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A Genocide Expert Makes Sense of War Crimes in Gaza

It is common to use the word “genocide” in rhetoric, but the word has a precise definition. It requires the implementation of intent to destroy an ethnic group. Has Israel done this? Not yet. But more probably, it is committing war crimes, and creating a situation that could quickly turn into genocide.
the word genocide

Illustration of a dictionary defining genocide. © Feng Yu /

November 24, 2023 02:05 EDT

Words matter. No more so than in legal settings.

Genocide is the word most associated with Israel’s more than one-month-long assault on Gaza in response to the October 7 Hamas attack against Israel, in which at least 1,200, mostly civilian, Israelis were killed.

Genocide and Holocaust scholars, including those who believe that Israel has and is committing war crimes in its assault, are divided about whether Israeli actions amount to genocide. Even so, they warn that Israeli actions could lead to genocide, if they have not already.

What is certain is that optics streaming out of Gaza of the destruction and the plight of innocent Palestinian civilians, including large numbers of children and babies, explain the popular use of the term “genocide” when discussing the Israeli assault.

To get some proper definitions and put things in perspective. I spoke to Professor Omar Bartov, a world-renowned genocide and Holocaust scholar at Brown University in Rhode Island.

James M. Dorsey: Omer Bartov, welcome to the show, and thank you for taking the time.

Omer Bartov: Thank you for having me.

Dorsey: Perhaps we can start on a personal note. I’m curious about what got you interested in genocide studies. Obviously, the ethics of the conduct of war are not purely theory to you. You were born in Israel and served in the Israeli military during the 1973 Middle East War, which, like October 7, caught Israel off guard.

Bartov: Yes, you’re right. I have a longstanding interest in this issue. It began really with my interest in war crimes as a teenager. I was very interested in military history and then, as you said, I served in the army. I ended up being an officer, a company commander, and I also kept reading about war.

What I became interested in was the tension between the kind of aura that the German military, the Wehrmacht, had in World War II as an excellent fighting force and the crimes that it claimed had been committed in the rear — behind the backs of the “heroic soldiers” of the Wehrmacht. And I became skeptical about that, particularly the war in the Soviet Union. And so, my first research was really to see whether the army, the German army of that time, and the veterans and the generals who came out of that army were telling the truth about the fact that the crimes were committed by the SS, by the Gestapo, but never by the honorable German army.

And, obviously, that was not the case. So, I spent several years digging through German archives and discovered that the German army (a) participated heavily in war crimes — which is not surprising, considering that close to 30 million Soviet soldiers and civilians were murdered during that war — and (b) that these soldiers were heavily indoctrinated. So, they were not participating in war crimes only because war is terrible, which it is, but also because they’d been indoctrinated into believing that they were fighting sub-humans.

So, that was the beginning of my interest in this question.

It actually started, as I said, with war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide because the German military was involved in the genocide of the Jews, not as the main organizer, but as the facilitator of mass murder of Jews. And from there I started studying genocide more generally and ended up also studying the Holocaust more specifically.

Now, of course, I grew up in Israel. In my childhood, we were surrounded by Holocaust survivors. There were many people you could see with numbers tattooed on their forearms. There were many of my friends whose parents were traumatized and would scream at night from nightmares. I mean, this was part of the scene in which you grew up.

But as I realized later on, we also were growing up in a country that had just also ethnically cleansed the Palestinian population that had lived in the neighborhoods in which we were growing up. (I was born in the 50s.) And so that kind of realization of everything that had happened to members of my generation shortly before I was born — the Holocaust and the trauma of that and the creation of the state of Israel, much of it on the ruins of what had been Palestinian civilization — formed much of my own interest since then until to this day.

Dorsey: I want to come back to some of the things you just said, but let’s start off with trying to get some definitions. If I understand the law correctly, intent is a key factor in determining whether actions amount to genocide. I think it would be helpful if you could define what constitutes intent and what the legal differences are between genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

Bartov: Right. So, it is important to make these distinctions. War crimes are defined in the 1949 Geneva Conventions and subsequent protocols as serious violations of the laws and customs of war in international armed conflict, which means war between states against both combatants and civilians. So, these are crimes that are committed within the context of war against soldiers and civilians.

Crimes against humanity, for which there’s no direct convention, are defined in the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court.

The term [genocide] was already used, of course, in the Nuremberg Tribunal of 1945. But the definition in the Rome Statute defines crimes against humanity as extermination of, or other mass crimes against, any civilian population. And that does not have to be at a time of war and also does not call for direct intent. It’s just mass killing of civilians.

The crime of genocide is, in particular, a somewhat bizarre convention, and it’s important to understand exactly what it says.

So, the crime of genocide is defined and was defined in 1948 by the UN as the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group as such.

So, that means that in order to identify genocide, you need two elements. One element is intent — that you can identify the organization or the state carrying out genocide intends to do that. It’s not just a byproduct of something else that it is doing such as war.

The second element is that the crime is committed against the group as such. And that’s very important. That is, that you’re not killing people only as individuals or doing anything else to them, such as depriving them of food or so forth, but that you are doing it with the intent of destroying the group that they belong to. And your intention is to make that group disappear, be destroyed, whether by killing or by other means.

And often, because genocide has been called the crime of crimes, it’s supposed to be the worst crime that any state can perpetrate. There is a tendency to use that word, which was coined in 1943/44, against anything that we find abhorrent. But in fact, in international law, it has a particular definition. And it doesn’t mean that crimes against humanity are any better or worse than genocide. It just means that they’re defined differently.

Dorsey: I just wanted to drill down on one thing. Is there a legal definition of “destroy”?

Bartov: Well, according to the UN resolution of 1948, there’s a long list of how you go about doing that. But what it means is to destroy the group as such. Hypothetically that means that you don’t necessarily have to kill anyone. If you, for instance, remove the children of that group from the group, hand them over to be adopted by another group and raise them as members of another ethnic national religious group, and they have no idea of who they would’ve been otherwise, that could constitute genocide.

And that’s actually how the term was used in the case of Australia and Canada, where children were taken away from indigenous populations. It can also be depriving a group of the sources of its existence.

So, this happens if you move it to another place — if you, say, do what happened in the genocide of the Herrero in German Southwest Africa in 1904. The German military was called in by the white settlers, who said there was an uprising of the Herrero and the Nama people. The military came in there and said to the population, “You have to go to the desert, you have to go to the Kalahari desert. We are not going to allow you to stay here anymore because you constitute a danger to our own people.” And at the same time, the army also took care to plug all the watering holes in the desert. Then, although you may not be killing them, you’re sending them to certain death and therefore you are destroying that group as such.

And it’s important to understand that, because you asked about the relationship between ethnic cleansing and genocide, and that’s where we find that somewhat of a gray zone.

Ethnic cleansing, as such, is not defined in international law. It comes under crimes against humanity, under a list of potential crimes against humanity.

But what it actually is is the removal of a group from a territory that you don’t want them in because you want your own group to be there, whereas genocide, of course, is the attempt to destroy a group, wherever it is.

But in reality, as we could see in the genocide of the Herrero in 1904, the genocide of the Armenians in 1915, and in fact the genocide of the Jews as well, the original goal was to remove the population from an area where you did not want them to be. And then, under particular circumstances, you either move them to an area where they would die, or you decide, which the Nazis did well, “We have no place to move them to. So, the most humane policy,” as some Nazis said, “is to kill them.”

Dorsey: Right. What I’d like to do is see how this applies to both Israel and Hamas and start off with Hamas. And there, I really have two sets of questions.

One is that, early on, you spoke about war crimes in terms of a war between two states. The question of course, is Hamas a state or is it a non-state actor, even though it does run a government in Gaza?

And the other question is the group’s charter, which is widely cited as evidence that it is a genocidal organization. Hamas’ original charter, adopted in 1988, called for the killing of Jews based on a saying attributed to Prophet Muhammad. Hamas adopted a new charter in 2017 that dropped the call to kill Jews. Even so, the new charter calls for Israel to be replaced by a Palestinian state in all of historic Palestine, but allows for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel as an interim step. Would that be enough to qualify Hamas as a genocidal organization?

Bartov: So, these are two important questions.

I’m not an international lawyer, but I think that, by and large, because Hamas was elected to power in Gaza, because it is the hegemon in Gaza, it runs most of the institutes, in fact — now, of course, there’s a big mess there right now, but [Hamas] did run most of the institutions in Gaza, law enforcement, schools, religious life and so forth, whether people liked it or not, and it also has a large armed organization — it could be seen as something resembling a government of a state. And from that point of view, I think that whatever it does, let’s say the October 7th attack, can be considered as something carried out by a government of a particular entity, a kind of state.

And under that you, I think, would not have much trouble defining that as a war crime attack on large numbers of civilians.

You could also define it, likely, as crimes against humanity, because of the large numbers and the nature of the killing, which was particularly atrocious.

And then you come to the second question. Is Hamas an organization that actually wants to destroy the state of Israel?

You are right that the original charter actually lifts whole parts out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is a fabrication originally carried out by the Russian secret police before World War I or the turn of the 19th century, and is kind of antisemitic canard.

And then it also cites from the [Hadith], the most sort of anti-Jewish elements there, and is both an antisemitic document — I mean just a hair-raising document — and talks about the destruction of the state. The revised 2017 version, as far as I know, does not say that it replaces the previous charter.

It’s an adaptation of the charter to political conditions that existed at the time. And it has removed the antisemitic elements there, and it actually speaks about the fact that it is not against Jews. It is against Israel quite explicitly, and it also agrees, as you say, to an interim solution of two states. And it does it in large part to be in conformity with the Palestinian Authority. This is part of the political game there, but at the core, I think Hamas actually wants to destroy the state of Israel.

And what we have seen since October 7 is that a number of leaders of Hamas have said publicly on television that the attack will be repeated again and again, that they will do that because that’s the only way to deal with the Zionist entity, destroy the state of Israel.

So, does that make them a genocidal organization? I think one can make the case for that. It’s a little bit of a stretch, but I think what could make the case, and if that is true, then one could say, as I would understand it, the attack of October 7 was at least a genocidal attack.

So, obviously, it did not aim at killing all Jews in Israel, because it was not capable of doing that, but it was done under the general heading of the Hamas conception of what Hamas wants to do to create an Islamic Palestinian state in all of Palestine.

Perhaps. It takes you into particularly difficult waters, though, if you expand that to all kinds of ideologies that exist now on the other side — that is, in Israel — and we can talk about that and that’s why I’m a little cautious applying that category to Hamas.

Dorsey: Indeed. That’s what my next question was going to be, which is to look at the case of Israel, where to the best of my knowledge, there is no official document laying out an adopted government policy that would qualify as evidence of intent to commit genocide. There are, however, numerous statements by senior officials and military officers that could qualify as signaling intent. Would that constitute evidence? And more generally, what qualifies as evidence?

Bartov: So, as I said before, when you try to see whether genocide is taking place or may be in the offing, you need two things. By and large, you need statements of intent, and then you need to show that that intent is being implemented, that there is an implementation of policy.

Israeli political leaders, including the prime minister, the minister of defense and other cabinet ministers have made statements that show an intent to destroy, uproot, flatten, remove Hamas, but they often slide from speaking about Hamas to speaking about Gaza.

And we have to remember that the vast majority of the population of Gaza actually are refugees or descendants of refugees from what was mandatory Palestine — often from communities that are or used to be just across the fence from where the Gaza Strip is.

So, statements of intent have been made. One has to add to that that there have been other statements, coming largely from military leaders, insisting that what they’re doing is trying to dismantle Hamas as a military organization, they’re taking great care not to harm the civilian population, but because Hamas is in highly congested areas and has allegedly placed its headquarters under hospitals, its missiles (under) schools or kindergartens and so forth, it has no choice but to also harm civilians. And it says that that’s the responsibility of Hamas. So, you have two different types of statements.

If you look more closely still at the implementation of policy, I would say you have two elements here.

One, I would say, and I’m not the only one who’s saying it, is that you have a clear disproportionality between the military goals as they are articulated by the Israeli military and the number of civilians that are being killed. We have now well over 12,000. That’s the estimate of civilians killed. There may be more — I mean, some people, of course, argue that we can’t trust Hamas figures, but on the other hand, there are probably hundreds if not thousands of people buried under the debris, and many of them are children. About 50% of the population is under 18.

So, first of all, you have vast disproportionality. It’s not clear that Israel has really managed to dismantle Hamas as a fighting organization. Maybe it did it in the city of Gaza, but certainly not in the entire Strip. And the numbers of losses are huge.

And when you talk about disproportionality, you’re talking about both the immediate military goal and then the larger goal. What is actually your goal in killing so many people? Why are you doing it? And here the Israeli government has not articulated that clearly, and we can get back to what that means.

The second element is that part of the Israeli military operation is based on removing the population of the northern part of Gaza to the southern part of Gaza. And so about a million people have been dislocated from northern Gaza to the southern Gaza Strip where they’re living under dire conditions and lacking all sufficient infrastructure for long-term survival. With the approach of winter now things are going to get much, much worse very quickly.

Meanwhile, Gaza has been flattened as Israeli political and military leaders said they would do. They have, and if you listen to the Israeli media, people are talking about that with glee. There have been reports from the ground in Israel where you see the city of Gaza is flattened. There are just no houses standing there.

So, even if the people who were removed from that area are allowed to go back, they have nothing to go back to. And right now, in the last two days, the Israeli army has also ordered people in the eastern part of the southern Strip to move to its western part because now they want to have military operations there.

So, they are constricting them increasingly into smaller and smaller territory. Now, I’ll add one last thing to this, and that’s really coming out just in the last few days. There is more and more talk in Israel by various people related to the government of relocating the population as a humanitarian act.

So, just as the army was saying, its humanitarian policy is to move people out of the area of operations so that they don’t get killed. Now, various spokespeople (many of them connected to the Kohelet organization [a right-wing Israeli think tank] that launched the judicial overhaul that everybody was excited about or mad about before the war) are saying we should relocate them perhaps to the Sinai Peninsula, perhaps to the Negev, and ultimately maybe they should just be distributed as refugees to other countries. They are refugees, in any case. And then we’ll have the Gaza Strip to ourselves and we’ll be able to settle it again as we had done before Israel had moved out of the Gaza Strip. These kinds of actions show a particular intent of ethnic cleansing that could also very easily become genocidal actions — that is, causing mass death to the population, removing it from the area where it lives and then, in attempting to destroy its own identity by moving it elsewhere, dispersing it around the world.

Dorsey: You’ve said that there’s no proof that Israeli operations in Gaza amount to genocide, but that they could qualify as war crimes or crimes against humanity, and that there is still time to prevent the Gaza war from evolving into genocide. Would Israeli actions like the cutting off of the supply of essentials for human life like food, the attacks on the hospitals, what you just mentioned, the unsafe moving of civilian populations, if not transferring them beyond the borders of the territory they live in, and collective punishment constitute evidence?

Bartov: So we are right now in a kind of gray zone because even what you’re citing, I said over a week ago. Things have been changing. I think that there is growing evidence of war crimes; there’s growing evidence of crimes against humanity, and, if the policies that I just outlined are allowed to be implemented, that could constitute genocide. They have not been implemented fully yet. The population of Gaza is still there. What its fate will be, we don’t know.

And I must add another element to it, which to my mind will make at least part of the difference between this sliding toward genocide and not. That is that the Israeli government has not articulated what its policy for the “day after” is, and the day after here is crucial.

At some point, the fighting will stop. We don’t know yet whether there may be a ceasefire, but a ceasefire doesn’t mean that the fighting will stop. In 1948, there were various ceasefires, and then the fighting resumed. But at some point, the fighting will come to an end. What will happen then, if you look at those kind of plans that are being floated now in the Israeli media by all kinds of spokespeople for the government — although the government has not said that itself — there are two options here. One is that the Israeli government will want to continue what existed before, just without Hamas. That is, to remove Hamas and then to put a fence around the Gaza Strip bigger and better than the one that they quite easily overcame and say, we are not responsible for those people. They can rot there. We don’t care. And then continue implementing Israel’s policy on the West Bank, which is partly ethnic cleansing, partly annexation and massive settlement. I don’t know whether that would be possible, but that’s one possibility. That will mean that Gaza will remain the same thing and things will happen over and over again.

The other option is a political option, the beginning of political negotiations and a settlement between an Israeli political leadership and a Palestinian political leadership. That means that both the Israeli political leadership has to be replaced — and I think it will be replaced; It’s totally discredited — and the Palestinian political leadership will be replaced. And Hamas, I think, is also totally discredited, and the Palestinian Authority is extremely weak and unpopular and its leadership would have to be changed. And there are potential leaders, although they’re mostly in jail. They’re in Israeli jail, so it’s not very difficult to release them.

That would create a different paradigm. And creating that different paradigm could be the difference between sliding into an increasingly genocidal policy and moving toward something that could see some silver lining at the end of all this killing. I don’t know if that is possible. It seems like there’s pressure on Israel to move in that direction. I don’t think the pressure is sufficient, but I think that that’s, in many ways, the only means by which we could prevent this from becoming even worse and potentially a genocidal situation.

Dorsey: I want to come back to the “day after” in a second, but I’d like to sort of first just clarify something. You essentially have a situation in which the siege of Gaza for all practical matters, (no food coming in, water, electricity, fuel) is essentially robbing the territory of the essentials of life. Now, clearly, there’ve been today some developments with a minimal amount of fuel being allowed into Gaza, but nonetheless, doesn’t that or does that in itself constitute intent if you’re starving people of food, of water, potable water, electricity, fuel and so on?

Bartov: It’s a complicated situation, first because this is a sort of moving target, as you said, and I think that the Israeli military and the political authorities are trying to balance things more or less in a way that they put increasing pressure on the population on the one hand, but that they’re not seeing it as entirely starving it of resources. So they’re sort of trying to find a balance, and that is clearly the reason that they’ve allowed fuel in today. They’re even saying that there is another element: that in the laws of war blockade or siege is not entirely impermissible. So even if we look at it as a war crime, there are conditions under which — if you look at, say, the British blockade of Germany in World War I — there’s a difference between a blockade or a siege that could be defined as military strategy and one that is not allowed.

And I think that at this point, Israel is trying to position itself just on this sort of margin between a war crime and a non-war crime. They have a phalanx of lawyers who constantly look at what they’re doing, which is sort of interesting on its own. So, I’m skeptical about that being defined as a war crime as opposed to indiscriminate bombing and destruction right now, which I think would be easier.

But if you move from the category of war crimes to one of genocide, then you could start. By making the lives of people in a particular territory impossible, that is creating conditions that no longer allow life over time, combined with the actual removing of the population and congesting them in one area, you are beginning to move into a situation that is clearly pre-genocidal and could easily flip to the other side.

And that’s where only political intervention can stop that. It can’t just be part of military strategy. There has to be a political horizon as to what happens next, and it can move into ways, but right now it’s stuck, and as long as it’s stuck, then the dying will only increase and the closer we come to something that we could identify as genocide.

Dorsey: I want to come back to that in one minute. One last question in this direction, though. You’re no doubt familiar with the lawsuit against President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Austin Lloyd filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights. The complaint asserts that they are complicit in genocide committed by Israel. William Schabas, a prominent genocide and legal scholar, cites Israeli government statements, deadly military assault, and a total siege as signs of genocide. Genocide and Holocaust scholars, John Cox, Victoria Sanford and Barry Trachtenberg, cite as evidence a comparison of Israeli intentions and actions with other genocides in recent history. What is your assessment of that?

Bartov: Look, I mean, these are all people that I greatly admire, and I’ve read Schabas, and they are people who are much better versed than I am in international law. So I don’t want to debate the law with them. They know it better than I do. I can only say that my own feeling is that while there have been statements made by the prime minister or by the chief of staff, also highly dehumanizing statements, speaking about Hamas or Gaza as human animals and so forth—

Dorsey: Or the statement by the president, that there are no innocents.

Bartov: Exactly. Which is especially extraordinary coming from [Israeli President Isaac] Herzog, who we used to think of as a much more moderate politician. So despite those statements, my own sense, and I may be wrong in this, and I’ve said that those statements show intent, but my own sense is that the current policy of the government and of the military is not to destroy the civilian population of Gaza.

That is, it may happen, and then their statements will be used against them as they should, but their own policy right now is not that. But it’s evolving in that direction. And that’s why I was speaking about the relocation, these ideas for the next phase, what is the next phase of this war. But I don’t think that right now there are people in government or at the top military echelons saying, we basically have to get rid of this group altogether in one way or another.

The statements have an effect. They have a brutalizing effect on the soldiers on the ground. They’re giving license to soldiers by talking about the population in those terms. And as I say, if the policies move in the direction of an actual attempt to remove the population from Gaza, then those statements that were made will be seen as an intention to destroy Palestinians, as such, as a group. I don’t think that that up to now has been the policy. I think many of these statements were made sort of in the heat of the moment in rage, and also because the army, — and that’s a very important element — on all echelons feels humiliated. It feels that it lost its honor, and people on the ground are talking about it in those terms: We have to restore our honor as well as deterrence.

And so they use that kind of language. But the situation on the ground, what they’re doing and the way they’re talking combined, I think can devolve into genocide. We have been and are increasingly on the brink and in the long run, people like Schabas may be shown to have been correct.

I tend to believe that this can actually be stopped. Also, I’m not sure that the right policy is to sue Biden and Blinken. I hope that Biden and Blinken and the secretary of defense and other people will actually steer Israel in a different direction, not just by persuasion, but by real pressure. And the US right now has an immense ability for pressure in Israel because Israel — with all those politicians who just before the war in Israel were saying the US should “mind its own business” and” we want to change our legal system” and so forth — within days, Israel became dependent on immediate, urgent supplies of military hardware. And that is huge leverage, and they could use it publicly or they could do it privately, but they’re obviously not doing enough of that. And I would much rather they did that than try to defend themselves of whether they are complicit in genocide or not, instead of actually carrying out actions that would prevent things from getting worse.

Dorsey: In fact, if one looks at the 2021 war in Gaza, in many ways Biden pursued the same strategy, the “bear hug” if you wish, but finally on the tenth day of the war had to come out publicly and make very clear what he wanted for the Israelis and Hamas, but in this case primarily the Israelis to a day later declare a ceasefire.

Bartov: Yeah, and look, it’s different now because the scale is completely different. The scale is unprecedented on both sides, and one has to take that in. About a thousand civilians murdered in Israel and Israeli towns taken over by Hamas, that has not happened [before]. Towns taken over. It’s not happened since 1948. Our settlements and this number of Jewish victims, civilians, has not happened since 1945, and the shockwaves in Israel are huge. The sense of pain and mourning is enormous. I hear it all the time.

And on the other hand, the number of civilians that Israel has killed now in the Gaza Strip is also unprecedented compared to all its previous actions there, which were often horrific on their own. I mean, in 2014, about 500 children died from Israeli air bombardment, and that I thought was clearly a war crime. It was never adjudicated as such. And now we are talking about possibly 4 or 5 thousand children alone. So, the scale has exploded and action is needed, and it has to come from the US government. There’s no one else who can actually immediately bring about a change in policy, but they have to make that decision, and they obviously have not made it here.

Dorsey: Before we go back to the “day after,” I’d like to follow up in terms of the Israeli military. One gets the impression that attitudes towards Palestinians among the rank and file of the Israeli military have hardened even before this war erupted. It’s apparent in the frequent failure of the military to intervene when vigilante civilians attack Palestinians in the West Bank, or soldiers planting Israeli flags on mosques and homes when raiding West Bank refugee camps, towns and villages. I wonder how much of this has to do with the rise of officers like we saw in 2014, with then Colonel now Brigadier General Ofel Winter, who as commander of the Givati Brigade declared that the Gaza War is a religious war and therefore there’s been this rawification in attitudes within the Israeli military.

Bartov: Yeah, look, I mean the Israeli military is a very different animal from what it was when I served in it in the 1970s. It’s really something very different, and it’s different on a number of levels, I would say. First of all, the army is becoming more and more religious. More and more people serving in the army are people who come from a religious background, and they don’t come from the ultra-Orthodox, they come from the National Religious movement, from among the settlers. And they are not because they are more religious as Jews, but because they come from particular yeshivas, particular religious leaders, religious mentors who are very extreme politically and who have a completely different view of what Israel is about and what its mission is. They are not particularly interested in democracy and liberalism in pluralism or anything of that sort.

The most extreme representatives of that kind of movement are right now in the Israeli government, like Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, these people talk about Jewish supremacy. There’s no way to speak otherwise about it. That’s how they speak themselves. They speak of a total and complete right of Israel to all of “Israel,” to all of the land of Israel, which they don’t like defining. But often what they mean certainly includes Gaza. It of course includes the West Bank. It may include also parts of Lebanon. It can include lands across the Jordan. They have no borders to a sort of vague notion of what the land of Israel is. So this is one thing that has moved into the military.

Another important element is that the Israeli military now is really divided socially. Fewer people serve in the military proportionately than served when I was in the Israeli army in the 1970s. Large parts of those who do go to serve in the military serve in intelligence and air force. The intelligence is huge. It didn’t pan out to be as effective as one would’ve hoped, but it’s huge. And the air force is basically Israel’s Wunderwaffe, as the Germans say, their wonder weapon. That’s really where Israel is completely superior to its neighbors. But the rest, those who go to be infantry, to be in the armored unit, they come from particular parts of the country. They don’t come from the better-educated groups. They don’t come from the center, from Tel Aviv and Haifa. They come from the so-called periphery. And so you also have a social divide within the army itself. Those people who support the more right-wing elements in Israeli society happen to also be serving in those units.

And the last thing, and maybe the most important, is that the Israeli army for the last 56 years has been largely the infantry units. Those people who are on the ground, the grunts have been spending much of the last 50–60 years as policemen. They police the occupation. You have generations of young men and women who spend their military service, with all their fancy uniforms and all that and highly sophisticated guns, breaking into people’s homes at four in the morning to enforce occupation. They stand in roadblocks and stop ambulances from heading to ambulances. They harass old women and children. This is what they’ve been doing.

And so that process brutalizes people, it brutalizes the occupier and it brutalizes the occupied. And in that sense, we could see that when I was in the army — I remember just before I went to the army — we already then in the early 1970s were demonstrating and saying, “Occupation corrupt.” And that occupation had begun only in 1967, when I was 13 years old. You have now young Israelis who have no memory of that at all. Their memory is of them basically bossing it over another population, that population in their own minds — without even any ideology, because of the realities on the ground — is inferior to them. They can do whatever they want to them, which is why partly that attack by Hamas has been so traumatic. Because those were people who, “Yeah, they could lob rocket at us every once in a while, but they were seen as basically no match. I mean, we can destroy them without any problems. We put a few of these”  — mostly female — “soldiers in these observation towers over the defense, and we can catch them, no problem at all.”

Suddenly they came in thousands, and the Israeli army took hours and hours and hours to get there and then to get control over the situation. That was the humiliation, the sense of shame that is in the Israeli army. Now, if you want to understand its psychology, it has to do also with the fact that it turns out we are not that superior. It turns out they can actually fight back, and therefore what we need to do is to show them who has the monopoly on power and flatten them. And on that, I’m afraid right now there’s a huge consensus in Israel, not just in this government. It can change, it can flip, but right now what I hear coming from Israel is they have to learn that they can never do that again to us.

Dorsey: I want to come back finally to the “day after” and the implications that has in terms of preventing a genocide. My reading of the situation is bleak. One, we don’t know that Hamas will be destroyed in this, but even if it’s destroyed, what Hamas stands for, for many Palestinians, is armed resistance. And that notion is becoming more popular, certainly, in the West Bank. I mean, we don’t know what effect the war will have on Hamas’s standing inside Gaza, whether it will reinforce people’s feeling or sympathy for armed struggle and maybe reverse what was a decline in popularity for Hamas prior to the war.

But also you spoke about all these various statements that Israeli leaders have made. The notion of transferring the population, turning them into migrants spread across the globe is a notion that goes far beyond the government. If you look at someone like Ram Ben-Barak, who’s contending now for leadership of the opposition party. He has advocated for distributing Gazans across the globe, and clearly, the Palestine Authority in its current constellation is not really a legitimate contender. The likelihood that Israel would release leaders like Marwan Barghouti from Israeli prisons so that a new Palestinian leadership could emerge given the breadth of sentiment across Israel, whether it be supportive of the government or not, which basically means there is no exit plan.

Arab states aren’t interested in putting boots on the ground there. The Turks are the only ones who’ve so far volunteered that for all practical matters, which really leaves you with a situation in which you either get total anarchy or the Israelis even against their own will have to take over the daily administration.

Bartov: Yes, look, none of this is simple, and as I said, we really don’t know yet where things are heading. I think that it’s quite possible that things will turn out as you just outlined. There’s a high possibility of that.

I believe that there’s another way of looking at this. Two months before the October 7 attacks, colleagues of mine and I issued a statement that was signed by about 2,500 senior scholars and religious leaders and so forth. It was called “The Elephant in the Room.” And we then warned at the time that even the protest movement against Netanyahu’s so-called judicial overhaul at the time was refusing to face the elephant in the room, which was the occupation. And that in fact, what the government was doing even then was an attempt to perpetuate the occupation, to sweep the Palestinian issue under the carpet and to eventually annex large parts of the West Bank.

The fact of the matter is that of course exploded in our faces on October 7, this attempt to say, “Well, we can deal with the Arab states, with the world and all that, and everybody will forget about the Palestinians.” But the fact of the matter is that there are 7 million Jews and 7 million Palestinians in areas under Israeli control.

Most of these people are not going anywhere. They’re there to stay. The Jews are and the Palestinians are. Now, you could envision, and I know that there are people in Israel who are envisioning it, somehow to remove them all, to somehow get rid of two and a half million Palestinians in Gaza and 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank, and maybe also the 2 million Palestinians who are Israeli citizens — somehow, wake up tomorrow morning and they’ll be gone. And I think that there are people among Palestinians, probably not a few, who also would like to wake up one morning and see that all the Jews are gone, they’ve gone back to where they came from or somehow they’ve disappeared.

But nobody is going anywhere, and because nobody’s going anywhere, the question is, do those two groups continue to slaughter each other or do they not? Do they finally understand that they have to share that land? And if they come to that understanding that they cannot make the other group disappear, not in mind, not in spirit, they’re there, then they have to find some way to live together.

And there are actually ideas as to how to do that. It’s not a pie in the sky. The problem is that radical politicians on both sides — radical and incompetent in most cases — have always, whenever there was a possibility that something would change, immediately started using the most radical elements on the other side to make it appear impossible.

You probably remember that in the early nineties when the Oslo Accord was sort of being debated, people thought about Gaza as the Great Promise. Gaza would have an international airport and seaport and money would flow in, and it would be like Dubai, or the Hong Kong of the Middle East or something like that. And Hamas became very weak, because Hamas thrives on insecurity, on desperation, on poverty, just like extremists in Israel.

In fact, if you look at the heads of Hamas and you look at the Netanyahu coalition partners, they are mirror images of each other. They’re both thinking of the same thing. They want to be rid of the other side and have it all, and they’re sort of messianic in their worldview. But you could think about it differently. And I believe that most people in Gaza, in the West Bank, in the Galilee, in Tel Aviv would rather have a better future for their children and not think that their children would have to again, engage in all these kinds of wars that we’re seeing right now. And there are plans for that, and they’re good plans, but you need a new political leadership. And here people have to stand up.

People do have a responsibility, both Palestinians (and it’s much more difficult for Palestinians) and Israeli Jews (and it’s less difficult for them), to stand up and to remove those corrupt extreme leaders and find for themselves better leaders. And they can be helped in doing that by, first of all, the American administration, but also by Americans, not least American Jews, who would actually put pressure on their own constituencies, on their own government to steer Israel in a direction that is better for it, which is a direction of compromise. And Israel, which says that Palestinians understand only the language of power, is a country that understands only the language of power, and it’s time to exert some of that on the current government.

Dorsey: Omer, on that note, this has been a very incisive conversation, and we could go on for hours, but unfortunately time is not our friend. I wish we had more time to follow through, but we’ll certainly have another opportunity. Nevertheless, thank you for taking the time, and all the best.

Bartov: Thank you very much for having me.

[The Turbulent World first published this piece.]

[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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