We Called It Genocide in Guatemala. Why Not in Gaza Too?
Even some critics of Israel bristled when its recent attacks on Gaza were called "genocidal." But a closer look reveals disturbing parallels with genocides past.
In Israel’s recent assault on Gaza, 70 percent of those killed were civilians.
Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas has accused Israel of genocide. And he has company. The National Lawyers Guild, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the American Jurists Association, and other legal organizations have asked an International Criminal Court prosecutor to investigate Israel for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. A lawsuit filed in federal court in Buenos Aires also accuses Israel of genocide.
The accusation has outraged many. As historian Deborah Lipstadt puts it, “People might totally disagree with all aspects of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians—including those in Gaza—but to call this a genocide is to distort both what was done to Jews during World War II and what is being done to Palestinians today.” According to Lipstadt, “Calling what was done in Gaza a genocide is to use the Holocaust memory, symbolism, and imagery for political purposes.”
Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, is no proponent of the “g” word either. “What Israel is doing is bad enough,” he wrote, “without trying to fit it into a category which brings up memories of real genocides—the attempt of the Nazis to wipe out every Jew and every gay person and every gypsy, the attempt of American settlers to wipe out every Native American, etc.”
But genocide does not require an attempt to eliminate an entire people. It requires an intent to destroy a population “in whole or in part.” And mass annihilations of the kind Lerner mentions are not the only genocides on record.
A more relevant comparison is the Guatemalan army’s genocide of Mayan indigenous people. For decades, Guatemala was engaged in a long, asymmetric war against a small guerrilla army that, like Hamas, never presented a serious threat to the ultimate power structure and emerged in response to inequality and dispossession. Last year a court in Guatemala ruled that former Guatemalan general Efraín Ríos Montt was responsible for genocide when the army he commanded killed 1,771 Ixil Mayans, wiping out 5.5 percent of the Ixil Maya population in 17 months.
The comparison is not simply an abstract one. Israel was also deeply implicated in what happened in Guatemala during the Ríos Montt era.
Like the United States, which armed and supplied the Guatemalan army throughout much of its war on the rebels, Israel had a hand in Guatemala’s genocide.
Israel began selling arms to Guatemala in the early 1970s but took up the training and arming of Guatemalan forces in earnest when the U.S. Congress cut off aid to Guatemala in 1977 in protest of its gross human rights abuses. When Ríos Montt came to power through a coup, it was with the help of 300 Israeli military advisors. Israelis helped design Guatemala’s scorched earth campaign in the largely indigenous countryside, and Israeli military aides helped develop the plan to relocate those not massacred to “model villages” controlled by the military.
Jane Hunter, who describes Israel’s collaboration with Guatemala in her book Israeli Foreign Policy, notes that in June 1983, the Guatemalan embassy in Washington confirmed that “personnel sent by the Israeli government were participating in the repopulation and readjustment programs for those displaced.” In Hunter’s view, “It is no accident that the Guatemalans looked to the Israelis for assistance in organizing their campaign against the Indians, and, having followed their mentors’ advice, wound up with something that looks quite a bit like the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and the Gaza strip.”
She goes on to say, “As it is openly acknowledged in the Israeli media that the Palestinian population must not be allowed to exceed the Jewish population, it is common knowledge that the Guatemalan military would like to reduce the Mayan population to a minority.”
Israeli military advisors didn’t regard the massacres in Guatemala as a genocide. But they also weren’t naïve enough to believe that the 667 massacres committed by the army had a necessary counter-insurgency function.
Journalist Robert Parry interviewed Israeli military intelligence officer Ari Ben-Menashe last year about his work in Guatemala during the massacres. Ben-Menashe emphasized that the Israelis were unaware of the genocidal nature of the Guatemalan military’s campaign against the Ixil. The Israelis did recognize, however, that they “were assisting in mass murders of dark-skinned Guatemalans; the distinction being that the Israelis did not identify the slaughters as genocide against a specific racial or ethnic group.” Ben-Menashe told Perry, “As we saw it, they [Guatemalan military authorities] were targeting all non-white villagers who were sitting on fertile lands that the white Guatemalans wanted.”
Officially, the massacres in Guatemala were not about land; they were a matter of military necessity. In order to kill the fish (the guerrillas), the Guatemalan army argued, it was necessary to drain the water (the people).
As Ríos Montt explained, “Look, the problem of the war is not just a question of who is shooting. For each one who is shooting, there are ten working behind him.” Ríos Montt’s press secretary added: “The guerrillas won over many Indian collaborators. Therefore, the Indians were subversives, right? And how do you fight subversion? Clearly, you had to kill Indians because they were collaborating with subversion. And then they say, ‘You’re massacring innocent people.’ But they weren’t innocent. They had sold out to subversion.”
Although the Israeli army has employed a professional ethicist, its reasoning today is remarkably similar to genocidal general Efrain Ríos Montt’s 30 years ago. At the height of the recent Gaza conflict, Israeli parliament member Ayelet Shaked posted to Facebook a previously unpublished article written by a close advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the late Uri Elitzur. “Behind every terrorist,” Elitzur wrote, in a clear echo of Ríos Montt, “stand dozens of men and women, without whom he could not engage in terrorism.” Elitzur elaborated: the actors in a war include “those who incite in mosques, those who write the murderous curricula for schools, those who give shelter, who provide vehicles, and all those who honor and give them their moral support. They are all enemy combatants.”
Elitzur’s idea did not remain words on paper but became policy. Aluf Gadi Eizenkot, a major general and current deputy chief of staff in the Israel Defense Forces, articulated a plan known as the Dahiya doctrine, which incorporates the notion that civilians are legitimate targets. He referred to Israel’s massive destruction of the Dahiya quarter of Beirut in 2006 and vowed to continue such policies. “We will wield disproportionate power against every village from which shots are fired on Israel and cause immense damage and destruction. From our perspective, these are not civilian villages, they are military bases.”
The resonance between Gadi Eizenkot’s plan and a 1982 CIA cable explaining the Guatemalan army’s modus operandi in the Ixil Triangle area is inescapable: “When an army patrol meets resistance and takes fire from a town or village, it is assumed that the entire town is hostile and it is subsequently destroyed.”
The prescription for genocide, written in Guatemala, is being followed in Gaza. In State Violence and Genocide in Latin America, Raúl Molina Mejía explains that in Guatemala the military and elites accepted that “in order to eliminate the opposition, they had to destroy potentially supportive populations. This formulation, in my view, is tantamount to genocide.”
The Dahiya doctrine is no different. It appears, in fact, to be the water/fish formulation renamed. And under the right conditions—given racism, population concerns, a struggle for land, and a guarantee of impunity—its natural unfolding is genocide.
Laying the Groundwork
The Dahiya doctrine requires some PR work. Before they can be killed, civilians have to be reclassified for the sake of the public—including the U.S. public, which funds Israel’s military.
As Giora Eiland, the former head of Israel’s National Security Council, wrote in an op-ed in Ynet News,Israel “must avoid the artificial, wrong, and dangerous distinction between the Hamas people, who are ‘the bad guys,’ and Gaza’s residents, which are allegedly ‘the good guys.’” The civilians, he argued, “are to blame for this situation,” for having elected Hamas. In The Wall Street Journal, Thane Rosenbaum concurred: “On some basic level, you forfeit your right to be called civilians,” he claimed.
The conditions for wholesale slaughter were being laid. If no one is a civilian—if everyone is a legitimate target—then killing everyone is permissible. Gilad Sharon, son of the late prime minister Ariel Sharon, wrote in an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post, “There should be no electricity in Gaza, no gasoline or moving vehicles, nothing.” He argued that all of Gaza had to be “flattened.” The deputy speaker of Israel’s parliament, Moshe Feiglin, who is a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, also urged a total siege, with “no consideration for ‘human shields,’” his term of choice for civilians.
These were calls for genocide. Article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide lists five particular characteristics, one of which must be present for an act to be considered genocide. “Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part” is the one a total siege describes.
A “solution” to Gaza, spelled out by Feiglin in his op-ed, calls for massive military power, forced displacement of the population, and the destruction of Palestinian culture. Israel will conquer Gaza, according to this plan, which will “ease the housing crisis in Israel.” Those Palestinians who accept “Israel’s way of life” will be allowed to remain.
The Dahiya doctrine was in force during Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s 2008-2009 assault on Gaza, according to a United Nations Fact Finding Mission. Not much has changed. Of the recent atrocities in Gaza, Amnesty International pointed to “mounting evidence that the Israel Defense Forces launched apparently deliberate attacks against hospitals and health professionals in Gaza, which have left six medics dead.”
Human Rights Watch faulted the IDF with perhaps not “doing its best to avoid killing and wounding civilians” but stopped short of calling the attacks on civilians deliberate. “Atrocious as much of the Israeli bombing campaign of Gaza has been,” Human Rights Watch said in a July 18 statement, “it is hard to imagine Israeli forces deliberately trying to kill Ismail Bakr, 9, and his three cousins, Ahed, 10, Zakariya, 10, and Mohammad, 11, with an apparent missile attack, particularly when they were directly in front of a hotel full of foreign journalists.” If Israel’s objective was to terrorize the Palestinians into submission, however, shooting the boys would serve that end. When boys playing on the beach next to a hotel full of international journalists can be shot, clearly, no one is safe.
The bombing of UN shelters makes sense in this light, too; if UN shelters can be shelled, repeatedly, no one in Gaza is safe. Regarding the shelling of the Beit Hanoun shelter on July 24, UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) spokesperson Chris Guinness tweeted, “Precise co-ordinates of the UNRWA shelter in Beit Hanoun had been formally given to the Israeli army… Over the course of the day UNRWA tried to coordinate with the Israeli Army a window for civilians to leave and it was never granted.”
Other than a hospital, the shelter was the only inhabited building in Beit Hanoun. A local official had told refugees there that buses were on the way to take them to another shelter. People began to gather in the courtyard. Israeli tanks opened fire. Thirteen people, including six children, were killed, and dozens were wounded.
The shelter in Jabalia was hit days later, after the IDF had been given the coordinates 17 times. Human Rights Watch investigated those attacks and a final one, on August 3 (before which UN officials gave coordinates of the shelter to the IDF 33 times, the final time just an hour before the attack). Human Rights Watch found no evidence of Hamas gunfire from any of the schools and no reason for the IDF to have targeted them.
A report on Operation Cast Lead by the National Lawyers Guild lends context to the shelter bombardments. “Another common narrative described Israeli forces gathering civilians into a single location (e.g., a home or a school) that was then shelled by Israeli tanks or warplanes.”
Likewise, in Guatemala, during the campaign of massacres, residents in village after village were herded into the local school or church. The doors were locked. The building was set on fire. One of the reasons the Catholic Church’s Historical Clarification Commission issued a finding of genocide was that the army carefully gathered the whole community together; surrounded the community; or used situations in which people were gathered together for celebrations or market days in order to kill the largest number of group members possible.
Considering Israel’s actions in Gaza in light of these terms, rather than in relation to the Holocaust, and questioning whether the assault on Gaza contains components of genocide is not “a distortion of what happened to the Jews in World War II.” It’s a necessary part of the pledge “never again.”
The Israeli army’s aim in Gaza could have been terror, or collective punishment, rather than extermination. But when terror and collective punishment are effected by killing civilians, genocide is a persistent danger.
A lesson the Israeli government must have learned in Guatemala is that the United States hardly cares. Even as the massacres continued, the United States renewed military aid to the Guatemalan army and covered up the army’s excesses. Ronald Reagan even claimed that Ríos Montt was getting a “bum rap” on human rights. Israel can safely assume that it, too, is free to perpetrate horrors.
In Plain Sight
Few people knew about the carnage unfolding in Guatemala. The Guatemalan and U.S. governments could simply deny the atrocities, saying that guerrillas had duped human rights investigators. This is not the case with Israel and Gaza. With Twitter feeds linking directly to images of children injured and dying in Gaza, Israel and its defenders have had to resort to extreme distortions.
Many powerful figures in the United States, both in the media and in politics, have participated in these distortions. Reporters and commentators showed an astonishing ignorance of international law when they accepted the Israeli government’s claim that if weapons or militants were suspected of being in a building, the building could be destroyed, whether or not “human shields” were present. CBS Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer, for example, quoted Golda Meir: “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children,” he intoned. “But we can never forgive them for forcing us to kill theirs.” The IDF, it would seem, had no choice. But human rights groups, in fact, have found no instances of civilians being used as shields in Gaza except, on occasion, by Israeli soldiers.
When confronted with the deaths of civilians in Gaza—many of them children—Israel’s champions frequently declared, “Israel has the right to defend itself.” The phrase, when used in response to the deaths of civilians, implies that Gaza’s civilians, and Gaza’s children, are the aggressors against whom defense is required. As in Guatemala under Ríos Montt, the suggestion is that each person can be targeted; there are no civilians in Gaza. If we don’t guard against this notion at every turn and insist on accountability, the massacres and scorched earth policies in Gaza will continue and genocide could ensue. Once everyone has been redefined as a permissible target, killing everyone is permissible.