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“Clear Intention of Ethnic Cleansing”: Israeli Holocaust Scholar Omer Bartov Warns of Genocide in Gaza

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Israeli American scholar Omer Bartov, one of the world’s leading experts on the Holocaust, says Israel’s brutal assault on the Gaza Strip is at risk of becoming a genocide. The monthlong air and ground war has killed more than 11,000 Palestinians in the besieged enclave, a majority of them women and children. Israel has also severely limited the movement of food, water, fuel, medicine and other essentials into Gaza. Bartov says the disproportionate killing of civilians by Israel, as well as dehumanizing statements by Israeli leaders and suggestions of mass expulsion, are of grave concern. He recently joined hundreds of lawyers and academics in signing an open letter warning about Israel’s violations of international law in Gaza. “There is an indication that there are war crimes happening in Gaza, potentially also crimes against humanity,” says Bartov. “If this so-called operation continues, that may become ethnic cleansing … and that may become genocide.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: “If there is a hell on Earth, it’s the north of Gaza.” Those were the words of a U.N. official earlier today as Israel intensifies its aerial and ground assault. Tens of thousands of Palestinians have fled on foot from northern Gaza after being forcibly displaced by Israel’s attacks. More than half of all homes in Gaza have been destroyed or damaged over the last month.

On Thursday, the Biden administration announced Israel has agreed to implement what the White House described as daily four-hour pauses in areas of northern Gaza to give Palestinians a chance to head south. Many Palestinians fear they’ll never be allowed to return home. Some have accused the Biden administration of facilitating the ethnic cleansing of Gaza. Images of Palestinians fleeing on foot have been widely compared to the Nakba, or catastrophe, when some 700,000 Palestinians were violently expelled from their homes upon Israel’s founding in 1948.

We begin today’s show with the Israeli-born historian Omer Bartov, who recently signed an open letter warning of Israel committing a potential genocide in Gaza. Omer Bartov is a professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at Brown. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has cited him as one of the world’s leading specialists on the subject of genocide. Bartov is the author of numerous books, including, most recently, Genocide, the Holocaust and Israel-Palestine: First-Person History in Times of Crisis.

Democracy Now!'s Juan González and I spoke to professor Omer Bartov on Wednesday from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I began by asking him to talk about his own experience serving as an Israeli soldier in the northern Sinai in the 1970s and how it's impacted his view on what’s going on today.

OMER BARTOV: I was a soldier in the IDF, in the Israeli Defense Forces, between 1973 and 1976. And so, as a young soldier, the first thing that I experienced was the trauma, the huge surprise of the Arab — the Egyptian and Syrian attack on Israel on October 6th, 1973. And I should say that when the Hamas attack on Israel occurred on the 7th of October, 2023, 50 years and a day later, that was quite traumatic, I think, for myself and many members of my generation. And we can talk further about why it was so traumatic.

But in the course of my service, I also served in the northern Sinai, and the command post that I belonged to was in Gaza. And so I would go quite often to Gaza, which was then — had a population of about 350,000, was poor, hopeless and congested. And since then, of course, now we have between two and two-and-a-half million people living in Gaza, which is much poorer, much more congested and whose population is much more desperate, and has been desperate for a long time, considering that it’s been under Israeli siege now for 16 years. So, for me, the lack of progress for all those years in somehow resolving this terrible humanitarian problem is very personal.

And I should add one thing. I was usually not employed as a soldier in occupation duties, but there was a time that I was. And I have very distinct recollection of that, leading my platoon through an Egyptian city at the time, with people looking at us from behind the windows, obviously not wanting us to be there, obviously afraid of us, and us walking on the street obviously feeling uncomfortable being where we are and being somewhat afraid of what might happen to us as we were marching then. That sort of sense of what being an occupation soldier means stayed with me all those years, and it’s always made me — has been one of the reasons, a sort of more personal rather than political or analytical reason, why I’ve always thought that it’s time to end this occupation, for which we called in that August 4th petition, two months before the Hamas attack on Israel.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor, I’m wondering — we hear often now these days, especially in conflicts such as these, the terms “crime against humanity,” “war crime,” “genocide.” Most people don’t understand the distinction. And for some of us, war itself is a crime, and saying a “war crime” is almost redundant. But I’m wondering if you could give us more of a guidance or sense of the distinction between these terms.

OMER BARTOV: Yes. So, I think that’s a really important question, because people, as you say, just use these terms without really thinking what they mean. And because genocide is perceived as the worst crime, then any atrocity that happens, anything that people think deserves some sort of extreme title, they call genocide.

So, there are actually U.N. resolutions on war crimes and on genocide, and they define them clearly. Now, one can dispute those definitions, but those are the definitions under international law. The convention, the U.N. Convention on Genocide, so, 1948, defines it as the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such. And that’s a very important definition, because it calls for two things. It calls, first of all, for intention — you have to show that the killing is intentional, is not just part of war, part of violence, but is intentional — and, second, that the intention is to destroy that group, defined as such by the perpetrator as such. That is, it’s not the killing of individuals; it’s the killing of individuals as members of a particular group.

That’s very different from war crimes, because war crimes are violations of the laws and customs of war against both combatants and noncombatants, civilians. And crimes against humanity has to do with extermination or other mass crimes against any civilian population. You do not have to show intent, and it does not have to happen at a time of war. So, it is important to distinguish between these these three categories.

And I would add to it a third, which has a definition, although there is no resolution on it, which is ethnic cleansing. Ethnic cleansing is the attempt to remove a population from a particular territory, usually because you want that territory, and you don’t want the people living on it to stay on it. Genocide is the attempt to kill a particular group, wherever it is. But there is a connection between the two, because often ethnic cleansing becomes genocide. That happened, in fact, in the Armenian genocide in World War I, and it happened, in fact, also in the Holocaust, which began as an attempt to remove Jews from particular territories, and then, when the Germans felt there was no place to move them to, they decided to murder them en masse. So, if we think about these different categories, we can distinguish between what we see on the ground and how we feel about it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And your sense of what is happening in terms of these categories right now in Gaza?

OMER BARTOV: So, my sense is the following. Israeli political leaders and military leaders have made very startling and frightening statements about Gaza, speaking about flattening Gaza, speaking about Hamas, but by sort of extending it also, by extension, also Gazans, in general, as human animals, speaking about moving the entire population of Gaza out of Gaza. That is a clear intention of ethnic cleansing. So, those statements show intent. And that’s a genocidal intent, which is often very difficult to prove in genocide. People who carry out genocide don’t always want to say that they’re doing it.

The second is: What are they actually doing there? And military leaders on the ground keep saying that what they’re trying to do is to hit Hamas targets, that Hamas often — and I think that’s often true — places its own headquarters, rockets and so forth under hospitals, inside mosques, playgrounds, schools and so forth. So the military claim that they’re trying to hit Hamas and not the population, but, unfortunately, the population is also getting killed. In that sense, there is clearly disproportionate killing of civilians. That is, the numbers, as you quoted earlier, are now estimated to be over 10,000. And even if we don’t believe the numbers given out by Hamas, they’re still in the many thousands. They may even be more, because many bodies are probably buried under the debris. And of those, at least 4,000 are children. And one has to remember that half of the population of Gaza is under 18 years old. So, to me, there is an indication that there are war crimes happening in Gaza, potentially also crimes against humanity.

Whether at the moment this is genocide, my own sense is that it is not genocide at the moment, because there is still no clear indication of an attempt to destroy the entire population, which would be genocide, but that we are very close on the verge of that. And if this so-called operation continues, that may become ethnic cleansing — in part, it’s already happened with the move of so many Palestinians from northern Gaza to southern Gaza — and that may become genocide.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Omer Bartov, I was really struck by you saying it was in August that you joined other leading historians and Israeli scholars in signing this letter criticizing the, quote, “regime of apartheid.” So, that is two months before Hamas attack of October 7th. Now, often these days, after the attack that killed over 1,300 people in Israel, if you raise any kind of context, you’re accused of justifying what happened. If you, as a historian, can talk about your use of that term? I remember years ago interviewing the Nobel laureate Archbishop Tutu in South Africa. And he said, when he went to the Occupied Territories, he found it worse than apartheid in his own country of South Africa, which he survived. So, your clearly thought-out use of this term, and then a discussion about what it means to try to explain what’s happening, including using the term “occupation”?

OMER BARTOV: So, let me say, when we crafted that statement, and we worked on it quite a bit in July and finally issued it, so-called “The Elephant in the Room,” the elephant in the room that we were talking about was the occupation, and which we defined as — in the West Bank, as a regime of apartheid. Now, the reason we did it at the time was that, if you remember, there were vast protests in Israel at the time against the Netanyahu government, the Netanyahu government attempt to so-called overhaul the judicial system, which was really an attempt to undermine the rule of law in Israel to strengthen the executive and weaken the judiciary, which is the only control over the executive in Israel, with the goal of extending the occupation regime in the West Bank and, finally, of annexing that area and making life impossible for the Palestinian population there. There are over half a million Jewish settlers there and somewhere around 3 million Palestinians living there.

Now, what do we mean by “apartheid”? First of all, people tend to think of apartheid as what happened in South Africa. And the term comes from there. But there is, in fact, a U.N. resolution on apartheid that defines what apartheid is. And curiously, all the elements that are mentioned in that resolution exist also in the West Bank, the most important of which is that you have two populations in the West Bank, Jews and Palestinians. The Jews, the settlers, are extraterritorial Israeli citizens. They live under Israeli law, or some kind of figment that creates them as living under Israeli law. They can vote to the Israeli parliament. They enjoy all the rights of democracy the Jews in Israel enjoy. The Palestinians live — the Palestinians there live under a completely different set of laws, which gives them almost no rights at all. That is, they live under a military regime. They are tried before military courts, where the judges are lawyers on reserve service, Israeli lawyers on reserve service. One can detain them endlessly in prison. And so, these are two groups that live under totally different laws. They’re also separated from each other by a set of roads, roadblocks, checkposts, that make life increasingly difficult for Palestinians and make life much better for the Jewish population there. So, from that point of view, there’s clearly an apartheid regime in the West Bank.

And that has, in many ways, filtered into Israel. That is, generation after generation of young Israeli men and women are called up and go to serve as policemen in the West Bank in military uniform. Most of what they do is police the population. And that has a corrupting impact on more and more generations of Israelis, who get used to the idea that they can break into homes at 4:00 in the morning, arrest whoever they like. And so, that effect is not only that we have an apartheid regime, but we have a corruption of democracy in Israel itself, which ultimately resulted in this attempt by Netanyahu’s regime to change the very system of democracy in Israel, which was really only for Jews in the first place.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor, I’m wondering if you — you mentioned previously the acquiescence or the refusal to confront the problem in general Israeli society of the occupation? Why do you think that is, especially given the fact that Israel in its early years had a very vibrant labor, socialist and humanitarian movement among those who who created the state of Israel? What has happened?

OMER BARTOV: Well, I would say, I mean, the simple answer is that power corrupts, and that Israel has suffered for years from a kind of euphoria of power. And when I talked about the sort of link between what happened in 1973 and what happened in 2023, it is exactly that — that is, that Israel came to believe that it’s strong enough to be able to do what it likes, and it does not need to have any political compromise, which means territorial compromise. The War of 1973 could have been avoided, had Israel agreed to negotiate with Anwar Sadat at the time, the president of Egypt — which it did, eventually, after the war — and return the Sinai Peninsula and receive peace in return. But 3,000 Israeli soldiers were killed, some of whom were my classmates. And the same happened now. That is, Israel refused to talk about any territorial compromise and believed that Hamas can lob a few rockets here and there, but, by and large, it’s not a problem for it, and therefore, there’s no need to think of any territorial compromise.

And this, you know, became the sense in the large sectors of the Israeli public. People could live in Tel Aviv, have a good time, have a good life. And 20 miles to their east, there was an apartheid regime, but it really had very little to do with them. And the curious thing was — and this is what we were trying to point out in August — was that the people who were protesting, the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who, quite remarkably, went out to the streets every Saturday to protest against the erosion of democracy in Israel, refused to talk about the occupation. And when I was there protesting against that, we were marginalized. We were pushed to the side. And people said, “Well, occupation, that’s a kind of — that’s a difficult term. You know, not everybody agrees on that. Let’s not talk about it now. It will divert attention,” whereas, in fact, it was the core of the very attempt to change the rules of the game in Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: In a moment, we’ll return to our interview with Omer Bartov, professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at Brown University. The Israeli American scholar has been described by the U.S. Holocaust Museum as one of the world’s leading specialists on the subject of genocide. Back in 20 seconds.

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