The Rwandan genocide of 1994 is recognised by all who have studied it seriously as one of the largest-scale, most concentrated episodes of mass murder in the last century. About 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis but also Hutus who opposed the Hutu Power regime, were killed in a matter of weeks. Frequently compared to the Armenian genocide and the extermination of the Jews, like them its ramifications have continued long after the events. It has increasingly been the focus of sharp controversy, as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) government led by Paul Kagame has used the genocide to justify its own atrocities and authoritarianism, while those opposed to the RPF regime and Western support for it have often minimised the 1994 genocide itself.

At the beginning of this month the BBC’s This World series waded into this highly charged context. Jane Corbin set out to investigate the RPF’s crimes, which include massacres during the invasion of Rwanda that helped provoke the genocide in 1994, at the Kibeho camp where Hutus were held by the victorious RPF in 1995, and at various times in the Congo wars, in massacres that were investigated (along with others by its opponents) by a UN commission of inquiry. These are indeed a largely ‘untold story’, as the programme claimed, for Western publics.

However in the course of exposing the RPF, This World also publicised controversial arguments about the 1994 genocide, provoking 38 academics and others, most of them Rwanda experts, to write in protest to the BBC. They claim the programme whitewashed the Interahamwe militia, the trained killers of the genocide; grossly minimised the numbers of Tutsi murdered; and supported the largely discredited theory that the RPF itself shot down the plane of President Juvenal Habarymana, the event that was the signal for Hutu Power murderers to spring into action in April 1994.

The BBC strongly refutes ‘the suggestion that any part of the programme constitutes a “denial of the genocide against the Tutsi”.’ It points out that ‘there are repeated references to the mass killings of Tutsis by Hutus in 1994 and that this constituted genocide.’ However central to This World’s account were two US academics, Allan Stam and Christian Davenport, who while acknowledging that many Tutsis were killed in 1994, claimed that even more Hutus died at the hands of the RPF in that year. ‘Rwanda’s Untold Story’ apparently accepted this claim, but consulted none of the many who have carried out more in-depth research into the 1994 events and regard it as wholly inaccurate.

Falsifying the identity of the majority of victims lifts the main blame for killing from the Hutu nationalist génocidaires, and places it on the movement that opposed them. The RPF may have been responsible for serious – even genocidal – atrocities on a smaller scale, but all the available evidence suggests that in 1994 it was the Hutu Power regime that perpetrated the largest-scale mass murder anywhere in the post-Cold War era, primarily against Tutsis. Claims that shift the responsibility to the RPF are as much genocide denial as claiming that no mass killing took place at all.

This World didn’t appear to recognise that while President Kagame’s ‘official narrative’, as the programme called it, of the 1994 genocide helps to keep his grip on power, many of his critics have dubious axes to grind. Rwandan Hutu nationalists have now been joined by Western leftists who appear to believe that any genocide recognised by the West must be a myth. Radicals like the Guardian’s George Monbiot who refuse to support this denialism are subjected to widespread online abuse.

The truth about genocide in Rwanda does not belong to the opponents of the RPF regime any more than to President Kagame. Acknowledging the crimes of the RPF should not mean minimising or denying the Hutu Power genocide – or the fact that Kagame’s victory ended it, whatever new horrors it led to in the Congo. The catastrophic 1994 events were certainly the outcome of a political struggle in which the RPF was far from innocent, but that movement was not its perpetrator. Nothing the RPF has done since can justify the journalistic revisionism that the BBC allowed out on October 1st.

See my fuller post on Left-wing Genocide Denial and also Once More on Left-wing Genocide Denial. I have also written about the interactive regional pattern of genocide in the African Great Lakes in Genocide and International Relations, pp. 164-71.

My podcast interview about Genocide and International Relations on New Books in Genocide Studies is online at

Daniel Feierstein, Genocide as a Social Practice: Reorganizing Society under the Nazis and Argentina’s Military Juntas. Translated from Spanish (Argentine) by Douglas Andrew Town. Rutgers University Press, 2014.

Daniel Feierstein sent me an advance copy of the English translation of Genocidio como Practicio Social, his study of the Nazis and the Argentine military junta as practitioners of ‘reorganizing genocide’. Feierstein presents a sociological reinterpretation of genocide based on the Argentine experience: here I discuss the points of agreement and disagreement between our perspectives.

The definition of genocide

Feierstein shares with me a dissatisfaction with the international legal definition, not least on the grounds of its notorious exclusion of ‘political groups’ from the scope of the crime. He frames this, cogently, in terms of discrimination, as a failure to apply the prohibition of group destruction equally to political as to other types of group: ‘defining genocide in terms of the characteristics of the victims has no precedent in modern criminal law and clearly damages the principle of equality before the law.’

Also for Feierstein, the legal definition is excessively broad, so that it encompasses ‘the annihilation of population masses by the Ancient Greeks, Romans or Mongols’ and misses the specific character of modern genocide. For him this has two key features. First, genocide is ‘the implementation of a massive and systematic plan intended to destroy all or part of a human group as such’. A ‘genocidal social practice’ is a specific ‘mechanism’ or ‘distinctive form of social engineering’ used by modern regimes:

a technology of power – a way of managing people as a group – that aims (i) to destroy social relationships based on autonomy and cooperation by annihilating a significant part of the population (significant in terms of either numbers or practices), and (ii) to use the terror of annihilation to establish new models of identity and social relationships among the survivors.

Second, genocide is not simply a moment of implementation, but a longer-term ‘process’ that ‘starts long before and ends long after the actual physical annihilation of the victims’: ‘It is organisation, training, practice, legitimation and consensus that distinguish genocide as a social practice from other more spontaneous or less intentional acts of killing and mass destruction.’

Moreover, ‘modern genocides have been a deliberate attempt to change the identity of the survivors by modifying relationships within a given society.’ We can understand what Feierstein means by considering his critique of Holocaust historiography:

In focusing on the death camps in which Jewish and Roma communities were exterminated between 1942 and 1945, historians have tended to downplay the importance of the concentration camp system. And yet the first camps were opened almost as soon as the Nazis came to power in 1933 and remained a part of everyday life in Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe until the collapse of the regime in 1945. There has been no adequate account so far of the role played by concentration camps as stepping stones to genocide or the range of victims imprisoned or murdered in them during the “reorganization” of German society and the Reich’s military expansion eastward.

This approach has some attractive features. It moves the definition of genocide away from a narrow emphasis on mass killing, which is only one of many means through which groups are destroyed but which for many writers has become the only means that counts. It recognises that genocide involves not only the ‘perpetrators’’ attacks on the ‘victims’ but is also embedded in, and has implications for, wider power relations. And its emphasis on longer-term processes, exemplified in the reference back to the earlier stages of Nazi rule, is an important pointer to the need to connect moments of annihilation with preceding phases of discrimination and violence.

Yet the approach also has its problems. In specifying genocide itself as ‘systematic planning’, ‘social engineering’ and a ‘technology of power’ aimed at establishing new modes of power over the survivors, Feierstein comes too close to identifying genocide in general with the specific historical variant which he calls ‘reorganising genocide’. ‘Genocide’ was proposed by Raphael Lemkin to describe a general class of actions, defined by their destructive aims towards population groups, and rightly criminalized in this vein. Although Lemkin characterized the Nazi genocide as a multi-method, ‘coordinated attack’ on a variety of populations, the core of his concept is deliberate destruction. In other circumstances this can take different forms from the systematic social engineering of the Nazis. Lemkin recognised this variety in his manuscripts on colonial genocides. Leo Kuper more radically emphasised the wide range of genocide with his seminal idea of the ‘genocidal massacre’ which is so valuable in analysing the messier, spasmodic but still organised destruction of populations widespread in twenty-first century world politics.

‘Reorganising genocide’ and Nazism

Feierstein’s ‘reorganising’ concept reminds us that the destruction of specific groups within a society is often part of a project to reorganise the society as a whole. He presents this idea as a specific type of genocide, but underlying it is a point of theoretical interest for all genocide: whether part of a reorganising project or not, the destruction of part of a society generally changes social relations in profound way. It is difficult to believe that perpetrators are ever unaware of this dimension, so that we can always ask, what kind of society are they trying to achieve? Yet clearly there is much variation in the degree of formalisation into a defined ‘project’ and in the way it is conceptualised, etc. Colonial settlers who wished to create racially pure, or at least hierarchical, societies had different kinds of project from the ambitious social engineering which fascist and Stalinist regimes envisaged. The projects of loose coalitions of violent actors in today’s post-colonial world may be relatively inchoate compared to the cases that Feierstein considers ‘reorganising genocides’. The ‘reorganising’ concept makes sense if it designates a variant in which explicit and formalised social reorganisation is the driver of genocide.

Nazi Germany is Feierstein’s template for this type. I agree with his proposal to trace Nazi genocide back to 1933, not just because Hitler already had a project to reorganise society, but because his destruction of the labour movement and left parties, his early attacks on the Jews and the establishment of the camp system prefigured the more openly genocidal policies adopted from 1938-9 onwards (not only after 1941-2). The comparison of Argentina with Germany is suggestive, but the differences of context are much more substantial than Feierstein acknowledges. The Nazis were establishing a continental empire and enslaving tens of millions in the midst of a brutal and eventually desparate total war, while the Argentinian military were ‘reorganising’ a single nation-state in the relatively stable international context of the Cold War.

Moreover Feierstein’s view of the Nazi genocide as a ‘reorganising’ process that began with the concentration camps ascribes too much coherence to Nazi policies which mutated from national reorganisation into aggressive war. It was in the latter context that Nazi genocide escalated: from the mass murder of the German disabled, the deportations of Western Poles and the ghettoisation of Polish Jews in late 1939, through the mass shootings of Communists as well as Jews during the 1941 invasion of the USSR and the starving and freezing to death of Soviet prisoners of war in 1941-2, to the the extermination of the Jews and Roma of a whole continent in the camps in the last years of the war. To view all of this as ‘systematic planning’ and ‘social engineering’ defies today’s historical consensus, according to which Nazi policy escalated situationally in response to the opportunities and challenges that the war created. Hitler and the Nazi elite had grandiose schemes for their new racial empire, like the Generalplan Ost, but Nazi genocide was not the implementation of a preconceived plan.

The Argentine case

Feierstein acknowledges that his choice of cases to compare is personally driven: ‘the connection between these events is neither direct nor obvious’, but ‘to some extent “contrived” in order to see what we can learn about the way genocide constructs, destroys and reconstructs the social fabric.’ It seems likely too that there is a political dimension to the choice, since the Holocaust is the virtually uncontested standard of modern genocide, and the desire to see the Argentinian violence fully recognised in the genocide frame is an understandable background to this book. Connecting the Argentine case to the Holocaust is a politically obvious way of making the genocide argument. As Feierstein says of Vahakn Dadrian, who ‘has argued in several works that it is both possible and desirable to compare the genocide of the Armenian and Jewish peoples’: ‘Even though he does not say so explicitly, his goals are as much political as academic.’

Yet this strategy is less coherent theoretically than politically. I find the chapter in which Feierstein matches the Argentine events to the conflicting definitions that have been proposed for genocide less illuminating than his review of the Argentinian literature. As he says,

That the Argentine military were clear about their goals from the outset can be seen in the name they gave to their new regime: the “Process of National Reorganisation”. So it was that in the Republic of Argentina, an already existing nation-state that had been built – like most nation-states – on genocide, the de facto government of the military dictatorship proposed to “re-found” the state on a new social, political and cultural basis. The tool chosen to carry out this reorganization of society was the concentration camp.

A key issue is whether the military’s campaign was a ‘dirty war’, or whether the language of war masked a ‘genocidal practice’. Feierstein traces the origins of the project to 1974, and a work by Brigadier General Acdel Vilas, the head of Operativo Independencia (Operation Independence):

This was a military campaign to destroy the People’s Revolutionary Army (Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo or ERP), a Trotskyist guerrilla group which, by the end of 1974, had seized just over a third of the mountainous northwestern province of Tucuman, in an attempt to copy the Cuban revolution. Operativo Independencia … became a testing ground for the repressive methods implemented during the military dictatorship a year later.

In Vilas’ mind, this reflection justified the need for clandestine operations in a “Dirty War” that required – in his own words – a very different army from the traditional one – and thus, different values, different morality, another way to carrying out social practices. It meant replacing a predominantly military social practice – war – with an eminently political one – the destruction of social relations in the civilian population or … genocide.

However the military origins of the crisis have given rise, in Feierstein’s view, to two erroneous perspectives: the ‘theory of the two demons’, according to which the extreme left militants are equally responsible with the military, and the distinction between ‘innocent’ civilian victims and armed militants who implicitly merited the army’s repression. The latter leads to

the unjustified assumption that the guerrillas died fighting while the victims – i.e. those people who were taken to detention centers – were all non-combatants, irrespective of their political affiliation or relationship with the armed struggle. In fact, the guerrillas were just as much victims as those people who had no relationship whatsoever to armed or political organizations.

Feierstein cites various reasons given in the literature for rejecting the ‘war’ perspective, for example that there was no revolutionary army, that the revolutionaries controlled no territory, and that the society as a whole was not at war. However the origins of the conflict in the ERP’s control of parts of Tucuman suggests that we cannot dismiss the ‘war’ perspective. War and genocide are hardly mutually exclusive, and a context of war often helps explain why political conflict radicalizes to genocidal solutions. A failed attempt to ignite a civil war can be as politically consequential as a successful one. The ‘Process of National Reorganization’ did not simply spring from the generals’ minds with no context.

Likewise Feierstein is concerned to reject the legitimation of the killing of armed militants. To the limited extent to which there was an armed struggle, and that militants were killed as a result of combat, clearly these deaths cannot be accounted genocide. However I take Feierstein’s point to be that most militants as well as non-militants were killed and abused outside the military context. Since the original armed conflict had given way to a genocidal process, we should see their killing as part of this. This argument is valid, but he does not deal with the obvious issue that in a sense armed opposition can be said to have helped, albeit in this case unknowingly, to provoke the military genocide. This argument, which has been raised (especially by Alan Kuperman) in relation to Rwanda and Kosovo, is surely relevant here, yet does not mean that one regards the perpetrators and victims symmetrically.

Which group is being destroyed in the Argentine genocide?

The most striking and also most problematic feature of Feierstein’s account is the way he ultimately argues for the genocidal character of the Argentine events. In my view, his account risks confusing the object of genocide with its policy context, because of an unusual conceptual move that seems to derive from the political motive of squaring the case with the international legal criteria for genocide.

Feierstein’s reconceptualisation of genocide, and specifically concepts of ‘genocidal practice’ and ‘reorganising genocide’, seem to rest on his adoption of a particular legal argument made in the 1999 indictment by the Spanish prosecuting magistrate, Baltasar Garzón, of 98 Argentine military for crimes of ‘terrorism and genocide’ under the dictatorship. For Feierstein, Garzón’s key argument is that the term ‘national group’ is appropriate to classify the victims in Argentina. This, Feierstein writes (with his emphases), ‘is based on the fact that the perpetrators sought to destroy structures of social relationships within the State, in order to substantially alter the life of the whole. This is in line with Article 2 of the 1948 Convention …, which defines genocide as “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national (…) group. The Argentine national group has been annihilated “in part,” substantially altering social relationships across the nation.’

Garzón’s was an understandable legal tactic to catch the military perpetrators within an inadequate legal framework which recognizes national, but not political, groups as targets of genocide. Clearly all members of Argentine society can be considered members of the Argentine national ‘group’, in the rather arcane language of genocide law, but this does not make this a case of genocide in a coherent legal, let alone a sociological, sense. For clearly assorted leftists, their friends, families and alleged sympathizers were targeted by the Argentine military not because they regarded them as members of the Argentine national group, but for the opposite reason, that they did not regard them as legitimate members of the Argentine nation as they defined it. The military targeted a section of society, not the whole, with extreme violence, and this is what makes this a case of genocide.

Feierstein would have it differently: ‘the purpose of a genocidal social process is to destroy the broader fabric of social relations.’ But this seems misleading in both empirical and theoretical terms. The Argentine dictatorship sought to destroy certain parts of the Argentine social fabric, in order to reorganise the whole. It was the destruction, not the reorganisation, that made the process genocidal. If the military had not targeted certain sectors of society, producing some 30,000 deaths, their ‘reorganisation’ would not have been genocidal; there would have been a non-genocidal restructuring.

We can see the importance of this distinction if we put the Argentine case in comparative perspective. A 2013 discussion on the list-serve of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, in which Feierstein took part, compared this case with the Cambodian genocide. Yet there is a key difference: the Khmer Rouge attacked most if not all sections of the Cambodian population – the educated, urban dwellers, Buddhists, traditional peasant communities, ethnic and national minorities – because they regarded all existing institutions as part of the corrupt ‘old’ society to be replaced by the ‘new’ Kampuchea. Here the reorganisation was truly genocidal on a national scale, since no section of the population or existing institution escaped destruction, and the death toll of millions reflected the broader scope of the violence.

The concentration camps are, for Feierstein, the prime institutions of ‘reorganising’ genocide. In Argentina camps contained only one relatively small section of the population; in Cambodia, society as a whole was reorganised as a camp system. It does not diminish the genocidal character of the Argentinian military campaign to recognise the much narrower scope of its directly destructive policies, even if the broader reorganizing thrust affected society as a whole. For unlike the Khmer Rouge, the Argentine military aimed to rebuild society on a more conservative basis, strengthening some institutions while weakening others. ‘Reorganising’ genocide, like genocide in general, obviously constitutes a wide spectrum.

I have a chapter on ‘Genocide and Large-Scale Human Rights Violations’ in Mary Kaldor and Iavor Rangelov’s new Handbook of Global Security Policy. It’s a pretty pessimistic chapter, as I record the way in which the emergence of global policy towards genocide has been confined by geopolitics. Developments since I wrote, such as today’s widespread support for allying with the genocidal Assad regime to defeat the genocidal Islamic State movement, only underline the limitations of global policy which I outline in the chapter.

Handbook of Global Security Policy

(Before any readers complain, I must point out that several typos in the chapter, such as two references to the “United State’s” actions, are the result of Wiley-Blackwell’s awful editing, and not my responsibility.)

photo (1)My new article published on openDemocracy. Some additional comments, not in the openDemocracy version, are indicated by italics.

Israel’s slaughter in Gaza must make us all pause and ask whether we should rethink our stance on the Palestine conflict. The killing is presented as a regrettable response to Hamas’s provocations, an almost routine police action as the Israeli euphemism “mowing the lawn” suggests. However the very fact that this is regarded as normal means that we are dealing with a highly abnormal situation, which demands a radical response.

This is not self-defence

Israel’s claim to be acting in self-defence is much too easily accepted by western governments and media. The present crisis arises from Israeli aggression against Hamas following the murder of Israeli teenagers, which Israeli officials now admit was not carried out by Hamas. The recent escalation of rocket attacks was a response to these Israeli actions. (Michael Walzer, writing in New Republic, manages to miss all this, and neglect the fact that this was a war of choice for Israel.)

Moreover this crisis is the continuation of a larger conflict in which Israel cannot generally evoke self-defence. Its violence is not defending it against illegal aggression; instead Israel is enforcing illegal occupation of Palestinian territory, and Palestinian resistance is justified in principle. Israel has withdrawn its settlers from Gaza, but retains overall economic and military control and imposes a cruel blockade. In the rest of the Palestinian Territories, in the West Bank, Israel retains direct control and has promoted massive illegal settlement.

Israel’s legal duty is to end the occupation and rectify the injustices it has committed against the Palestinians. Only if it did that and still faced rocket attacks would it have a legitimate general claim to act in self-defence. (To be clear about the significance of this in terms of the international laws of war: Israel has continued the occupation arising from the 1967 war for 47 years and broken the prohibitions on occupying powers’ annexing and settling occupied territory. It cannot have a legitimate casus belli against those it rules over in this situation.)

Israel’s legitimate defensive interest is therefore a limited one: the prevention of Hamas’s illegitimate rocket attacks on civilians. It possesses extremely effective means of shooting them down, and while it is understandable that it also wishes to destroy the military infrastructure that makes them possible, it does not have a right to do this at the expense of the population of Gaza. (That is, Israel’s only possible justification concerns ius in bello, not ad bellum, but the way it is attacking Gaza rules this out too.)

It is clear that the larger air, sea and ground attacks on Gaza are illegitimate because they are utterly disproportionate to the requirements of ending the rocket threat. Moreover Israel is obliged by international law to take precautions to protect civilians from the force it claims to direct at Hamas. Any precautions it has taken are obviously completely inadequate.

In reality the careless targeting of homes, hospitals and schools and the relentless, murderous destruction of neighbourhoods compellingly suggest that civilian harm is completely intended by the Israeli government. This violence is effectively targeted at Gaza’s civilians as well as Hamas. In the light of the pre-existing blockade directed at Gaza’s population over many years, Israel’s violence can only be interpreted as an extreme continuation of collective punishment.

Israel’s use of force in this assault, as in the Lebanon war of 2006 and the two previous major attacks on Gaza, thus involves far more than the risk-transfer war that other western countries routinely practice. This is at least classic degenerate warfare, recalling Britain’s great shame of the second world war, its targeting of German cities to break civilian “morale”. This is “war” of a kind that the Geneva conventions of 1949 outlaw. Indeed if Israel’s aim is now to destroy Gazan society, rather than just to subjugate it, the killing in Gaza raises questions of genocide. (The subjective basis of ‘genocide’ is certainly present in Israel, as indicated by the remarks of Knesset member Ayelet Shaked and the notorious Times of Israel blogpost about ‘permissible genocide’ – perhaps one of the first open calls for ‘genocide’ as such on record. On the critical side, Daniel Feierstein, President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, has argued on Facebook that Israel’s policies are genocidal. Certainly, its campaign shows the affinities of what I call ‘degenerate war’ with genocide.)

Sanctions, “apartheid” and “singling out” Israel

In the face of this horror, we all have a duty of solidarity with the victims. In the short term, that means pressurising, and getting our governments to pressurise, Israel to stop the bombing. However it is obvious, after this third assault in six years, that we must act now to stop a fourth and a fifth. This means working towards a political solution to the occupation and the blockade of Gaza.

Many have long argued that boycotts and sanctions are the principal means that global civil society can exert towards this goal. The example of South Africa is usually cited in support and Israeli rule over Palestinians is compared to apartheid. I do not usually agree with Noam Chomsky, but his recent assessment puts this claim in perspective:

“Within Israel, discrimination against non-Jews is severe; the land laws are just the most extreme example. But it is not South African-style apartheid. In the occupied territories, the situation is far worse than it was in South Africa, where the white nationalists needed the black population: it was the country’s workforce, and as grotesque as the bantustans were, the nationalist government devoted resources to sustaining and seeking international recognition for them. In sharp contrast, Israel wants to rid itself of the Palestinian burden. The road ahead is not toward South Africa, as commonly alleged, but toward something much worse.”

South Africa never bombed black areas to smithereens, and the Sharpeville massacre in 1961 (with sixty-nine deaths) pales compared to what Israel is doing to Gaza.

Opponents of boycotts and sanctions like the late Norman Geras, a respected Marxist academic, argue that they “single out” Israel when other states are doing far worse things. In the region today, Syria has killed many more, and Egypt’s new regime too, its total soon to be boosted by mass death penalties. Yet the South African boycott, which Norman supported, also singled out one regime, by no means the most murderous of its day. In 1961 Mao Zedong was completing the “great leap forward”, which caused tens of millions of deaths, but there were no calls for sanctions against China from those who targeted apartheid after Sharpeville.

The relevance of boycotts and sanctions to the Israeli case

Boycott advocates counter, in any case, that supporters of Israel also single it out, justifying exceptional levels of western political, financial and military support. Clearly it would be strange to rule out boycotts and sanctions from the Israel-Palestine conflict in principle, because Israel is itself applying comprehensive sanctions to Gaza. The real question about such measures is not whether we are applying them to all bad regimes equally, but whether they are likely to help move the political situation forward in the particular case.

There are good reasons why boycotts and sanctions seem an unusually attractive weapon against Israel. Its dependence on support from the United States and other western states means that opposition to Israel in these societies could also have exceptional political consequences. (It is perverse of Chomsky to argue that there are weak prospects of success.) Although it remains difficult to imagine official sanctions by governments, even of the limited kind taken against Putin’s Russia, Israel’s dependence means that unofficial boycotts, on a sufficient scale, might have an unusual political effect, maybe even more than they did in South Africa.

The difficulty of the effects of severe sanctions, raised by the blockade which has impoverished Gaza (and by sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s), do not appear likely to apply in the Israeli case. A rich western society can surely withstand considerable economic and other pressure without its fabric crumbling or its people being deprived of life-saving medicines. A society that so overwhelmingly supports such severe sanctions against others cannot complain about the more limited sanctions and boycotts that its opponents might mobilise against it.

Why I was reluctant to support boycotts

In earlier discussions, I did not support a general boycott of Israel (although I boycotted goods from illegal settlements). This was not because I was impressed by prominent pro-Israeli arguments, for example that boycotts of Israel evoke boycotts of Jewish shops in Nazi Germany. Boycotters almost always distinguish clearly between Israeli businesses and institutions and Jewish businesses and institutions in general.

Indeed boycotters, like western critics of Israel generally, usually distinguish much more carefully between Israelis and Jews than do supporters of Israel. The latter’s identification of Israel with the world Jewish community almost invites a new kind of anti-Semitism, but western opponents of Israel are mostly scrupulous in avoiding this.

For these reasons, I previously defended boycotters while opposing boycotts. My reluctance to support the latter had much to do with some of the forms they took. I was repelled by the notorious removal of individual academics from editorial boards, simply because they were Israeli.

I remain opposed to any boycott of individual contacts on account of nationality, and believe it is important to maintain individual communications. Indeed it is crucial that direct support is given to courageous Israeli individuals and groups who oppose war and occupation. In due course I discovered, of course, that this is the mainstream position of the boycott, disinvestment and sanctions movement (BDS).

I was also suspicious of the logic of collective punishment involved in ostracising Israeli institutions. As an academic, I valued academic discourse and although I knew that Israeli universities were implicated in injustices against Palestinians, they were also disproportionately centres of debate and even opposition. I worried that blanket academic boycotts could weaken these. Similar arguments applied to the media, which contain some important bastions of free discussion.

However the decisive reason for not supporting boycotts and sanctions was that there always seemed some prospect, however tenuous, of negotiations leading to a settlement. Even if this was bound to be largely on Israeli terms, it seemed important to me (as it did to many Palestinians) to pursue the prospect. Even an unequal peace could open up cooperation based on common economic interests (Israel-Palestine is the size of Greater Los Angeles, as Bernard Avishai points out) and in the long run enable Palestinians to improve their situation.

So I thought it important to avoid doing anything that might make it more difficult, and worried that this could be the result of a large-scale boycott.

What has changed

There were always counter-arguments. Given the inequality between Israel and the Palestinians, external pressure could help even up the balance of forces and so lead to a marginally more just settlement. Peaceful global boycotts could encourage peaceful forces inside Palestine at the expense of the armed militancy which feeds Israeli militarism. Perhaps I didn’t give enough weight to these claims.

What convinces me of them now is that the pro-dialogue forces in Israel have never been weaker. Not only do almost all Israelis (87% in one poll) support their government’s current slaughter, but also the anti-war movement is the smallest of all Israel’s wars. Most important, the real negotiation between Israeli and Palestinian leaders that took place in the days of Ehud Olmert appears to have been definitively cast aside.

For many years Israel’s settlement policies have constantly diminished what little chance there was of a viable Palestinian state. Settlers steal Palestinian land and homes, aided and abetted by Israeli law, bureaucracy and armed force. The “security” wall divides Palestinian communities. Army, police and settlers harass Palestinian families and the state fails to protect them from settler violence. State and municipal policies whittle away the Palestinian presence in East Jerusalem.

However Israeli leaders have kept the increasing fiction of a two-state solution alive and allowed John Kerry to shuttle too and fro in ever-more hopeless diplomacy. The US connived with this by never putting sharp pressure on Israel. Binyamin Netanyahu never really supported a two-state solution and his coalition’s centre of gravity reflects the ever-strengthening pro-settler right, even as it includes some “moderates” like Tipi Livni. The exploitation of the teenage murders first to terrorise the West Bank and then shatter Gaza has made it clear that Israel has no interest in peace.

Netanyahu abandons the two-state solution

Peter Beinart draws attention to Netanyahu’s recent declaration: “There cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.” Beinart also cites the view of Times of Israel editor David Horovitz, a Netanyahu sympathiser, that the prime minister was “insisting upon ongoing Israeli security oversight inside and at the borders of the West Bank. That sentence, quite simply, spells the end to the notion of Netanyahu consenting to the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

Therefore Israel is dominated by forces which are wholly committed to maintaining control over the Palestinians and their territories. It is difficult to see a constellation of forces emerging which will change this any time soon – except possibly in the direction of yet more radical assaults on Palestinians, maybe within Israel proper. The attack on Gaza appears as a final confirmation of the direction in which Israel has been travelling for a long time. In this context, my reticence about the boycott is as futile as Kerry’s willingness to continue shuttle diplomacy. Moreover, the distinction between boycotting Israel and boycotting settlements is meaningless since the state has committed itself totally to settlements, settlers and all that their growing dominance in the West Bank means for the possibility of a Palestinian state.

Boycott, an unavoidable political choice?

In this situation, for there ever to be a chance of change and a negotiated end to the occupation, Israel has to be subjected to much more of the coercion to which it so readily subjects others. This coercion can come in two forms. One is the violence of Hamas and others: indeed it is important to note that analysts increasingly emphasise that destroying Hamas will only open up the way for “more extreme” forces. The other is peaceful pressure, in the forms of civil protest inside Palestine, a boycott in western and global civil society, and sanctions by any governments on which civil society can exert sufficient pressure to act.

In the last decade, a vicious cycle of violence has helped close down civil protest and reinforce the relentless pro-settler, anti-two-state dynamic of Israeli politics as well as Hamas’s dominance in Gaza. If we outside Palestine hope for a virtuous cycle of protest and dialogue, we have a duty to make our own contributions, through action as well as talk. Palestinians and Israelis cannot do this on their own. A general boycott of Israeli goods, along the lines of the South African boycott, seems the minimum that is needed.

How far should this be extended to cultural spheres like academia, media and the arts? In prioritising an economic boycott, we cannot neglect these areas. A boycott of Israeli institutions is a price they will have to pay to prevent a repeat of what we have seen over the last two weeks – or worse. While contacts with individual academics continue, boycotting conferences in Israel sends a strong message of international disapproval. Stephen Hawking’s refusal to attend a conference hosted by president Shimon Peres worried Israel: its leaders even refrained from inciting accusations of anti-Semitism (usually made against those who boycott the country) against him. The rest of us may not be so lucky, but that too is a small price for standing up. In any case, abuse is weakening the potency of such accusations.

Israel’s future

Many will say, as I might have said before, that isolating Israel will only reinforce the deep reactionary trends in its politics. This may be true in the short term, but it seems as though only a sharp challenge and dislocation will turn this society and state in a different direction. Israel is radically overplaying its hand locally, regionally and globally by spurning the opportunities for settlement with Palestinian leaders which are on offer. If its present course continues, it is probably only a matter of time before the state experiences a radical shock which will present it with the existential crisis that its leaders’ rhetoric has long invoked to justify its atrocities.

Such a shock may come about through the accelerating instability of the wider Middle East, which hardly promises a safe environment for this outpost of the west. It would be better for everyone if it came through western states’ pulling the plug on Israel’s support-mechanisms. Boycotting Israel is not just a way of helping the Palestinians: it could also be the best way to save Israelis from the consequences of their own folly.

Posted on The Ukraine and Gaza crises alike demonstrate the risks of aggressive policy based on short-term calculations. Vladimir Putin and Binyamin Netanyahu’s war-as-politics invites damaging long-term consequences.

The slaughters in Ukraine and Gaza have one thing in common. Both result from governments authorising violence which is overwhelmingly motivated by domestic politics and appears almost gratuitous from a strategic point of view. Such policies promise short-term domestic popularity, but risk losing international credibility and producing serious blowback. Vladimir Putin is now finding this out. Binyamin Netanyahu should take note: the blowback for Israel could be far more serious.

Putin’s nemesis

Putin began his capricious military intervention in Ukraine to offset the humiliation of the Maidan protestors’ overthrow of the kleptocratic president Viktor Yanukovych, the day after Russia had endorsed the European Union foreign ministers’ deal for a gradual transition. Putin’s initial intervention secured total control over Crimea with its Russian naval bases, though these (like Russian speakers in Crimea) had never seriously been threatened. Putin, emboldened by a success which played to the nationalist gallery, then promoted the transformation of eastern Ukrainians’ political opposition to the new Kiev regime into armed rebellion, and followed up by sending Russian officers and weapons and encouraging Russian as well as local activists.

The strategy had the domestic effect of boosting Putin’s popularity. But it imposed a high cost in life and disruption on the people he claimed to be helping, provoked great western hostility, and did not stop Kiev gradually reasserting some control.

Now, however, the shooting-down on 17 July of a Malaysian Airways plane with 298 international travellers on board – to all appearances by pro-Russian separatists – raises the stakes to an entirely new level. This outrage can fairly be painted as the outcome of Putin’s adventure and is leading to worldwide condemnation of his regime. This could have serious consequences for Russia’s global economic as well political position. In the longer run it could certainly translate into domestic political costs for Putin.

Netanyahu’s gamble

Where Binyamin Netanyahu’s Israeli government is concerned, it almost certainly knew that the three teenagers whose kidnap led to its army’s rampage through the West Bank were already dead. More children were killed in the army operation, houses blown up and hundreds arrested (including many previously released Hamas supporters). The government definitely knew that, in response, Hamas would have every reason to escalate its rocket attacks. Partly to keep extreme right-wing, pro-settler elements within the governing coalition, Netanyahu calculated that Israel’s public, outraged by media hysteria over the murdered teenagers, would rally to whatever violence its military inflicted, not just on Hamas, but on Palestinian civilians.

There are conventional military elements to Israel’s attack on Gaza, but it is difficult to dignify them as strategic. These amount to inflicting short-term damage on Hamas’s economic and political as well as military infrastructure. However as the obscene euphemism “mowing the lawn” suggests, these gains are recognised as short-term. In any case the starting-point of this campaign, and its larger purpose as it continues, is surely to punish Palestinians as a whole for the delectation of an Israeli public opinion desensitised to dead bodies which are not their own. In this purpose, too, the gains can only be short-term, as once Gazans emerge from the rubble they will surely be radicalised by the new outrage that Israel has committed on them. The signs of this are already apparent.

Netanyahu’s blowback problem is not just Hamas: its political reinforcement is a predictable consequence of what he is doing, just as the continuing dominance of the aggressive Israeli right is a predictable consequence of Hamas’s rocket campaigns. The real problem is the extreme instability of the wider Middle East, with long-term wars raging in Syria and Iraq, in which the stability of Jordan – absolutely crucial to Israel’s own – is increasingly at risk. The gain to Israel of the brutal new, anti-Hamas Egyptian government is small in comparison.

Israel could find itself, not too far ahead, facing an opposition far worse than Hamas, which cannot be contained by the quick-fix punitive expeditions that Israel has practised in Gaza and Lebanon in the last decade, and which are easily sold to a domestic public and tolerated by western governments. Indeed these assaults, which Israelis now think of as routine, could contribute to a radicalisation beyond Gaza, and beyond as well as within Israel-Palestine, which will genuinely threaten their security in a way in which Hamas can never do.

Israeli adventurism: the real stakes

This is Netanyahu’s real gamble. For small, encircled Israel, dependent on United States and western support, the stakes of adventurism are far higher than they are for a great power like Russia, secure in its own borders and facing no real military threats. Israeli leaders, relentlessly focused on the short term (as their unstable electoral-coalition system dictates) could be making a historic blunder by ignoring the strategic advantages of a settlement with the existing Palestinian political forces – including Hamas.

The outlines of a deal, overwhelmingly on Israel’s terms even if requiring some difficult concessions, have been on the table for a long time. Peaceful Israeli and Palestinian states alongside each other, with cooperative economic arrangements and even a fraction of the western aid now buttressing Israel’s military stance, would offer a bulwark of stability which military occupation and violent collective punishment can never provide. In ten or twenty years’ time, the world might ask how Israeli leaders could possibly have indulged this dangerous temptation of short-term military gratification at the cost of a political and strategic solution.

The problem of war-as-politics

Karl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) famously claimed that war is the continuation of Politik by other means. The word is usually translated as “policy”, but sometimes as “politics”. In the 21st century, however, war is increasingly the continuation of domestic politics, with geopolitical policy and military strategy subordinated to domestic goals.

Since Margaret Thatcher salvaged her deep domestic unpopularity by successfully avenging the Argentine invasion of the Falkland/Malvinas islands in 1982, governments have increasingly factored electoral calculations into military decisions. Western leaders over the last three decades – like Netanyahu today – have been tempted by quick-fix wars with minimal political risks, in which few of “our” soldiers are killed and the life-costs are mainly transferred to innocent civilians in the war-zone. (see The New Western Way of War, where I call this “risk-transfer war”).

Such wars have worked only for short periods. In an extreme but relevant case, George W Bush’s hubris in declaring “major combat over” in Iraq in 2003 was exposed by the unending, low-level genocidal civil war that continues to this day. Despite Tony Blair’s protests, this war did not just introduce “terrorism” and al-Qaida to Iraq, but has led ultimately to ISIS and the new “Islamic State”. Even electorally, although Bush may have scraped re-election, his presidency ended in ignominy and the defeat of his party, while Blair has of course become a pariah in Europe.

Netanyahu should heed not only Putin’s, but also Bush’s nemesis. He may keep his show on the road for a while longer as a result of the latest assault, but the new, much more aggressive and unpredictable Islamists which Bush’s policies helped to unleash are not far from Jordan and even Israel itself. It is a mark of the extreme short-termism which characterises Israeli, like most governments’, policies that few are thinking of the dramatically different stakes that would arise if the Palestinian crisis should be connected to the wider instability, as the Iraqi crisis has been dramatically connected to the Syrian war.

The Gaza war is meant to be, like Israel’s and other western wars, a contained exercise. But what if Clausewitz’s law of escalation should assert itself in currently unforeseen ways?

Genocide, Risk and Resilience

Posted: December 4, 2013 in genocide

I have a chapter, ‘The Concept of Genocide: What Are We Preventing?’ in a new book edited by Bert Ingelaere, Stephan Parmentier, Jacques Haers and Barbara Segaert, GENOCIDE, RISK AND RESILIENCE: An Interdisciplinary Approach, just out from Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978 1 137 33242 4

UCSIA Genocide book cover‘This collection adopts an interdisciplinary approach in order to understand the various factors at work in genocidal processes and their aftermath. The strong emphasis on legal norms, legal concepts and legal measures in other studies fails to consider further significant issues in relation to genocide. This book aims to redress this balance exploring social dynamics and human behaviour as well as the interplay of various psychological, political, sociological, anthropological and historical factors at work in genocidal processes. With contributions from top international scholars, this volume provides an integrated perspective on risk and resilience, acknowledging the importance of mitigating factors in understanding and preventing genocide. It explores a range of issues including the conceptual definition of genocide, the notion of intent, preventive measures, transitional justice, the importance of property, the role of memory, self or national interest and principles of social existence. Genocide, Risk and Resilience aims to cross conceptual, disciplinary and temporal boundaries and in doing so, provides rich insights for scholars from across political science, history, law, philosophy, anthropology and theology.’

This publication is the result of the international workshop on the topic of Preventing Genocide: Root Causes and Coping Strategies organized in Antwerp in 2011.