Allison Paisner

Real genocide: Inside the Killing Fields of Cambodia

When you claim Israel is committing 'genocide,' you have it wrong. The oppression of Palestinians is at the hands of their own leaders
From inside the memorial stupa at Choeung Ek Genocidal Center
From inside the memorial stupa at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center in Phnom Penh you can see the tower 17 stories high filled with 8,000 skulls pulled from the mass graves. (courtesy)

On October 7th, when the massacre that began what we now know to be this generation’s biggest threat to our existence, I remember sitting in my cousin’s living room in Pardesiya. The only feeling more powerful than the panic, fear, and adrenaline overcoming my body as the day unfolded and my family watched live on Channel 12 the horrors happening just 100 kilometers (some 62 miles) away was the thought, “Thank God I am in Israel right now.” 

Not having been in the army and not having anything to contribute other than volunteer hours in a local community kitchen (where I cut mismatched shaped carrots and over-garnished the chicken that was being sent to our soldiers), all I have is my love for Israel. I can’t imagine being anywhere else during this war. But back in June, I had booked a trip to Southeast Asia with El Al. Finding myself utterly useless the past few weeks, I decided that Hamas and terrorism would not win this battle, and flew. 

It took a few days to adjust to being in a third-world country and also not being at war. I still jump, out of habit, any time I hear a siren or alarm. But I soon found myself in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, with just one destination in mind: The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, also known as the Killing Fields. 

Coincidentally, I’m hearing the word genocide thrown around a lot over the past couple of weeks — social media, news headlines, podcasts. That Israel is allegedly committing genocide of Palestinians. 

So this word hits extra close to home as I visit the Killing Fields — a center to remember and commemorate the victims of genocide committed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge from April 17, 1975 until liberation on January 7, 1979. During that time, 2 million Cambodians were slaughtered at the hands of their own government, 25 percent of the country’s population wiped out in just a few years. All due to the warped and disillusioned communist vision of the Khmer Rouge regime. 

I want to be clear that I’m not drawing parallels to these two failures of humanity — the Cambodian genocide and the Israel-Hamas war. I’m just sharing my observations. And as I walk through the Killing Fields, the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge echo in the headset resting on my ears. The tactics are eerily sadistic and akin to the Hamas killing spree on October 7th. 

I’m listening to the narration on audio recording after audio recording, in order, as designed. And I’m listening to the Khmer Rouge’s manipulation of resources, money, and power to strengthen their political and ideological agenda at the cost of its own people — who are starving, dying, and suffering. All while its leaders build personal wealth and steal from their own people to further their ideology. Sound familiar? 

In Cambodia, 25% of the population was decimated deliberately and systematically in just 3 years, 8 months and 20 days. It is hard to even wrap your head around this number. 

As I walk down the gravel path around the Killing Fields, I feel the silent, hot tears streaming down my cheek, and I am more and more frustrated with every step. Cambodia’s haunting past is infiltrating my every thought and feeling in the present. 

How can anyone believe that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza?

And to make sure we’re comparing apples to apples, I settled on the UN definition of genocide as the most comprehensive and widely accepted. They break the definition of genocide down into a physical element and a mental element, which focuses primarily on intent. 

Let’s start with the numbers. Objectively, the population of Gaza grew from 1.4 million people in 2005 to 2.1 million in 2023. That’s a 50% increase in population in less than 20 years.

But more concerning about the accusation of Israel committing genocide in Gaza deals with intent. The name of this war is called the Israel-Hamas war for a reason. Who are we fighting and who is the target? 

Yes, there are deaths of innocent people in Gaza at the hands of Israeli weapons and soldiers. But their blood is on the hands of Hamas. 

These poor people are trapped — their own government built a terrorist society underneath education and health centers. Where Israel invested in building an actual shield to protect its citizens (the Iron Dome), Hamas effectively built a human shield. And the innocent civilians in Gaza have nowhere safe to turn. 

Where is the cry for Egypt to open its borders to accept refugees? Where is the outrage at the international community who are also not accepting refugees? Where is the outrage at Hamas for stealing electricity and water from its people to build more tunnels and rockets, that are still firing into Israel by the dozens on a daily basis? Where is the outrage at the UN for allowing a terrorist regime to gain power and torture its own people?  

The IDF is begging the people of Gaza to leave so they can wipe out Hamas. And yet Hamas will not let their people out. There is no option for Israel to rid Gaza (or the world) of Hamas and not encounter civilian casualties – because Hamas is enabling it by design. 

Israel completed its disengagement from Gaza in 2005. And since, has agreed to multiple ceasefires (i.e., 2006, 2008, 2014, 2021), in the hopes that Gaza and their elected officials Hamas can (excuse my language) get their s*** together for all intents and purposes — and build a healthy society. 

But all Hamas built is hatred and weapons, with no remorse for its people. Each ceasefire has been permission for Hamas to take peace as an opportunity to reinvest and rebuild their terrorist infrastructure. 

I’m staring genocide in the face here at the Killing Fields. And I’m brought back to the scenes from my visit to Auschwitz. And I cannot understand how anyone can call what Israel is doing as genocide. What I’m seeing, as history has shown time and time again, is an oppression of a people. At the hands of their own leaders. 

The self-guided tour of the mass graves takes you full circle. (courtesy)

I empathize with Gazans who want nothing more than for peace, to be free, to rebuild their families and homes and humanity after 20 years of suffering at the hands of a terrorist organization. 

The words Free Palestine are REAL. It must happen. But it does not make sense as a movement directed at Israel for a ceasefire. It cannot be directed at Israel. At least, not now. 

First, it needs to be directed against Hamas. Against those initiating and exacerbating this conflict fueled by hatred and thirst for Jewish blood. And take these words From the River to the Sea and ask yourself what the implications of this are re: genocide. 

I’m cautiously optimistic that we will Free Palestine of Hamas, but am less optimistic when it comes to all the healing that needs to be done — on both sides. But before we can get there, Israel cannot concede to accusations of committing genocide. Nor, more importantly, can we agree to a ceasefire while Hamas still exists, and our hostages are not free. Otherwise, we continue in this self-fulfilling prophecy of vicious cycles that become increasingly severe with every ceasefire.

Memorial Stupa. (courtesy)
About the Author
Allison Paisner is originally from NJ and earned her Master of Public Policy from George Washington University. She fell in love with Israel while teaching English in Petah Tikva for a year, and made Aliyah to Tel Aviv in 2018 where she has been living and working since.
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