Black and white texture with a line in the middle
German debates about the Israel-Gaza war often get caught up in polarising terminology. | Photo: Siora Photography, Unsplash

Israel–Gaza Beyond the Concept of Genocide: End Mass Violence Against Civilians Now

German debates about the Israel-Gaza war often get caught up in polarising terminology. This applies in particular to the dispute whether a genocide is occurring. Apart from the legal assessment currently being made by the International Court of Justice, a parallel, polemical discussion about the concept of genocide distracts from actual priorities for action. The war has already cost tens of thousands of lives, and many more Palestinians will die as a direct and indirect consequence of the war. The mass violence against civilians and the destruction of conditions of life in Gaza must end immediately – regardless of whether the legal conditions for genocide are met.

Five months after the Hamas attacks of 7 October 2023 and their ongoing seizure of hostages and the subsequent Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip, the structures of the German war discourse make it difficult to find an appropriate language to discuss violations of international law and war crimes committed by all parties. The accusation of genocide is particularly politically explosive in this context – especially when it is levelled against Israel and when it is made in Germany.

Various traditional motifs of exceptionalism overlap here: the Holocaust as the archetype of genocide, which cannot be compared with other types of violence; German guilt, from which a special obligation to defend Israel as a “safe place for Jews” is derived.

In German discourse, the possibility of genocide by the Israeli state is sometimes categorically ruled out, sometimes dismissed with a reference to the genocidal features of the Hamas attacks. Sometimes the accusation of genocide also provokes a kind of “loud silence” – be it as a strategy to silence what must not be, as an expression of unease in the context of Germany’s historical guilt, out of a perceived lack of judgement in relation to an impenetrable conflict or out of the fear of saying the wrong thing on this controversial issue.

As in previous debates, it is urged from the outside and very rarely from within Germany that the lessons of German history be understood and applied in their universality. The German “Never again!” should be directed against the worst forms of violence, no matter who the perpetrators or the victims. However, when demands of “Stop the genocide in Gaza!” are made at demonstrations or major cultural events in Germany, accusations of anti-Semitism are quickly levelled.

In such cases, the use of the term “genocide” triggers a polarisation into two camps and functions as a conversation stopper. But as genocide is considered the “crime of crimes” or ultimate evil, the incentives to prove its existence – or to deny it – are high.

What Sets Genocide Apart: The Genocidal Intention

There is also a lot at stake because, unlike other acts of violence, ascertaining genocide legally entails intervention by the international community. On this basis, South Africa has filed a lawsuit against Israel for genocide at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. The ICJ has since ordered six interim measures to be taken by Israel to prevent a possible genocide, which it has so far implemented only inadequately.

The United Nations Convention on genocide defines it as an act “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such”. Such destruction can take place not only through the active killing of a group, but also through causing physical and psychological harm or inflicting “conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”, among other things. The key distinguishing feature from crimes against humanity or war crimes is the intention to destroy a group. At the same time, it is precisely this characteristic of the violence that is most difficult to prove.

Whether Israeli warfare constitutes genocide therefore depends largely on the assessment of genocidal intent. Accordingly, the South African lawsuit focused on statements made by high-ranking members of the Israeli government in order to infer an intention to destroy – such as the Israeli prime minister’s call to his people not to forget what the Amalekites had done to them. According to holy scripture, God called on the Israelites to exterminate this people. And even if Netanyahu has denied that he was expressing a genocidal intention towards the Palestinians, such and similar statements are no exception among Israeli political decision-makers and military leaders. The ICJ ruled that the Israeli state must take measures to prevent and punish direct and public incitement to genocide.

The court will continue to investigate whether genocidal intent exists on a collective level. However, this investigation may take years. Nevertheless, the term remains the focal point of broad debates in Germany (and elsewhere) – as if it were the only way to determine once and for all whether Israel’s mass violence against civilians is illegitimate or not.

Mass Violence Beyond the Question of Intent: Transgressive Discourse and Escalation of Violence

Research on mass violence beyond genocide also points to mechanisms through which discursive transgression also translates into an escalation of violence. We also observe such an escalation in the war in Gaza. Here, while the distinction between combatants and non-combatants is central to international humanitarian law, messy contexts of war are susceptible to undermining this guaranteed protection of non-combatant civilians. One example of such discursive and military escalation is the statement by Israeli President Isaac Herzog at the beginning of the war that there were no innocent civilians in Gaza.

Discursive transgressions operate with collectivising attributions. Entire groups of people are labelled as “dangerous” or “guilty” and stylised as a security threat. Sometimes this kind of rhetorical escalation ends in the denial of humanity. For example, the Israeli defence minister described Palestinians as “human animals”. Such dehumanisation, current research argues, also contributes to viewing the destruction of a group as legitimate – or at least to accepting the mass killing of its members.

Given the extent of the violence in Gaza, it can be assumed that the discursive transgressions have also contributed to the escalation of violence against the civilian population. Though statistics cannot grasp the significance of individual life lost, the scale of violence is overwhelming – also in relation to other wars in the name of militarily combatting terrorism. In the past five months, Israeli military operations in Gaza have killed over 30,000 people, around 1.4% of the population.

Since the beginning of the war, more than 60% of Palestinians killed have been civilians; some estimates put the figure as high as 70%. The numbers provided by the Ministry of Health in Gaza are regularly questioned as it has been run by Hamas since taking power in 2007. However, the ministry’s statistics have proven reliable in the past. The ratio of 2 civilian casualties for every 1 combatant killed also corresponds to the official information provided by the Israeli military that even deems this “tremendously positive”.

Deprivation of Basic Necessities of Life and Indirect Consequences of War

The dead from this war are far from being counted, even if a ceasefire came into effect immediately. Inflicting catastrophic conditions of life leads to certain mass death of civilians beyond direct combat operations. Studies on the “global war on terror” have found that 80% of deaths were caused by such indirect consequences of war. Israel’s war in Gaza has created conditions that are inhospitable to life.

Over 85% of the population have already been displaced from their homes due to the fighting. In January 2024, more than 60% of buildings in Gaza had been severely damaged or destroyed. Also, the general infrastructure has been affected by the deadly destruction, undermining the economic basis of existence, food supplies, public administration, education, basic medical care – none of these can be guaranteed any longer.

More than 73,000 inhabitants of the Gaza Strip have been wounded and it is almost impossible to treat them given the collapsed healthcare system, destroyed hospitals and the lack of medicines and materials. Elderly people, women and children are disproportionately affected by these consequences. Serious complications arise during pregnancies and in the care of new-born babies and their mothers.

Because Israel regularly prevents the already difficult delivery of aid to the combat zone, there is a shortage of water, fuel and food. 93% of the people are starving. The extreme restrictions on aid supplies, which even briefly worsened after the ICJ judgement, are now seen by the EU as the use of starvation as a weapon of war.

In Favour of an Immediate End to the Violence and Direct, Massive Humanitarian Aid

We assert: far too many innocent women, children and men in Gaza have already died as a result of fighting, and we fear a massive increase in the number of deaths due to further escalations of violence and hostile conditions of life in Gaza.

Whether the ICJ will categorise the Israeli violence as genocide cannot be answered now. And yet it is also irrelevant for a forceful discursive, diplomatic and political commitment to an immediate ceasefire and for the implementation of direct and massive humanitarian aid.

The German government – together with its allies – must focus all its efforts and levy its entire political weight to put an immediate end to the massive violence against civilians and the withdrawal of life essentials in Gaza. Regardless of how this violence is labelled.

This article is an English translation of an article that has first been published on March 21, 2024 on PRIF Blog.

Hanna Pfeifer

Hanna Pfeifer

Prof. Dr. Hanna Pfeifer ist Professorin für Politikwissenschaft mit dem Schwerpunkt Radikalisierungs- und Gewaltforschung in Kooperation mit der Goethe-Universität Frankfurt und Leiterin der Forschungsgruppe „Terrorismus“ am PRIF. Sie forscht u.a. zu staatlichen und nicht-staatlichen Gewaltformen und –akteuren in der MENA-Region. // Prof. Dr Hanna Pfeifer is Professor of Political Science with a Focus on Radicalisation and Violence Research at PRIF and Goethe University Frankfurt, as well as head of PRIF’s research group “Terrorism”. Her research interests include, inter alia, state and non-state violence and actors in the MENA region. | Twitter: @hanna_pfeifer
Irene Weipert-Fenner

Irene Weipert-Fenner

Dr. Irene Weipert-Fenner ist Projektleiterin im Programmbereich „Innerstaatliche Konflikte“, Koordinatorin der Forschungsgruppe „Regimewettbewerb“ und wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin am PRIF. Sie forscht zu autoritären Regimen, Demokratisierung und politischer Transformation, Protest und sozialen Bewegungen. Ihr regionaler Fokus ist Nordafrika. // Dr Irene Weipert-Fenner is a Senior Researcher, Project Director of the Research Department “Intrastate Conflicts”, and Coordinator of the Research Group “Regime Competition” at PRIF. Her research focuses on authoritarian regimes and political transformation as well as social movements and social justice conflicts, with a regional focus on North Africa. | Twitter: @iweipert
Timothy Williams

Timothy Williams

Prof. Dr. Timothy Williams ist Juniorprofessor für Unsicherheitsforschung und gesellschaftliche Ordnungsbildung an der Universität der Bundeswehr München sowie Sprecher des interdisziplinären Forschungszentrums RISK. Er ist Vizepräsident der International Association of Genocide Scholars und im Vorstand der Arbeitsgemeinschaft Friedens- und Konfliktforschung. // Prof. Dr Timothy Williams is a Junior Professor of Insecurity and Social Order and Chairman of the interdisciplinary research centre RISK at the University of the Bundeswehr Munich in Germany, as well as Vice President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars.

Hanna Pfeifer

Prof. Dr. Hanna Pfeifer ist Professorin für Politikwissenschaft mit dem Schwerpunkt Radikalisierungs- und Gewaltforschung in Kooperation mit der Goethe-Universität Frankfurt und Leiterin der Forschungsgruppe „Terrorismus“ am PRIF. Sie forscht u.a. zu staatlichen und nicht-staatlichen Gewaltformen und –akteuren in der MENA-Region. // Prof. Dr Hanna Pfeifer is Professor of Political Science with a Focus on Radicalisation and Violence Research at PRIF and Goethe University Frankfurt, as well as head of PRIF’s research group “Terrorism”. Her research interests include, inter alia, state and non-state violence and actors in the MENA region. | Twitter: @hanna_pfeifer

Weitere Beiträge zum Thema

Court Orders Dutch Government to halt the Export of F-35 Parts to Israel: Implications for the War in Gaza and Beyond In a landmark ruling in mid-February, the Hague Court of Appeal ordered the Dutch government to stop exporting parts for the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II to Israel, citing the...
Is the Work Done? Views from Armenians in Germany on the Recognition of the Armenian Genocide All around the globe the Armenian Diaspora has been campaigning in their respective countries to recognise the massacres of 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 as g...
Mass Evacuations in Israel’s War Against Hamas: Taking Precautions in Attack or Forced Displacement? The attacks of Hamas against Israel were deeply shocking. Israel has a right to defend itself against Hamas and at the same time it is obliged to protect the civilian population of...