Richard Haley looks at the how, not the why, of the Israeli and allied states’ waging of genocide. Understanding this is crucial to the formation of truly liberatory projects.
On 7 October 2023, while the Hamas incursion into Israel was still underway, Joe Biden promised “rock solid and unwavering support for Israel.” But the language of his short statement was very careful. He didn’t explicitly call the incursion an act of terrorism, but rather “an assault against Israel by Hamas terrorists from Gaza.” This was simply a reflection of the US designation of Hamas as a “foreign terrorist organisation.” There was no attempt to argue that the incursion was of itself of a terrorist character. No doubt he was mindful of the US failure to get a resolution condemning Hamas actions adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2018.
Naturally Biden added the obligatory remark that “terrorism is never justified.” He was suggesting, rather than insisting, that the attack was terrorist in nature. At that moment US support for Israel rested on Israel’s official status as a “major non-NATO ally”, rather than on the universal moralism of a “war on terror”.
A day later, the position had shifted towards universalism. It had to, as other western friends and partners of Israel haven’t formally designated it as an ally.
On 8 October President Macron of France, Chancellor Scholz of Germany, Prime Minister Meloni of Italy, Prime Minister Sunak of the United Kingdom, and President Biden of the United States made a joint statement saying:
“We make clear that the terrorist actions of Hamas have no justification, no legitimacy, and must be universally condemned.”
A few days later Biden was channelling Israeli atrocity stories such as the false claim that Hamas had beheaded babies.
At the same time, it was becoming clear that US-British support for Israel would go far beyond empathy, and far beyond anything necessary to repel the Hamas incursion and prevent any follow-on incursions. It was to support a major ally fighting a major war.
The scale, rapidity and certainty of the response are to some degree explained by recognising that Israel is a settler-colonial project of Europe and North America, and especially of the UK and US. It should be no surprise that the ruling elites of those countries are predisposed to support their outpost in the absence of geopolitical considerations to the contrary. But the caveat is important. The damage that aggressive support for Israel does to US relations with the global south might appear to be a contra-indicator. The fact that decision-makers in the US leapt past the problem in 24 hours or so deserves analysis. But that isn’t the purpose of this article.
Instead of asking why ruling elites in the US and its allies have done this, I will ask how. How have they constructed a procedural and discursive framework that impels them to march with Israel all the way to genocide?
Three pillars of Israel’s Genocide
The framework has three pillars: the imputation of anti-semitism to critics of Israel, the invention of an Israeli right to self-defence that goes beyond its rights under the UN Charter, and the criminalisation of armed Palestinian resistance.
The first pillar – the use of false anti-semitism allegations – is very familiar in the UK because of the part it has played in domestic politics. It was used to isolate former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and purge the Labour Party of left-wingers. The campaign was successful not just because of the strength of the Israel lobby but because it aligned with other establishment interests. Had the Israel lobby not existed, the right wing of the Labour party would have relied instead on help from the security apparatus of the British state, as it has in the past. Al Jazeera’s 2022 investigation into the Labour Party crisis (The Labour Files) shows that other tactics besides allegations of anti-semitism were indeed tried in the early stages of the right-wing response to Jeremy Corbyn.
The success of the Labour purge gave an extra stimulus to campaigns against pro-Palestine campus activism and even against scholarship that challenged Israel’s narrative. BDS became and remains a particular target, seen in Israel as a red line that separates liberal criticism of Israel from “extremism”.
The purges and narrowing of acceptable speech in the Labour Party and academia rely on pre-existing administrative and disciplinary structures that reproduce British ruling class presumptions in favour of colonialism. The same tactics have had a much more limited effect at the base of political activism, where those structures are much weaker.
The effect of the smear campaign has also been limited by the very thing that has made it effective in the kangaroo courts of institutional disciplinary settings. It relies on the IHRA definition of anti-semitism, which is too ill-constructed to be incorporated into criminal law.
It should not be hard for Palestine activists to disassociate themselves from anti-semitic views, since such views are apt to be held by people and organisations who are supportive of racism and colonialism in general, and often supportive of Israel in particular. The effect of smear tactics on the base of the Palestine solidarity movement has been to push activists into treating this simple matter as a complex one demanding disproportionate time and energy. This is a nuisance, but it is not fatal. Activists at the political base, unlike professional politicians, are far from having been silenced or rendered politically ineffective by this nuisance.
After 7 October the UK government added its own voice to the voice of pro-Israel groups who wanted to smear demonstrations for peace and justice as anti-semitic. Home Secretary Suella Braverman described them as “hate marches.”
The resilience of the Palestine solidarity movement in the face of these attacks rested partly on the depth of its civil society roots and partly on the glaring dissonance between the smears and the massive, systematic savagery of Israeli reprisals against Gaza. Huge numbers of people were simply appalled by Israel’s actions.
The other two pillars of the discursive triad – Israel’s supposed right to self-defence and the criminalisation of Palestinian resistance – have been much less hotly contested. They may in the end be more important.
Western leaders assert that “Israel has a right to self-defence” in relation to the events of 7 October, as they have every time that Israel has launched a reprisal attack on Gaza. This appears to be a reference to Article 51 of the UN Charter, which affirms “the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations”.
A state exercising its Article 51 right to self-defence is required to report this to the UN Security Council. There are no rules on the information to be given or the wording to be used. Israel wrote to the Security Council on 7 October saying it would “act in any way necessary to protect its citizens and sovereignty from the ongoing terrorist attacks originating from the Gaza Strip.” But it did not mention Article 51.
The International Court of Justice looked into Israel’s right of self-defence in an advisory opinion it gave in 2004 on the legality of the apartheid wall. Israel claimed that the construction of the wall was an act of self-defence under Article 51. The Court rejected the claim, finding that Israel is unable to rely on Article 51 in relation to an attack emanating from the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and Israel, published in September 2023, reiterated this point in relation to Israel’s multiple assaults on Gaza.
Israel and some of its advocates in the west claim that it has not been in occupation of Gaza since its “redeployment” of 2005. Various UN bodies and international bodies insist that Israel has remained in control, and therefore in occupation, of Gaza since then. The US and UK accept this position and so might be expected to accept the ICJ opinion that Israel has no Article 51 rights in relation to Gaza.
They nevertheless persist in asserting that Israel has a right to self-defence in relation to Gaza. It’s worth looking more carefully at the ICJ ruling to see what might lie behind this.
The ICJ stated that it “recognizes the existence of an inherent right of self-defence in the case of armed attack by one State against another State.”
Two Security Council resolutions passed after 9/11 in relation to Afghanistan 1368 (2001) and 1373 (2001) – are sometimes cited in support of a right to self-defence against non-state forces. The ICJ held that the situation in Palestine was different and those resolutions could not be invoked to support Israel’s claim of self-defence.
Resolutions 1368 and 1373 might in any case be read as noting the potential for Article 51 to be engaged rather than stating that actions by Al-Qaeda were in themselves enough to trigger it. When, a few weeks later, the US and UK notified the Security Council that they were exercising their Article 51 right to take military action in Afghanistan, they referred to the Taliban – the de facto government of Afghanistan – as well as to Al-Qaeda, leaving room for ambiguity as to whether they were really claiming an Article 51 right in relation to a non-state force.
International opinion is divided on the question of whether Article 51 creates a right of self-defence against non-state forces. The US and the UK are amongst the states that say that such a right exists. Debate on the issue generally assumes that the non-state force is operating from another state. The ICJ’s opinion was that whatever view is taken on this, Israel has no such right in relation to an attack from territory that Israel itself occupies. Any argument to the contrary piles a further legal innovation on top of the already contested right of self-defence in relation to non-state forces.
The ICJ noted that “Israel has the right, and indeed the duty to respond to the numerous and deadly acts of violence directed against its civilian population, in order to protect the life of its citizens.”
It would be simple – and would make a nice sound-bite – for western leaders to say “Israel has a right to protect its civilian population from terrorism.” They prefer to invoke Israel’s supposed right of self-defence because that can be made to cover a wider kind of warfare and because they know that Israel’s real concern is the Israeli state itself, not its people.
Challenges to the claim are barely detectable in mainstream discourse. The impression given is that any challenge is a radical, politically-motivated stance and that acceptance of Israel’s right to self-defence must be the starting point for any serious discussion.
Some political leaders who assert Israel’s right to self-defence go on to express sympathy for Palestinians, as Scotland’s First Minister Humza Yousaf has done. Their sympathy is little use once they have given their backing to a dangerous legal innovation that has helped pave the road to genocide.
Once Israel’s right to wage a “defensive” war on Gaza is accepted, all that remains is to ask whether Israel’s actions comply with International Humanitarian Law. This amounts to an assessment of whether Israel has caused excessive harm to civilians. A few violations of Humanitarian Law will not fatally undermine international tolerance for the war. The benchmarks are the conduct of US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and the conduct of Israeli forces in previous assaults on Gaza.
That would be bad enough, but it has been clear since 7 October that Israel wants to go much further. Having reduced the question to one of Humanitarian Law, Israel and its advocates then tried to reduce Humanitarian Law to insignificance. They argued that a defensive war against a hateful enemy can somehow transcend all the obligations of Humanitarian Law. The apocalyptic RAF and USAAF fire-bombing of Dresden in World War 2 was cited as an example.
Self-defence is turning out to be a gateway not just to colonial domination but to mass slaughter.
The rationality of psychopaths
The third pillar of the genocide triad is the criminalisation of Hamas. The ban on Hamas in many western states has allowed the elimination of Hamas from Gaza to be accepted not only as a legitimate war aim for Israel, but as the policy of its allies.
The Geneva Conventions prohibit loss of civilian life that is “excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.” If the elimination of Hamas – an organisation with a mass base – is a legitimate military goal, it might be argued that high civilian losses are unavoidable and proportionate.
That is perhaps the germ of legality behind claims that Israel is complying with Humanitarian Law, and also the germ of rationality behind genocidal statements that there are no innocent civilians in Gaza. It is the rationality of psychopaths.
It is not right to say, as many people do, that Israel is using Hamas as an excuse for genocide. It is rather that the criminalisation of Hamas by Israel’s allies has provided the starting point for genocide. But the politicide of Hamas would be a crime against humanity even without the genocide surrounding it, just as the mass slaughter of the Communist Party of Indonesia in 1965/6 was a crime against humanity whether or not it is considered to be a genocide as well as a politicide.
The international criminalisation of Hamas began in the US. The US Congress amended the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1993 to provide that members of Hamas “be considered to be engaged in a terrorist activity and ineligible to receive visas and excluded from admission into the United States.” The amendment more or less coincided with the signing of the Oslo Accords, which Hamas rejected.
In 1996 the INA was amended again to give the Secretary of State the power to put groups on a list of “foreign terrorist organisations.” Hamas was in the first tranche of organisations to be listed when the new powers came into effect in 1997. The new US legislation inaugurated the system of terrorism listings now established in many countries around the world.
The system was introduced in the UK through the Terrorism Act 2000, which gave the Home Secretary the power to proscribe foreign or domestic organisations believed to be “concerned in terrorism.” The military wing of Hamas was in the first tranche of organisations to be listed when the new powers came into effect in March 2001. Hamas itself was not added until November 2021.
The EU introduced its own “banned list” in December 2001, in line with UN measures in response to 9/11. Hamas’s military wing was listed from the outset and Hamas itself was added in September 2003. Individual EU states also have their own systems of banning organisations. For example, at the start of November 2023 Germany introduced a total ban on Hamas, going beyond the restrictions that flow from the EU ban.
The international and domestic anti-terrorism regimes introduced from the late 1990s onwards amount to a counter current to moves in the UN from the late 1950s through to the late 1970s that established the legitimacy of wars of national liberation. But they do not eliminate the established right of the Palestinian people to resist occupation by armed force.
The various bans on Hamas nevertheless have the effect of eroding that right and at the same time isolating political opposition to the Oslo process.
The UK ban allowed right-wing forces to manufacture a panic by describing the October 2023 protests against Israel’s action in Gaza as “pro-Hamas marches.” This came at the same time as attempts by the Home Secretary and pro-Israel groups and individuals to label the marches as “hate marches” because of their supposed anti-semitism.
The weight of horror unleashed on Gaza by Israel has made pro-Hamas allegations as ineffective as the anti-semitism smear in limiting the growth of the movement. But the allegations have added to the pressure on police to target individuals, either for supporting Hamas or for hate crime or both.
Those arrested over supposed support for Hamas now include Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign founder member Mick Napier and Jewish anti-Zionist activist Tony Greenstein. Mick Napier was arrested at a protest in Glasgow on 16 December 2023 and released on bail. He has been charged over a speech he made at the protest. Tony Greenstein was arrested at his home in Sussex a few days later over a single tweet. He has been released on pre-charge bail. Hanin Barghouthi, a student union women’s officer, has been charged over a speech she gave at a protest in Brighton on 8 October.
The effect of these arrests has been to put the Palestine solidarity movement in the UK under pressure to adapt its discourse to fit the framework set by the British state. The pressure is hardly necessary as the movement has always been reluctant to talk about Hamas.
Discussion of Hamas needs care both because of the risk of prosecution and because of the sensitivity of relations between political groups in Palestine. But self-censorship over Hamas is leading the movement to develop doctrines that are shaped by fear instead of analysis.
It has become commonplace within the movement to say that the genocide in Gaza has nothing to do with Hamas. The purpose of saying this is to disconnect protests against the genocide from negative feelings people may hold about Hamas. It is not necessary to distort history in this way just to stay within UK law.
Of course the genocide is, and is intended to be, a genocide of Palestinians. It is rooted in Israel’s institutionalised hunger for a land without Palestinians. But its immediate causes have a great deal to do with the position Israel’s allies have taken on Hamas.
US policy appears to be that, at the end of hostilities, Gaza should be put under the administration of the Palestinian Authority. That will only be possible if Israel can first reduce Hamas’s armed and civil society strength to a level that it can contain.
If Israel can achieve that at all, it will be through apocalyptic slaughter by bombs, famine and disease. Slaughter on this scale moves the goalposts in favour of a larger win for colonialism – the mass expulsion of the surviving population of Gaza and annexation of the territory by Israel, either through sudden catastrophe or through a post-hostilities phase of dysfunctional administration by a mosaic of international agencies, and perhaps also the PA if it can stomach the job.
A war of supposed self-defence, created through legal deceit by western leaders, now stands on the brink of turning into an outright war of conquest and dispossession.
Senior figures in the Israeli government have given ample indication of their intentions. The US Administration cannot be blind to the likely consequences of its unconditional support. Occasional statements against expulsion and annexation have so far meant only that the US understands that it will need a cover story. They have the same relationship to US policy as the Balfour Declaration’s reminder about “the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” had to British policy.
The US is content to keep re-affirming its support for an eventual Palestinian state while also accepting Israeli actions that make that outcome impossible. Only a catastrophe, and consensus among other states that the “facts on the ground” have changed irrevocably, will shift that position.
South Africa’s proceedings against Israel at the International Court of Justice under the Genocide Convention, initiated at the end of December, may disrupt this situation. They threaten to present the US with a diplomatic crisis it cannot resolve. The US-Israel relationship will then be tested as never before, with consequences that at the moment, in the first days of 2024, are incalculable.
Official opinion in western countries has not always been uniformly hostile to Hamas. For twenty years the UK left a diplomatic door open by only banning Hamas’s military wing. Even the US showed occasional signs of moving towards engagement with Hamas. Trump’s pursuit of his “deal of the century” put an end to that. The “deal” was farcical, but it led to the 2020 Abraham Accords which appeared to strengthen Israel’s international position at the expense of Palestine.
It should not be a surprise that Israel was then able to persuade the UK to add Hamas to its “banned” list, possibly as a result of discussions between prime ministers Naftali Bennet and Boris Johnson during the climate conference in Glasgow in November 2021.
If secular-minded Palestinian resistance organisations operated on the same scale as Hamas they too would be banned by the UK, as they are by some of Britain’s allies. But Islamophobia no doubt played a part in Boris Johnson’s decision to pick Hamas from Israel’s shopping list of organisations to ban. It aligned with his general strategy of seeking support within the blatantly Islamophobic hard right of British politics. He would also have realised that the reactionary character of the British Labour Party and the timidity of much of the Palestine solidarity movement would prevent any serious opposition from the left.
The ban turned out to be the final piece in the international jigsaw that set the scene for genocide.
Western governments now feel able to say there can be no permanent ceasefire if it would leave Hamas in control of Gaza. “Sustainable ceasefire” has become their term for genocide. Israel’s supposed right to self-defence and Hamas’s alleged criminality have been elevated to unbreakable principles while Humanitarian Law is reduced to disposable guidance.
The response of the Palestine solidarity movement has been to insist, quite rightly, that the reverse is the case. But if that is all we do, we suppress our capacity to engage either with history or with political developments in Palestine.
For Israel’s allies, the destruction of Hamas has become the sine qua non of every road onwards. The result is that there is no road onwards. Their demand must not become embedded in the mass movement for a ceasefire. The spirit of solidarity and liberation evident on ceasefire protests may perhaps be enough to prevent that happening. But the things left unsaid are precisely the things that created the conditions for genocide. As long as they remain unsaid, the movement will be open to manipulation by state forces and political parties hostile to Palestinian liberation, as all the main parties in the UK are.
Whatever position British courts take about speech allegedly “supportive” of Hamas, it is not and cannot be an offence to point out that Hamas represents a significant strand of Palestinian opinion and to advocate for that fact to be respected in British foreign policy. Nor can it be an offence to advocate for the ban on Hamas to be lifted, or for the wider roll-back of anti-terrorism legislation.
Even when the political wing of Hamas was legal in the UK, respectful discussions about Hamas were rare in the pro-Palestine movement and campaigns against repressive anti-terror laws were at best marginal.
Over the same time period, some sections of the movement quite rightly put a lot of effort into campaigning against the flawed and pro-Israel IHRA definition of anti-semitism. These moves have not been as widely supported in the movement as they should have been, but they have nevertheless left the movement much better placed to stand firm over allegations of anti-semitism than it is to deal with issues around Hamas’s status as a banned organisation. Yet Hamas’s status, along with misleading statements about Israel’s right to self-defence, has been much more important than anti-semitism allegations in shaping the policies of western governments since 7 October.
Counter-terrorism discourse replaces the liberatory language of an earlier era with language that is colonialist and oppressive. The struggle for Palestinian liberation will not be won using the language of oppression.
Richard Haley is a writer and activist based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He is Chair of Scotland Against Criminalising Communities (SACC).