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Genocide as the Solution to "Terrorism" in the Occupied Territories?

Edward S. Herman
ZNet Commentary
Aug 11 2001

The word "genocide" is used very loosely and irresponsibly these days; Sebastian Unger could see it in Kosovo by looking at the body of one Albanian alleged to be a victim of Serb paramilitaries ("A Different Kind of Killing," NYT Magazine, Feb. 27, 2000), and the Hague Tribunal has just found Bosnian Serb General Radislav Krstic guilty of that crime for his alleged role in the killing of Muslim soldiers in Srebrenica in 1995 (Muslim women and children were admittedly not killed but expelled from the town). The latter finding was grounded in part in the wording of the 1948 Nuremberg Convention's definition of genocide, according to which genocide is the attempt to eliminate a people in whole or "in part." The last phrase leaves open the possibility that killing one person with racist or political motives could be interpreted as genocide--presumably as part of a campaign, or demonstrating an intent, to kill them all (per Sebastian Unger). Interestingly, the Hague Tribunal decision on General Krstic cited as authority for its narrow definition of genocide the UN's condemnation of the 1982 massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila as genocide, a mass killing carried out under the direction of Israel's current Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon.

The word genocide is only meaningful, however, if applied to mass killings that are part of a systematic program of eliminating an identifiable ethnic, political, religious or racial group. Sadly, this meaningful usage may have application to the escalating violence in Israel's occupied territories, where the conditions under which genocide occurs are frighteningly close to being met. One condition is an extreme imbalance in the forces in conflict that allows one party to kill easily and on a large scale without threat of proportional retaliation. A second condition is that the people of the militarily superior power feel themselves to be special, superior, the chosen people, and those with whom they are struggling are viewed as inferior, dangerous, and even subhuman. A third condition is that the militarily dominant group wants something from the weaker party that the weaker party is not willing to grant, so that a conflict grows and feeds on itself. A final condition is that no outside force exercises constraint on the use of violence by the militarily superior party, let alone furthers that violence by arms aid and diplomatic support, so that the superior group is able to kill essentially without limit.

The first condition is clearly and fully met in the current struggle between Israel and the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Israel has one of the strongest armies in the world, a great air force, thousands of tanks, and the most up-to-date weapons arsenal suitable for large-scale killing, even including nuclear weapons. They have been armed to the teeth and trained by the U.S. military establishment, and that establishment stands behind the Israeli military in a solid alliance. On the other side, the Palestinians have no air force or tanks, and have only small arms--and stones--with which to contest a great military power. Their external support from the nearby Arab countries is almost entirely nominal, most of them dependent on U.S. aid and other support which has neutralized them and prevented any real solidarity with the Palestinians under siege.

The second condition is also fully met. The Jewish state has long treated its Arab inhabitants as inferiors, with Jews the "chosen people" now "redeeming the land" in accord with religious truths (see Israel Shahak, Jewish History, Jewish Religion [Pluto, 1994]). In a 1934 book, Zionist leader Joachim Prinz even congratulated Adolf Hitler for his building a state based on "the principle of the purity of nation and race." The record of denigration of the Palestinians by Israeli leaders as "grasshoppers" and "terrorists" goes back a long way, as does ruthless treatment of these inferiors and discussions of ways of getting rid of them by pushing them out directly or doing this indirectly by making their lives unbearable. Military superiority has exacerbated the feeling of racist superiority and ruthlessness. It may be recalled that the "liberal" Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin instructed the Israeli security forces during Intifada 1 that they might enter Palestinian homes and "break bones" of the residents without fear of punishment.

Things have worsened since then, and observers from abroad now report regularly (mainly on e-mail and outside the mainstream media) on how Israelis want more forcible action against the "terrorists," widely refer to the Palestinians with angry contempt as "animals," and how the police treat Palestinians with the same spirit as the German Waffen SS treated Jews. U.S. Jewish visitor Rebecca Elswit, recently watching the Jewish crowd crying "death to the Arabs" as the police dragged terrified and bleeding Arab children to paddy wagons, broke down and screamed at the police as they twisted the arm of one child till it broke. She was assured by one religious woman, however, that these were just "animals" ("Who Are These People? My People?," July 31, 2001).

The third condition is also fully met. The Israelis want the Palestinians to accept the settlers' gains in the occupied territories, the Israeli takeover of much of East Jerusalem, its road network that has helped make the residual occupied territories a set of economically unviable and unconnected bantustans, Israeli control of the water resources of the occupied territories, and complete Israeli military domination in the interest of "Israeli security." Having been ground down steadily under Oslo and the "peace process" for years, the Palestinians cannot buy this and must resist in the interest of elementary justice, pride, economic needs, and their own minimal "security" interests. As Israelis do not recognize these rights of the grasshoppers, the grasshoppers' resistance is intolerable and grasshoppers must be treated accordingly. This vicious circle has as its limit genocide.

The fourth condition is the only one that is problematic and that produces some vestige of hope, but even here the picture is distressing. U.S. officials have given, and continue to give, Israel essentially unconditional support for its long-term process of ethnic cleansing and "redeeming the land." They have accepted the Israeli designation of any Palestinian resistance as "terrorism," given priority to Israeli "security," and ignored or vetoed any application of international law to Israel's misbehavior as an occupying power. They have also aided Israel with loans and arms, and even in the midst of Intifada 2 engaged in training programs that would help the Israelis control and kill Palestinian resisters. They have made not the slightest effort to bring justice to the region, so that in all respects they have encouraged Israel's reliance on force and its efforts to break the resistance in the occupied territories.

This has been reflected in mainstream media performance, which has made Israel the victim and normalized its low-intensity warfare and ethnic cleansing at Palestinian expense (see my "Israel's Approved Ethnic Cleansing, Part 3," Z Magazine, June 2001). Israel's demolition of more than a thousand Palestinian homes, large-scale land seizures, and huge road construction program in the occupied territories, under the Oslo "peace process," all in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, have been invisible in the U.S. mainstream media, along with the steady increase in brutalization, destruction of Palestinian crops and olive trees, and closures that have made the indigenous and victimized inhabitants desperate.

This has served to make Israel's still more extreme violence under Intifada 2 appear reasonable and mere "retaliation." And if the media can swallow and rationalize the shooting to kill of hundreds of unarmed protestors, and the severe beating and killing of many thousands of others, as well as the destruction of roads, homes and other civilian structures, if and when Sharon and his forces go further and attack with full force and kill as he killed at Qibya and Sabra and Shatila, will the media not continue to maintain that this is "retaliation" for "terrorism" and that the Palestinians brought it on by not accepting the reasonable offer of the "moderate" Barak?

Germany could operate an Auschwitz because the West did not give high priority to what was happening to the marginalized Jewish people in that era. Officials knew what was happening, and so did the major news media, but they didn't choose to get people aroused to such a cause. Today the facts seep out more easily, but the dominant powers and their media are still doing a fine job of keeping publicity regarding crimes against the marginalized sufficiently low and in a sufficiently apologetic frame to allow them to be carried out to frightening levels.

Today, Ariel Sharon, the butcher of Sabra and Shatila and Qibya, has a relatively free hand to kill, thanks in good part to U.S. policy and media collaboration. If, as seems very likely, he unleashes the full force of the Israeli military machine on the Palestinian people, U.S. officials and the U.S. mainstream media will bear a heavy responsibility as facilitators of genocide.

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