A threshold crossed: On genocidal intent and the duty to prevent genocide in Palestine

A threshold crossed: On genocidal intent and the duty to prevent genocide in Palestine

In the Journal of Genocide Research, Dr Nimer Sultany, Reader in Public Law at SOAS University of London, writes:

By any measure, Israel’s onslaught on Gaza is unprecedented. Israel claims that the killing of civilians is typical of warfare. Yet by the end of November 2023 it was clear that “even a conservative reading of the casualty figures” showed that “the pace of death during Israel’s campaign has few precedents in this century.” It also showed that the proportion of civilian deaths is higher than all other conflicts in the twentieth century. After the first three months of Israeli attacks, a military historian maintained that “Gaza is one of the most intense civilian punishment campaigns in history” that surpassed Allied bombings of Germany during World War II in a much shorter period of time. Doctors who entered Gaza said that it is not a “normal war,” that it is worse than war zones they witnessed, that the war’s aim is “the destruction of all the components of modern life,” and is thus better described as an “annihilation.”

What these descriptions convey is that the military logic of defeating an enemy in war has been crossed into the genocidal logic of elimination. This logic of elimination is evident in many expressions of genocidal intent by Israeli officials and soldiers that South Africa’s December 2023 application to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) enumerates.Footnote7 These include statements by Israeli army generals who were leading troops in Beit Lahia and who told Israeli TV on 4 November 2023 that Gaza will become “a fallow land,” a “scorched earth,” unliveable, and without a future. Another commander said on 21 December that the “entire Gaza should resemble” the destroyed town of Beit Hanoun, liking it to a biblical tale in which all the males were slaughtered and the women and children taken. More generally, the application shows that soldiers who were operating in Gaza echoed statements by officials (like the prime minister and the president) and expressed an intent to “wipe off the seed of Amalek” and to “burn Gaza,” and denied the existence of innocent civilians in Gaza.

Despite the preponderance of such Israeli statements, much of the mainstream commentary in the months that followed 7 October portrayed the eventual destruction of most of Gaza as an incidental outcome of urban warfare rather than the predictable outcome of a policy. The early legal commentary focused on the proportionality of particular strikes and ignored Israeli officials’ statements of intent regarding the overall policy. Such legal analysis, thus, provided a partial view of Israel’s conduct. Moreover, instead of invoking the duty to prevent genocide it seemed to reserve judgment concerning genocide until after the actual and eventual decimation of Gaza. [Continue reading…]

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