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Days of Dread

Benjamin Netanyahu Is the War Criminal of the Year

Experts aren't mincing words about the Israeli leader's brutal and disproportionate response to the October 7 Hamas attacks.

Ohad Zwigenberg/Getty Images

As 2023 comes to a close, grim numbers in Gaza are piling up, where Israel’s bombardment and invasion have thus far killed more than 20,000 people, including 8,200 children and 6,200 women. Those dire statistics lay alongside the grievous outcome of Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 7, in which 1,139 people were killed—including 36 children—and nearly 250 Israelis were taken hostage by Hamas, again, including about 30 children.

But beyond the dismal casualty statistics, we’re ending the year on what may be a more lasting concern for the future of the region: Israel’s response has been characterized by many as war crimes, with its larger goals for the conflict tantamount to genocide, or at the very least, a plan to displace the entire population in an act of ethnic cleansing. Experts in the field have decried these tactics, and others, as crimes against humanity.

Israeli officials, in their own words, seem to tacitly acknowledge that their critics’ worst fears are far from unfounded. In early November, Israeli security cabinet member and Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter said “We are now rolling out the Gaza Nakba,” referring to the war against Palestinians and seizure of territory that marked Israel’s founding in 1948.

Observers have been quick to confirm that reality is matching the rhetoric. “That’s what we’re seeing right now: the displacement of Palestinians, pushing millions to increasingly shrinking areas, because the idea is that there will be no more Palestinians in Gaza after this war,” said Raz Segal, associate professor of holocaust and genocide studies and endowed professor in the study of modern genocide at Stockton University.

The man who bears the most responsibility for these war crimes is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“It’s really rare for war criminals to just openly announce their actions,” said John Cox, professor of global studies and history at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, who also directs the Center for Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Studies. That’s what’s “unique about Israel’s bombing in Gaza.”

Cox noted that this month marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the U.N.’s Genocide Convention. “[The war in Gaza] literally does take on genocidal proportions and potential, along with daily humiliations and affronts to human rights that Israel has been engaging in for 75 years,” Cox said.

On October 28, for example, Netanyahu referred to Gazans as Amalek, invoking a Biblical enemy. In 1 Samuel 15:1-35, the prophet Samuel tells the king, Saul, to “attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”

“When you invoke Amalek, the message of total destruction of Palestinians is very very clear. It’s not open to multiple interpretations or anything like that,” Segal said.

The soldiers and officers in the Israeli military understand this very well, Segal said. He pointed to videos from Gaza showing Israeli soldiers dancing and singing a song in Gaza that proclaims that they’re there to root out the seed of Amalek.

“They say very directly in their slogan that there are no innocent civilians,” Segel said. “This portrayal of an entire community is a common genocidal mechanism.”

Other actions from Israeli soldiers also echo Netanyahu’s proclamations. A December 8 video from Gaza’s Shejaiya neighborhood shows Israeli soldiers setting fire to a truck with food and water in it, fitting Israel’s October 9 declaration of a “complete siege” of Gaza, in which Israel’s defense minister Yoav Gallant said that “no electricity, no food, no water, no fuel” would be allowed into Gaza. This is an unambiguous violation of the second article of the 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention, which includes “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members” of a particular group, as well as the deliberate “inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”

“Numerous experts are all saying that what we’re seeing in Gaza is unprecedented levels of destruction and killing, very similar and probably more intense than the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the first months of the invasion, which Biden described as genocide,” Segal said.

“For Netanyahu specifically, he’s been the head of state for the vast majority of time in the last 15 years,” said Segal. “What we’re seeing in Gaza, we can argue in many ways, it’s the culmination of Netanyahu’s policies towards Palestinians, not just in Gaza.”

Israel’s invasion has brought perverse, twenty-first century innovations into the field of genocide: the use of artificial intelligence in generating and identifying military targets, which has resulted in an exponential increase in the casualty statistics. This technology has enabled the Israeli military to expand its attacks on the civilian populace, raining down death on private residences as well as public buildings, infrastructure, and high-rise blocks, which ensures that more civilians will be killed.

Netanyahu is “someone who really is like Trump, utterly without any scruples or decency whatsoever,” said Cox. It “doesn’t take much pushing to carry out these war crimes and atrocities that he’s carrying out at the moment. He will do whatever it takes to stay in power.”

Along with other scholars, Cox signed a declaration supporting a lawsuit from the nonprofit Center for Constitutional Rights against President Joe Biden and other U.S. officials. The lawsuit backs a group of Palestinians living in Gaza and the U.S. who allege that American officials are not taking “all measures available to it to prevent a genocide.”

“This is a whole different situation that’s been going on since October 7,” Cox said. “There’s a whole ferocity about it.”

City University of New York professor Victoria Sanford, an expert in the Guatemalan genocide of the 1980s, is another signatory. She says that there are “chilling comparisons” between what happened in Guatemala and what’s happening in Gaza right now.

The “genocide in Guatemala happened when the army went in and knowingly massacred civilians, people fled into the mountains and were attacked in the mountains,” said Sanford. She pointed to civilians in Gaza being attacked in the north of Gaza, then fleeing to the south on Israeli military orders, only to be attacked in the south again.

“If you’re bombing and destroying everything, you’re destroying that culture, you’re destroying that people,” said Sanford. This also fits the definition of genocide in the second article of the 1948 convention.

The language being used to justify the Israeli Defense Force’s actions compares Palestinian people to animals and says children are fair targets. “Children are never fair targets, there is never a moral justification for killing children,” Sanford said.

“To claim ignorance doesn’t really work. All of these human rights organizations are saying these atrocities are being committed,” Sanford said. “It’s known what’s happening to the Palestinian population in Gaza. It’s clear that there is a genocide because women and children are targets.”

As Netanyahu presides over these war crimes, in effect, the United States government continues to lend him its tacit support. “In the case of Israel, the U.S. and American citizens really need to think of the U.S. as not just enabling and funding these atrocities,” said Cox.