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Paul Vallely: Mirvis insists Israel is not genocidal  

26 January 2024

Arguing about terminology misses the real issue, suggests Paul Vallely


The International Court of Justice assembles in The Hague last week to hear the genocide case against Israel, brought by South Africa

The International Court of Justice assembles in The Hague last week to hear the genocide case against Israel, brought by South Africa

IF ISRAEL was truly bent on a genocide of the Palestinians, the Chief Rabbi, Sir Ephraim Mirvis, says, it could have used its military strength to level Gaza in days. Instead, it is placing the lives of its own soldiers at risk, securing humanitarian corridors, and providing civilians with advance notice of its operations.

Accusing Israel of genocide is “a perverse moral inversion”, the Chief Rabbi suggests, in advance of tomorrow’s Holocaust Memorial Day, because it is Hamas that has the annihilation of the Jewish people written into its charter.

Certainly, members of Hamas should be tried for genocide in the International Criminal Court, which has opened an investigation into allegations of war crimes by Israel and the Palestinians alike. But the Chief Rabbi’s argument here is what the lawyers call tu quoque, or, in the language of playground disputes: “It was him, not me.” Wrongdoing is not exclusive to one side.

The accusation of genocide against Israel has been laid in a different court, the International Court of Justice (News, 19 January), the highest judicial body of the United Nations, whose General Assembly condemned the Israeli-sponsored massacre of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila in 1982 as an act of genocide.

The 1948 UN Convention defines genocide as the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such”. Phrases such as “in part” and “as such” give lawyers a field day. But the case laid against Israel is a subtle one, which accuses it of “acts and omissions” in a “systematic pattern of conduct” from which “genocidal intent” can be inferred.

The huge number of deaths of Palestinian children, the use of 2000-pound bombs, the displacement of an entire population, the blocking of food and medicines, and the destruction of water supplies and hospitals are painted not merely as Israel’s response to the terrorist outrages of 7 October, but as part of “seven decades of apartheid type of brutal occupation”. The charge of apartheid has added potency, coming, as it does, from post-reconciliation South Africa.

Israel’s critics can point to a litany of genocidal-sounding statements from its leading politicians. Israel’s Prime Minister has compared Palestinians to the Amalek, whom God commanded Jews to wipe out in their entirety — including infants in their cradles. The Defence Minister has referred to the Palestinians as “human animals”, a term redolent of the Untermensch. The Justice Minister has declared that Palestinian mothers are “all enemy combatants, and their blood shall be on their heads”.

Such selective quotations, the Chief Rabbi says, do not prove genocidal intent on the part of the State: “This is a war against Hamas and not against innocent civilians.” Yet it is beyond dispute that such incitements filter down to the front line, as we saw in the video of Israeli soldiers dancing and singing: “We know our motto: ‘There are no uninvolved’” and vowing “to wipe out the seed of Amalek”.

If genocide is not the right word, what should we call it: indiscriminate bombing, mass murder, collective punishment, forced movement, ethnic cleansing, a war crime, violation of international law? Perhaps, instead of arguing over terminology, religious leaders would serve us better by pressing their politicians to more proportionate responses.

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