Armenian genocide, in which people were force marched across terrain without shelter, food or water and roughly a million died. Turkey says this outcome was unintended; the defense does not fly.

3. “Mass Killings. The technique of mass killings is employed mainly against Poles, Russians, and Jews, as well as against leading personalities from among the non-collaborationist groups in all the occupied countries. In Poland, Bohemia-Moravia, and Slovenia, the intellectuals are being "liquidated" because they have always been considered as the main bearers of national ideals and at the time of occupation they were especially suspected of being the organizers of resistance.” (88-89) Although the selective persecution and occasional assassination of Palestinian intellectuals and leaders could be cited here, it is this last subcategory – mass killings – that has blocked use of the term “genocide” in Israel’s case. Zionist and Israeli forces have certainly committed mass murder: in 1948 as a tactic of war, such as the famous massacre of unarmed civilians at Deir Yassin. But all the evidence from the time suggests that the aim of such atrocities was to terrorize the Arab population into fleeing, not its physical elimination. Ben Gurion's Plan Dalat was a policy of ethnic cleansing – heinous indeed, but not reflecting the logics of genocide. Mass murder as a technique to rid Israel of an unwanted group, as the Germans did regarding Poles, Jews and Gypsies in Auschwitz, have not been part of Israeli history. If asked, the vast majority of Israelis still hope the Palestinians will somehow be "spirited across the border," in Herzl's words.

Still, Israel clearly does want to rid itself of an unwanted ethnic group and has subjected the Palestinians to some version of every other practice in Lemkin’s bestiary. If mass murder is taken as just one contributing element of Lemkin’s holistic definition of genocide, rather than the defining element, its absence withers in significance.

Two qualifiers to my point here. First, one could not prosecute Israel through, say, the ICC under Lemkin's definition. The legal definition today is expressed in the Genocide Convention; the Rome Statute, with its shorter definition, also holds. Just because Lemkin was first does not mean his analysis carries legal authority.

Still, even the Convention alludes to Lemkin's concern, in specifying that genocide consists of practices designed to eliminating groups as groups. This phrase appears in Article II of the Genocide Convention, which defines genocide as acts made "with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such." The "as such" qualifier suggests precisely Lemkin's concern--that if a group ceases to exist as a group, in the sense of no longer being identifiable as a discrete group, this would constitute a form of genocide in his view. (Writers like Baruch Kimmerling have tried to capture this with terms like "politicide" or "ethnocide" but Lemkin's discussion embraces all those practices under the term "genocide.")

Second, much more has been written about genocide. Literature on the Holocaust has exhaustively explored Nazi values, logics and practices, as have studies of genocides elsewhere, so Lemkin's original formula is hardly the sole or even definitive work. Still, the case for asserting a policy of genocide by Israel arises forcefully from reading the original author of the concept. If one is careful to specify that this holistic definition is the reference used, the term "genocide" can be affirmed to fit.

[This post was updated on 25 July 2018, after valuable comments by Richard Falk.]

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