The Gaza conflict is not a Holocaust, but it is a nightmare: Marc Champion

In a controversial visit to Ethiopia, Brazil’s President Lula da Silva falsely labeled Israel’s actions in Gaza as genocide, sparking outrage. While Netanyahu’s conduct in the conflict is criticised, Lula’s comparison to the Holocaust and accusations of a unique war are debunked. Marc Champion argues for scrutinising the Israeli government’s actions but underscores Lula’s factual inaccuracies. He highlights global atrocities, emphasising the need for an unbiased assessment. Champion concludes by advocating for a diplomatic solution to benefit Israel’s long-term security and avoid a politically indefensible occupation.

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By Marc Champion

Visiting Ethiopia, Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva declared Israel’s devastating war in Gaza as a genocide conducted by soldiers on women and children, unique in history except for the Holocaust. He was wrong on every count and has rightly outraged many in Israel. But just as with the genocide case brought against the Jewish state at the International Court of Justice, Israelis should listen hard and reconsider the path their government has put them on.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conduct of the war has been self-defeating and inhumane. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, the Israel Defense Forces have killed almost 30,000 Palestinians since the conflict began, at least two-thirds of whom were civilians, and most of those women and children. This is unacceptable, as is the systematic destruction of  homes and infrastructure. It is collective punishment and, unless stopped, risks leaving Israel more isolated and less secure, even as Hamas draws new recruits and political support. 

None of this makes Lula right. The IDF’s main targets are the fighters and leaders of Hamas, who are neither women nor children, but a fanatical organization set on the destruction of Israel. They began this war on Oct. 7 by massacring, raping or abducting more than 1,400 people. Most of these victims were civilians, predominantly women, children or elderly. To ignore the role and culpability of Hamas, as Lula did, makes him unserious.

He was wrong, too, about the war being unique but for Hitler’s extermination of Jews. There are, sadly, many examples in history of the kind of conflict underway in Gaza, and the Holocaust isn’t one of them. To state the obvious, there was no Jewish equivalent of Hamas in the late 1930s that triggered a response from Hitler’s Germany through the deliberate slaughter, rape, and abduction of ordinary Germans. Nor are 6 million Palestinians being marched into gas chambers, as terrible as their plight is.

So it isn’t only the world’s Jews to whom the Brazilian president owes an apology, or at least a correction. He also owes one to the Tigrayans of Ethiopia, the country in which he spoke, to the Ukrainians of Mariupol, the Tutsis of Rwanda and countless others stretching back through all the human history we know of. Only last year, Eritrean and Ethiopian government forces attacked, sealed off and deliberately starved about 7 million Tigrayans in a siege as brutal as Gaza’s. Best estimates for that death toll run from 162,000 to 378,000 civilians, 36,000-60,000 of whom were killed directly in shootings, massacres and bombings.

Nobody knows how many Ukrainians died in Mariupol because Russian forces ended up in control of the evidence. A December 2022 satellite investigation by the Associated Press identified 10,300 fresh graves in and around the city of just under 500,000. Judging by what was found in some Ukrainian towns that the Russians captured in 2022, and were then forced to abandon, many of those graves will contain multiple bodies. Some corpses found buried in Lyman, north of Mariupol, and Bucha near Kyiv had their hands tied and had been shot execution style. The best estimates for the number of Tutsis killed in the 1994 Rwanda genocide, meanwhile, run from 500,000 to 800,000, in just four months of unfathomable savagery.

I make these comparisons not to belittle the extreme suffering of Palestinians, nor to equate the IDF with Ethiopian, Russian or Hutu troops and militias, but to show that Lula is wrong on the facts. At the same time, it’s a mistake to dismiss all such claims as anti-Semitism. Prejudice plays a part in the pass given by many to Hamas since last October’s attack, without question, but you can be a Zionist and still be aghast at what is happening in Gaza. You can support Israel’s right to defend itself, while still asking how this kind of war can be morally defensible or help Israel’s cause.

Where critics such as Lula are on the money is that the most extreme right-wing government in Israel’s history — and at least elements of the IDF — are out of control.

Access to Gaza by independent journalists is severely limited, making specific claims and counterclaims impossible to verify, yet the steady drip of footage and testimonies that have emerged paint a picture that’s all too clear. Whole residential neighborhoods are destroyed for no clear military purpose. A video shows a man walking down an evacuation route holding a white flag, and is shot dead by a sniper. Another, taken at the Nasser Hospital, shows patients in hospital beds under rubble created by tank fire. A US doctor, volunteering at Rafah’s European Hospital, wrote of treating a group of children brought in with bullets to their heads and no other wounds. They were aged five to eight and, again, victims of sniper fire. There is no reason to assume he made this up.

Most frustrating is that a deal the US, Egypt and other Arab nations are pressing would do more for Israel and its long-term security than launching an assault on Rafah, the last refuge for the strip’s Palestinian civilians, ever could. As my colleague Bobby Ghosh has written, the details of the proposed grand bargain remain hazy. Yet the core benefits for Israel are clear enough: It would return all hostages, dead and alive; rescue and deepen Israel’s normalization with the Gulf states, to the detriment of both Hamas and Iran; avoid the breach with Egypt that an assault on Rafah would likely cause; save thousands of lives, including those of Israeli soldiers; allow for demobilization and so revive the Israeli economy, which lost 19.4% of its value in the first three months of the war; provide Arab, anti-Hamas volunteers for Gaza’s temporary administration and reconstruction; and avoid drawing Israel into yet another endless, draining and politically indefensible occupation.

Israel would of course have to make concessions, including the release of prisoners and commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state. But having accepted the deal, it would be Hamas under pressure to agree, something its hardline leaders would hate to do because it requires accepting Israel’s right to exist. The reason Netanyahu is resisting is that his ultra-nationalist and ultra-orthodox coalition partners would collapse the government if he signed up. They have been clear about why, hailing the Gaza war as a chance to force as much of the 365-square kilometer (41-square mile) strip’s population as possible into exile, and resettle it with Jews.  That would indeed constitute ethnic cleansing or genocide and put Israel into an ignominious club it cannot want to join. 

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