Susie Becher

Genocide in thought and word is not without consequence

IDF soldiers expose Hamas tunnel in Gaza, November 2023 (IDF/screenshot)
IDF soldiers expose Hamas tunnel in Gaza, November 2023 (IDF/screenshot)

Without judicial intervention to end the incitement sweeping the Israeli airwaves, the public may end up blinded to the possibility of any political solution. 

With the International Court of Justice (ICJ) scheduled to begin hearings next week on South Africa’s suit against Israel for committing the crime of genocide, the Israeli Government is busy preparing its defense. It will no doubt include the assertion that “the IDF is acting as morally as possible,” as stated by Prime Minister Netanyahu in response to the suit. Social media’s abundant footage of soldiers planting Israeli flags on the Gaza beaches and singing about resettlement; vandalizing homes, shops, and religious sites; and abusing civilians and beating prisoners is sufficient to put paid to the morality defense. Were this not enough, there is the simple math of an average of 250 Gazans killed daily since the war began. Add to this the strategy touted by the military brass, which sees no limit to the number of civilian lives permissible to take in order to protect the lives of Israeli combatants, and the moral high ground crumbles beneath the IDF’s feet of clay.

Ascribing immorality, however, is never clearcut and, in any event, is not the issue under investigation at the ICJ. Genocide, on the other hand, is clearly defined in international law not only by a list of actions that serve to destroy a group but by the motivation – that is, the intent – behind those acts. This is where Israel might possibly run into trouble.

True, the Gaza war began with Hamas’s brutal attack on southern Israel on October 7 and the unspeakable atrocities it committed against innocent civilians.  In response, Israel set out to defeat Hamas militarily, end its rule in Gaza, and return the hostages. At no point was there nor has there been an Israeli Government decision to lay waste to the Gaza Strip or to kill off its entire population.

On the other hand, when taken together, the aggregated amount of hate-filled rhetoric being spewed on the airwaves by many Israeli ministers, parliamentarians, journalists, analysts, celebrities, and other influential figures adds up to an atmosphere of incitement. Netanyahu can claim from today to tomorrow that Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich don’t speak for the government, but their votes carry equal if not greater weight than other cabinet members, given Netanyahu’s fear that they may jump ship and leave him without a coalition. His feeble reprimand of Minister Amichai Eliyahu’s call to nuke Gaza is at best an example of Netanyahu’s inability to control his coalition partners and at worst an indication that he shares their sentiments.

Evidence of the media’s complicity is abundant, but it suffices to mention the repeated appearances of Giora Eiland, former head of the military Operations and Planning Division and the National Security Council, on current affairs programs after he suggested that a severe epidemic in Gaza would bring Israeli victory closer. It would appear that Eiland is unfamiliar with the Genocide Convention’s mention of “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” Or perhaps he, like most Israelis, thought that the immunity Israel has enjoyed during decades of flouting international law would continue forever and his calls for pestilence to smite the Gazans wouldn’t make waves.

Anyone who expected a better understanding of the impact of thoughts and deeds from incoming Foreign Minister Israel Katz got a rude awakening when he addressed a ceremony marking his return to the office by pronouncing, no less, that World War III has begun, that it is being waged against radical Islam, and that Israel is leading the world in this fight.

Shortly before the South African application to the ICJ and unrelated to that case, Attorneys Michael Sfard and Alon Sapir submitted a letter to Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara on behalf of a group of Israelis (myself among them, along with former Ambassadors Ilan Baruch, Alon Liel, and Eli Barnavi; former MK Mossi Raz; Professor David Harel, president of the Academy of Sciences; and other prominent figures) containing a long list of remarks that constitute incitement to genocide and calling for judicial action to halt the flood. In typical fashion, reaction to the letter has been to vilify the signatories for giving ammunition to the ICJ. In other words, the outrage is over the publicity given the inciteful remarks rather than the message they convey, just as Israel wrings its hands over the PR damage done by the footage of the devastation in Gaza rather than the devastation itself.

The slaughter perpetrated by Hamas on October 7 and the amount of time and detail that went into its planning left Israel no choice but to respond militarily with the aim of destroying the terrorist organization’s military infrastructure and political stronghold and securing the release of the hostages. Those worthy objectives have been lost, however, in the disproportionality of Israel’s military campaign. This may well keep Israel from meeting any of its declared objectives, as the world’s tolerance for the death and destruction in Gaza is rightfully wearing thin.

What is equally worrisome is the damage being done to the mindset of the Israeli public, which is becoming accustomed to hearing Palestinians equated with blood-thirsty animals and immunized to calls for their demise or, in the more “humane” scenario, expulsion from their lands. This is the public that will be called upon to determine whether the war ends in a deepening of the occupation and the violent fight to end it or the beginning of internationally mediated talks on a political solution. Without judicial intervention to halt the demonization and saber rattling, particularly on the part of government officials and the media, the public may become incapable of making a rational decision.

About the Author
Susie Becher is Managing Editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, a collaborative quarterly published in Jerusalem; is Communications Director of the Policy Working Group, a team of senior academics, former diplomats, human rights defenders, and media experts who advocate for an end to the occupation and a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and serves on the Steering Committee of Zulat, an activist think tank advocating for human rights and equality in Israel.