The primary aim of this paper is to critically evaluate whether social, political and economic upheaval can precipitate genocide. Instead of considering well-known examples such as the Holocaust or the genocide in Rwanda, this author has decided to opt for a different, and at the same time profoundly original, framework. The United Nations defined genocide as any act committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, and this is the exact reason why this author has decided to use the Israel-Palestine conflict as this paper’s examples of genocide. Such conflict has been going on for decades and this is probably the reason behind the scarce amount of interest paid to it by genocide researchers. This author believes that both examples represent some particular forms of genocide despite both greatly differing from the ‘normal’ definition of genocide. Palestinian and Israeli share common social, cultural and political factors, especially after thirty years of conflict, and the reasons behind the decision to refer to their actions in terms of genocide are diverse but at the same time interconnected if one considers that, in this atypical example, genocide appears to be the only available alternative for both perpetrators to fight for justice.
Palestine instituted legal proceedings against Israel before the International Court of Justice in the Hague for the violation of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Boyle, 2000). This was aimed at proving to the world at large that what the Nazis did to the Jews was legally similar to what Israel is currently doing to the Palestinian people. Boyle (2000) recognized that the only downside of the lawsuit was the claim that a Palestinian State did not legally exist. Nevertheless, he went on to argue that only Europe was reluctant to grant such recognition because of the pressure exercised by the US government. In such a scenario Boyle (2000) realized that the only way out was to sue the US before the International Court of Justice for abetting such genocide in violation of art. 3 of the aforementioned Convention. Years before, Egyptian foreign Minister M. Kamel (1978) had already defined the aggressive operations involving the mass killings of Palestinians as ‘Organised Genocide,’ but no actions were taken by the ICJ. As a consequence this author believes that the stark difference between Israelis and Palestinians and previous cases of genocide depends on the different factors that precipitated this ‘particular’ genocide in the first place. Genocide generally entails the use of the term evil to denote extreme human destructiveness and can be defined in terms of extreme harm, involving suffering and loss of life, generally resulting from instigation or provocation (Darley, 1992). In the Israeli-Palestinian case the instigating factor can be traced back to a search for basic needs. According to Staub (1999), when people are incapable of fulfilling basic needs they will engage in destructive psychological processes, although in this case, unlike other examples of genocide, the conflict was based on vital interests such as the need for living space. The primary factor that precipitated the mass killings between Israel and Palestine was a social and cultural factor such as the attachment to a territory that symbolizes the self-definition of a particular group and consequently the mistrust of the other. Access to resources and privileges is a social instigator of genocide. In the Israeli case ‘attachment’ represents a social factor directly related to ‘unhealed wounds’ that constitutes a characteristic predisposing toward violence. Jews have experienced enormous suffering, mainly due to the persecution of WWII and cruelty at the hands of others, which made them more likely to respond to a renewed threat with great violence (Staub, 1999). As a consequence, under extreme social conditions, political leaders, together with the economic elite of a nation, propagate destructive ideologies through the intensification of historical antagonism in order to assert their own status and power that has been denied in previous circumstances. According to Janoff-Bulman (1992), the behaviour of Israeli leaders can only be understood if one considers them as integral parts of their own group. Their own basic needs are frustrated and their families have suffered merciless pain. This resulting self-focus makes it impossible for them to consider other people’s rights and entitlements.
The work of Sumner (1906), who described the potential for genocide as endemic in every society’s foundation, is apposite in connection with this. Sumner (1906) focused on the importance of the term ethnocentrism, which he describes as being particularly useful because it involves the view of ‘one’s own group’ as the centre of everything, therefore considering the remaining (the other) only with reference to it. In other words, ethnocentrism represents an omnipresent prejudice that symbolizes the heart of group-harmony and group-hostility, which leads to the de-humanization of out-group members (Kinloch, 2005). Israel’s declaration of statehood in May 1948 represents the perfect example of this. When Arabs attacked Israel, the better trained and -structured Jewish army won the war. As a consequence the Arab’s hostility toward Israel grew even greater after such humiliation. Palestinians, who consider themselves Arabs, were forced to leave their homes before, during and after the conflict. The main reason was that the Deir Yassin’s massacre created fear (Staub, 2011). Palestinian were expelled and/or intimidated, and therefore induced to leave following Arabs’ accusations that those who wanted to stay were traitors (Staub, 2011). For decades the official view in Israel was that Palestinians left after the Arabs, because it had never been in the Zionist agenda to force them out of the country, a position upheld by Jewish leaders such as the mayor of Haifa and Golda Meir. Ultimately only Jordan gave them citizenship while Arab countries preferred to use Palestinians as pawns against Israel. According to Morris (1989), once the Palestinian exodus began, Israeli used any means to encourage it and to finally force Palestinians to leave their lives as permanent refugees living in a ‘nation’ of refugee camps.
According to Herzl (1895), founder of modern Zionism, Israel had planned to gently expropriate the private property of Palestine with the primary intent of paving the way for a solely Jewish State. Herzl (1985) was not sure at the time where to locate the new State of Israel and he thought that the necessary ethnic cleansing could have been contrived only through the economic manipulation. That promise was never fulfilled, mainly because the Zionists required the eviction of all Palestinians from Israel’s Promised Land in order to cleanse it ethnically of non-Jews. As a consequence to Israeli’s actions, in 1964 the Arab states established the Palestine Liberation Movement (PLO), aimed at eliminating Israel through violent and terrorist attacks mainly directed at civilians. This clearly demonstrates how social factors, culminating in the search for a private living space, can represent not only the cause of genocide precipitation but also the cause of its inception. In fact, since the foundation of the PLO the primary aim of the Palestinian people was not the destruction of Israel but instead the creation of their own nation, an important step toward which was taken in 1993 when a Palestinian Authority was created to govern parts of Gaza and the West Bank. Inevitably, the Palestinian’s answer to the ongoing genocide carried out by Israel was to do exactly the same against them. As a consequence, Palestine’s primary aim shifted from the creation of the State of Palestine toward the elimination of their persecutors, using the same means as Israel: terrorist attacks (primarily directed toward civilians). Examples of Palestinian aggression become ever clearer after an entire Israeli family was murdered in March 2011, when five civilians including a pregnant woman were slaughtered in August 2010 or when, in March 2008, eight students were killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber. It is of primary importance to take into account that between 1987 and 2011, Palestinians killed more than 1500 Israelis in terroristic attacks. This led President Golda Meir to pronounce the famous quote: ‘peace will come when Palestinians start to love their children more than they hate us’.
The second point this essay aims to discuss is whether political upheaval can be considered a precipitating factor for genocide. Resolution arrangements and peace agreements have never been appropriately devised to meet socio-political conditions of the areas in question, primary due to the continuous involvement of terrorist attacks from extremist groups such as Hamas or the Gush Emunim Underground. During the Oslo Accords (1993, 1995) both parties were unprepared for dialogue and, although it was not necessary for them to ‘get to know each other’, negotiations were always assisted by outside governments, mainly the US and UK. Resentment between Israeli-occupied territories and Palestinian refugees was amplified by political default resulting in significant delays in the implementation of territorial stipulations and, when Israel was meant to withdraw from the West Bank in 1999, negotiations broke down over the question of which territories Palestinians had a genuine right to control. Mutual accommodation had never existed between the two countries at a political level and, additionally, the parties were not able to reach out on their own, making US mediation more intensive. Political pressures created complications inside both countries, which experienced difficulties in bringing fundamental groups into agreements at both a mass and elite level over issues such as the administration of Jerusalem, treatments of Palestinian refugees and differing interpretations of concepts such as security and resources (Pearson, 2001). Put simply, in terms of political upheaval, the structural foundations of a country appear fundamental to successful outcomes. The Israel and Palestine problem, when it comes to political agreements, is highly likely to end up in stalemate and/or recrimination, the perfect climate for terrorist attacks to occur from both sides. Therefore, it is crucial to realize that the pre-negotiation, negotiation and mediation advocated by the US government were not able to facilitate agreements and reconciliation, ultimately due to factors of power balances, political bargaining, resources and issue content (Pearson, 2001).
According to Kinloch (2008), political upheaval can precipitate genocide in a number of ways. As already mentioned, ethnocentrism is the major factor as a potential for genocide; competition is endemic, inevitable and omnipresent (Kuper, 1985); external factors might be effective in reducing such upheaval if aimed at maximising group independence and facilitating internal political, social and economic balance (Kinloch, 1999); technology could be fatal in corroborating toxic ideologies; and constructive models, the implementations of destructive and negative icons and representations of the other, might cause an escalation of conflicts. These political potentials for the escalation of violence became immediately apparent during the Oslo Accords. From the very beginning the Accords highlighted the ‘asymmetry’ of this conflict. On one side, Israel was a sovereign state with a well-developed economy, the world’s fourth largest military, the backing of the US government and a significant Jewish diaspora (Hallward, 2011). On the other hand, Palestine had no statehood, was severely impoverished, and lacked a military force and a Palestinian diaspora. In this case, political upheaval was probably among the primary causes of genocide. This can easily be seen from the ‘mutual recognition’ exchanged between Israel’s Prime Minister Rabin and PLO chairman Arafat. The PLO recognized the State of Israel, confirmed its commitment to the UN Security Council Resolutions and committed to peace processes renouncing terrorism; basically, Palestinian authorities made a substantial move toward peace agreements. In response, the Government of Israel decided to recognize the PLO as a Palestinian Authority and commenced reconciliations without even mentioning UN resolutions, Palestinian statehood or any commitment to peace. This asymmetry was made even worse by the Palestinian negotiators living in exile. After the recognition of the Palestine Authority (PA), Palestine begun to be considered a state, although Palestinians believed that the PA was only an Israeli pawn created following Oslo to elude the Palestinian diaspora (Hallward, 2011). The PA’s powers were limited by Israel, mainly to the financial sector. Israel controlled tax revenues from Palestinians which were then given back to PA in the form of salaries.
From an economic point of view the establishment of the PA gave to such an authority powers to arrest militants, and provide health, education and sanitation in the form of an ‘interim government’. Nevertheless, both Palestinians and Israelis were frustrated with its corruption, and while Israel could not see in the PA a valid partner for peace, Palestine realized it was merely another form of occupation. The arrested trade hit its highest peak even before the completion of the Wall of Separation in Jerusalem, when the Old City and Salah-A-Din Street, the most productive centres of commerce, started suffering in business volume (Hever, 2010). Despite the lack of accurate estimates of the losses, a more precise estimate could be achieved by looking at the diminished income of households. According to the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies (2010), the percentage of Palestinians with no income had more than doubled, while it had quadrupled for communities living in Jerusalem’s outskirts. Hever (2010) argued that the deterioration in income is directly related to the increased social gap in Israeli society between 2000 and 2006, and the Wall has exacerbated the situation. The erecting of the Wall required the confiscation of large areas of land from Palestinians, which included the demolition of many Palestinians’ houses and workplaces. Moreover, the threat of being taken away from Jerusalem has convinced Palestinians to move into East Jerusalem, causing an abrupt rise in housing density. As a consequence, this began to look like a threat to Israel, which struggled to maintain Jewish majority in the city (Kimhi, 2006). Nevertheless, Israel’s aim was to use the Wall to split up Palestinian families in East Jerusalem in order to control them more efficiently. According to Kimhi (2006), Israel used the Wall to make it more difficult for Palestinians to visit relatives in Jerusalem and, most importantly, to provide care and receive assistance. Kimhi (2006) went on to argue that unrest was very likely to break out as a consequence of Israel’s intention to harm the Palestinian civilian population at both economic and political levels, with no regard for the possible negative effects these policies were having on the world’s perception of Israel. The Wall was so important to Israel because of the importance of Jerusalem itself and also due to the ‘ripple effect’ the Wall was propagating throughout the West Bank, with an incredible impact on the Palestinian economy in general. According to Hever (2010), the economic side of the Palestinian genocide represents its highest point of physical deprivation. The city had soon become a bi-national centre where the only reality was constant discrimination, favouritism and asymmetrical distribution of resources. Consequently, Palestinian people’s resentment against the Israel government was growing in response to preferential treatments toward the Jewish side of their city.
Despite the fact that Hever (2010) could not describe Palestine as going through a crisis involving mass starvation and death comparable to African countries, he was able to claim that malnutrition among Palestinian civilians was rapidly increasing following a steep decline in food security and an increase in poverty. Numbers from the Executive Report of the Food Security clearly demonstrated how genocide can be concealed, or at least muffled, in order not to look as evident as what happened in Rwanda or Cambodia. Nevertheless, the numbers do not greatly differ if one considers that, in 2003, 1.4 million civilians in the OPT (Occupied Palestine Territories) were suffering from food insecurity. Furthermore, the economic and military siege of the Gaza Strip, after Hamas took power in 2007, made humanitarian shipments into the Strip impossible, thus exacerbating the situation. The attack on Gaza from Israel in December 2008 has never come to an end, with low-intensity fighting continuing to the present day. As a result infrastructures in Gaza were destroyed; health services, food resources and water supplies were severely impaired; and almost 20,000 Palestinian homes were wiped out. Over 1,400 Palestinians were killed and over 6,000 injured compared with only three Israeli killed with almost 200 injured. The only way Palestinians have always responded to Israeli’s attempts to confine them, by means of social, political and economic segregation, has been through terrorists attacks despite the fact that Israel’s better structured and more powerful organization has always allowed them to succeed in killing higher numbers of individuals than their neighbours. Nevertheless, despite the evident disparity in the toll in death, suffering, and displacement it is crucial to bear in mind that, following the Convention’s guidelines, genocide does not need to involve mass killings and, as a consequence, Israel’s genocide has catalysed a strong national consciousness among Palestinians that has prompted a similar reaction, weaker in efficacy (especially in death tolls) due to Palestine’s decades of deprivation, but still capable of provoking Israel’s power, a power capable of defeating Palestine militarily but not subduing it politically (Shaw, 2013).
As Moshman (2001) argued, the primary conceptual problem in understanding genocide is the dominance of a Holocaust-based conception. In Western countries the modern establishment of the Holocaust as the threshold of pain and suffering has conveniently made minorities’ vengeful acts, including people displacement, invisible for decades and centuries, especially in the case of Palestine. As stated by the Genocide Convention, there is no need for anyone to be killed in order for genocide to take place. From a legal viewpoint genocide that does not involve mass killing is as rare as it is unlikely to be prosecuted. As appears evident in the endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict (two genocides with one common cause), the immediate destruction of a nation or the mass elimination of a whole ethnicity do not constitute the sole reasons leading to the adoption of the genocide label. Rather, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict clearly demonstrates that social, political and economic upheaval can be enough to start a conflict that slowly deteriorates over time until it reaches a point of no return, without anyone recognizing what is actually happening.
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