To this date, any attempt at describing Assad’s war against the majority Sunni population in major swaths of the country as genocide is met with such pushback by all sorts of people, even though in certain towns and villages, the massacres did lead to the elimination of the local Sunni population, through massacres that did not spear women and children, and ethnic cleansing. Moreover, eliminating the local Sunni population was clearly the intention here. So, legally speaking, there is a case for the claim that the pro-Assad militias are guilty of “acts of genocide.” ISIS seems intent on perpetrating such acts as well.
But, when it came to Gaza, it didn’t take long before the term Genocide started to get deployed by all and sundry, including author Naomi Wolf, who said: “I mourn genocide in Gaza because I am the granddaughter of a family half wiped out in a holocaust and I know genocide when I see it.” That’s a pretty powerful statement.
True, all crimes against humanity are heinous; there is no hierarchy here, and no moral need for it. But the deployment of the concept does have its uses, other than to enflame popular sentiment for the sake of it. The deployment of the term Genocide underlines scale, potential and real, of the crisis that is facing us at a particular moment. When I started using that term, back in mid-2012 in relation to the Syrian conflict, this was indeed my intention. Several massacres and ethnic cleansing targeting the Sunni population had already taken place by then in the central and coastal regions of the country, and word of the concentration camps run by the Assad regime has already gotten out. To me, such developments came as strong indications of how bad things were likely to get barring a major international effort to stop the conflict. Clearly, my colleagues and I were not successful in our effort to bring about the needed intervention, largely due to the particularistic calculations of the Obama administration, and now this whole issue now seems to be rather academic.
But, could the deployment of this concept in the case of the ongoing conflict in Gaza be of any use for the Gazans, and the Palestinian people in general? Personally, I doubt it.
No matter how bad the Israeli occupation is, especially for the inhabitants of Gaza, Israeli government tends to operate under a different set of constraints than the Assad regime, and its Russian and Iranian backers. This is not 1948, nor is it 1967. Israel’s current objective in Gaza is not about driving the Palestinians into Egypt, or the sea for that matter, nor changing the demographic realities of the Strip, but about toppling Hamas. Whether we agree with this goal or not, whether we think the goal is achievable or not, genocide is not at stake here. We may not be able to speak with any credibility of acts of genocide even, that is, of small scale mass slaughter campaign aiming at changing demographic realities in a particular localities. Everything that is being destroyed in Gaza today, barring some unforeseen meltdown, will one day soon be rebuilt by the Gazans themselves, not Israeli settlers. The process for rebuilding might indeed begin as soon as a stable ceasefire is reached.
It’s unlikely, however, that towns and villages that have been emptied of their Sunni population in Syria, and the few that have bene emptied of their Alawite or Christian population on account of attacks by ISIS and Nusra, will ever be repopulated by their original inhabitants, or the survivors of the original populations to be more specific. This is so either because the survivors are too few, or, because the process of repopulation and rebuilding would require a military victory by one side or the other – a prospect that remains beyond the realm of possibilities at this stage.
The coverage of the current tragic developments in Gaza seems more influenced by what happened decades ago, rather than what’s at stake now. If we are to save the two-state solution from the current folie a deux, or trois or quatre, whatever the case may be at this stage, our coverage needs to be more attuned to the real drivers of the current showdown, and not its historical roots. By now, conflict drivers as they pertain to the Israeli-Palestinian dynamics seem to have markedly evolved. Not so our understanding of them, especially on the more popular level. By now, we have political and socioeconomic elites on both sides of the equation whose careers and interests seem premised more on conflict prolongation than resolution.
A final note
Most those rushing to deploy the term genocide to describe the Israeli newest misadventure in Gaza have been silent in regard to the all too real acts of genocide taking place in neighboring Syria, and some have been justified them.