Words have meaning. And in fraught times, in matters of life and death, it is critically important to use the right words. To resolve our disputes, to solve our problems, we must accurately describe what is happening, so that we can respond to facts, not to rhetoric.
Which brings me to the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib has said that Israel “is practicing ethnic cleansing.” The foreign ministry of Qatar put out a statement urging Israel to end the “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians. In a letter to the editor published in The Los Angeles Times last week, a reader wrote: “If you don’t understand what the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ really means, try to take a deeper dive into understanding what the state of Israel is doing to the Palestinians.”
There is only one problem: There is no ethnic cleansing going on in Gaza. There is no ethnic cleansing going on in the West Bank. Israel holds an overwhelming military advantage against its Palestinian neighbors, and one may deem some of Israel’s defensive actions as overly provocative or unnecessarily destructive. But Israel is not engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
Let me explain.
The term “ethnic cleansing” is not codified in international law. It is an aspect of what the United Nations defines as “mass atrocities.” But a United Nations Commission of Experts tasked with examining violations of international humanitarian law in the former Yugoslavia during the early 1990s wars there defined ethnic cleansing in its interim report as “rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area.”
In its final report, that commission updated its description to “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.”
And by those definitions, ethnic cleansing is simply not happening in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza. The Israelis are not trying to change the make-up of the population by forcing Palestinians to move. Rather, what is happening between Israel and the Palestinians is a territorial war between elected governing bodies.
Territorial wars are horrible. Territorial wars result in civilian casualties. Territorial wars cause death and destruction, and they breed hatred. And territorial wars are generally fought over legitimate disputes. By labeling Israel’s actions against Hamas and Gaza “ethnic cleansing,” Israel’s detractors set the terms of the discussion: If Israel is committing ethnic cleansing, then it is impossible to defend Israel.
In truth, Israel is a nation-state with a right to defend itself from enemy attacks. In truth, Hamas uses dense urban areas for its military infrastructure. In truth, Israel is not attacking civilians because it wants to kill civilians; those civilians are unfortunate collateral damage in the urban warfare that Hamas has invited.
If Israel wanted to ethnically cleanse Gaza, it has the military wherewithal to do so quickly and effectively. The reason that hasn’t happened is because Israel has no intent to commit ethnic cleansing.
In international law, intent matters.
Indeed, Hamas is arguably the belligerent engaged in ethnic cleansing. Lobbing 3,500 ballistic missiles into Israel, indiscriminately firing them at both civilian and military targets, displays an intent to kill civilians. That Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system miraculously defends those civilians doesn’t change the intent.
The IDF has more firepower than Hamas, but it is Hamas that has a genocidal ideology. The 7th article of its charter states that on the day of judgment, all Jews will be killed, and calls for the destruction of Israel. Jews have learned the hard way to take genocidal ideologues at their word.
My heart breaks for the Palestinian people. They are victims of terrible circumstances and terrible leadership. They deserve statehood, and they have been fighting for that. They chafe under the Israeli regime, and they are ill-served by their own militant leaders.
And Israel, for its part, merits tough scrutiny. I am not ignoring the possibility that war crimes could be committed by the IDF at any time.
But Israel is seeking security for its people, not the elimination of another people. That is not ethnic cleansing, and implying otherwise is not just libelous but dangerous. It’s a new form of gaslighting, a theft of the language of Jewish victimhood.
Words have meaning. Using politicized, inflammatory language has consequences. And, ultimately, it will not help the Palestinian cause.
Stephen D. Smith is Finci-Viterbi executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation.
This article was first published by the Jewish Journal.