Israel and Hamas are locked into a system of genocidal violence. It could lead to permanent war.
A mass grave for the bodies of 111 Palestinians killed during the Israeli bombardment of the Indonesian and Al-Shifa hospitals in northern Gaza. Source: Bloomberg

Israel and Hamas are locked into a system of genocidal violence. It could lead to permanent war.

Drawing on my research on genocidal colonial systems, I explore how the original concept of genocide invented by Polish Jewish jurist Raphael Lemkin suggests that Hamas and Israel are both complicit in the co-production of genocidal violence.

  • Nafeez M Ahmed
17 min read
Nafeez M Ahmed

This article is exclusively co-published with Byline Supplement

Accusations and counter-accusations of genocide in the Israel-Palestine conflict reached their crescendo at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN’s top court in The Hague. The claims have provoked outrage and anguish on all sides. But what if both the accusations and counter-accusations are valid?

Israel, according to the South African government’s case, is in breach of the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. In response, Israeli government officials accused South Africa of ignoring how Hamas’ 7th October massacre targeted Israeli citizens “simply because they were Israelis”, amounting to “an attempt to carry out genocide”.

We’ll need to wait years to know the ICJ’s final verdict on these claims. But what many don’t realise is that, whatever the verdict, there’s a strong sociological and legal case to conclude that both Hamas and Israel are guilty of genocidal violence.

Hamas’ attack on 7 October killed 1,269 Israelis and took 257 Israelis hostage. It was the worst attack on Jews since the Holocaust. Israel’s ensuing attack on Gaza has killed around 25,000 Palestinians by the time of writing.  It’s the highest daily death rate of any major 21st century conflict. Add to that death toll the number of Palestinians that have been injured and are missing, and the total rises to 100,000.

Genocide is not a term that should be used lightly. But it’s also a phenomenon that is far more prevalent and normalised than we like to believe.

I first cut my teeth in systems theory as a PhD student trying to understand the systemic causes of mass violence in the context of Spanish and British colonialism. I discovered that mass violence can tip over into genocide far more frequently than we like to assume today.

My research showed that contrary to popular misconceptions, genocides are rarely the result of a singular, centralised plan with exterminatory intent plainly articulated. More often, they’re the outcome of a process of escalation and radicalisation driven by acute social crisis. Often such crises occurred in colonial contexts, triggered by indigenous resistance. Crisis not only leads prevailing systems and norms to breakdown – that process creates a vulnerability to seeking culprits for the crisis who are projected as ‘outsiders’. Violence becomes genocidal when perpetrators come to believe that the salvation of the ‘in’ group is dependent on the elimination of the ‘out’ group.

Figuring out intent and motive makes genocide a challenging case to prove from a legal perspective.

The Israeli government has argued that it cannot possibly be seen as responsible for genocide because its fundamental motive is not to exterminate the Palestinian people, but to eliminate Hamas – in direct response to the genocidal attack by Hamas on Israeli citizens on 7th October.

Israeli Defence Force (IDF) measures to avoid targeting Palestinian civilians, it says, are thwarted by Hamas’ deliberate use of them as human shields, operating within and across Gazan social infrastructure – meaning that if it’s impossible for the IDF to avoid civilian casualties, the culpability for this lies with Hamas, not the IDF.

And while South Africa has highlighted genocidal comments by a wide range of Israeli officials including senior cabinet ministers, Israel’s defence is that whatever their sentiments might be, this cannot prove genocidal intent because those individuals are not the ones responsible for the conduct of the actual Israeli military operation, which is run by a small war cabinet. Israel is, after all, fighting a war. While it has led to civilian casualties, that is not enough to deliver a verdict of genocide.

Yet none of this can really absolve Israel of genocidal intent if the destruction of Gazans as a people, in whole or in part, is the foreseeable result of its actions. And that litmus test points to a more precise understanding of genocide that throws light on the legal debate at the ICJ, but also transcends it.

The co-production of genocide

According to my former PhD co-supervisor, Professor Martin Shaw – a noted sociologist of war and genocide – genocidal dynamics are clearly visible in Israel’s military operation in Gaza, as well as Hamas’ 7th October attack in Israel. In a new paper published in the Journal of Genocide Research, Shaw points out that many genocide scholars have overlooked “the fact that Hamas’ atrocities could accurately be called a series of ‘genocidal massacres’… and that this genocidal cast had provoked Israel into its radical attempt to pulverize the entire Gazan society.”

These genocidal dynamics might be challenging to prove under the strict terms of the UN Genocide Convention, which is widely recognised in the field of genocide studies to suffer from a range of defects.

Yet if we use the original concept of genocide, one that is increasingly informing its academic study, these dynamics become much clearer – in a way that could inform the way the UN Convention should be applied.

What genocide is, according to the man behind the UN Convention

The founder of the concept of genocide, and the man who lobbied tirelessly to get it recognised by the United Nations, was Polish Jewish jurist and Holocaust survivor Raphael Lemkin. As I explained in a paper published in the Journal of Conflict Transformation & Security, Lemkin had a broader conceptualisation of genocide as a dynamic process with a largely colonial structure, in which perpetrators attempt to partly or wholly destroy the life-pattern of an ‘outsider’ group.

This means not just physical destruction, but primarily social and cultural destruction – in fact Lemkin believed that violence was genocidal if it involved the partial physical destruction of a group, while aiming at the wider dissolution of their cohesive social and cultural existence.

Perpetrators can inflict such genocidal violence for many different overarching motives – military, economic and beyond – and most importantly for Lemkin, the genocidally destructive intent can reside collectively in the dispersed conduct of disparate members of the perpetrator group. Their actions can be seen as genocidal if it’s clear that the whole or partial destruction of the life-pattern of the ‘Other’ is an inevitable outcome of their actions, even if they did not come together to formulate a specific genocidal plan as such.

Lemkin therefore believed that most instances of European colonisation involved violence that was genocidal. As a survivor himself, Lemkin saw the Nazi holocaust as a uniquely horrific genocide, whose enormity and systematic character was designed to exterminate wholly the Jewish people, physically, socially, culturally, from the face of the Earth.

But Lemkin also saw the Holocaust as the culmination of a continuum of European colonial violence which frequently involved genocidal episodes against indigenous people. Those episodes were triggered by social crises in which contesting communities Otherised each other in ways that legitimised violence; and often led colonial powers to seek to eliminate violent indigenous resistance through genocide. For Lemkin, that colonial history played a key role in laying the groundwork for the evolution of the industrial bureaucratic machinery of death that animated the Nazi ideology of colonial expansion of lebensraum, against which Jews, along with other minorities and ethnicities, were constructed as irredeemable outsiders.

Colonial genocides were rarely if ever pre-planned, but evolved as a radicalised consequence of escalating cycles of mutual violence: the violence of colonisation frequently encountered indigenous resistance; resistance to colonisation often triggered breakdowns in the colonial social order that elicited increasingly violent responses.

As these cycles of violence intensified, colonised and colonisers increasingly demonised each other as exclusionary and irreconcilable group identities, culminating in the outbreak of genocidal violence. Both resistance and colonial violence could be genocidal, but colonial counterinsurgency violence was ultimately more successfully so in terms of scale and impact.

What does this Lemkinian model of genocide teach us about the conflict today?

Hamas – from its charter to 7th October

Hamas as an organisation has, of course, declared in its 1988 charter that the “Day of Judgment will not come about until Muslims fight Jews and kill them.”

Its 2017 charter attempted to distance itself from being at war with Jews and Judaism while signalling readiness to accept 1967 borders. But it continued to refuse to accept Israel’s existence while demanding the liberation of all of Palestine, defined as extending “from the River Jordan in the east to the Mediterranean in the west, and from Ras Al-Naqurah in the north to Umm Al-Rashrash in the south” – in essence, keeping the door open for the total destruction of the Israeli state.

This language in the Hamas charter is also why the phrase ‘from the river to the sea’ is feared as antisemitic by many Jews, who see it as an euphemism for Hamas’ desire to wipe Israel and its Jewish inhabitants off the face of the earth (despite the fact that Palestinians largely do not interpret it this way).

Since then, several senior Hamas leaders have repeatedly used genocidal language.

In 2012, for instance, senior official in Hamas’ political bureau and deputy speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) Ahmed Bahar – who was killed in Israeli airstrikes in November 2023 – delivered a televised address saying: “Oh Allah, destroy the Jews and their supporters. Oh Allah, destroy the Americans and their supporters. Oh Allah, count them one by one and kill them all, without leaving a single one.”

After the attack Ghazi Hamad, another senior official in Hamas’ political bureau, called on Hamas to repeat the 7th October attack until Israel is destroyed: “Israel is a country that has no place on our land. We must remove it because it constitutes a security, military and political catastrophe to the Arab and Islamic nation… We must teach Israel a lesson, and we will do it twice and three times. The al-Aqsa Deluge is just the first time.” Despite denying intent to harm civilians, he added: “We are the victims of the occupation. Period. Therefore, nobody should blame us for the things we do. On October 7, October 10, October one-millionth, everything we do is justified. [emphasis added]”

So the 7th October killings can be situated in a context of Hamas’ repeated open calls for indiscriminate violence against Jews in general and against Israel in particular. Genocidal intent is arguably visible in this context, with the massacres of Israeli citizens aimed at weakening the Israeli life-pattern through targeting the Israel people “in part”.

Hamas leaders later admitted that the attacks were designed to create a state of “permanent war” on Israel’s borders, positioning them not as a limited set of actions but part of a hoped-for continuum of escalatory violence. Set against Hamas’ long-stated ambition to restore Palestine across the whole of Israel, with Israelis and Jews dehumanised wholesale as an outsider enemy force, the genocidal nature of the 7th October attacks are difficult to deny.

Even if Hamas is resisting Israel’s 75 year illegal occupation, with a specific war aim of ending that occupation, it committed war crimes including genocidal massacres in pursuit of that aim.

Mass expulsion

Yet the same logic, applied to Israel’s retaliatory offensive in Gaza, implicates the Israeli government and military in genocidal violence on a larger scale. The language that Israeli officials use to legitimise mass destruction of civilian lives and infrastructure in Gaza mirrors the moral logic used by Hamas: essentially, we are victims, and therefore we are simply doing what must be done.

Once again, in the absence of clear documentary evidence of intent in the form of an exterminatory plan, genocide might seem difficult to prove.

South Africa’s ICJ case attempts to identify this intent chiefly through the inflammatory statements of a range of Israeli figures including senior government ministers. Both Israel’s national security and finance ministers, for instance, endorsed the idea of wholesale expulsion of Gazans.

The Israeli president Isaac Herzog later denied that such disparate statements have anything to do with actual government decisions, and insisted there is no official policy to expel Gazans from the Gaza Strip. Those officials are not part of the war cabinet, so cannot speak on its behalf. In many case, such rhetoric – describing the enemy as “human animals” or “monsters” as Israel’s defence minister did – could also be attributable to hostility toward Hamas, rather than Palestinians.

Yet a week after the 7th October attack, Herzog himself clarified his belief that Gaza as a “nation” is responsible for Hamas’ crimes using disturbingly genocidal language:

“It’s an entire nation out there that is responsible. It’s not true this rhetoric about civilians not aware or not involved it’s absolutely not true. They could have risen up, they could have fought against that evil regime which took over Gaza in a coup d’etat. But we’re at war… We’re defending our homes, we’re protecting our homes. And when a nation protects its home, it fights. And we will fight until we break their backbone.”

This was perhaps one of the clearest instances of dehumanising and genocidal rhetoric used by Israeli officials. And it demonstrates how by seeing Gazan society itself as inseparable from Hamas, the targeting of Hamas blurred easily into the targeting of all of Gaza.

By the end of November, Benny Gantz, the war cabinet minister, was openly declaring that the entirety of Gaza was open season for the Israeli military operation: “The fighting will continue to and expand to any place necessary in the Gaza strip. There will be no sanctuary cities.”

Even if most of such statements cannot be directly ascribed to Israel’s war cabinet, according to US international law expert Arif Hyder Ali, Co-Chair of the International Arbitration and Public International Law Group at Dechert, whether or not these Israeli government officials are specifically part of the war cabinet is irrelevant - to demonstrate genocidal intent at government level, it's sufficient to show that they are part of the government.

In any case, they undoubtedly reflect an ongoing and escalating radicalisation process, in which the dehumanisation of Palestinians is becoming normalised at some of the highest levels, including within the Israeli government.

Such statements might not be used to prove an official central policy, but they instead reflect what Israeli historian of genocide Omer Bartov has warned could be a genocidal “potential” in Israel’s Gaza offensive. Yet even for Bartov, such Israeli official statements about Gaza indicated “a clear intention of ethnic cleansing” which, he warned, “in part, it’s already happened with the move of so many Palestinians from northern Gaza to southern Gaza – and that may become genocide”.

Last year, a leaked Israeli intelligence ministry document proposed to ‘resolve’ the Gaza question after the conflict by resettling Gazans in Egypt – implying a form of permanent mass expulsion. However, the intelligence ministry in question is a tiny agency with a limited budget and little upwards influence on the wider Israeli government and national security system (with calls from the Israeli treasury for it to be shut down). Israeli officials described the document as a ‘concept paper’ which did not reflect an active policy, but rather an ongoing high-level discussion as the document was circulated across Israel’s key security agencies.

Although we have no clear evidence of what happened next, or how the document was received in terms of actual policy, it may have influenced government thinking and it certainly reflects the degradation of Israel’s political discourse when such ideas can be seen as part of a legitimate discussion.

After this, some direct evidence emerged that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself was actively exploring the mechanics of mass expulsion. According to the Times of Israel, Netanyahu was pressuring Egypt to accept Gazan refugees, while offering no guarantees that they might be permitted to return to Israel. He had also told a Likud faction meeting that he is working to facilitate the ‘voluntary migration’ of Gazans to other countries:

“Our problem is [finding] countries that are willing to absorb Gazans, and we are working on it.”

Cabinet security sources then told Israeli newspapers that Netanyahu’s coalition was in secret talks to get various countries including the Congo to accept thousands of immigrants from Gaza – reports that were denied by the Israeli government.

Of course, such discussions of supposed ‘voluntary migration’ have to be seen in the context of the entirely involuntary migration that has just taken place, with 1.9 million Gazans – 85% of the population – internally displaced. According to Paula Gaviria Betancur, UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons (IDPs), this consequence in itself provides clear evidence of an Israeli strategy to forcibly expel the Palestinians:

“Israel has reneged on promises of safety made to those who complied with its order to evacuate northern Gaza two months ago. Now, they have been forcibly displaced again, alongside the population of southern Gaza. Where will the people of Gaza have left to go tomorrow? As evacuation orders and military operations continue to expand and civilians are subjected to relentless attacks on a daily basis, the only logical conclusion is that Israel’s military operation in Gaza aims to deport the majority of the civilian population en masse.”

It’s entirely possible, then, that without Israel explicitly adopting a centralised plan, it nevertheless rapidly escalated military violence in such a deliberately disproportionate way that it knowingly and foreseeably destroyed the foundations of any functioning society in Gaza, while forcibly expelling the majority of the population with no prospect of return.

The genocidal “potential” that Bartov identified as underlying the risk of an ethnic cleansing campaign therefore already appears to be well-underway. The end result of this massive scale of violence – even if fundamentally motivated to eliminate Hamas – has been the partial destruction of Gaza’s people, the mass expulsion of Gazans and the increasing impossibility of any Gazan life-pattern across most of the strip.

These material facts have not been denied by the Israeli legal defence at the ICJ. Instead, the Israeli defence argued that these consequences are an unavoidable if regrettable consequence of the IDF fighting a defencive war against terrorists embedded in Gaza’s civilian population.

Arguably, that legal defence in itself amounts inadvertently to evidence of genocidal intent. That’s because it concedes that the obliteration of Gazan society was a foreseeable consequence of the IDF operation, and simply attempts to justify it as self-defence.

Satellite data has confirmed that two-thirds of all structures in the north of Gaza have been destroyed, and about a quarter in the southern Khan Younis area. Across the whole territory, about 33% of buildings have been destroyed, including about 70% of school buildings.

This comprehensive and deliberate targeting of Gazan civilian infrastructure is justified by the Israeli government as a legitimate response to an existential threat from Hamas. Such language illustrates the Lemkinian genocidal process at play – in which Israel responded to an acute crisis, in this case inflicted by Hamas’ 7th October attack, by seeing the destruction of vast swathes Gazan civilian infrastructure (essential for normal societal functioning) as necessary for Israel’s survival.

In the Lemkinian model, genocides exhibit a colonial structure precisely because those presiding over prevailing structures of power come to believe that their continued survival depends on the deaths of Others, at least in part. As Professor Martin Shaw describes:

“The paradox of ‘targeted’ strikes resulting in massive destruction could be partly explained by Israel’s Dahiyah doctrine of using ‘disproportionate’ violence, developed in its 2006 assault on Lebanon and manifested in previous bombardments of Gaza. However, in the new war it deliberately expanded the legitimate parameters, so that it became acceptable when aiming to kill individual Hamas leaders or groups of fighters to simultaneously kill dozens, scores or even hundreds of civilians – and to destroy the neighbourhoods and infrastructure of thousands. [emphasis added]”

In this context, Israel’s mitigating tactics including safe corridors appear as little more than efforts to deflect international attention from systematic war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The duplicitous nature of the IDF’s strategy was revealed when a New York Times investigation confirmed that having designated parts of the south of Gaza a safe area where Palestinian civilians were told by the IDF they could seek shelter from bombing, the IDF proceeded to rain its largest and most destructive 2,000-pound bombs on the ‘safe area’, over 200 times. And as many as 18,000 Palestinians per square metre in the south of Gaza have been denied access to water and power by the IDF’s total destruction of the area’s infrastructure.

This ensemble of violence is not just killing civilians directly, it’s also destroying the basic foundations of Gazan society. “Gaza has simply become uninhabitable”, said Martin Griffiths, the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs. “Its people are witnessing daily threats to their very existence – while the world watches on.”

The Israel legal defence does not deny that the IDF military operation has made Gaza uninhabitable – it simply justifies it by blaming Hamas.

But here’s the problem. The idea that making Gaza uninhabitable was a legitimate strategy justified by the goal of eliminating Hamas in itself demonstrates that making Gaza uninhabitable was foreseeable, foreseen, and as it’s now happened, accepted as necessary.

We do not need, therefore, to focus on genocidal statements of disparate Israeli officials to infer genocidal intent behind the Israeli military strategy in Gaza. While those statements increasingly reflect how the total destruction of Gaza has been understood and perceived among parts of Israeli society and government, the key evidence of intent is the comprehensive nature of the destruction itself. As Shaw explains:

“Therefore, the overall consequences of its huge bombardment – mass killing, huge displacements, destruction of infrastructure, hunger, thirst, and disease – were not merely ‘risks’ of its tactical decisions, but also represented a strategic choice. The dislocation of Gazan society was so comprehensive that it can only have been intended at the policy level.”

Co-complicity in genocide

Yet Shaw goes further. He points out that by this very logic, Hamas too is intimately culpable in this genocidal turn against the Palestinian people. Since Israel’s military doctrine was known and Gaza had already experienced its consequences, Hamas had launched its genocidal assault on Israel, precisely to provoke a genocidal counterattack from Israel.

“Hamas understood that its atrocities would incite Israel to its own campaign, which they must have calculated would cause global outrage”, writes Shaw. “For Hamas, thousands of Gazans were also necessary sacrifices, just as some of the hostages were for Israel.”

That conclusion is supported by Hamas official Ghazi Hamad’s brazen assertion as Israel’s bombing of Gaza was underway: “Will we have to pay a price? Yes, and we are ready to pay it. We are called a nation of martyrs, and we are proud to sacrifice martyrs”.

Indeed, Palestinians in Gaza found themselves caught in an inescapable trap. While the IDF was telling Gazans to escape to the south to evade bombing, Hamas was telling them to “remain steadfast in their homes” – where of course they would be massacred.

The fact that Hamas’ orders were widely broadcast shows that the IDF was fully aware of the risk to civilians if they continued with their actions – they did so anyway, making Hamas and the IDF co-complicit in the resulting massacres. Yet the IDF’s warnings were also deceptive, as many Palestinians who had escaped into the south of Gaza subsequently still found themselves under attack from the IDF, with no power and water to survive.

The evolving genocidal dynamic can therefore be not be contained to either just Israel or Hamas. In Shaw’s words, “both sides of the genocide were co-productions of the contending forces and indeed of the external powers that supported them.”

International law expert Arif Ali noted, however, that Hamas and Israel should not be seen as being "on a common plain", and that both the 7th October attack and Israel's subsequent military operation in Gaza need to be understood in the context of wider conflict and occupation:

"Hamas may be guilty of war crimes while pursuing its legitimate political goals of liberation, self-determination and self-defence. But it has not committed genocide even if its leaders have made genocidal statements and its raison d'etre is genocidal. Israel arguably may have committed war crimes but its actions - viewed in the context of the statements of its political leaders, its history of violence against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, and its historical treatment of Palestinians - amount to genocide or the intent to commit genocide. We cannot look at the last 100 days in isolation."

Irrespective of the final verdict from the ICJ, it’s clear that the escalating genocidal logics in the Israel-Palestine conflict are rapidly eroding hopes of any meaningful peaceful resolution. Yet it is the far-right leaderships purporting to represent both Israelis and Palestinians, not to mention their respective geopolitical and financial supporters, who are complicit in war crimes and crimes against humanity.

There is little prospect that either side can achieve their declared aims. After decades of Israel’s expanding occupation, Hamas’ strategies demonstrably do not work. The approach of sacrificing Palestinians to the IDF has only exacerbated the genocidal destruction of Gaza, rather than undermining Israel’s territorial control. Yet Israel’s onslaught offers no route to peace or security. On the contrary, far from defeating Hamas, it will create – as the occupation already did – a breeding ground for antisemitic insurgency and terrorism that will continue to threaten Israelis on a far worse scale than before.

As the intensifying violence becomes locked into a genocidal logic, the real risk is that it leads to even larger-scale cycles of exterminatory violence. Palestinians may find themselves permanently dislocated from their homeland in Gaza, rendered perpetually uninhabitable, resulting in the social and cultural dissolution of Gazan society amidst the wider destabilisation of a Middle East unable to cope with this travesty, whether politically, economically or emotionally. Israel may find itself under repeated and growing existential attacks not only from Hamas and its prodigies, but from armed Islamist groups all over the world, and even from Arab neighbours in a climate of unrelenting hostility.

Ultimately, the analytical framework of genocide studies suggests that the conflict must urgently be de-escalated to avoid spiralling out of control. Avoiding genocide requires a new process in which all sides recognise responsibility for the violence they have committed, and are committing, and resolve to find new ways to humanise one another. That is unlikely to be possible under the current political leaderships. So this process is what civil society groups from across both sides of the divide need to focus on urgently building.

If you appreciated this piece, you can keep this free newsletter alive and thriving by joining our community as a Supporter for the price of a cup of coffee a month.

Member discussion