Genocide is not a metaphor: reflections on Gaza and genocide denial

I recently published a blog post on the Identities blog on the Gaza genocide. Read it below or visit the Idenities blog.

The question to be asked is… how long are we going to deny that the cries of the people of Gaza… are directly connected to the policies of the Israeli government and not to the cries of the victims of Nazism? (Edward Said, 1994)

What we are experiencing here in Gaza is not a war, but a genocide… War is between countries that have militaries, weapons, and air forces. War is not waged against 2.3 million civilians who live in an area of 360 square km and have been under siege for more than seventeen years (Ruwaida Amer, 2 November 2023)

A month into the Israeli genocidal attack on Gaza, junior minister Amichai Eliahu called for dropping a nuclear bomb on Gaza, saying “Gaza has to stop existing… (Gazans) cannot live on this earth”. He later retracted, saying it was “only metaphorical.” But genocide is not a metaphor, to borrow from Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang’s essay, “Decolonization is not a metaphor”. 

Genocide is a reality. We are witnessing it in the horrible images of death and destruction, of hospitals being ruthlessly bombed, and of Gazans struggling to stay alive amidst huge shortages of water, electricity, food, hospital care and basic necessities. All the while, Israeli commentators call for “flattening Gaza” and annihilating all Gazans, all Palestinians. UN Human Rights Office Director Craig Mokhiber called the Gaza attack “a text-book case of genocide”, adding that “the European, ethno-nationalist, settler colonial project in Palestine has entered its final phase toward the expedited destruction of the last remnants of indigenous Palestine life in Palestine”. The attack was clearly termed genocide by Palestinians and their supporters, although the International Criminal Court Prosecutor Karim Khan has been criticized for failing to issue arrest warrants for Israeli war criminals for committing genocide, a term fiercely denied by Zionists and their supporters across the political divide. I propose that there will be no way back from the clear divide between those who admit that the assault on Gaza is genocidal and those who deny it.

Patrick Wolfe calls the elimination of native societies integral to settler colonialism “structured genocide”. This illustrates the concrete links between the removal of populations from their land and mass killings. Israeli Holocaust historian Raz Segal argues that Israel’s lethal assault on Gaza is a textbook case of genocide. In doing so he refers to both Israel’s explicit intentions to displace Gazans and potentially expel them into Egypt, and the UN Genocide Conventioncriterion: “Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”.

Yet beyond these definitions, and against its government’s argument that if Israel wanted to commit genocide it would have killed “all Gazans” (which it allegedly chose not to do for “humanitarian reasons”) stands the very word itself. Genocide in Hebrew translates as “the murder of a nation”, retzach am. In contrast, the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls genocide “categorial murder”, as people are killed for belonging to a category, not a “nation”. Zionism and the state of Israel racializes and dehumanizes the Palestinians and constructs Jews as a superior race. While denying Palestinian nationhood, Zionist thinking constructs Jews as a nation, although the historical veracity of this has been debunked by scholars such as Israeli historian Shlomo Sand.

Defining genocide entails intentionality and, as Segal shows, the intention to liquidate and deport Gaza’s population and destroy the Strip was clearly stated. Israel’s President supported the attack, stating “there are no innocent civilians in Gaza”; Defence Minister General Yoav Gallant declared “we are fighting against human animals”, announcing a “complete siege” on Gaza; agriculture minister and former Shin Bet head Avi Dichter speaking of the expulsion of the population of the northern Gaza Strip: “we are executing now the Gaza Nakba 2023”; and an IDF rabbi expressed his messianic joy that “the whole country is now ours, including Gaza and Lebanon, with the help of God”. Of the three options listed in an Intelligence Ministry report for “dealing with the Gaza Strip” after the IDF occupies it, the third – expelling the Gaza population (2.2 million men, women, elderly and children) – was the “option most strategically positive and long term for the state of Israel”.

This report thus coldly plans a colossal crime against humanity, detailing the means needed to execute it. This report came days after a paper by the Israeli think tank the Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy argued that the Hamas attack provided a “unique and rare opportunity to evacuate the entire Gaza Strip”. Intentionality, then, has been explicitly stated, despite the absurd claims, in the face of the high number of civilian casualties, that “Israel is not targeting civilians in Gaza”.

More disturbing, because less expected, than Israeli politicians’ and generals’ explicitly stated intentions to “flatten Gaza” and deport its population, is the rush by Zionist human rights lawyers, journalists and academics to criticize anyone who does not condemn Hamas outright.  

Human rights lawyer Eitay Mack is generally a relentless opponent of the Israeli international arms trade. Yet he echoes the Israeli Hasbara machine when he writes of “false claims that Israel is committing genocide” and claims that there is no evidence of intent as “civilians in Gaza were killed, not because Israel specifically targets them, but because of the extensive Hamas military infrastructures that are located nearby, inside civilian buildings and in the tunnels beneath them”. Mack’s opinion piece is not a legal document. It is essentially a cherry-picked broadside against the fashionable bogeyman of “the global left”. Another human rights lawyer, Michael Sfard (the grandson of Zygmunt Bauman), goes further, clothing his opposition to the naming of genocide in concern for the human rights of occupied Palestinians. In line with several Israeli human rights organizations, Sfard writes, “it’s not easy for Israelis to think about Gazans’ rights in a week when Hamas committed crimes that are still impossible to digest and our whole society is mourning and crying. But Gaza’s catastrophe won’t wait for the end of our shiva”.

Likewise, journalists writing in the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz lambast “deranged leftists” who, in seeking to contextualize the Hamas attack, justify it as a “legitimate Palestinian act of resistance” (Lilach Wallach), and “sickeningly” presenting Hamas’s Israeli victims as “part of the oppressive Zionist rule over the Palestinian Natives” (Iris La’al). Another Haaretz writer, Ofer Aderet, criticizes Raz Segal’s article on the Gaza genocide, arguing that Segal “does not write history but rather uses his tenured job to further a political agenda… joining other Israeli and former Israeli intellectuals whose behaviour will be judged by history”. Sociologist Eva Illouzattacks “lazy left intellectuals” for insisting on setting the Hamas attack in the context of the Israeli colonization of Palestine, absurdly insisting that the colonial context must be suspended. And Israeli historian David Witztum condemns “Jewish intellectuals in Germany” for a letter protesting the prohibition to demonstrate for Palestine, and opposing Israel’s Gaza attack but not condemning Hamas – the main genocide denial tactic in the Zionists toolkit.

However, the support of global civil society for the Palestinian resistance is growing. Israel will not succeed in eliminating all of Gaza’s population, just as it has not succeeded to do so since 1948, when Plan Dalet was executed with the intent of ethnically cleansing the Palestinian population, resulting in many being herded into the Gaza Strip as refugees. Although Israel enjoys the support of western states in the Islamophobic Global North in carrying out genocide, we will not forget those Israeli “leftists” who refused to see genocide as it was happening in full view.