A Palestinian Holocaust
By Richard Falk
07 July, 2007
And what rough beast,
its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
-- William Butler
Yeats, The Second Coming
is little doubt that the Nazi Holocaust was as close to unconditional
evil as has been revealed throughout the entire bloody history of the
human species. Its massiveness, unconcealed genocidal intent, and reliance
on the mentality and instruments of modernity give its enactment in
the death camps of Europe a special status in our moral imagination.
This special status is exhibited in the continuing presentation of its
gruesome realities through film, books, and a variety of cultural artifacts
more than six decades after the events in question ceased. The permanent
memory of the Holocaust is also kept alive by the existence of several
notable museums devoted exclusively to the depiction of the horrors
that took place during the period of Nazi rule in Germany.
Against this background,
it is especially painful for me, as an American Jew, to feel compelled
to portray the ongoing and intensifying abuse of the Palestinian people
by Israel through a reliance on such an inflammatory metaphor as 'holocaust.'
The word is derived from the Greek holos (meaning 'completely') and
kaustos (meaning 'burnt'), and was used in ancient Greece to refer to
the complete burning of a sacrificial offering to a divinity. Because
such a background implies a religious undertaking, there is some inclination
in Jewish literature to prefer the Hebrew word 'Shoah' that can be translated
roughly as 'calamity,' and was the name given to the 1985 epic nine-hour
narration of the Nazi experience by the French filmmaker, Claude Lanzmann.
The Germans themselves were more antiseptic in their designation, officially
naming their undertaking as the 'Final Solution of the Jewish Question.'
The label is, of course, inaccurate as a variety of non-Jewish identities
were also targets of this genocidal assault, including the Roma and
Sinti ('gypsies'), Jehovah Witnesses, gays, disabled persons, political
Is it an irresponsible overstatement
to associate the treatment of Palestinians with this criminalized Nazi
record of collective atrocity? I think not. The recent developments
in Gaza are especially disturbing because they express so vividly a
deliberate intention on the part of Israel and its allies to subject
an entire human community to life-endangering conditions of utmost cruelty.
The suggestion that this pattern of conduct is a holocaust-in-the-making
represents a rather desperate appeal to the governments of the world
and to international public opinion to act urgently to prevent these
current genocidal tendencies from culminating in a collective tragedy.
If ever the ethos of 'a responsibility to protect,' recently adopted
by the UN Security Council as the basis of 'humanitarian intervention'
is applicable, it would be to act now to start protecting the people
of Gaza from further pain and suffering. But it would be unrealistic
to expect the UN to do anything in the face of this crisis, given the
pattern of US support for Israel and taking into account the extent
to which European governments have lent their weight to recent illicit
efforts to crush Hamas as a Palestinian political force.
Even if the pressures exerted
on Gaza were to be acknowledged as having genocidal potential and even
if Israel's impunity under America's geopolitical umbrella is put aside,
there is little assurance that any sort of protective action in Gaza
would be taken. There were strong advance signals in 1994 of a genocide
to come in Rwanda, and yet nothing was done to stop it; the UN and the
world watched while the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of Bosnians took place,
an incident that the World Court described as 'genocide' a few months
ago; similarly, there have been repeated allegations of genocidal conduct
in Darfur over the course of the last several years, and hardly an international
finger has been raised, either to protect those threatened or to resolve
the conflict in some manner that shares power and resources among the
contending ethnic groups.
But Gaza is morally far worse,
although mass death has not yet resulted. It is far worse because the
international community is watching the ugly spectacle unfold while
some of its most influential members actively encourage and assist Israel
in its approach to Gaza. Not only the United States, but also the European
Union, are complicit, as are such neighbors as Egypt and Jordan apparently
motivated by their worries that Hamas is somehow connected with their
own problems associated with the rising strength of the Muslim Brotherhood
within their own borders. It is helpful to recall that the liberal democracies
of Europe paid homage to Hitler at the 1936 Olympic Games, and then
turned away tens of thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany.
I am not suggesting that the comparison should be viewed as literal,
but to insist that a pattern of criminality associated with Israeli
policies in Gaza has actually been supported by the leading democracies
of the 21st century.
To ground these allegations,
it is necessary to consider the background of the current situation.
For over four decades, ever since 1967, Gaza has been occupied by Israel
in a manner that turned this crowded area into a cauldron of pain and
suffering for the entire population on a daily basis, with more than
half of Gazans living in miserable refugees camps and even more dependent
on humanitarian relief to satisfy basic human needs. With great fanfare,
under Sharon's leadership, Israel supposedly ended its military occupation
and dismantled its settlements in 2005. The process was largely a sham
as Israel maintained full control over borders, air space, offshore
seas, as well as asserted its military control of Gaza, engaging in
violent incursions, sending missiles to Gaza at will on assassination
missions that themselves violate international humanitarian law, and
managing to kill more than 300 Gazan civilians since its supposed physical
As unacceptable as is this
earlier part of the story, a dramatic turn for the worse occurred when
Hamas prevailed in the January 2006 national legislative elections.
It is a bitter irony that Hamas was encouraged, especially by Washington,
to participate in the elections to show its commitment to a political
process (as an alternative to violence) and then was badly punished
for having the temerity to succeed. These elections were internationally
monitored under the leadership of the former American president, Jimmy
Carter, and pronounced as completely fair.
Carter has recently termed
this Israeli/American refusal to accept the outcome of such a democratic
verdict as itself 'criminal.' It is also deeply discrediting of the
campaign of the Bush presidency to promote democracy in the region,
an effort already under a dark shadow in view of the policy failure
After winning the Palestinian
elections, Hamas was castigated as a terrorist organization that had
not renounced violence against Israel and had refused to recognize the
Jewish state as a legitimate political entity. In fact, the behavior
and outlook of Hamas is quite different. From the outset of its political
Hamas was ready to work with other Palestinian groups, especially Fatah
and Mahmoud Abbas, to establish a 'unity' government. More than this,
their leadership revealed a willingness to move toward an acceptance
of Israel's existence if Israel would in turn agree to move back to
its 1967 borders, implementing finally unanimous Security Council Resolutions
242 and 338.
Even more dramatically, Hamas
proposed a ten-year truce with Israel, and went so far as to put in
place a unilateral ceasefire that lasted for eighteen months, and was
broken only to engage in rather pathetic strikes mainly taking place
in response to Israeli violent provocations in Gaza. As Efraim Halevi,
former head of Israel's Mossad was reported to have said, 'What Israel
needs from Hamas is an end to violence, not diplomatic recognition.'
And this is precisely what Hamas offered and what Israel rejected.
The main weapon available
to Hamas, and other Palestinian extremist elements, were Qassam missiles
that resulted in producing no more than 12 Israeli deaths in six years.
While each civilian death is an unacceptable tragedy, the ratio of death
and injury for the two sides in so unequal as to call into question
the security logic of continuously inflicting excessive force and collective
punishment on the entire beleaguered Gazan population, which is accurately
regarded as the world's largest 'prison.'
Instead of trying diplomacy
and respecting democratic results, Israel and the United States used
their leverage to reverse the outcome of the 2006 elections by organizing
a variety of international efforts designed to make Hamas fail in its
attempts to govern in Gaza. Such efforts were reinforced by the related
unwillingness of the defeated Fatah elements to cooperate with Hamas
in establishing a government that would be representative of Palestinians
as a whole. The main anti-Hamas tactic relied upon was to support Abbas
as the sole legitimate leader of the Palestinian people, to impose an
economic boycott on the Palestinians generally, to send in weapons for
Fatah militias and to enlist neighbors in these efforts, particularly
Egypt and Jordan. The United States Government appointed a special envoy,
Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, to work with Abbas forces, and helped channel
$40 million to buildup the Presidential Guard, which were the Fatah
forces associated with Abbas.
This was a particularly disgraceful
policy. Fatah militias, especially in Gaza, had long been wildly corrupt
and often used their weapons to terrorize their adversaries and intimidate
the population in a variety of thuggish ways. It was this pattern of
abuse by Fatah that was significantly responsible for the Hamas victory
in the 2006 elections, along with the popular feelings that Fatah, as
a political actor, had neither the will nor capacity to achieve results
helpful to the Palestinian people, while Hamas had managed resistance
and community service efforts that were widely admired by Gazans.
The latest phase of this
external/internal dynamic was to induce civil strife in Gaza that led
a complete takeover by Hamas forces. With standard irony, a set of policies
adopted by Israel in partnership with the United States once more produced
exactly the opposite of their intended effects. The impact of the refusal
to honor the election results has after 18 months made Hamas much stronger
throughout the Palestinian territories, and put it in control of Gaza.
Such an outcome is reminiscent of a similar effect of the 2006 Lebanon
War that was undertaken by the Israel/United States strategic partnership
to destroy Hezbollah, but had the actual consequence of making Hezbollah
a much stronger, more respected force in Lebanon and throughout the
The Israel and the United
States seemed trapped in a faulty logic that is incapable of learning
from mistakes, and takes every setback as a sign that instead of shifting
course, the faulty undertaking should be expanded and intensified, that
failure resulted from doing too little of the right thing, rather than
is the case, doing the wrong thing. So instead of taking advantage of
Hamas' renewed call for a unity government, its clarification that it
is not against Fatah, but only that "[w]e have fought against a
small clique within Fatah," (Abu Ubaya, Hamas military commander),
Israel seems more determined than ever to foment civil war in Palestine,
to make the Gazans pay with their wellbeing and lives to the extent
necessary to crush their will, and to separate once and for all the
destinies of Gaza and the West Bank.
The insidious new turn of
Israeli occupation policy is as follows: push Abbas to rely on hard-line
no compromise approach toward Hamas, highlighted by the creation of
an unelected 'emergency' government to replace the elected leadership.
The emergency designated prime minister, Salam Fayyad, appointed to
replace the Hamas leader, Ismail Haniya, as head of the Palestinian
Authority. It is revealing to recall that when Fayyad's party was on
the 2006 election list its candidates won only 2% of the vote. Israel
is also reportedly ready to ease some West Bank restrictions on movement
in such a way as to convince Palestinians that they can have a better
future if they repudiate Hamas and place their bets on Abbas, by now
a most discredited political figure who has substantially sold out the
Palestinian cause to gain favor and support from Israel/United States,
as well as to prevail in the internal Palestinian power struggle.
To promote these goals it
is conceivable, although unlikely, that Israel might release Marwan
Barghouti, the only credible Fatah leader, from prison provided Barghouti
would be willing to accept the Israeli approach of Sharon/Olmert to
the establishment of a Palestinian state. This latter step is doubtful,
as Barghouti is a far cry from Abbas, and would be highly unlikely to
agree to anything less than a full withdrawal of Israel to the 1967
borders, including the elimination of West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements.
This latest turn in policy
needs to be understood in the wider context of the Israeli refusal to
reach a reasonable compromise with the Palestinian people since 1967.
There is widespread recognition that such an outcome would depend on
Israeli withdrawal, establishment of a Palestinian state with full sovereignty
on the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as capital, and sufficient
external financial assistance to give the Palestinians the prospect
of economic viability. The truth is that there is no Israeli leadership
with the vision or backing to negotiate such a solution, and so the
struggle will continue with violence on both sides.
The Israeli approach to the
Palestinian challenge is based on isolating Gaza and cantonizing the
West Bank, leaving the settlement blocs intact, and appropriating the
whole of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. For years this sidestepping
of diplomacy has dominated Israeli behavior, including during the Oslo
peace process that was initiated on the White House lawn in 1993 by
the famous handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat.
While talking about peace,
the number of Israeli settlers doubled, huge sums were invested in settlement
roads linked directly to Israel, and the process of Israeli settlement
and Palestinian displacement from East Jerusalem was moving ahead at
a steady pace. Significantly, also, the 'moderate' Arafat was totally
discredited as a Palestinian leader capable of negotiating with Israel,
being treated as dangerous precisely because he was willing to accept
a reasonable compromise. Interestingly, until recently when he became
useful in the effort to reverse the Hamas electoral victory, Abbas was
treated by Israel as too weak, too lacking in authority, to act on behalf
of the Palestinian people in a negotiating process, one more excuse
for persisting with its preferred unilateralist course.
These considerations also
make it highly unlikely that Barghouti will be released from prison
unless there is some dramatic change of heart on the Israeli side. Instead
of working toward some kind of political resolution, Israel has built
an elaborate and illegal security wall on Palestinian territory, expanded
the settlements, made life intolerable for the 1.4 million people crammed
into Gaza, and pretends that such unlawful 'facts on the ground' are
a path leading toward security and peace.
On June 25, 2007 leaders
from Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority met in Sharm
El Sheik on the Red Sea to move ahead with their anti-Hamas diplomacy.
Israel proposes to release 250 Fatah prisoners (of 9,000 Palestinians
currently held) and to hand over Palestinian revenues to Abbas on an
installment basis, provided none of the funds is used in Gaza, where
a humanitarian catastrophe unfolds day by day. These leaders agreed
to cooperate in this effort to break Hamas and to impose a Fatah-led
Palestinian Authority on an unwilling Palestine population. Remember
that Hamas prevailed in the 2006 elections, not only in Gaza, but in
the West Bank as well. To deny Palestinian their right of self-determination
is almost certain to backfire in a manner similar to similar efforts,
producing a radicalized version of what is being opposed. As some commentators
have expressed, getting rid of Hamas means establishing al Qaeda!
Israel is currently stiffening
the boycott on economic relations that has brought the people of Gaza
to the brink of collective starvation. This set of policies, carried
on for more than four decades, has imposed a sub-human existence on
a people that have been repeatedly and systematically made the target
of a variety of severe forms of collective punishment. The entire population
of Gaza is treated as the 'enemy' of Israel, and little pretext is made
in Tel Aviv of acknowledging the innocence of this long victimized civilian
To persist with such an approach
under present circumstances is indeed genocidal, and risks destroying
an entire Palestinian community that is an integral part of an ethnic
whole. It is this prospect that makes appropriate the warning of a Palestinian
holocaust in the making, and should remind the world of the famous post-Nazi
pledge of 'never again.'
is Professor Emeritus of International Law and Practice at Princeton
University and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of
California at Santa Barbara.
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