‘Israel’s deputy defence minister yesterday warned his country was close to launching a huge military operation in Gaza and said Palestinians would bring on themselves a “bigger shoah,” using the Hebrew word usually reserved for the Holocaust. The choice of vocabulary from Matan Vilnai, an often outspoken former army general, was unusually grave – the word is not normally used for anything other than the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews. Vilnai was speaking about his government’s plans to tackle the continued firing of makeshift rockets, known as Qassams, from Gaza. “The more Qassam fire intensifies and the rockets reach a longer range, they will bring upon themselves a bigger shoah because we will use all our might to defend ourselves,” he said, in a telephone interview with army radio yesterday morning. His spokesman later tried to play down the force of his language, saying he meant only “disaster”. “He did not mean to make any allusion to the genocide,” the spokesman said. Vilnai appeared to suggest a big military operation was inevitable. “It will be sad, and difficult, but we have no other choice,” he said.’
Vilnai’s genocidal rhetoric, even if unpremeditated and withdrawn, is surely a significant indicator, if one was needed, of the increasing seriousness of the Israeli threat to Palestinian society in Gaza. No one believes, of course, that Israel aims to subject Gaza’s people to a Hitlerite ‘Final Solution’, and in this sense Vilnai’s threat is purely rhetorical. But the threat of extensive violence and suffering is real all the same. Largely caged in, regularly deprived of electricity and constantly threatened by murderous incursions by the Israeli ‘Defence’ Force, the population now faces the threat of an altogether bigger operation. At its worst, this could be on the lines of the operation which pulverized large parts of Lebanon in 2006 – a huge, totally disproportionate onslaught of ‘degenerate war’ in which Israel once again targets civilians in bloody response to the provocations of the militants who fire rockets at its own civilians.
As a genocide scholar I await with interest the response of the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS), which describes itself as ‘a world-wide professional association of experts on genocide’. In early 2006 the IAGS responded to what it described as the ‘openly aggressive statements’ made by the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (who of course is also a Holocaust denier) calling for Israel to be “wiped off the map” and inciting students to scream “death to Israel” at a government sponsored conference on 26 October 2005′. In a resolution the IAGS expressed its ‘profound alarm’ and concluded, ‘Direct and public expression of genocidal intent by a national leader coupled with a clear and present danger that genocidal acts will be committed is incitement to genocide. The risk of genocide against Israel is not yet imminent, but once Iran has nuclear weapons, it will be. When genocidal intent is openly expressed, and means to commit genocide are being prepared, the Precautionary Principle places the burden of proof on those who deny that genocide will be committed. Urgent preventive action should be taken.’
There are good reasons to believe that the IAGS resolution, which I was one of a small minority of members to vote against, was adopted on the basis of partial information. A number of commentators have suggested that Ahmadinejad did not mean the wiping out of Israeli society, which would indeed be genocide, and may not even have used words that meant this. Instead, they suggest, he meant the removal of the Israeli regime. On balance, it is not clear that he really distinguished between them. A more important point, however, is that Ahmadinejad’s speech seems to have been a rhetorical gesture without specific policy implications, designed primarily to boost his internal and pan-Muslim support, and therefore not a serious threat to Israeli society. Even the IAGS agreed that the risk was ‘not yet imminent’, although it appeared to suggest that this was only because Iran had not yet developed nuclear weapons. However, even if Iran does develop these weapons, there is no particular evidence for the view that Iranian leaders have a specific intent of using them against Israel – although of course they would constitute a structural threat to Israel, exactly as Israel’s own nuclear arsenal is a threat to Iran itself. But if the ‘precautionary principle’ is ever to be effective, it is important to understand the difference between rhetorical violence, nuclear weapons development and a policy of war or genocide.
In the case of Gaza, however, there is every reason to believe that the gap between rhetoric and policy concerns not the threat of violence, but only its probable genocidal character. The point of minister Vilnai’s speech is that Israel’s policy is veering, very concretely, in ever more violent directions: extensive anti-civilian is probably imminent. If the ‘precautionary principle’ means that ‘urgent preventive action should be taken’ by the international community, perhaps the IAGS will take the lead in making this case for intervention?