Two weeks later, part two: Questioning the words

As time goes by, the world’s attention has shifted (predictably) from the hundreds of hostages being held and the atrocities committed by Hamas in Israel (a mere two weeks ago), to the plight of those in Gaza.

And (equally predictably) this means we are hearing, with increased volume and frequency, the assertions that what is happening in Gaza, in addition to being “illegal occupation” by Israel, amounts to “ethnic cleansing”, or worse, “genocide”.

These are BIG and highly charged words, that describe not just any ordinary misdeeds, but the absolute worst kinds of conduct that humanity is capable of. Therefore, if someone is going to bandy these words about, they should do so with care. The most basic level of which would be to actually know what they mean.

So, let’s start with some definitions.

“Occupation” in this context is generally taken to mean “temporary military control by a ruling power over a territory that is outside of that power’s sovereign territory”. Occupation is not of itself illegal – although you’d think it was, given how it is almost always referred to as such when talking about Israel. That said, an occupation can become illegal if the occupying power does not comply with various international rules of conduct that apply to occupations, or if it goes on too long.

“Ethnic cleansing” (again, contrary to what most people may think) has never actually been defined as a crime under International Law, but is generally accepted as being a war crime, meaning “the mass expulsion / killing of members of one ethnic religious group in an area by another”.

Then there is “genocide”, which is a defined crime under International Law, comprising “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group“.

But the thing to note is that these are very basic definitions. If you do even a bit of cursory research, you will find that there are literally millions of pages of legal debate, jurisprudence, discussion and argument around the precise meaning of each term, and if/when it applies.

In other words, what almost any person with an internet connection can verify in under three minutes is that these are not casual words with casual meanings. Rather, they’re legal terms with specific legal meanings, that exist mainly for use in the high-concept realm of international law.

Which beggars the question: why do so many sensible people accept, without question, when those with absolutely no qualification to do so use these words to casually label the conduct of an entire nation? (Protestors, activists and journalists included).

I mean, if you came across someone who happened to be coughing, you might say “oh, it looks like they are unwell”. You might even go so far as to say “Sounds like they have a flu”. But I doubt very much you would feel entitled to proclaim, publicly and with 100% certainty, that the person you just met has a case of, say, antitrypsin deficiency.

You wouldn’t do this because you know that if you are going to offer an opinion on something that even expert medical professionals will spend days debating, most people will ask for the source of your expertise. And, if you can’t provide it, they’d be entitled to ignore your diagnosis as quackery.

It is not controversial to say that we don’t normally take at face value opinions that require specialist expertise, if those opinions come from people who don’t have the specialist expertise needed to provide them. Unless, that is, if that opinion relates to international law and the case of Israel, in which case it seems that anything goes.

Now, in writing this “mini-post” my aim is not to try to condense a hugely complex international law debate into a few short paragraphs (or worse, into a three-word slogan to put on a poster). Rather, what I want to do is point out items that feed into the overall debate, where those items seem self-evident yet mostly get ignored by the anti-Israel camp.

So, let’s start with the so-called “occupation” of Gaza.

There is a library’s worth of writing about the legal nature of Israel’s relationship with Gaza – past, present and future. But agreed facts you will hear repeated in every news report at the moment, regardless of which side of the political spectrum it comes from, are these: (i) Gaza has been free of Israeli rule since 2005, (ii) Gaza has been governed by Hamas since 2007, (iii) on 7th October, Hamas, the governing power in Gaza, launched a surprise invasion from Gaza into Israel, and (iv) Israel’s military is not in control of Gaza – a reasonably self-evident statement insofar as the Israeli army is presently massing on the border of Gaza in readiness for a much anticipated ground invasion.

How then can it be possible for there to be a border between two territories, separating Israel from Gaza, and on one side of which Israel is not present, yet in the same breath Israel is said to “occupy” the territory in which it is not present?

I mean, even a five-year-old knows that it is completely absurd to say that a person “occupies” a place but at the same time the person is not even in that place. Although that doesn’t stop thousands of protestors saying exactly this in the case of Israel and Gaza. Nor does it stop millions of people believing them.

The same absurdity is there when it comes to words like “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide”.

When Israel handed Gaza over to Palestinian control in 2005, there were (according to Palestinian census records) about 1 million people living in Gaza. Today (according to those same records, not to mention every news report at the moment) there are 2.2 million residents of Gaza. That means the territory’s population has more than doubled in the last 20 years (which, incidentally, explains the other fact mentioned in just about every news report at the moment, which is that half of Gaza’s population are children).

Again, any 5-year-old looking at this set of facts would conclude that Israel is the absolute worst perpetrator of “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” in all of history if, after almost 20 years of trying, the population that Israel is supposedly trying to get rid has not only not reduced, but in fact has actually more than doubled.

[For reference, the same holds true at a broader level. In 1948, at the time of Israel’s creation as a modern nation state, there were an estimated 1.5 million Palestinians (in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza in aggregate). Today, it’s about 6 million. And whilst you are entitled to have a negative view on many things that Israel has done in relation to the Palestinians over the last 75 years, the one thing you can’t say is that what has happened is “ethnic cleaning” or “genocide”. Because, as a matter of basic math, it is self-evidently not true.]

Bringing me to the final thing I wanted to reflect on today: why?

Why is it that people seem so willing to use/allow the use of these highly emotional, charged and damning words in relation to Israel, when they self-evidently don’t seem to apply?

Well, I’d say that the people who choose to use these terms (or tolerate their use) fall into one of two camps.

The vast majority are folks who genuinely don’t know any better. Someone presses a placard into their hand that says “Stop the Genocide” and they chant merrily away, not really understanding what they are saying, or why they are saying it. These people, in my view, are shmucks. But being a shmuck doesn’t mean you are malicious. It just means you are dumb.

On the other hand, there is the much smaller group of people who, I think, know exactly what they are doing. They accuse Israel of “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide”, even if they know these claims don’t actually stack up, precisely because they know this accusation is exactly the thing that will most get under Jewish people’s skins.

Think about it: if you wanted to land the ultimate knock-out-blow on someone who was raped, you’d tell everyone willing to listen that the rape victim is, in fact, the rapist themselves. If you wanted to stab in the heart someone who was abused as a child, you’d publicly brand them as a pedophile.

So, do you really want to rattle someone whose entire paternal family was summarily evicted from Morocco to become refugees in the late 1940s, after 800 years in that country, simply because Jews were no longer welcome? Accuse that person of supporting “ethnic cleansing”.

Do you really want to deeply wound someone whose entire maternal family was almost wiped off the face of the earth by the Nazis, simply because they were Jews? Accuse that person of being part of modern nation-state trying to perpetrate “genocide”.

You’d do this because you know that the person you are accusing, more so than just about anyone else, understands the horror of what you are accusing them of. You’d know that they’d hold themselves to a higher standard, and be far more self-critical, than anyone else. You’d know that they are actually the last people on earth who’d knowingly do the same to anyone else, and you’d know that your accusations, made up as they may be, would really hurt.

And yes – as you may have guessed, that “someone” I referred to above is, well, me. And yes, I am indeed rattled, deeply wounded, and really upset. But mainly I am plain-old pissed off to see and hear so many people I consider to be smart and otherwise intellectually honest allowing the casual use of these terms, with total disregard to their accuracy.

About the Author
Eytan Uliel is an Australian-Israeli writer, wanderer and global traveler. After graduating from the University of New South Wales in Sydney Australia, he practiced corporate law for several years, before moving on to a career in investment banking, private equity, and oil and gas finance. An extensive work travel schedule has taken Eytan to every corner of the globe – over 85 countries, and counting. His blog – The Road Warrior – chronicles these journeys through a series of short stories and essays, some of which have been republished in various magazines and newspapers. He is also the author of two award winning books. Eytan was born in Jerusalem, and has lived in South Africa, Australia, Singapore, the UK, The Bahamas, the USA and France.
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