Using the right language: the ‘incremental genocide’ of the Palestinians continues

Ilan Pappé

The Palestine Chronicle  /  March 16, 2023

I am writing this op-ed on March 10, 2023. Seventy-five years ago, on this date, the military command of the Zionist leadership publicized Plan Dalet, or Plan D, which, among other guidelines, instructed the Zionist forces on their way to occupy hundreds of Palestinian villages and several towns and neighborhoods in historical Palestine, to carry out:

“Destruction of villages (setting fire to, blowing up, and planting mines in the debris), especially those population centers which are difficult to control continuously.

“Mounting search and control operations according to the following guidelines: encirclement of the village and conducting a search inside it. In the event of resistance, the armed force must be destroyed and the population must be expelled outside the borders of the state.”

Similar guidelines were given to the urban areas. This was a softer version of the real commands that were given to the units on the ground. Here is one example of an order sent to a unit entrusted with occupying three large villages in Western Galilee as part of Plan D commands:

“Our Mission is to assault for the purpose of occupation…to kill the men, destroy and set fire to Kabri, Umm al-Faraj and An-Nahr”

So, there is nothing new when Bezalel Smotrich, the minister of finance of Israel calls for the erasure of Huwwara. He apologized because such comments were only meant to be said in Hebrew, but he forgot that this is 2023 and his words were immediately translated into English. Smotrich apologized because it was translated, not because he said it.

Palestinian scholars understood very early on, that the Zionist discourse for domestic consumption is very different from its presentation outside. They were able, here and there, to find similar, in fact, worse expressions on a historical trajectory that leads from Plan D to the present daily killings of Palestinians, the demolition of their houses and the burning of their businesses.

Walid Khalidi brought to the English reader Plan Dalet, and Edward Said attracted our attention, in his seminal volume ‘The Question of Palestine’, to an interview, published in 1978 in a local Israeli newspaper, with Mordechai Gur, then the Israeli chief of staff. The interview was conducted in the wake of Israel’s first and largely unnoticed invasion of Lebanon of that year. The chief of the Israeli army said:

“I am not (one) of those people who have a selective memory. Do you think that I pretend not to know what we have done all these years? What did we do to the entire length of the Suez Canal? A million and a half refugees!… We bombarded Ismailia, Suez, Port Said and Port Fuad”.

I am sure very few of our readers know that Israel made one and a half million Egyptian refugees in the aftermath of the June war.

And then, Gur is asked whether he made a distinction between military and civilian populations:

“Please be serious. Did you not know that the entire valley of Jordan had been emptied by its inhabitants as a result of the war of attrition [with Jordan]?”

The journalist followed with a question: “Then you claim that the population ought to be punished?”

“Of course. And I never had any doubt about that…It has been now 30 years from the time of our independence that we have been fighting against civilian [Arab] population which inhabited the villages and the towns…”

This was in 1978, and as we know, this policy continues until today with horrific landmarks that include Sabra and Shatila, Kafar Qana in Lebanon, Jenin, and the Gaza Strip. And yet, even when I looked at those atrocities, as did others, we defined them, with certain justice, as ethnic cleansing; or, as Edward Said called it, a project of accumulation (of land and power) and displacement (of people, their identity, and their history).

I hesitated to use, for all these dark chapters, the term ‘genocide’. I used it only once when, describing the Israeli policy towards the Gaza Strip since 2006, I framed it as an incremental genocide. The recent sprees of killing, since the beginning of this year and the benefit of yet another commemorative moment of recollection, probably justify expanding the term beyond Israel’s atrocious assaults and siege on the Gaza Strip.

Connecting the dots of killings between a period of a few months when ‘only’ a small number of people are being shot daily and massacres that spread over more than 70 years is something that is not easily accepted as proof of genocidal policies.

And yet, that history is the genealogy of genocide according to article 2 of the United Nation’s  “convention of the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide”, which stipulates that the following acts, enlisted below, are genocide if they were done “with the intent to destroy, a whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group”:

  1. Killing members of the group;
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

I am sure quite a few of our readers would react by saying that they know that this is genocide. But none of us who are part of the Palestine Chronicle team and generally part of the solidarity movement with the Palestinians, are here to preach to the converted. We were all part of the effort, led by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, to persuade international civil society to frame Israel as an apartheid state. This is not a mere achievement, although most governments of the world still refuse to do so. It is a worthy project since, when it will succeed, it will lead to meaningful sanctions.

Similarly, the very clear unfolding of the genocidal Israeli policies in the West Bank, not just in the Gaza Strip, and not just recently, but since 1948 –  also based on evidence provided by the top Israeli generals themselves – may finally allow us to make international law relevant to Palestine. For years, major institutions and tribunals let the Palestinians down, and provided Israel immunity, mainly because of the claim that it has an independent and strong judiciary system. The latter is an unfounded claim at best of times, and a totally ridiculous claim now, given the recent legislative efforts in Israel.

Even if the international law institutions were more genuine in their support for the Palestinians, they would have found it difficult to bring Israeli leaders or soldiers to trial on the basis of accusations of ethnically cleansing the Palestinians. ‘Ethnic cleansing’ is not a legal term, in the sense that its perpetrators cannot be brought to justice on that specific allegation; it is not recognized as a crime by international law. This is unjust and may change, but it is the reality we need to reckon with. The crime of apartheid is recognized as a crime against humanity by international law and its perpetrators can be brought to justice.

It is important to consider using the term for an additional reason. A common liberal Zionist view is that what happened in Palestine is a small injustice committed in order to rectify a more horrible one. This absurd justification has been recently accompanied by the new definitions of Holocaust denial adopted by many countries and universities that disallow any comparison between the Holocaust and the Nakba; an equation that will be framed as antisemitism.

These two assumptions are wrong on two accounts. First, the ‘small’ injustice is still going on; we still do not know how horrible it will be at the end of the day, but what we do know is that it is not small, and it fits the definition of genocide.

Second, this is not a comparison to the Holocaust. This is an insistence that a crime against humanity, well defined in international law, is allowed to continue.  And for that to stop, maybe it will not be enough to talk about apartheid and ethnic cleansing.

We can, and should, use more incisive and precise language, given what we see occurring daily in the West Bank and Jerusalem, where mostly young men and children are being killed. This is also needed given the ongoing criminalization of the 1948 Arabs, in whose villages and towns the Israeli security forces allow local, unfortunately Palestinian, gangs to do the killings for the state.

Ilan Pappé is a professor at the University of Exeter; he is the author The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, The Modern Middle East, A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples, and Ten Myths about Israel