Genocide:  South Africa’s Outrageous Claim Demeans the Term

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There is no question that a humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Gaza.  There is also no question that thousands of innocent Palestinians – men, women and children- have been killed during the current conflict. Clearly more must be done to alleviate their suffering and hopefully bring an end to the hostilities as quickly as possible.

In response to this crisis well-meaning governments of many countries, including the United States, Egypt and Qatar, have intervened to help achieve that objective through a variety of proactive measures. But the outrageous move by the government of South Africa to file a claim with the International Court of Justice (ICJ), alleging that Israel has committed genocidal acts, is not only unhelpful but clearly wrong. Worse still, it is yet another example of the irresponsible use of this term which only serves to cheapen its meaning.

The international community provided a very precise definition of genocide in its 1948 UN convention. It describes genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, religious or racial group.” Of course this convention was considered necessary by the international community in light of the horrendous example of the Holocaust, when the Nazis attempted to exterminate all Jews in Europe and succeeded in murdering more than 6 million of them. However the term also could have been correctly applied to earlier horrors such as the 1932-33 Holdomor, in which the Soviet Union deliberately starved millions of Ukrainians, or the Armenian genocide of 1915-16, when the Ottoman Empire murdered an estimated 1.2 million Ottoman Armenians during the First World War. Indeed, both the Ukrainian and Armenian genocides have since been recognized as such by the governments of many other countries, including Canada.   

Sadly the examples do not end there.  The second half of the twentieth century saw horrendous genocidal purges in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina.  More recently both the Sudanese government (minority tribes in Darfur) and the Chinese government (the Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang) have been accused of genocide for their violent targeting of specific ethnic, racial and religious minorities.

All of these examples clearly fit the description offered in the 1948 United Nations convention. By contrast, there is no justification whatsoever for describing the actions of the Israeli government in Gaza as genocidal. One may disagree with how the Israeli government has handled the war in Gaza, but not the fact that it is a war. This war, in turn, was triggered by the arguably genocidal acts of the terrorist group Hamas, which indiscriminately targeted any Jewish women, children and youths in a murderous and unprovoked attack on Israeli civilians which also resulted in the kidnapping of hundreds of hostages. Moreover the Hamas leadership has repeatedly declared its ultimate objective is indeed the elimination of Israel and all Jewish people in the region.

By contrast, as the Israeli leadership has repeatedly stated, Israel is at war with the terrorist group Hamas, NOT with ordinary Palestinians. It has further stated that it is trying to take all possible measures to limit civilian casualties, casualties that have been caused by the actions of Hamas –both in starting the war, and with its despicable practice of using ordinary Palestinians, (and especially children in schools and hospitals) as human shields. One may argue that the Israeli army has not taken enough precautions to protect civilians, or that it is proceeding too far and too fast in its attack on Hamas as the terrorist group’s leaders cowardly take cover in Gaza. But no one can state that Israel is deliberately trying to eliminate the Palestinian people.

Simply put, while Israel may be legitimately criticized for its choices in the conduct of the war, it emphatically cannot be accused of genocide. Moreover such an unfounded accusation will only serve to harden Israeli resolve in the face of what increasingly appears to be a double standard used by the international community in judging its actions. And it will undoubtedly prolong the hostilities, as Israel comes to doubt the good will of its alleged allies in this incredibly difficult, if not impossible, situation in which it has been placed.

Perhaps even more important in the long term is the way in which this term, intended to capture the unspeakable, has come to be bantered about so carelessly.The United States has attempted to shut down discussion on this ridiculous claim by declaring it is “meritless, counterproductive and completely without basis in fact whatsoever.” Canada should follow suit immediately.