More than 11,000 people have been killed in Gaza since Oct. 7, after a deadly Hamas attack prompted Israel to declare war and begin a military offensive along the densely-populated strip of land more than 2 million people call home.
Israel has since agreed to enact four-hour daily humanitarian pauses in northern Gaza, after a push by U.S. President Biden, but many international leaders have expressed concern over the civilians caught in the crossfire of war. It’s been enough to prompt Craig Mokhiber, a director at the United Nations, to resign over the organization’s “failure” to act against what he called a "text-book case of genocide." And in a Nov. 2 press release, a separate coalition of U.N. experts similarly expressed concern, warning that Palestinians were “at grave risk of genocide.”
On Thursday, three Palestinian human rights organizations filed a lawsuit with the International Criminal Court (ICC) to request arrest warrants against Israeli leaders—including Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu—for genocide.
Scholars are torn on whether the current conflict can be yet classified a genocide officially. TIME spoke to several experts about the meaning of genocide and whether the current conflict could be labeled as such. Here’s what they said.
What is genocide?
Genocide can be defined through three lenses: legal, social scientific, and conventional, according to Alexander Hinton, UNESCO Chair on genocide prevention at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
The U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” The acts include “killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, and/or forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Most scholars TIME spoke to immediately referenced this definition, which was created in 1948. However, experts say the legal definition is tricky because the threshold to prove genocidal intent is extremely difficult. “One has to prove that the perpetrator not only committed the actions, but they committed the actions with a very specific intention of destroying the group,” says Ernesto Verdeja, a professor at the University of Notre Dame who specializes in genocide. “That can be a high bar because very often people contribute to genocidal policies, even if that's not their direct intention.”
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Scholars add, however, that many social scientists define genocide in a broader way. “[The current legal definition] identifies a very narrow set of categories of victims: ethnic, racial, national, religious, but it doesn't take into account people being targeted because of their socioeconomic status, or their political identity, or whatnot,” Verdeja says.
Hinton adds that the more colloquial definition for genocide focuses on the idea of “large scale destruction and acts perpetrated against a population.” Many may point to the Holocaust as the best example of this, though genocide, based on this broader definition, has happened many times over since, in places like Rwanda and Guatemala.
Is what’s happening now a genocide?
Raz Segal, the program director of genocide studies at Stockton University, concretely says it is a “textbook case of genocide.” Segal believes that Israeli forces are completing three genocidal acts, including, “killing, causing serious bodily harm, and measures calculated to bring about the destruction of the group.” He points to the mass levels of destruction and total siege of basic necessities—like water, food, fuel, and medical supplies—as evidence.
He says Israeli leaders expressed “explicit, clear, and direct statements of intent,” pointing to Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s statement during an Oct. 13 press conference. In his statement, Herzog said, “It’s an entire nation that is out there that’s responsible. It’s not true, this rhetoric about civilians not aware, not involved. It’s absolutely not true,” Herzog said. “They could have risen up, they could have fought against that evil regime which took over Gaza in a coup d'etat.” (Herzog later said that he is not holding the civilians of Gaza responsible for keeping Hamas in political power, when asked to clarify by a journalist at the same press conference.) Segal says that this language conflates all Palestinians as “an enemy population,” which could help prove intent.
Many experts TIME spoke to noted that they were answering based on whether they believed that the actions against Palestinians would be considered genocide under a court of law.
Verdeja says Israel's actions in Gaza are moving toward a “genocidal campaign.” While he notes that it is clear Israeli forces intend to destroy Hamas, “the response when you have a security crisis…can be one of ceasefire, negotiation, or it can be genocide.”
City University of New York professor Victoria Sanford compares what’s happening in Gaza to the killing or disappearance of more than 200,000 Mayans in Guatemala from 1960-1996, known as the Guatemalan genocide, which is the subject of her book Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala. Mayans and Palestinians have both been subject to genocidal acts, she implies. “When we match them to the lived experience of people, there are similar circumstances…if we look at contemporary conflicts like the Israeli invasion of Palestine.” Sanford and Segal were two of more than a 100 scholars and organizations that signed a letter urging the ICC to take action given the “Israeli intention to commit genocide visibly materialising on the ground."
Sanford is also one of three scholars who signed a declaration in support of a lawsuit announced on Nov. 13 filed by the nonprofit Center for Constitutional Rights. A group of Palestinians living in Gaza and the U.S. as well as human rights organizations, are suing President Joe Biden and other state officials because they allege the U.S. is not taking “all measures available to it to prevent a genocide.”
David Simon, director of the genocide studies program at Yale University, says that Israel has only explicitly said they want to exterminate Hamas, and has not directly stated intent to “destroy a religious, ethnic or racial group.” Simon says it's possible a court could conclude that either Hamas or some elements of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) could be found guilty of committing an act of genocide, but “it's certainly not textbook in that connecting the intent to destroy ethnic group as such is difficult.”
Ben Kiernan, the director of the Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University, also agrees. In an emailed statement to TIME, he wrote that “Israel's retaliatory bombing of Gaza, however indiscriminate, and its current ground attacks, despite the numerous civilian casualties they are causing among Gaza's Palestinian population, do not meet the very high threshold that is required to meet the legal definition of genocide.”
Hinton also noted that when Mokhiber called it a “textbook case of genocide,” he seemed to be “drawing on a more social scientific understanding that looks at settler colonialism and sort of this long term gradual erasure of a group.”
All scholars who spoke to TIME say that it is much more likely that both Hamas and some Israeli officials could be found guilty of crimes against humanity. Kiernan notes that the groups were more likely to be found guilty of extermination, which “does not require proof of a perpetrator's conscious desire to destroy a group ‘as such.’”
Significance of the use of the word genocide
Some scholars, like Verdeja, say that debates on whether the current conflict can be called a genocide are a “bad use of focus.” Part of that is because proving whether something is a genocide takes time, and does not actually stop people from being killed. Hinton agrees, noting that because genocide is seen as the crime of all crimes, people focus too rigidly on defining a particular moment as such.
Other scholars note that referring to a specific moment as a genocide is extremely significant. Segal points to how the U.S. government refused to call crimes committed against the Hutus in Rwanda a genocide because doing so meant they would have to send personnel to intervene. The lack of action by the U.S. allowed the massacre to continue to unfold, he says.
“Without sticking to the truth, we'll never have a truthful reckoning of how we arrived at the seventh of October, and how we go forward,” Segal says. “We need to name it for what it is.”
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