I grew up during the civil war in Lebanon. With my parents and brothers, I endured the Israeli siege of Beirut in 1982 and recall what we thought was the unsurpassable violence of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006. But nothing I or anyone I know have seen bears even a passing resemblance to what we are helplessly watching unfold in Gaza today.
Since October 7, the Israelis bombing the Gaza Strip have killed more than 11,000 people, including almost 5,000 children. The true, horrific scale of these numbers—of the calamity being methodically inflicted on an entire population as the world watches on—becomes even clearer when considered in relative terms. In three weeks, Israel has killed more civilians than the Russians have killed in almost two years of total war in Ukraine, a country with twenty times Gaza’s population and a land mass over a thousand times its size.1 Save the Children reported that Israel has killed more children in the first three weeks of bombing Gaza than were killed annually in all conflict zones across the entire world since 2019.2 And that was about two weeks and 2,000 children ago. On an average day in Gaza, Israel kills 136 kids. Twenty-eight thousand Gazans, including more than a thousand children, have now been injured, and countless more are entombed alive or dead beneath the rubble of destroyed apartment blocks. Entire multigenerational families have been wiped out: grandparents, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, and children. Every one of them has a name, a family, a face, a voice, a smile, a laugh. Already, in absolute or relative terms, these numbers strain our moral and intellectual capacity to comprehend the scale of the loss and harm. And the end is nowhere in sight.
On a daily basis, the Israeli government updates the tally of “terrorist facilities,” “terrorist infrastructure,” “terrorist positions,” and “terrorist cells” that it claims to have “eliminated.” These talking points, faithfully transcribed by English-language newsrooms around the world, pass as fact in a media environment restricted by government censors, squeamish corporate ownership, and the difficulty of reporting under conditions of harassment, bombardment, and siege. All reports coming out of Israel are subject to the military censor, which strictly regulates what can and cannot be reported.3 The US government has repeatedly asked that Al Jazeera “tone down” its uncensored coverage from Gaza, where thirty-five journalists have been killed by indiscriminate Israeli fire.4
Live footage coming from the ruins of Gaza’s shattered neighborhoods, however, reveals an altogether different reality—which is to say, the starkness of reality itself: Not just apartment buildings, but whole districts reduced to rubble; craters twenty meters across and ten meters deep, where survivors work desperately to rescue people trapped beneath hunks of cement. In video after video, teams of untrained and unequipped civilians struggle to help ambulance crews retrieve the injured from the ruins of what had been, just a few weeks ago, their homes—including terrified, bloodied, screaming children with ash-covered faces, crying for their now-vanished parents.5
On October 31, Israeli bombers dropped a carefully calibrated batch of 2000-pound bombs in the middle of the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza, destroying an entire city block in a single moment and wounding or killing hundreds of civilians. Israel said that the intended target was one particular Hamas official—whose presence was not even confirmed—and that all those hundreds of people just happened to be in the way.6 “But even if that Hamas commander was there amidst all those Palestinian refugees who are in that Jabalia refugee camp, Israel still went ahead and dropped a bomb there, knowing that a lot of innocent civilians, men, women, and children presumably would be killed?” an incredulous Wolf Blitzer asked an Israeli military spokesman on CNN. Yes. “This is the tragedy of war, Wolf,” came the reply. “As we’ve been saying for days, move south.” Even for Blitzer this was too much. “You knew there were refugees, all sorts of refugees, but you still drop a bomb on that refugee camp attempting to kill the Hamas commander.”7
Israeli officials’ justification is that they consider any man, woman, or child among the estimated 300,000 people remaining in northern Gaza to be a “terrorist accomplice” and therefore a candidate for killing.8 And so what they did to Jabalia on October 31 they did again to what remained of Jabalia the next day, then to the Bureij refugee camp the day after, and to the Maghazi refugee camp the day after that, and to other targets up and down across Gaza, in the “safe” south and center as well as the north. “Terrorist targets” is the constant Israeli refrain, but the video feeds show only the broken and bloody bodies of fathers, mothers, and children.9 From one scene of carnage and devastation to another, across the “terrorist” targets constituting Gaza’s “terrorist” landscape, the cameras show us the lucky few emerging from the shambles asking what they did to deserve to be bombed without warning. We were at home, they say; we were with our family, we were at a child’s birthday, we were having tea, we were at a celebration for a new birth. (It’s hard to remember that, war or no war, 150 babies are born a day in Gaza.10 Every birth brings a brief flicker of joy and life to new parents in these darkest of times, even if, as has happened again and again, new life is snuffed out too soon.)
More than the video footage, it’s the soundtrack of the aftermath of these bombings that sears into one’s consciousness like a hot iron: the screams of the injured, of men calling out for tools—“pull with me, come on, one, two, three, pull together”—then the rush of survivors calling out in agonizing wails over the dead, the dismembered, the missing: Where is my wife? My daughter? My son? Where are my parents? Where are my children? The other day I saw a news clip of a teenage boy crying softly, “baba, baba, baba” (daddy, daddy, daddy) as the dismembered parts of his father’s body were placed on a stretcher by a medic. Even if he survives physically, how is a child like this ever going to recover emotionally from the trauma to which he, like a million other children, is remorselessly being subjected?
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs points out that two thirds of the people Israel is killing in Gaza are women and children, and a substantial additional percentage are elderly. That in itself is evidence of the indiscriminate nature of the Israeli bombardment and the toll it takes on the residential districts that are its primary targets. Given the alarming scarcity of food in Gaza (according to the UN, stocks of rice, sugar, and pulses are down to zero, and bread is in very short supply), fathers, husbands, and sons spend as much of the day out scavenging or gathering what meager provisions they can find—the wait for a half-ration of bread runs to six hours, if it’s there at all, and might involve some pushing and shoving or worse—while mothers and children stay home. “I send my sons to the bakeries and eight hours later, they’ve come back with bruises and sometimes not even bread,” one woman said.11 Thus, when Israeli pilots carefully launch their high-tech bombs into apartment buildings, it’s generally women and children who take the brunt of the damage.
Israeli bombers have attacked mosques, churches, schools, and universities (279 educational facilities have been damaged or destroyed12); they have struck ambulances even at the very doors of hospitals, as well as hospitals themselves. On November 9 and 10, five major hospitals came under direct Israeli fire: al-Rantissi children’s hospital, the Turkish hospital, the Indonesian hospital, al-Quds, and al-Shifa Medical Center. On November 10, an Israeli drone operator fired a Hellfire RX9 missile at the courtyard of al-Shifa Hospital, a variant of the missile that instead of carrying an explosive warhead unfolds into an array of massive blades like those of a samurai sword, killing by dismembering anyone in its path, leaving bloody limbs and torsos scattered in the hospital forecourt.13 By nightfall, all the hospitals in the north of Gaza reported being under Israeli artillery and missile fire: showers of incendiary phosphorus just outside, buildings heaving with successive explosions, showering all within with dust and debris and in some cases shrapnel and shell casings. Médecins Sans Frontières reported Israeli snipers were firing into the hospitals themselves. Tens of thousands of terrified refugees have been sheltering in the hospitals, and those who tried leaving both the Rantissi Hospital and al-Shifa on November 10 were fired at by Israeli troops and had to return under fire. Both hospitals were reporting bodies scattered in the streets outside, beyond the reach of medics, who also came under fire when attempting rescue.
By the morning of November 11, al-Shifa Medical Center—the oldest and largest medical institution in Gaza—declared itself out of action due to Israeli fire: no water, no electricity, no lights. Six hundred gravely injured patients could no longer be treated. With thirty-nine premature babies in incubators and other intensive care patients on ventilators and no electricity, staff resorted to attempting manual resuscitation but knew, without oxygen, that they had little chance; the babies started to die one by one. The doctors fleeing the Nasr pediatric hospital, part of the Rantissi complex, had to take what infants they could save as they fled under Israeli shellfire, but had no choice but to leave behind five babies on their own in the flickering incubators. “That’s the situation: leaving babies now alone on the ventilators,” one shaken doctor reported. In the larger al-Shifa, doctors seemed determined to stay put. Its director, Muhammad abu Salmiya, pledged that the medical staff would stay with their patients until the end: “We will not leave, because we know if we leave the hospital, dozens of patients will die,” he told Al Jazeera.14
But that was as of November 10. Since then the hospitals in northern Gaza have fallen silent, entirely cut off from the outside world. For now, no one knows what the fate of the doctors, patients, and thousands of refugees sheltering there is. Under continuous bombardment, Gaza City is now without medical service. The Israeli army allows no ambulances into the area from the south, and anyone injured in the unrelenting Israeli bombardment will almost certainly die even of injuries that might have been treatable. No journalists remain and all lines of communication have been cut. Whatever horrors are unfolding there take place in darkness veiled from the world.
Israel has convinced itself that Hamas has underground headquarters beneath the hospitals, a claim refuted not only by Hamas and the hospitals themselves but by foreign doctors with intimate familiarity with them. Mads Gilbert, a Norwegian physician who has worked in Gaza for years and is presently stuck in Egypt trying, at 76 years of age, to return to Gaza to help, utterly rejected the Israeli claim about al-Shifa. “For sixteen years, I have walked around freely inside the hospital complex. We have heard these claims since 2009 and they have been threatening to bomb al-Shifa since then without offering any proof.”15 Now they have bombed it at last.
What we’re witnessing in Gaza, in other words, is not self-defense; it is an opportunistic offensive. It is not a “war,” the word used mendaciously and misleadingly by most of the mainstream Western press; it is a campaign of genocidal violence. Indeed, it’s a “textbook case of genocide,” as Craig Mokhiber put it in his letter resigning from his role as the Director of the New York Office of the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights.16 His words have been echoed by many scholars of genocide and the Holocaust. Genocide is, after all, the term international law provides for a situation in which one group imposes on another “conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part,” in addition to killing or “causing serious bodily and mental harm to members of the group.”17 Beyond the 11,000 civilians killed, the UN has estimated that 262,000 residential units have been damaged or destroyed—amounting to about half of Gaza’s entire stock of housing—and 1.7 million people displaced from their homes. The territory’s basic infrastructure of electricity, water, and sewage networks, repeatedly battered in previous Israeli assaults, has been damaged beyond repair. Newly installed solar panels have been deliberately targeted and smashed. Israel has targeted and destroyed eleven bakeries producing the staple on which the population depends for its very survival; it has bombed the fishermen’s boats which are, or were, another potential source of nourishment; it has bombed and churned up the fields that sustain Gaza’s surviving agriculture; it has bombed water conduits and reservoirs. People are forced to drink dirty, polluted, contaminated, or brackish water, with the inevitable results of diarrhea and disease. Hundreds of corpses are rotting under the rubble. Whoever survives the bombing today will be drinking seawater and eating unbaked wheat in the future, if not starving, or dying of the diseases already proliferating from the raw sewage running through streets. And there will be nowhere for them to live.
For years, Israelis have talked openly about eliminating Gaza or pushing its population into the desert if not into the sea. Now they seem to have the opportunity to do so and the unreserved blessing of Western capitals to get it done. The Western governments rushing financial support and more bombs to Israel—making themselves accomplices to all these atrocities and Israel’s grotesque violations of international humanitarian law—seem to have no qualms about what it is they are supporting. Asked if there is any limit to the number of civilian casualties that the US would accept in Gaza, Senator Lindsay Graham answered flatly, “No.”18 White House national security spokesman John Kirby said that the Biden Administration will not draw any kind of red lines for Israel—meaning that, as far as it is concerned, no atrocity goes too far. As in Washington, so in London and Paris, Berlin, and Brussels. All this, we’re told in sanctimonious terms from across the Western political class, is Israel’s right to “self-defense.”19) Israeli politicians, however, are using an altogether different language to describe their actions. The Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant put it with characteristic unsophisticated bluntness as early as October 9 when he said, “We are imposing a complete siege on Gaza. No electricity, no food, no water, no fuel. Everything is closed. We are fighting human animals, and we will act accordingly.”
If there was any room for doubt as to Israel’s intent, it was allayed by Benjamin Netanyahu’s reminder to the Israeli public and the army that “you must remember what Amalek has done to you, says our Holy Bible.” His biblical reference was unmistakable: it was to a passage that reads, “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,” (1 Samuel 15:3). Netanyahu is not alone in his genocidal pronouncements. He himself had to restrain one of the members of his government, Amichai Eliyahu, who said that using nuclear weapons on Gaza “is one of the possibilities.”20
Israel has a record of indiscriminately killing Gazans as a matter of routine (1,400 in 2008 and 2009; 2,100 in 2014; and 260 in 202121), using the obscene phrase “mowing the lawn” to refer to these periodic punishments. Disastrous as those previous episodes were, what Israel is doing today is collective punishment on a whole new scale. It is the enactment of Israel’s so-called Dahieh doctrine, a reference to the Dahieh, or southern suburb, of Beirut, which the Israeli air force essentially wiped from the surface of the earth through heavy bombing in the summer of 2006. After Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon, the Israeli military developed a plan to inflict a similar level of damage to civilian areas in a future conflict: “We will wield disproportionate power against every village from which shots are fired on Israel, and cause immense damage and destruction,” boasted a senior Israeli general, Gadi Eisenkot, outlining the doctrine to the newspaper Ha’aretz. “This isn’t a suggestion,” he added; “this is a plan that has already been authorized.”22 The plan is now underway: as one Israeli military official put it describing the current offensive, “The emphasis is on damage and not on accuracy.” The total abandonment of the principles of proportionality and distinction that underpin international humanitarian law are now, in other words, central to Israeli military strategy.23 What we are seeing in Gaza is a premeditated series of war crimes and crimes against humanity, with the intent signaled out loud on live television as the world watches on.
But to what end? On October 17, the Misgav Institute for National Security & Zionist Strategy, which has close ties to the current Israeli government, published a position paper calling for the “relocation and final settlement of the entire Gaza population.”24 This moment offers “a unique and rare opportunity to evacuate the whole Gaza Strip in coordination with the Egyptian government,” the paper says. It outlines various scenarios in which the entire population of Gaza—over two million people, half of them children—can be transferred (to use a Zionist term with a heritage going back to the 1920s) into Egypt. The Israeli government has not officially endorsed this plan, but its actions are certainly consistent with it. “Right now, one goal: Nakba!” declared the Israeli member of parliament Ariel Kallner. “A Nakba that will overshadow the Nakba of ’48. Nakba to Gaza and Nakba to anyone who dares to join,” he added.25 “If they are refugees already, it’s better to be a refugee in Canada than in Gaza,” said Ram Ben Barak, the former deputy director of Mossad. “So let us distribute the Gazans all around the world. There are 2.5 million of them. Each country takes 25,000. One hundred countries. That’s humane and that needs to be done.”26
Though the US claims that it does not back the ethnic cleansing of Gaza and that it opposes Israeli attacks on civilians in Gaza, it does nothing to stop them and in fact actively abets them. There are reports that Israel’s backers in the West, above all the US, have brought pressure to bear on Egypt to unlock the crossing at Rafah on the Egyptian border to let the population of Gaza flow into the Sinai, including promises of debt forgiveness. Whether the Egyptians will cave in to let in some or all of the population of Gaza is a real question. Whether the people of Gaza themselves would accept their further and renewed ethnic cleansing—80 percent of people living in Gaza are already survivors of the Nakba or their descendants—is a whole other matter.
For the Israelis to succeed in pushing the Palestinian population out of Gaza would involve not just more pulverization from the air, but going in on the ground to round people up and force them to leave, in the time-honored way of genocides past. But every foot the Israelis take into Gaza is hotly contested and comes at a price that recent history has shown them unable to sustain. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006, it inflicted massive damage on Lebanese civilian infrastructure and killed over 1,100 people, mostly civilians; but the 156 Israeli fatalities inflicted by Lebanese resistance, mostly military fatalities, were enough for Israel to give up its stated objectives and abandon the war in bitter defeat. Now, in Gaza, Israel’s tanks and armored vehicles—completely sealed up and hence largely blind—are being destroyed in attacks mounted by Palestinian resistance fighters from a point-blank range that no armor in the world was designed to protect against.27 Israel’s ineffective infantry, more accustomed to harassing Palestinians at checkpoints than engaging with determined foes who actually shoot back, are not prepared for close-quarters combat in a landscape of urban ruin that has, since Stalingrad, always given the advantage to defenders over attackers.
“Despite pressure exerted” by the Israeli army, reported the Ha’aretz military correspondent Amos Harel on November 5, “there is no apparent significant effect on Hamas command and control, which continues to function.” Anyone watching the videos of daring Palestinian close-quarters attacks on Israeli troops and armor on Al Jazeera Arabic could have come up with the same assessment.28 Since its ground incursion into Gaza two weeks ago, Israel has admitted to hundreds of Israeli casualties between dead and injured soldiers, and because the army imposes strict limits on reporting these casualties, reporters say the actual figures are undoubtedly higher. It’s not clear how many more casualties the Israeli army can sustain, for all the harm its blind lashing out on Palestinian civilians is also causing.
Preparing contingencies should Israel not succeed in a massive process of ethnic cleansing, Israel’s American backers, above all Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, have been concocting various scenarios on the premise that the bulk of the people of Gaza will remain in Gaza and Hamas will somehow miraculously go. Perhaps, they suggest, the political and military cadres of Hamas can be persuaded to abandon their positions and their people to Israel’s mercies in the way the Palestine Liberation Organization was persuaded to do after the siege of Beirut in 1982? Obviously not: every Palestinian will remind you that what immediately followed the PLO’s withdrawal was the Israeli-supervised massacre of defenseless Palestinian civilians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Taking for granted the departure or defeat of Hamas—which shows absolutely no sign of wavering—a multinational peacekeeping force has been proposed,29
the US clearly forgetting what happened to the last multinational peacekeeping force it imposed to clean up the mess Israel left behind in Lebanon in 1982 (including the bombings of the US Marine barracks at Beirut Airport in 1983).30 Perhaps the United Nations can run Gaza? Perhaps the US can bring in the openly collaborationist—and detested—Palestinian Authority from the West Bank to run Gaza? By early November, Blinken was jetting from one Arab capital to another, taking his cue from the tattered 1970s US diplomatic playbook according to which the US can talk to everyone about the Palestinians except the Palestinians. Meanwhile, Netanyahu—cornered and fighting for his political life—has proposed the reoccupation of Gaza. Other Israeli officials have called for the demolition of Gaza City and the restriction of the territory’s surviving population into half the remaining territory. One minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, has proposed re-colonizing the ruins of Gaza with new Jewish settlers.31 Another, Avi Dichter, has, more bluntly, said this is the Gaza Nakba: “We’re rolling out Nakba 2023,” he announced on television.32
All these imaginary plans are premised on an Israeli victory. And what if Israel fails to dislodge Hamas but nevertheless runs out of energy and momentum for its campaign of genocidal violence? What if even the British and American governments feel at some point that the damage being inflicted on Gaza is causing too much harm to their own interests, their own domestic standing? What happens then?
No one knows what the coming weeks will bring beyond more death and misery. But the most likely outcome is that, having once again set itself an unachievable stated objective—the destruction or elimination of Hamas—Israel will fail, as it has repeatedly failed in the past, because the mere ability to kill people and blow things up does not translate into the achievement of political objectives. They will have killed ten, twenty, thirty thousand people and made life itself a living hell for those left behind, and accomplished nothing more than a venting of their vengeful bloodlust. But they will have nourished and watered the growing sense around the world—not in the Western corridors of power, but in the streets hosting demonstrators in their hundreds of thousands—that the real problem with which the world must contend is not the symptom, but the cause: not the result of six decades of occupation and apartheid, including Hamas, but the condition of occupation and apartheid itself.
The bitter irony is that Gaza itself holds the keys to this realization. It is the living outcome of Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians going back to 1948. The transitory nature of life there—huge urban neighborhoods misleadingly called “camps”—has for all these years been a constant reminder that the overwhelming majority of the people in Gaza are not from Gaza. They are from Isdood, Simsim, Najd, and other communities within an hour’s walk of the fences and walls that seal them off from their own land. They or their parents were driven into Gaza during the creation of a state whose foundation required their expulsion; they have been corralled there ever since because their freedom is irreconcilable with a state project premised on ethnic cleansing and genocidal violence. That state project is the prime mover of this conflict. It has been since 1948, and it will be until this racially exclusive enterprise involving apartheid, occupation, and death is brought to an end and a new state is formed in its place, constituted on the basis of inclusion, democracy, and equality for all. That is the only way out, and its sheer straightforwardness is made clear by Gaza itself: if only those fences and walls were dismantled and the majority of Gazans were allowed to walk home, this entire nightmare would be brought to an end.
It’s not just Gaza: on November 5 an Israeli pilot fired a guided Hellfire missile at a civilian car in Lebanon, burning alive three girls and their grandmother. Israeli officials confirmed only an attack on a “terrorist target.” ↩
No understanding of the concept of self-defense includes withholding the basics of survival from a population for whose welfare one is legally responsible—which Israel is as the Occupying Power, a point reiterated in countless UN Security Council resolutions and assessments by the International Criminal Court. “How Does International Humanitarian Law Apply in Israel and Gaza?” ReliefWeb. ↩
Once again, comparison proves helpful to our understanding: while Israel may not have used actual nuclear weapons, by the end of October Israel had dropped 25 kilotons of explosives on Gaza, according to the Geneva-based Euromed Human Rights Monitor. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima, in contrast, was a “mere” 15 kilotons. Is it any wonder that a sign and candle display reading Stop Genocide in Gaza were recently unveiled in front of the atomic bomb memorial dome in Hiroshima? Twitter. ↩
“New scenes of QSAM fighters engaging enemy vehicles east of the Zaytoun neighborhood and destroying one of them from zero distance with a guerrilla action device and a “Yassin 105” shell,” Twitter. ↩