Ethnic cleansing is Israel’s real war aim

A man walks with a plastic sheet in a crowded street

Plastic sheeting to make tents is in high demand in Rafah, where the population has more than tripled over the past weeks.

Bashar Taleb APA images

As Israel’s genocidal violence in Gaza slouches towards the three-month mark, an end seems nowhere in sight.

To the outside world, Israel’s leadership has repeatedly warned of a many months-long assault.

On Christmas Day, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stipulated three war aims for a US audience, aims that are entirely lacking any diplomatic horizon.

Domestically, however, the more honest talk is of ethnic cleansing, “voluntary” or otherwise.

It is the latter discourse to which attention should be paid. Unlike the three aims Netanyahu posited in the Wall Street Journal on Christmas Day – the destruction of Hamas, the demilitarization of Gaza and the “deradicalization” of Palestinian society – ethnic cleansing has a definable end game.

It is also a logical outcome of Israeli policies over many decades, not just in occupied territory but domestically. Having “settled” the land-for-peace formula by building colonies across occupied territory to prevent any independent Palestinian entity from emerging, Israel has left itself with the option of either indefinite military occupation or formal annexation.

7 October put paid to the idea of indefinite occupation.

Formal annexation under current demographic realities, however, leaves population parity, and either an apartheid state or a state with equal rights for Jews and non-Jews.

If Israel had ever been interested in the latter formula, the Palestine issue would have been long resolved.

A second Nakba

Ideologically, Zionism is not about equality, but about exclusive Jewish statehood in Palestine. That demands an unassailable Jewish majority and a sufficiently diluted, disempowered and thus manageable minority.

So, like in 1948, when Zionist militias expelled two thirds of Palestine’s native population, Israel is now sensing a chance for a repeat.

Israel’s military strategy on the ground certainly points to a deliberate effort at ejecting Gaza’s population south to Egypt, while rendering Gaza unlivable and return impossible.

Israel’s bombardment of Gaza has been among the most destructive and deadly in history, leaving some 70 percent of homes in the besieged territory damaged or destroyed.

The bombardment has destroyed mosques, churches, offices, bakeries, farmland, government buildings, cultural centers, UN facilities, universities and schools.

Some 22,000 people have been killed, according to the official death toll, the vast majority women and children, and just 13 hospitals out of 36 are left “partially functioning” to attend to more than 55,000 injured people.

The military has been pushing 1.9 million people – 85 percent of Gaza’s population – progressively south, first below Wadi Gaza and now, as it targets Khan Younis, to Rafah.

Having cut food, water, electricity and fuel supplies to Gaza, allowing in only a trickle of aid, 93 percent of Palestinians in Gaza now face starvation and malnutrition, while “soaring rates” of infectious diseases are flourishing in the unsanitary conditions of overcrowded, repurposed shelters.

Rafah, on the border with Egypt, had a population of 280,000 in October. Now, that number has swelled to 850,000.

There is nowhere left to go in Gaza. And while Egypt has been clear it will not allow Palestinians to be removed to its side of the border, it will be impossible for Cairo to resist the pressure if, and when, people start to die of hunger or disease.

Surrender or die?

Of course, Israel still needs to get to that point. The result in war is “never absolute,” war theorist Carl von Clausewitz long ago argued, and there is no other endeavor “so constantly and so generally in close connection with chance.”

Well-prepared and well-drilled Hamas fighters are uncowed and unrelenting, slowing the Israeli military’s advance and inflicting more casualties than the army is willing to admit.

Having told Hamas to surrender or die, Israel has only motivated Gaza’s resistance to fight to the finish.

As Mike Tyson – a less conventional philosopher of war – put it: It’s hard to beat somebody that doesn’t want to quit.

Moreover, Israel’s unhinged aggression is reverberating through the region.

Hizballah has kept Israel under military pressure from South Lebanon where fighting is sharpening, Yemen’s Houthis have disrupted global shipping, and in both Syria – which Israel has been freely bombing for years – and Iraq there have been several attacks against US forces.

US allies, such as Jordan and Egypt, are under intense domestic pressure, and both have been vocal in condemning Israeli excesses and adamant in rejecting any suggestion that Palestinians be removed from their homeland.

Saudi Arabia has dropped any hint of normalization with Israel and even the countries of the Abraham Accords, notably the United Arab Emirates, have learnt that for all their attempts at currying favor in Washington, they do not and will not have the same purchase in America’s corridors of power as supporters of Israel.

American delusion

Growing regional instability will necessarily factor into Israel’s calculations.

It will factor even more into US calculations, where its attempt at a “coalition of the willing” to counter Yemen’s shipping blockade is foundering.

So far, and despite the many and grotesque Israeli war crimes, Washington has stood solidly by Israel, repeatedly vetoing resolutions calling for a ceasefire at the UN.

It early deployed war ships to the Mediterranean to deter actors like Hizballah from getting involved.

It has kept Israel’s munitions stores stocked. As late as 29 December, the Biden administration even circumvented Congress to send munitions to Israel, the second time it did so last month.

There is no suggestion Washington – despite calling for a lower intensity “stabilization phase” – is intending to seriously intervene any time soon, even though it is inconceivable that the US does not understand what Israel is doing.

In a country where the phrase “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is so controversial that Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib got censured by Congress for using it, while actual calls for genocide and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from other members of Congress and presidential candidates go unremarked, that may not be surprising.

Indeed, Joe Biden seems to think of the whole thing as some sort of game, while his chief diplomat, Antony Blinken appears deluded about America’s role in the world.

Israel and the US are increasingly isolated globally, as countries around the world recoil not only from an unfolding genocide, but from Washington’s willing complicity and America’s complete disregard for the UN, its institutions and its rules.

This matters, even to Washington.

The impotence of the world body in the face of US intransigence is undermining any semblance of international order with potentially long-lasting consequences that reach far beyond Palestine.

A ticking clock

That South Africa should be the first country to invoke the Genocide Convention is hardly surprising.

After all, Israel, the US and the UK (which is also offering material support for Israel’s onslaught in Gaza) were among the last countries to stand by South Africa’s apartheid regime.

And while the deliberations of the International Court of Justice will take time, they have Israeli officials concerned already. Israel reached immediately for the anti-Semitism defense, as it does so often.

Unlike the International Criminal Court, which is tasked with investigating claims of war crimes but whose jurisdiction is not recognized by Israel, Israel is a signatory to the Genocide Convention.

Israel could of course ignore any injunction from the ICJ for Israel to cease fire. And the US could continue to protect it against any potential sanctions that might follow.

But international pressure is growing along with regional tensions, suggesting Israel is running out of time.

The resistance in Gaza, battered as it may be, is still standing.

And Washington is going to have to decide soon where it stands on ethnic cleansing.

Israel has been clear about its intentions. The clock is ticking.

Omar Karmi is associate editor of The Electronic Intifada and a former Jerusalem and Washington, DC, correspondent for The National newspaper.