Violent discourse is deeply embedded in Israel. Its mainstream media rarely if ever broadcast images of the destruction in Gaza. The Israeli pop singer Eyal Golan called for the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) to “wipe out Gaza and leave no one there”. The singer Kobi Peretz danced with soldiers who sang, “May your village burn.” Celebrities have contributed to the febrile atmosphere, but the Prime Minister’s allies have clearly fanned the flames.
At the end of 2022, Binyamin Netanyahu (known as “Bibi”) formed a government with extremist racist parties, including the party Jewish Power led by Itamar Ben-Gvir, a man who has openly supported terrorist attacks against Palestinians. Ben-Gvir is a disciple of Meir Kahane, a Jewish fascist and leader of the Kach party, which was banned in the late 1980s because of its racist policies. Kahane was ostracised across the political spectrum. But Ben Gvir was appointed as Israel’s minister of public security, putting him in charge of the police and giving him enforcement authority in the West Bank. His presence in the government has emboldened extreme ultra-nationalist settlers, who have stepped up their attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank. Netanyahu forged a pact with the far-Right in order to cement his political base and safeguard his political survival. But in doing so he has fanned the flames of poisonous incitement that is inviting legal jeopardy for Israel.
On October 7, Hamas terrorists burst into Israel and killed some 1200 Israelis, abducted hundreds of men, women and children, while carrying out savage acts of mass rape and torture. The Islamist terrorist organization has openly called for Israel’s destruction and has threatened to carry out more such attacks. Israel was fully justified in acting forcefully against Hamas and there has been widespread international support and sympathy for its right to act in self-defence. Yet Hamas likely carried out its atrocities in the knowledge that Israel’s government, which includes far-Right ministers, would overreact and invite international opprobrium. On this score, Hamas succeeded beyond its wildest dreams. World opinion is now focused on the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, instead of the barbaric terrorist atrocities of October 7 which provoked Israel’s military response. South Africa has petitioned the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which is now investigating claims that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza.
The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, on his visit to Israel on 9th January rightly described the charge of genocide as “meritless” at a time when those attacking Israel, including Hamas, Hizbullah and their patron Iran, continue to call openly for the destruction of Israel and the mass murder of Jews. At the same time, Blinken has decried the daily toll of Gazans who have been killed during Israel’s war against Hamas. According to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza, over 25,000 have been killed. If these figures are correct, one in every 100 Palestinians in Gaza has been killed since the war began.
South Africa’s decision to bring the charge of genocide to the ICJ should raise eyebrows: after all, the South African President Cyril Ramaphosa recently hosted in his home the leader of the Rapid Support Forces which is accused of carrying out massacres in Sudan and was complicit in acts of ethnic cleansing in Darfur twenty years ago. The ICJ is also hearing a complaint brought by Ukraine regarding claims of Russian genocide. Russian officials and media personalities have spoken openly about wiping out Ukraine. Yet this has never bothered the South Africans, who have condemned the sanctions that have been imposed on Moscow. Indeed, last year, South Africa conducted joint naval exercises with Russia off its coast. Netanyahu was right when he asserted that “South Africa’s hypocrisy screams to the heavens”.
Yet Netanyahu is also his own worst enemy. He was wrongfooted by the genocide charges. This is where the PM’s reckless conduct comes into play. The application facing the ICJ maintains that inflammatory statements made by Israeli ministers, politicians and public figures constitutes proof of genocidal intentions and that Israel has failed to prosecute “direct and public incitement to genocide”. Since the attacks of October 7, ministers and politicians in his ruling coalition have never missed an opportunity to call for the destruction of Gaza, the expulsion of Palestinian civilians and the resettlement of Jews in Gaza.
The ICJ charge sheet includes an exhaustive list of “expressions of genocidal intent”. For example, the Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and Member of the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, Nissim Vaturi, tweeted that: “We all have one common goal — erasing the Gaza Strip from the face of the earth.” Israel’s Finance Minister, Bezalel Smotrich, and the National Security Minister Ben-Gvir have spoken openly about encouraging the Palestinian population to leave Gaza and resettling Jews there. Smotrich told Army Radio: “We need to encourage immigration from there. If there were 100,000-200,000 Arabs in the Strip and not two million, the whole conversation about the day after [the war] would be completely different.”
Netanyahu himself quoted the biblical injunction “remember what Amalek did to you”, referring to the Jews’ enemy in the Bible whom they were commanded to utterly destroy. Most disturbingly, even Israel’s President, Isaac Herzog, has been cited in the ICJ report. Herzog, a former leader of the Labour Party, stated on 12 October that Israel was making no distinction between Hamas terrorists and Gazan civilians. A recent report originating in the Israeli media suggested that Israel was examining the feasibility of the “voluntary resettlement” of Palestinians in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Israel was forced to deny there was any truth in the report.
Israeli legal scholars have argued that these inflammatory statements by politicians and ministers are harmful for the country because they bolster the perceptions of those who genuinely believe that there is intent to carry out genocide. Israel claims that such statements do not represent its official position, and that decisions regarding the war are made only by ministers in the war cabinet, in which extremists such as Smotrich and Ben-Gvir do not sit. The jurist Malcolm Shaw, who is representing Israel at the ICJ hearings, has pointed out that IDF standing orders have cited the need to differentiate between military and civilian targets. Members of the war cabinet have stressed on numerous occasions that the goal of the war is to destroy Hamas and not to target the Palestinian people. Hamas embeds itself within the civilian population in Gaza, places its headquarters under hospitals, and has exploited civilian structures such as schools to fire rockets at Israel. Hamas fighters do not wear a uniform as a deliberate policy in order to blend into the population. The deaths of Gazan civilians do not bother Hamas. On the contrary, they advance its interests, as we are now seeing in the ICJ trial.
The more moderate figures in Netanyahu’s governing coalition are now being more careful in their use of language. Nevertheless, Smotrich and Ben-Gvir cannot be dismissed as fringe elements: they remain an integral part of the government. Netanyahu has not silenced them because of fears that his ruling coalition will collapse.
Yet hours before the genocide hearings were due to begin in The Hague, Netanyahu issued an English language statement declaring that Israel has no intention of permanently occupying Gaza or displacing its Palestinian population. It took him three months to do so. Does he mean what he says? It is noticeable that the Prime Minister says one thing in English to foreign audiences and another to his domestic constituency in Israel. Importantly, though, Israel’s attorney general has also warned Israel’s politicians that they may face investigations over their incitement to harm civilians in Gaza. This is long overdue.
Ultimately, Netanyahu has squandered international goodwill because he has caved in to the extremists in his government. Britain’s defence minister Grant Shapps said on Sky News on 21 January: “It is disappointing to hear the Israeli Prime Minister’s opposition to the two-state solution. There isn’t another option. The whole world has agreed this is the best way forward. The British government absolutely backs that as a solution. I thought that was a disappointing comment.” Britain, one of Israel’s closest allies in Europe, is growing increasingly exasperated with Netanyahu, mirroring the frustration felt by the Biden administration. Netanyahu refuses to discuss post-war scenarios in Gaza because he is afraid that Ben-Gvir and Smotrich will bring down his government.
Perhaps it’s time for world leaders to smarten up and put Bibi on the spot. They should say to him: If you don’t want the two-state solution, come out with your own initiative now — put up or shut up. Bibi’s mentor was Yitzhak Shamir, who served as Israel’s prime minister in 1983-84 and 1986-1992 and was arguably even more inflexible than him. Yet even Shamir came up with an initiative of his own in the spring of 1989, following the eruption of the first Palestinian Intifada. The Shamir plan called for Palestinian elections, which would produce local representation to negotiate a transitional period of self-rule. Few in the Arab world took the plan seriously, but it was enough for him to win an invitation to 10 Downing Street — despite the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s aversion to Shamir as a former member of the Stern Gang. The trouble is that Shamir caved in to Ariel Sharon and other hardline rebels in his party; the initiative was soon killed off. But Bibi isn’t even trying.
Israel’s Prime Minister is entrapped by his coalition partners and has no room for flexibility. His country is sinking into a quagmire in Gaza – 23rd January was the deadliest day for Israel since the October 7 attacks with the deaths of 214 IDF soldiers. Gadi Eisenkot, a former Chief of Staff and a senior member of the war cabinet, said in a recent interview on Israel’s Channel 12 that talk of the “absolute defeat” of Hamas was “a tall tale”. He also maintained that the Israeli hostages in Gaza will only return alive if there is a deal, linked to a significant pause in fighting. Just to provide context, in 2011 Netanyahu sanctioned a deal which allowed the release of over 1000 Palestinian prisoners in return for the release of just one Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. But the Israeli PM was not hemmed in by extremists back in 2011.
Let us assume that new elections are held in 2024 and Netanyahu along with his extremist allies are finally removed from power, as polls suggest. Israel would then be in a far better place to remind the world that it was the crimes against humanity perpetrated by Hamas terrorists which compelled Israel to act in self-defence in Gaza. It is not Israel but Hamas and its patron Iran which are guilty of genocide. But this will do little to alleviate the damage to Israel’s international reputation.
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