Gaza 2023

Can We Speak of a “Genocide” in Gaza?

The use of the term “genocide” remains very limited in France, often put in quotation marks by the press, and presented as excessive. However, if we go back to international law, the relevance of the term to the massacre that has been taking place in Gaza since October 7 is clear. Indeed, the International Bureau of the International Federation for Human Rights has adopted a resolution recognizing Israel’s actions against the Palestinian people as “an ongoing genocide”.

A demonstrator carries an image of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and US President Joe Biden painted red to imitate blood, during a march in support of the people of the Gaza Strip, in Nablus, occupied West Bank, October 26, 2023.
Zain Jaafar/AFP

Since the start of Israel’s most brutal war against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip (following the Hamas attack on Israeli soldiers and civilians on October 7, 2023)1, some media and governments have turned international and humanitarian law into a point of view or opinion expressed by non-specialists.

As a result, terms and concepts each with a very specific meaning, such as war crimes or crimes against humanity (including ethnic cleansing) or genocide, have become terms and concepts used interchangeably to qualify certain conditions or, often, to deny the “correctness” of these qualifications.

The following text recalls the definitions of the crimes in question and examines to what extent they apply to the Israeli war in the Gaza Strip.

Mobilization of international organizations

International law and humanitarian law define war crimes in detail. They divide them into three categories, listing all possible violations of the Geneva Conventions signed in 1949 that may occur during military operations, whether in international or non-international conflicts.

These include any intentional killing or targeting of civilians as such, or any willful destruction of their property or of their medical, educational or religious establishments, or exposing them to starvation and denying them humanitarian aid, and any large-scale attack on towns or villages for which there is no military justification, or any ill-treatment or torture of prisoners, detainees, non-combatants, or even combatants if they lay down their arms, and any systematic and forced transfer or displacement of populations, or any unjustified attack against centers and representatives of international organizations, peacekeeping organizations, humanitarian organizations, and any use of internationally prohibited weapons, are considered war crimes.

In view of the above, and in accordance with Article 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC)2, human rights and humanitarian organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch (HRW), the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), Médecins du Monde, or UN organizations such as UNRWA and the World Health Organization (WHO) have directly or indirectly denounced possible war crimes, including those committed against their personnel.

For its part, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has expressed its concern about Israeli military actions and measures prohibited by the Geneva Conventions and the two Additional Protocols3. A rare public stance on the part of the ICRC, which could be explained by the scale of the violations.

Crimes against humanity, including apartheid

Crimes against humanity can occur during military operations or outside them, i.e. outside the context of war. According to article 7 of the Rome Statute, they include:

any of the following acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack: Murder; Extermination; Enslavement; Deportation or forcible transfer of population; Imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental provisions of international law; Torture; Rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity; Persecution of any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender or other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law; Enforced disappearance of persons; Crime of apartheid; Other inhumane acts intentionally causing great suffering or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.

Here again, it can be said that there is evidence confirming the legitimacy of the allegations that Israel is committing and has committed crimes against humanity, whether in the current Gaza war under this Article 7 (especially as regards a “widespread or systematic attack directed against the civilian population, with knowledge of the attack”, and inhumane acts “of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health [of civilians]”, or in the West Bank and East Jerusalem under clauses referring to Apartheid4.

Politicide, urbicide and domicide

Between war crimes, crimes against humanity on the one hand and the crime of genocide on the other, political science for its part has developed terms constructed from a Latin suffix “cide”5 which refers to murder, to designate a criminal system practiced by a state or powerful actor against its enemies in order to “execute” them politically or “erase” their public and private spheres.

Thus, the term “politicide” appeared in the 1970s to designate the destruction of groups of people sharing a common political identity (and not necessarily an ethnic or “racial” identity). It then evolved to qualify actions aimed at destroying the material elements that enable a political entity to exist. It was used, for example, to describe Israeli policy towards the Palestinians on the eve of and during the second Intifada in 2000, when Israel’s clear objective was to destroy the conditions for the mere existence of a Palestinian state. This policy continues today.

Years ago, the term “urbicide” was widely used to refer to the targeting of urban spaces with a view to destroying them or rendering them uninhabitable for long periods. It was suggested to describe Russian attacks in Grozny in 2001 during the Second Chechen War, Israeli attacks on one of Beirut’s southern suburbs in 2006 during the war with Hezbollah, and Assad regime and then Russian attacks in Homs and east Aleppo in Syria between 2012 and 2017.

Of course, the term is now being used again in connection with Israel’s war on Gaza.

More recently, some scholars have adopted the term “domicide” to refer to an even harsher Israeli policy towards Palestinians, which targets their intimate places of residence in order to prevent them from having a stable existence in a space defined by its geographical and emotional characteristics and its public and private symbols, and to make the temporary (by constantly displacing them) an integral part of their lives.

All this brings us progressively to the question most controversial among politicians and avoided (for fear of reprisals) among some jurists and academics, namely: does the definition of the crime of genocide, with all its history and memory-laden meanings, currently apply to the situation in the Gaza Strip?

Proving intent

Genocide is defined in the first international convention against genocide, which was adopted in 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly and came into force in 1951, and subsequently in several UN texts and in the Rome Statute (article 6) as follows:

Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such:
A- Killing members of the group;
B- Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
C- Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
D- Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
E- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Furthermore, the convention on the prevention of Genocide (ratified by 153 states) specifies that “Genocide can also be committed against only a part of the group, as long as that part is identifiable (including within a geographically limited area)“6.

On the basis of what has been documented and reported, and going back to the scale of the destructive bombardments (filmed) and the direct targeting of Palestinians in a precise area, by means of murder, and collective physical, psychological and mental torture, by the annihilation of living conditions due to the total or partial cutting off of water, electricity, fuel and communications, by the siege and the total or partial prevention of the entry of humanitarian aid - food and medical - and by the attacks on hospitals and ambulances and the death of patients and children due to the impossibility of treating them, it is possible to evoke elements concluding that Israel is setting up a genocide in Gaza.

According to the Gaza Ministry of Health, until December 11, 2023, Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip left 18,205 dead, including over 7,000 children and 5,000 women, over 7,000 missing, under rubble or isolated or displaced without means of contact, and over 49,000 wounded. The Gaza government estimates that more than 60 % of the Strip’s housing has been destroyed or damaged, and that 262 mosques and 3 churches have been targeted. Finally, 27 hospitals and 55 medical facilities, as well as 55 ambulances, were bombed and often put out of service. UN and humanitarian organizations lost more than 100 of their staff, doctors and officials, killed by Israeli bombs. 86 journalists have also been killed, many by direct Israeli targeting.

However, for genocide to be recognized as such, the intention to commit it must be proven. And intent is often the most difficult element to establish. For it must be shown that the perpetrators of the acts in question intended to physically destroy a group or part of a group (national, ethnic, racial or religious). Jurisprudence therefore links this intention to the existence of a plan or policy intended by a state or entity.

Some jurists consider that official Israeli declarations and explicit calls for revenge and murder against Palestinians (as Palestinians), as well as clear decisions to reinforce the siege of Gaza and to mention the materials banned from entry (statement by the Israeli Minister of Defense, October 9, 2023), despite the realization that no life is possible without these materials (water, electricity, fuel, etc.), and the implementation of measures to prevent them from entering the territory, prove the will to annihilate and move from declaration to execution. We can add the presence of a repetitive “genocidal tendency” in the official speeches of Netanyahu’s government and certain members of his majority (speeches filmed and transcribed in the press): invoking a “war against the forces of evil and barbarism”, dehumanizing Palestinians and referring to them as animals, claiming that there are no civilians in the Strip or declaring that there are only “Hamas terrorists” and “Hamas sympathizers”, calling for the use of nuclear weapons against Gazans if necessary, and deporting the survivors to Egypt (and other countries), destroying Gaza and turning it into a “big Football field”.

Israeli Holocaust historian Raz Segev was the first to point out that this war is “a textbook case of genocide”.7.

The director of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in New York, the jurist Craig Mokhiber, for his part, resigned from his post to protest against the silence with regard to [“a typical case of genocide in Gaza”8. In the same vein, nine UN experts warned that Israeli military violence and the intentions of certain officials in Tel Aviv constitute “a genocidal threat to the Palestinian population”9.

For his part, the former Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno Ocampo, confirmed that the crimes committed by Israel could constitute a case of genocide10.

Dozens of Palestinian and Arab, African, Asian, American and European academics, have also published tribunes and communiqués in recent weeks, evoking similar positions. And in addition to the requests that some of them have addressed to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to investigate the crimes, five states (South Africa, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Comoros and Djibouti) have officially seized the court to “demand an investigation into possible Israeli crimes in Gaza and the Palestinian territories”11.

Furthermore, it seems important to add here that most states (and political leaders) prefer to avoid using the term “genocide”, because if they recognize it, they must act, in accordance with the convention they have signed, to “prevent” it or to “put an immediate end to it”. And this, obviously, is not on their agenda.

Finally, it can be said that no previous documented conflict has concentrated so many crimes, violations and atrocities in such a small geographical area, around 360 square kilometers, over such a short period of time, as has happened so far in this ongoing Israeli war in Gaza.

This further reveals the “genocidal nature” of this war, and deserves careful consideration. It may be a sign of increasing possibilities for escalating brutality and large-scale violations of international humanitarian law in future wars, in a way that seems to contradict what might have been expected from the evolution of legislation, but also from the “abundance” of live reporting and visual documentation of the facts.

1This war is the fifth since Israel imposed its siege on Gaza in 2007. In 2008/2009, 2012, 2014 and 2021, the wars resulted in the deaths of more than 4,500 Palestinians.

2See here the definition of war crimes in the Rome Statute from the United Nations website

3“Israel and the Occupied Territories: ICRC demands protection of patients, healthcare workers, medical facilities in Gaza amid escalating attacks”, ICRC, November 12, 2023

4Several international organizations, including Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International, published reports in January and February 2021 on the Apartheid system imposed by Israel on the Palestinians. The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem also referred to “Israel’s regime of Jewish supremacy” as Apartheid in its January 2021 report. Since then, the term has become increasingly “accepted” and normalized in academic circles.

5Editor’s note. From the Latin caedere: to kill, to slaughter.

6”Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide", OHCHR.

7Raz Segev, “A textbook case of Genocide”, The Jewish Currents, Octobre 13, 2023. See also his interview on Democracy Now, October 16, 2023.

8See Craig Mokhiber’s interview on Democracy Now, November 1, 2023

9“Gaza: UN experts decry bombing of hospitals and schools as crimes against humanity, call for prevention of genocide”, statement by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, October 19, 2023.

10« El jurista Luis Moreno Ocampo: “Israel no puede convertir Gaza en un campo de exterminio », El País, October 23, 2023. Ocampo also considers the Hamas attacks of October 7 to be genocidal.

11Statement of ICC Prosecutor Karim A. A. Khan KC from Cairo on the situation in the State of Palestine and Israel, International Criminal Court, October 30, 2023