Gaza and the Politics of Genocide Recognition

Gaza and the Politics of Genocide Recognition

Afroze F Zaidi argues that Western countries refusal to use the term genocide to describe events in Gaza is a nod to their complicity not only in the ongoing slaughter but a reminder of its place in the recent histories of colonialism, recompense for which is outstanding.  As activists world-wide revive the idea that genocide exists and must be stopped, Zaidi looks to the grassroots’ and dissenters’ demands as a locus for future normative discourse.


At the time of writing, it’s become widely accepted that Israel has been actively committing genocide in Gaza for several months. Evidence of popular acceptance of this notion abounds. Pro-Palestine marches have taken place in major cities around the world. The call to boycott brands and corporations supporting Israel has had an impact in real terms on their business. University students have transformed their campuses not just into sites of protest but arenas for public accountability. And it is now practically impossible to browse through social media without coming across the word ‘genocide’.

In a post-Holocaust world, as we watch the genocide of Palestinians in Gaza unfold before our eyes, now would be the time for the United Nations (UN) Genocide Convention to fulfil its intended function. While other genocides have undoubtedly taken place in recent history, the one in Gaza has certain unique characteristics.

First, the smartphone era has created more documented evidence of Israel’s genocide in Gaza than there has been for any other genocide in modern history. Second, internet and communication technology has meant that images, video footage, eyewitness testimony, and stories not just of innocent civilians but of healthcare workers, journalists, academic scholars, etc who have been murdered by Israeli forces, have spread so rapidly and pervasively around the world that comparing it to wildfire would be an understatement. Third, the genocide in Gaza has particularly pulled back the façade of purported liberal Western values such as democracy, diplomacy, human rights, international law, and freedom of speech.

Now more than ever, it has become painfully apparent that not only does Israel act with impunity, its genocidal actions – and justifications – are enabled by other Western states and the mass media that serves them. So much so that student protests against Israel’s actions have been attacked with the full force of the state – particularly at Columbia and the University of Amsterdam – in blatant violation of the students’ democratic right to protest. Western colonial states have banned and silenced Palestinian voices such as Dr Ghassan Abu Sittah without a passing thought for freedom of speech. And these same states and academic institutions continue to enable and support the supply of arms to Israel so that it can carry on its flagrant violations against human rights and international humanitarian law.

It has become clear that the role of Western states is no longer one of passive complicity, but rather they are active enablers of the genocide against Palestinians in Gaza. They have willingly and consistently supplied the hardware with which Israel continues to eviscerate Gaza in its entirety – including critical infrastructure, hospitals, universities, schools, factories, homes, and, of course, people. Moreover, in a display of pro-Israel bias, the US, UK and EU placed fresh sanctions on Iran for its military attack on Israel, despite the fact Iran only responded to Israel’s unprovoked act of naked aggression against it, i.e. the attack on the Iranian embassy in Damascus. At the time, UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron went on air and expressed concern about thousands of hypothetical deaths that ‘could have’ happened in Israel, without breathing a word about the 32,000 or so actual deaths that had already taken place up to that point at the hands of Israel in Gaza.

Following this, in an even more blatant show of pro-Israel bias from the US, on 26 April twelve Republican senators signed a letter effectively threatening the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) Karim Khan in order to deter him from issuing arrest warrants against PM Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials. The letter read:

“Target Israel and we will target you. If you move forward with the measures indicated in the report, we will move to end all American support for the ICC, sanction your employees and associates, and bar you and your families from the United States. You have been warned.”

Therefore, amidst widespread public upheaval, Israel is buoyed and emboldened by support from Western superpowers. State actors that could actually take tangible action to bring this genocide to a halt are, instead, most actively enabling it. Worse still, the UN, the supposedly neutral, self-appointed arbiter of genocides, has proven entirely impotent against Israel’s brazen perpetration of crimes against humanity.

For some people, this may come as no surprise. But for many others, it has still been a shock to witness firsthand, in the midst of an ongoing, livestreamed genocide, the inaction of the body from which the Genocide Convention originated.

The UN’s role in genocide prevention

Few events in modern history seem to have demonstrated the redundancy of the UN as a peace-making body more than the genocide in Gaza. With crimes against Palestinians in Gaza being livestreamed and verified not just by citizens and eyewitnesses but by health workers, journalists, aid workers and so on, one would think that this would give unprecedented urgency to the imperative to take action and stop these atrocities in their tracks.

Yet there is no action. Ironically, in this situation, the legal definition of a genocide and the process and burden of proof required simply to establish its existence, even in the presence of overwhelming, undeniable evidence, serve more as a hindrance to justice rather than a vehicle for it.

For reference, the Convention places the following obligations on states:

  1. “Obligation not to commit genocide”
  2. “Obligation to prevent genocide”
  3. “Obligation to punish genocide”
  4. “Obligation to enact the necessary legislation to give effect to the provisions of the Convention”
  5. “Obligation to ensure that effective penalties are provided for persons found guilty of criminal conduct according to the Convention”
  6. “Obligation to try persons charged with genocide in a competent tribunal of the State in the territory of which the act was committed, or by an international penal tribunal with accepted jurisdiction”
  7. “Obligation to grant extradition when genocide charges are involved, in accordance with laws and treaties in force (Article VII), particularly related to protection granted by international human rights law prohibiting refoulment where there is a real risk of flagrant human rights violations in the receiving State.

Just from the brief examples cited earlier, it’s clear that not just Israel but the states enabling its genocide are failing on at least six of the Convention’s obligations.

Importantly, the fourth point also includes the following clarification:

“The political organs of the United Nations play an important role in supporting the implementation of the Convention, but not in making a legal determination as to whether a situation constitutes genocide under the Genocide Convention or under international criminal law.”


This is significant because it shows a lack of clarity regarding whom the responsibility actually falls upon to make “a legal determination as to whether a situation constitutes genocide”.

A factsheet on the Convention which has been drafted by the UN provides no further clarity in this regard either. Its entire focus appears to be on defining what genocide is and is not, with a cautionary tone regarding mis-attributing the term ‘genocide’ where it doesn’t technically apply (based on the Convention). To date, out of a list of dozens of possible genocides since the Convention, the UN has only taken legal action against three. And yet it hasn’t occurred to anyone with influence that the process of establishing a genocide might be prohibitively burdensome. The three against which legal action has been taken are the respective genocides in Rwanda (1994), Bosnia (1995) and Cambodia (1975-79) – incidentally, none of the alleged perpetrators of these genocides happen to be allies of Western superpowers.

Furthermore, the factsheet demonstrates that the Convention and its associated terminology have been designed with the goal of ‘genocide prevention’, with no information on the process to stop the perpetration of an ongoing genocide or seek accountability from its perpetrators. The factsheet also refers to the ‘UN’ as a body separate to its ‘departments’, ultimately making the process entirely opaque, with no clarity as to who is responsible for initiating action, and moreover what specifically, if anything, is the responsibility of the UN proper during an ongoing genocide.

Article V of the Convention states that “The Contracting Parties undertake… to provide effective penalties for persons guilty of genocide”. Meanwhile, article VIII is as follows:

“Any Contracting Party may call upon the competent organs of the United Nations
to take such action under the Charter of the United Nations as they consider
appropriate for the prevention and suppression of acts of genocide or any of the
other acts enumerated in article III.”

In other words, it falls on the ‘Contracting Parties’, i.e. member states, either to “provide effective penalties” or call on the UN to take action for “the prevention and suppression of acts of genocide”. However, where these member states are demonstrably committed to pursuing their own geo-political interests over compliance with international law, the Convention becomes effectively useless.

Where the Convention and the UN’s factsheet give little clarity on the actual process of seeking accountability for a genocide, Francesca Albanese, UN Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territories, clarified the following in her report published in March 2024 (p. 4):

“The [UN’s International Court of Justice] ICJ and the International Criminal Court (“ICC”) have jurisdiction over the crime of genocide, and so do State domestic courts. Prior to the establishment of the ICC, ad hoc international criminal tribunals advanced their interpretation of what constitutes genocide, its intent and required evidence.”

To elaborate further, while the ICJ is the judicial arm of the UN, it holds no prosecutorial or enforcement powers. This means that although the ICJ has ruled on the ‘plausibility’ of people in Gaza deserving protection from genocide, it cannot enforce this protection, nor take any punitive action against Israeli officials. In order for the UN to pursue legal accountability for genocides that it has officially recognised, its Security Council (UNSC) must make a referral to the ICC. Although the UNSC has done this for genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Cambodia, in the case of Israel, this referral does not appear forthcoming.

Contrary to what some might assume, this inaction is not due to the fact that genocide must be established as per the criteria and burden of proof laid out in the Convention. Rather, Albanese’s report offers a thorough justification of how Israel’s actions and rhetoric constitute genocide as per the Convention, stating in no uncertain terms:

“By analysing the patterns of violence and Israel’s policies in its onslaught on Gaza, this report concludes that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the threshold indicating Israel’s commission of genocide is met.”

Not only has Albanese documented evidence of genocidal acts, but also a comprehensive proof of genocidal intent (p. 12):

“In the latest Gaza assault, direct evidence of genocidal intent is uniquely present. Vitriolic genocidal rhetoric has painted the whole population as the enemy to be eliminated and forcibly displaced. High-ranking Israeli officials with command authority have issued harrowing public statements evincing genocidal intent, including as follows:

(a) President Isaac Herzog stated that “an entire nation out there…is responsible” for the 7 October attack, and that Israel would “break their backbone”

(b) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu referred to Palestinians as “Amalek” and “monsters”. The Amalek reference is to a biblical passage in which God commands Saul “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass”.

(c) Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant referred to Palestinians as “human animals”, and announced “full offense” on Gaza, having “released all the restraints”, and that “Gaza will never return to what it was”;

Albanese added that (p. 13):

“There is cogent evidence that these statements have been internalized and acted upon by troops on the ground. Israeli soldiers have, including on social media channels run by the Israeli military, referred to Palestinians as “terrorists”, “roaches”, “rats”, and have repeated terms articulated by political leaders, chanting that “there are no ‘uninvolved civilians’”, while also calling for the building of settlements in Gaza, “occupy[ing] Gaza… wip[ing] off the seed of Amalek”, boasting about killing “families, mothers, and children”, humiliating detained Palestinians, detonating dozens of homes, destroying entire residential neighbourhoods, and desecrating cemeteries and places of worship.”

As Albanese elaborates:

“Such calls for annihilatory violence directed at troops on duty, constitute strong evidence of direct and public incitement to commit genocide. Decades of discourse dehumanizing Palestinians have prepared the groundwork for such incitements.”

This report, establishing both genocidal actions and intent on the part of Israel, was submitted to the UN at the end of March 2024. But as anyone bearing witness to events in Gaza will know, the barrier to justice for Palestinians, or at least accountability under international law, is not a lack of evidence – it is political will.

What will it take?

The reality is that Albanese’s report, whether due to the timing of its publication or the limits of its scope, does not even include some of the most horrendous of Israel’s crimes, such as the Flour Massacre in early March or the siege of Al Shifa Hospital and subsequent discovery of mass graves, with zip ties small enough to fit around the wrists of babies.

One might ask why it is, then, that global superpowers hold such little regard for Palestinian lives that they can maintain their unshakeable commitment to the Zionist cause even in the face of overwhelming evidence of Israel’s crimes. In order to answer this question, we need to acknowledge that the Zionist project is indeed the most overt manifestation of modern-day settler colonialism, which, in turn, is inextricably linked with white supremacy. When French authorities denied entry to Dr Ghissan Abu Sittah on 4 May, he tweeted:

“Colonial genocide is a formative component of European identity. Hence their eagerness to become complicit in silencing the witnesses and arming the war criminals”

Albanese also references the characteristics of settler-colonialism in her report, stating (p. 3):

“Genocidal intent and practices are integral to the ideology and processes of settler-colonialism”

Crucially, she adds:

“Settler-colonialism is a dynamic, structural process and a confluence of acts aimed at displacing and eliminating Indigenous groups, of which genocidal extermination/annihilation represents the peak.” [original emphasis]

However, the link Dr Abu Sittah makes which Albanese does not is that between colonialism and (white supremacist) European identity. White supremacist colonial ideology goes beyond racism as discrimination – it holds the coloniser as superior and therefore more entitled to space, land, freedom, cultural identity and heritage, and the right to live. Colonising forces have therefore joined hands to endorse the settler-colonial Zionist project, offering Israel impunity as well as political, material, and ideological support.

As identified by Edward Said, another aspect of white supremacist colonialism is Islamophobia, and this is again a trait shared by the Zionist project. Israel has capitalised on global Islamophobia by using its portrayal of Hamas as an ‘Islamist’ terrorist group to justify any and all genocidal behaviour. Arguably, Israel has managed to get away with the extent of damage it has caused in Gaza in part because of its depiction of Hamas as an Islamist terrorist entity that is, by definition, senselessly violent, barbaric, and beyond reasoning with. The international community, and global superpowers in particular, have accepted this categorisation of Hamas as a terror group without giving any consideration to the military strength and apartheid inflicted upon Palestinians by Israel as an occupying force. The UN, meanwhile, despite its global membership, has proven itself to be an institution that is equally complicit in protecting white supremacist colonialism.

So does this mean that ‘genocide’ is a meaningless term? When it comes to accountability under international law, it would appear so. However, the term undoubtedly holds weight in the meaning it has taken on in the popular imagination. It represents the perpetration of crimes against humanity that are deliberate and targeted at a specific group of people. It represents a pinnacle of injustice, as a powerless group of people is exterminated by a powerful one. Perhaps more than anything, it represents a failing of humankind that should never be allowed to happen. That should be prevented. That should be opposed. This is, after all, the essence of ‘Never Again’.

One thing the genocide in Gaza has served to demonstrate is what the politics of genocide is not. It is not genocide prevention. It is not an equal application of justice for all human beings. It is not concerned with state actors facing accountability and having checks and balances for their power. Rather, it is simply about white guilt over the Holocaust, and Zionist, colonial interests capitalising on this in service of their own ends. The fact that Germany, the most vocal proponent of ‘Never Again’, seems to also be the most vehemently anti- justice for Palestinians goes to show firstly the political nature of genocide recognition and secondly the commitment of white supremacist states to upholding colonialism. It’s almost as though ‘Never Again’ only means ‘Never Again – except when it comes to genocide being perpetrated against a group other than the Jews’.

Meanwhile, the dehumanisation of Palestinians, as Arabs and perceived Muslims, has placed them at an acute disadvantage – in order to hear Palestinians and treat their concerns as valid, the institutions to which they might turn with complaints of human rights violations against them must first recognise them as human beings. These institutions, however, keep exposing their white supremacist leanings, as they accept Israel’s narrative of merely engaging in self-defence against Islamist terrorists.

“Always talk”

“I think a lot of resistance to calling Gaza a genocide comes from people who say Israel is not killing people for sport but rather to eliminate a perceived threat. Problem is every single genocide in history was to eliminate a threat as perceived by the people carrying it out”

Bruno Maçães, author

A few weeks ago, it might have been easy to feel disheartened at the seeming futility of collective action in the face of world leaders and their unequivocal support for Zionism. But recent events have shown the power of collective action and consistent public pressure.

Just as new snow on a mountain slope can trigger an avalanche, student protests on university campuses appear to be the straw that have broken the camel’s back. They have exposed an international Palestine solidarity movement that is both unrelenting and effective, grounded not in legal frameworks or definitions but in an inherent sense of justice and liberation for all Palestinian people. Universities have begun committing to divesting from Israel. The boycott of brands and companies supporting Israel has spread far and wide, giving tangible results. Palestine Action activists in the UK managed to shut down a drone factory owned by Israel’s Elbit Systems, and the Fire Brigades Union issued guidance saying fire fighters should not assist the police in removing them. And US President Joe Biden has put an arms shipment to Israel on hold following its ground invasion of Rafah.

So no matter how futile or ineffective it might seem, it is essential to recognise the role that protests and direct action can play in Palestinian liberation. In an interview with BreakThrough News published on 26 April, Lebanese journalist Ali Mortada said:

“It’s very important [for] you guys to talk. Always talk, always talk. Especially the Western people, we love you. We are seeing what you are doing. And I swear to God, the demonstrations in London are more effective than the demonstrations in Lebanon. We fight, you demonstrate. Let us fight. Let us make them taste our fire. But you must always talk, and we will do the work… We are very powerful. They couldn’t beat us, but we need you beside us. Always talk, always share, always make us feel like a human because they are always treating us like animals.”

The importance of sharing, amplifying, not looking away, has been emphasised repeatedly by Palestinians. In doing so, we are not just resisting and countering Zionist narratives but also bearing witness to the genocide unfolding in Gaza. Genocide recognition by the UN, prosecution by the ICC, or sanctions against Israel may not be realistic possibilities, but this means even more so that the general public, all people outside of Gaza, must use their privilege to keep demanding not just a ceasefire but freedom for Palestine – from the river to the sea.

Afroze F Zaidi is a writer, editor and independent researcher. Afroze has an established track record of writing about current affairs in a manner that challenges narratives in the mainstream media. She also regularly offers rigorous, research-based critiques of colonial/ white supremacist structures and institutions. You can find her on Twitter/X @afrozefz .

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