Tuesday, January 06, 2009
I am not as inclined to use 'holocaust' metaphors as Israeli spokespersons, and there is a very sensible desire to avoid emotionally-laden words like 'genocide', particularly given that the justification for atrocitiy is often based on the invocation of such terms. Nonetheless, when the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe describes a process of genocide in Gaza, as he did last year, it is clear that there is something more to it than an emotional reaction to oppression. True, 'only' 550 have been directly killed in Gaza in this particular 11 day old operation, but that in itself wouldn't be the basis for denying that a genocidal process is under way. The number is proportionally equivalent to killing 22,000 in the UK - or, if you prefer, about 3,000 in Darfur. In Darfur, the total number killed over the worst ten months of violence when it really was a 'killing fields' situation was 30,000. If the argument was really just about the numbers of people directly slain, the fate of Gaza is now proportionally worse than it was in Darfur during its worst period. I doubt many people will assent to that judgment.
Still, Israel is 'only' doing exactly what it has done in previous operations, and what it has been doing slowly in Gaza for some time: it is destroying the civilian infrastructure while preventing medical and humanitarian responses so as to make life as unbearable as possible for inhabitants. 1 million people are without electricity, a quarter of a million without water, and food shortages are sending prices through the roof. In itself, that does not constitute genocide in the conventionally understood sense - namely, a deliberate attempt to physically destroy a people or community in whole or part. Still, as Martin Shaw has pointed out elsewhere (What is Genocide?, Polity Press, 2007, pp 63-77), the proliferation of -cides to account for all the phenomena that involve attacks on civilian life (democide, urbicide, ruricide, classicide, gendercide, politicide) are a reflection of the fact that these are different aspects of genocide, rather than just lesser degrees of criminal political killing. Genocide is not the 'ultimate' form of such killing - rather, it is a framework within which such killing is comprehended. If, in discussing Jenin or Gaza you have to revert to concepts such as urbicide or democide, as scholarly accounts have tended to do, that should set alarm bells ringing. If, in describing the attempt to destroy the Palestinians as a nation and a potential polity you come to use a term like 'politicide' (the name of a book on the topic by Baruch Kimmerling), then again the signs are that you may be talking about a dimension of genocide.
There is also an aspect of territorial expansionism in this war, which will squeeze the population of Gaza into an even tighter, more overpopulated and less viable space. The threatening phone calls and leaflets being dropped on Gaza, it is now confirmed, comprise part of an ethnic cleansing operation starting in the north of Gaza similar to that attempted in southern Lebanon in 2006. The Guardian reports that 15,000 people have responded to the threats by fleeing major urban centres such as Beit Hanoun. The next step is surely the annexing of a sizeable portion of Gaza (or 'the Land of Israel' as Israeli politicians call it and any other territory they think belongs to them by right) under the rubric of creating a 'security zone'. (It was reported as early as March last year that the Israeli government was considering an operation to secure such ends.) Israel now claims that its aim is to drive Hamas out of Gaza. Taken literally, and on Israel's own terms, this would mean the expulsion of the greater part of the population of Gaza.
The 'tihur' (often translated as 'transfer', but closer to 'purification') element of Zionist thought is, as Benny Morris has written, in-built. Even if he were right to claim that there was no actual plan to expel the Palestinian Arab population, the process was ineluctable once the war for control of Palestine got under way. 'Tihur' has involved, since 1967, a slow-burning process of colonisation, displacement, occupation, the destruction of communities, massacres and expulsion. Both settler-colonists and their backers in the Israeli army engage in routine violence to destroy Palestinian property and enclose it for the ever-expanding colonies. Often they beat and kill the Palestinians who try to resist. Sometimes, as Chris Hedges has documented, they like to bait Palestinian kids with racist insults and then gun them down. These massacres have taken place not only in territory directly annexed by Israel, but also in occupied Lebanon during the Israeli occupation when it engaged in a vicious war against PLO guerillas. The strategy there was to take control of territory by creating a broad belt, driving civilian residents out of it, then moving the belt forward, thus driving the citizens into an increasingly small space with more and more casualties as a result. Refugee camps were frequently a target. The Rashidiyeh refugee camp which housed 9,000 people was attacked and destroyed with shelling and aerial bombardment. Those who survived, fled, and were herded on a beach to watch the final destruction. Subsequently, every teenaged and adult male was placed in blindfolds and binds, then led away to camps: little was heard of them after that. On another, more notorious occasion, 150 Lebanese Phalangists were sent in to the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps under the control of the IDF and surrounded by IDF soldiers who prevented anyone from leaving, and slaughtered up to 3,500 Palestinians. That massacre was described as genocide at the time by the United Nations - much to the dismay of Israel's supporters (even those supporters who denied that Israel was in any sense responsible). Between such outstanding atrocities is the regular, dull, daily grind of oppression and killing. The regular targeting of civilians for violence and killing by the IDF is extensively documented by human rights organisations (some of the material is discussed here and here). Not only that, but the occupation has been puncuated by campaigns against Palestinian culture, including attacks on journalists and academics and their respective institutions. The Israeli journalist Danny Rubinstein has described this as an attempt to expurgate the traces of an Arab national character (cited in Noam Chomsky, The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel & The Palestinians, Pluto Press, 1999).
Although the public justification for such violence involves an obnoxiously self-righteous language about resisting 'terrorism', the ongoing concern with the 'demographic timebomb' and the repeated proposals for 'transfer' (always peaceful, always benevolent, as it was in early Zionist ideology) somewhat give the game away. The very existence of the Palestinians as a people is being treated as an existential threat to Israel. Since Israel has never shown any sign of being willing to accept a Palestinian state and live within even the 1967 boundaries, the logic of such a position is to find a way to dispose of the Palestinian residents of the occupied territories. This is not new, nor is it an artefact of the rise of Israel's far right. Israeli leaders, both Labour and Likud, have tried to find ways to drive hundreds of thousands of Palestinians out of the occupied territories. Meir Cohen once regretted Israel's "grave mistake" in not expelling between two and three hundred thousand Palestinians from the West Bank in 1967. Yitzhak Rabin thought that the demographic problem was best solved by creating conditions that would produce "natural and voluntary" migration from the territories to Jordan, and believed that King Hussein and Arafat had to be engaged to this purpose. Obviously, the creation of terror, immiseration, starvation and increasing confinement is one way to help bring this about. Additionally, Avigdor Lieberman's proposals for the 'transfer' of Israeli Arabs is but one aspect of a generally perceived need to manage down the Arab population of Israel, including efforts to settle territories in Israel with high Arab populations such as the Negev and Galilee (there has been, since 2005, a minister charged solely with the development of these territories). As Shaw has written elsewhere, Israel is of necessity a society based on genocide, as the destruction of the Arab communities that made Israel possible "clearly fits the definition of genocide enshrined in the Genocide Convention of the same year". Much "of its history to the present day represents the slow-motion extension and consolidation of that violent beginning."
It isn't that any single attack or massacre by Israel constitutes genocide. It is that the ongoing war against the entire Palestinian population, its infrastructure, its political expressions, its culture, and its life-support, contains a genocidal dynamic. The fact that this is reflected in current Israeli tactics is the reason why many are ready to take the Israeli minister fully at his word.