Israel’s overwhelming campaign against Hamas has led to the widespread devastation of besieged Gaza, triggering a humanitarian crisis. Israeli bombardments have now killed more than 10,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to health officials in the Hamas-run territory, more than one-third of whom are children. The living find themselves trapped in a nightmare of debris and mounting disease, with electricity, water and food scarce.
Hamas is responsible for the single deadliest day in the history of the Jewish people since the Holocaust after it carried out its Oct. 7 strike on towns and kibbutzim in southern Israel — a hideous rampage that saw whole families butchered, civilians burned in their homes and more than 240 hostages abducted. For the Israeli leadership, as well as the Israeli public, the unprecedented carnage required an unprecedented response. Prominent Israeli officials have called not simply for the defeat of Hamas but for the annihilation of Gaza, the starving of its population, and the removal of Palestinians from some or all of its territory. The Israeli president suggested that civilians in the Hamas-controlled territory are not “innocent.”
Such rhetoric has alarmed myriad international experts, many of whom contend that Israel is already potentially guilty of war crimes in its collective punishment of the Palestinians living in Gaza and the bombing of civilian homes. “We remain convinced that the Palestinian people are at grave risk of genocide,” a group of current U.N. special rapporteurs on human rights wrote in a statement last week that called for a cease-fire. “The time for action is now. Israel’s allies also bear responsibility and must act now to prevent its disastrous course of action.”
A cease-fire, though, is not on offer. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday concluded his latest whirlwind tour of Middle East capitals without clinching even a humanitarian “pause” in hostilities that could allow for more aid to enter Gaza or for the release of hostages. The Biden administration finds itself enabling and supplying an Israeli war machine bent on a “mighty vengeance,” as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has put it, while also, in private dealings, trying to restrain Israel from exacting an even greater price on Palestinian civilians. Many onlookers are unimpressed by the results and see an American hand in Gaza’s expanding death toll.
Israel contends that it takes steps to limit civilian casualties and targets only militant positions, though that claim is difficult to square against a catalogue of Israeli strikes on crowded civilian neighborhoods, hospitals and U.N. facilities. “Although Israeli officials insist that each strike is subject to legal approval, experts say the rules of engagement, which are classified, appear to include a higher threshold for civilian casualties than in previous rounds of fighting,” my colleagues reported.
Even White House officials acknowledge that there’s a looseness in Israel’s approach. “We have seen some indications that there are there are efforts being applied in certain scenarios to try to minimize, but I don’t want to overstate that,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Monday.
In a webinar, former U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross suggested that the Biden administration views the events of Oct. 7 as an expression of Hamas’s “unadulterated evil” and recognizes that Israel should no longer “have to live with the threat of Hamas.” To that end, officials have been far more publicly tolerant of the loss of Palestinian civilian lives than a U.S. administration would be in most other contexts.
The invocation of “genocide” is always a fraught act, and all the more so when discussing the actions of the state of Israel. The country that emerged out of the ashes of the most horrifying genocide in human history sees in Hamas an enemy that wants Israel to be erased from the map and wants to kill Jews wherever it can. Its critics see the most powerful military in the Middle East, buttressed by the solidarity of most Western governments, perpetrating what may be de facto ethnic cleansing.
“The war is one of asymmetrical counter-genocide,” wrote Martin Shaw, a distinguished genocide scholar, in New Lines Magazine. “Hamas’ killings of Israeli civilians constituted a wave of ‘genocidal massacres,’ localized mass killings whose victims were defined by their Israeli-Jewish identity.”
On the other hand, Shaw added, Israel’s bombing and invasion of Gaza have “affected the whole population of the territory, far more extensively and deeply (except in a moral and emotional sense) than the Israeli population has been affected by Hamas’ violence.”
There are other imbalances, too. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Western officials were quick to cast the Kremlin’s actions as “genocidal.” President Biden first invoked the term in April 2022 in the context of Russia’s mass killing of civilians in the town of Bucha and the deadly bombardment of Mariupol, a city where thousands are believed to have been killed. Russian officials, at the time, blamed Ukraine’s military for using its civilians as “human shields.”
But the blasted moonscapes of parts of Gaza don’t look dissimilar to what Russia reduced Mariupol to, and many of Israel’s critics bridle at the perceived inconsistency of the West. “It’s really important that the U.N., which is the guardian of these international norms and standards, calls a spade a spade, and when you have such a clear case as this, the term ‘genocide’ needs to be applied,” Craig Mokhiber, former director of the United Nations’ New York office on human rights, told MSNBC over the weekend.
Israeli and U.S. officials may scoff at the suggestion of such a “clear case” of genocide, but the war has reminded many outside the West of the limits of Western moralism. “I spent my trips in Africa, Asia and Latin America over the past two years trying to convince people I met of the justice of Ukraine’s cause,” tweeted Bruno Maçães, an outspoken geopolitical commentator and former Portuguese government minister. “That is no longer possible (unless you want people to laugh at you).”