Palestine and Genocide Revisited

The difficulties of serious debate about Palestine: this short commentary has just appeared in Holy Land Studies (12, 1, 2013, 1-8; below is a draft version). The same issue includes an excellent piece by Farid Abdel-Nour, ‘From Critic to Cheerleader: The Clarifying Example of Benny Morris’ “Conversion”‘, the clarification being relevant to all who try to square the events of 1948 with their moral and political commitments. 

I wrote in this journal about ‘Palestine in an International Historical Perspective on Genocide’ (Holy Land Studies, 9:1, 1-25). The reaction to the article has shown the possibility of serious debate among scholars transcending political differences – but also how political interests can trump intellectual coherence in academic circles concerned with these issues.

A serious intellectual response came in my email exchange with the Holocaust historian Omer Bartov, published in the Journal of Genocide Research (12:3-4, 2010, 243-59). Among many points, Bartov took issue with what he called my ‘conflation’ of ‘ethnic cleansing’ with genocide, which he saw as an unacceptable broadening of the latter concept. He offered some plausible historical counterpoints, for example the threats to Jewish as well as Arab society in Palestine during the 1948 war. However at two points he made rather surprising comments. First, he introduced the question of the Palestinian right of return, implying that in the light of my argument I must regard Palestinian claims as superior to those of other victims of expulsion. Endorsing Israel’s need to prevent Palestinian return in order to maintain the Jewish character of the Israeli state, Bartov asked rhetorically: ‘What makes their Nakba “better” from all others? If Germans from the Volga and the Sudetenland settled down in Freiburg why could Palestinians not settle down in Damascus?’ Secondly, he concluded his final response with the allegation that ‘the argument of Israeli genocide of the Palestinians is clearly meant to delegitimize the state and to say that it was born in the blood of innocents and should therefore also go down in blood.’ He added, ‘You do not make peace with people by telling them that they have no right to exist because they were born in sin.’ In fact, I had not even referred to the right of return (although I believe that in principle all expelled populations can claim this), and the last thing I intended to say was that Israel should ‘go down in blood’. Yet in the end Bartov was incapable of interpreting my suggestion that we should frame the removal of the Palestinians as ‘genocide’ other than in these emotive terms.

Bartov’s comments were moderate compared with what followed, notably a splenetic outburst from Israel W. Charny on the list-serve of the International Association of Genocide Scholars. Charny, a past president of IAGS, runs Genocide Prevention Now which focuses primarily on the ‘genocide threat’ of the possible Iranian development of nuclear weapons to Israeli Jews. After reading my exchange with Bartov (it is not clear that he read my Holy Land Studies article), he accused me, directly or indirectly, of ‘insincerity’, ‘a delusional projection of an angry soul’, being ‘a prejudiced genocide scholar’, violating ‘the elementary requirements of assembly of established information’, utilizing ‘a device that we have documented in past research as a familiar one of deniers of Holocaust and genocide’, ‘bitter condemnation of a given ethnic identity’, and following (whether I am ‘anti-Semitic or not’) the ‘primary form/outlet’ of ‘contemporary anti-Semitism’. In sum, Charny accused me of prejudiced scholarship; he tarred me with both anti-Semitism and Holocaust/genocide denial; and he even psycho-pathologized me. Not surprisingly, the IAGS executive apologised for the publication of these comments, but they were picked up by the US Jewish newspaper, Forward, making the issue a minor cause célèbre.

These responses ultimately interpreted my article in terms of the politics of genocide recognition, neglecting its intellectual core, so here I restate it more sharply. My target was not benign views of Zionist policies in 1948; I assumed that these were already discredited. Rather it was the widespread assumption of critical scholars that Palestine represented primarily a case of settler-colonial genocide, comparable to (for example) the destruction of Indigenous Australian societies. I argued that we should also see the 1948 destruction of most of Arab society in Israeli-controlled Palestine in the context of East European nationalism – which had lain behind so much genocide in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century and had peaked in the Second World War – and of the battles of decolonisation in the mid-twentieth century. To put it more concisely than I did in the original article: the Naqba brought together elements that can be found in other cases, but elsewhere were often separated in time. It was the concentrated outcome of no less than three modern patterns that produced genocide: settler colonialism; European nationalism; and the competition for control of independent statehood as European empires retreated.

And yet because of this combination, the case of Israel and the Palestinian Arab population appears highly distinctive in relation to each pattern. Considered as settler colonialism, Zionist was an unusual late case. European colonisation was everywhere a multinational process, but normally there was an imperial power and a settler core was recruited from its nationals. Jewish settlers in Palestine were different in that they although they constituted the majority of the European population, they established themselves under empires (Ottoman and British) with which they had no organic national connection. Palestinian Arabs, too, were unusual indigenes: they had not lived in their own polities, like peoples in the Americas, Australia and much of Africa, but as part of the Muslim majority in the Ottoman empire. The lateness of the Zionists’ colonial enterprise would lead them to seek wider international sponsorship; Palestinians had access the potent ideas of nationalism spreading in the Arab world in the mid-twentieth century.

Considered as a case of late 19th/early 20th century East European nationalism, Zionism was exceptional in not aiming to consolidate and expand its people’s existing homeland into a nation-state. Although the impetus for Jewish nationalism came, as with others, from the situation in their East European homelands, Zionists were ready to abandon places where Jews had been large minorities and even locally majorities for centuries – in the Middle East as well as Europe – in order to colonise Palestine where initially they were a tiny minority. Whereas other East European nationalists expelled and murdered their longstanding neighbours, Zionists ended up expelling new neighbours among whom they had only recently established themselves. These expulsions were not linked to national fascism and aggressive war, as in many European cases, but – much more like the simultaneous Czechoslovak and Polish removals of the Germans – to ‘counter-genocidal’ politics and Soviet, British and US sponsorship. However unlike Czechoslovak and Polish policies, Zionist motives hardly involved revenge, as Palestinians were not seriously complicit in the Jewish genocide.

Considered as a case of decolonization, Zionism was also unusual. Despite their lack of an organic connection with the British empire, Zionists aspired nonetheless to present themselves as its natural heirs. Britain had committed itself to a Jewish national home, but it was ambivalent about the Zionist bid to monopolise land, wealth and power in Palestine, and it prioritised its own interests as decolonisation loomed. Zionists were not unusual in having, in the end, to fight the empire that protected them (so did Algerian and Rhodesian colons), but they were unique in lacking traditional national leverage in the imperial nation. They would compensate for this by seeking the protection of the United Nations, and as pioneers of the ethnic lobby in US domestic politics.

Among the reasons that Zionist critics have given for rejecting the genocide frame are the low civilian casualties among Palestinian Arabs as a result of direct Zionist violence against them in 1948. A death toll of around 5,000 is generally accepted, compared to 750,000 people removed, a relatively low ratio suggesting that killing was a spur and aid to expulsion rather than an end in itself. This point was, of course, acknowledged in my original article, and explained as a result of the type of genocide that destroys the attacked society (most of Arab society in Israeli-controlled Palestine) without killing most of its individual members. This is the most common type: cases like the Holocaust and Rwanda where violence escalates to all-out mass murder are the exception. So that far from it being unusual to frame the Palestinian case in this way, it places it alongside a large number of historical episodes and contemporary cases like Bosnia and Darfur. Relatedly, critics have pointed out that a substantial Palestinian population remained in Israel after 1948 and has continued up to the present day. This too is not so unusual: neither Bosnia nor Darfur has seen total population removal either.

The international historical perspective offered suggests reasons for both the occurrence of this type of genocide in Palestine and why it would produce the contradictory situation that has now persisted for six-and-a-half decades. The lateness of Zionist colonization, its expansionary ambitiousness compared to the consolidating projects of other East European nationalisms, and its lack of organic imperial protection all made the removal of Palestinians higher-risk than many genocidal projects. Israel was dependent on the support of the UN and its great powers, and that was also a constraint. Many European nationalist genocides had been carried out under the cover of general European and world war; Israel’s destruction of Palestinian society responded to a short window of opportunity offered by the 1948 war. Although Palestinians were weakly organized in that year, the Naqba and their ongoing persecutions under Israeli rule and later occupation eventually catalysed a strong national consciousness, in turn a key reference point for wider Arab nationalism and later Islamism. All this has ensured an ongoing struggle in which Palestinians can provoke but not overthrow Israeli power; Israel can military defeat but not politically subdue Palestinians.

Within the long political and military conflicts there have been subdued but continuing genocidal dynamics, to which I referred only passingly in my original article. Israel has constantly extended the confiscation of Palestinian land and the removal of Palestinians themselves from various parts of the West Bank: a slow-motion, piecemeal consolidation of the dramatic, large-scale destruction of Arab society in 1948. Powerful elements within Israeli politics push towards further ‘transfer’, or forcible removal, of Israeli Arabs – while accentuating the racially Jewish character built into the state since its foundation – fearing that Palestinian birth-rates and national consciousness will destabilize its heavily fortified but ultimately precarious edifice. Yet the push towards expulsion has ultimately been constrained, so far, by Israel’s dependence on a range of international support that will tolerate its violence when it appears to have some connection with Israel’s military security, but might be spooked by wholesale attacks on the existing Israeli Arab population.

So, as I suggested in my article, genocide has long been overall a subordinate theme in the Palestine-Israel conflict, which has overall seen mainly degenerate warfare, with widespread civilian targetting supposedly serving military goals on both sides. Futile attacks by Palestinian armed groups on Israelis help provoke more extensive and lethal violence against Palestinians by Israel. The resulting wars may at times become partially genocidal when certain civilian groups (like the Gaza police in 2009) are specifically targeted for destruction. But so far this tendency has been contained. Rhetorically, of course, the ‘genocide wars’ with which I began my article continue in full spate, ratcheted up with the aid of President Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial and wild anti-Israeli rhetoric into the spectre of a ‘second Holocaust’ that haunts the speeches of Prime Minister Netanyahu and the propaganda of his ‘genocide-scholar’ accomplices.

The only presently forseeable circumstance in which genocide is likely to become, once again, a major theme in Israeli-Palestinian relations is if the Israeli campaign against Iran succeeds in provoking a serious regional war. Not only might an Israeli strike contain genocidal elements (for example, general targeting of groups of Iranian scientists along with nuclear facilities), but a serious Iranian counter-attack on Israel could provide the cover the Israeli right needs to start implementing its wilder ideas of ‘transfer’. Despite the combustible state of regional relations as I write in late 2012, exacerbated by the Syrian crisis, it seems unlikely that a general war would develop. However if Israeli-US overreach did provoke such a development, it might ironically also begin to produce the serious threat to its own society that is currently only a figment of Iranian rhetoric and Israeli ideology.

6 thoughts on “Palestine and Genocide Revisited”

  1. Dear Prof. Shaw,

    Greetings from Istanbul! I have just finished reading your post, which I found astute and balanced, and am grateful for the work you do. Since I’ve been in Turkey I have become interested in the Armenian Genocide and in genocide studies more generally, though in no way am I an expert. Of course I am familiar with Bartov and Charny, and am disturbed by their clear Zionist agenda (Bartov much more nuanced of course), but I do wonder how you respond to Bartov’s query regarding the slippage of ethnic cleansing into the category of genocide. I have no clear answers here myself, but would you say that Israeli policy is, and has been, “exterminationist”? I simply don’t know; I think that Darfur and Bosnia present clear cases of exterminatory violence, but I admit I’m not so sure when it comes to Palestine. I don’t mean to detract from the criminality of Zionist policy–not at all–but I am still left wondering if it’s what Lemkin meant. I assume you’re familiar with the Armenian Genocide–a wholly systematic slaughter and/or deliberate starvation during deportation of around 1,000,000 people. Very efficient, and very successful. Are you saying that Israel is doing nearly the same thing, just protracted over decades? I am still trying to work out my own understanding of just what would separate ethnic cleansing from genocide.

    Thank you for tolerating my rambling inquiry, and for all the work you have done over the years.

    All the best, Wendy Wiseman

    Sent from my iPad

    1. Thanks, Wendy, for your question. I don’t regard ‘ethnic cleansing’ as a phenomenon separate from genocide, but one of the methods of the latter. This is because forced removal of populations is always designed to destroy particular communities, and so fits the spirit of Lemkin’s broad definition of genocide as social destruction (although I wouldn’t slavishly follow Lemkin). Forced removal is always accompanied by violence, including killing and rape, and terror. However in some cases, like the Zionist removal of Palestinian Arabs and the Serbian removal of non-Serb Bosnians, the violence is more or less limited to what the perpetrators see as necessary to remove the population. In others, like the Ottoman removal of the Armenians and the Nazi removal of the Jews, removal-with-violence escalates to more ambitious programmes of mass murder. So although these are all cases of genocide, I don’t see what happened to the Palestinians as being in the same league as what happened to the Armenians. Nor do I believe that Israel is carrying out a comparable mass murder over a longer period. What is Israel is doing is extending the removal of Palestinians, from parts of the West Bank, and carrying out brutal repression of Palestinians in Gaza, in response to Hamas attacks. I worry that in a regional war, there might be more radical policies to remove more Arabs, although even then I would not expect mass killing on a large scale because Israeli aims would remain more limited and there would be global surveillance. If you want further background see my original paper on Palestine on this site, and my book What is Genocide?, Chapter 4 of which deals with ‘ethnic cleansing’.

  2. Dear Martin,

    Thank you for your post and for your fascinating thesis, which I have been following since the controversy with great interest and find very convincing and thorough. Two minor points though.
    First, the Nakba is transliterated with a K rather than a q. You may wish to consider the following book for your information: Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory (Columbia Uni Press, 2008). Second, the idea that the emergence of Palestinian nationalism was a response to the Nakba is an ideological argument put forth by Zionists who seek to delegitimize Palestinian claims to statehood. Solid scholarship has long documented how Palestinian Arab identity began crystallizing at the turn of the century, as part of the emergence of various nationalisms in the Ottoman Empire, and was consolidated further under British colonial rule, and further still after the re-emergence, rather than emergence, of Palestinian nationalism post-1948. You may wish to consider the excellent book Palestinian Identity: The Construction of a Modern National Consciousness (Columbia Uni Press, 1996) for your information.

    Warmest greetings

    1. Thanks, Ana, for your comments and reading suggestions, which I will pursue. I didn’t mean to say that there was no Palestinian identity before the 1940s, only that the Palestinian movement was relatively weak as indicated by its inability to seriously resist the forced removal of 1948, as Ilan Pappe among others emphasises. My view of the development of Palestinian nationalism was influenced by Yezid Sayigh’s Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement 1949-1993.

  3. Dear Mr. Shaw, As a psychologist and a student of genocidalism, I am puzzled by your writing on Israel and Palestine. You refer to israeli genocidal acts such as expelling Palestinian Arabs during the war of 1948, but you never seem to acknowledge that The Jewish state was attacked by 4 or 5 Arab states whose leaders promised to kill every Jew. Because some Arabs fled from their homes, in fear of the hostilities, you describe the new state as genocidal. Consistently with threats to kill or throw all Jews into the sea, the Arab press has continued its genocidal talk about the Israelis, describing them as pigs and monkeys, and that it is a holy mission for Palestinians to kill the Jews. I have read reports from Palestinian media stating that Allah wants all the Jews killed. Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” are best sellers in Palestine. Can it be that you are unaware of these facts, or of genocidal attitudes toward Israelis, or is it possible that you may be somewhat biased in this matter ?

    On the assumption that I am misunderstanding your views, I continue by challenging your definition of genocide. The Hutu, after years of domination by the Tutsis, were whipped up by their leaders into a killing frenzy whose goal was to kill all Tutsis, men, women and children. This was a genocide, an effort to eliminate an entire people. Similarly, Nazi Germany was genocidal. On the other hand, you are including “ethnic cleansing” and the use of horrible weapons of war as “genocidal” – as in today’s Syria. You seem to be seeking a stronger adjective for violence or cruelty, and picking the word “genocidal”. If Iran attacked a small country like Israel with nuclear bombs, that would be genocidal, because it could destroy the entire country and almost everyone in it. If Israel attacked the Iranian nuclear facilities, that would be an act of war, but not genocidal. (Did you suggest it would be indeed genocidal because it would possibly destroy most of the Iranian nuclear scientists?)

    Some troops of homo erectus were driven out of Africa by rival troops, a long time ago. By your definition, this was genocide, but those who left Africa did pretty well – although they might have preferred to stay at home in Africa.

  4. The 48 war was the result of the Palestinians together with their Arab allies to perform ethnic cleansing on the Jews and their failure to complete it.

    Every single Jew in the parts of the Mandate seized by the Arabs was expelled from their homes. No exceptions. They even dynamited the entire ancient Jewish quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem in an attempt to wipe out the history of Jewish residence there.

    850,000 Jews were also forced from the Arab countries.

    After the 5 Arab armies attacked Israel in 48, Palestinian leader Haj Amin Al Husseini stated:
    I declare a holy war, my muslim brothers! Murder the Jews! Murder them all!
    The Arab League Secretary, General Azzam Pasha declared “a holy war. He said, “This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades.

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