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On Gaza and the Question of ‘Genocide’

Under normal circumstances, the spectrum of argument on the Israel-Hamas War would be fairly standard: universal condemnation for Hamas’ October 7 attack, concern for the fate of Israeli hostages still held by Hamas, growing concern over Israel’s apparent lack of concern for Gazan civilians, and questions about how effective Israel’s military response has been.

However, since Israel is involved, anti-Semitism [1] has poisoned the debate on the war from the moment Hamas started it. The most incendiary example of this is the charge of “genocide” against Israel for its military actions. It’s time for an accounting on that one, for that charge simply – literally – doesn’t add up.

Defining Genocide

The first thing required is a definition of genocide. The United Nations has such a definition, from its Office on Genocide Prevention [2].

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such:

  1. Killing members of the group;
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The term “in whole or in part” forces us to consider the numbers involved. This makes more sense than at first glance. Can one really avoid the charge of genocide by only planning to kill half of a “national, ethnical, racial, or religious group”?

Of course not. By contrast, the idea that Japan suffered a genocide during World War II is utterly fanciful; they lost between four and five percent of their population [3]. That comes with its own caveat, however: Japan was clearly an aggressor in the war, while their losses were over several years, not several weeks.

What the Math Tells Us

We also need to take into account the unique nature of Gaza, which is effectively an urban city-state. As it happens, that gives us a relatively close example for reference: the 2004 Battle of Fallujah. No one accused the U.S. military of genocide in that battle, which cost 800 Iraqi civilians their lives, according to the Red Cross [4].

Of course, while this is an apples-to-apples comparison, the sizes are different. Thus we have to account for the following factors:

With these factors, using Fallujah as our analogy, we would expect a civilian death toll between 19,000 and 20,000 in Gaza.

As it happens, there are two competing estimates on deaths in Gaza: Hamas and the Israeli government keep their own measures. They are closer than either would like to admit, though. Hamas, for example, calculates just over 30,000 dead, without differentiating [7] between civilians and combatants. Israel’s estimation comes from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu [8] himself.

Netanyahu also gave his own death estimates. Some 13,000 Palestinian fighters had been killed, he said, while the civilian death rate was estimated at 1-1.5 for every combatant. That would put the total killed — fighters and civilians — at at least 26,000.

At 1.5 civilians killed per combatant, the death toll for Gazan civilians would be … 19,500 – smack in the middle of our expected range.

Before we get too excited, Netanyahu himself is admitting there may be another four-to-six weeks of fighting left over Rafah, which presently has a majority of Gazans either residing or seeking refuge. So we can project several thousand more civilian deaths (6,500 would be the linear time projection; I’d add 50 percent for population concentration and take it to 10,000). No one is saying 30,000 civilians dead would be an acceptable turn of events. Fallujah itself provided lessons on casualty minimization in urban warfare that could have – and should have – been applied in Gaza.

That all said, the idea that “genocide” describes a war that would kill less than 1.5 percent of Gaza’s civilian population (and less than one percent of all of Palestine [9]) is a nonstarter. At most, we’re looking at a longer and bloodier version of Fallujah.

Again, criticizing Israel for its conduct in the war will and should continue. That’s already happening within Israel [10] today. However, said criticism has to remain within the confines of measured reality. Accusations of genocide are outside those confines, the passion of the accusers notwithstanding.