Don’t Rush to Assign Collective Guilt in Gaza
The troubling implications of claiming that Hamas’s actions mean “there are no innocent civilians.”
FRIDAY’S PROVISIONAL RULING by the International Criminal Court on the genocide case brought by South Africa against Israel wasn’t a total victory for either side. While the court has directed Israel to take steps to prevent a possible genocide and to facilitate humanitarian aid for Palestinian civilians, it also recognized Israel’s right to self-defense after the Hamas attacks of October 7, declined to equate massive casualties with genocide (intent matters), and did not call on Israel to suspend its military operations. The court did signal, however, that as it considers the merits of the case—a process that will take years—it will take seriously some Israeli officials’ rhetoric about civilians and innocents (or the lack thereof) in Gaza.
Obviously, “genocide” is an inflammatory term, perhaps especially so in the case of the Jewish state whose establishment followed the Nazi genocide of Jews during World War II. Its legal meaning under the 1948 Genocide Convention often doesn’t match its colloquial use. Yet even people who find the word genocide needlessly provocative should still find the language of collective responsibility deeply troubling—whether coming from Israeli officials or (some) pro-Israel pundits.
As Mona Charen described before the ICJ’s ruling, South Africa’s brief and many commentators on the case offered numerous examples of what they said was incitement to genocide. The Israeli government and its supporters have strongly questioned some of the examples offered of such language, saying that they have been taken out of context. In some cases, the critiques are valid: Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s statement that “We are fighting human animals” clearly refers to Hamas (as he put it, “the ISIS of Gaza”), not to Gaza Palestinians in general. Likewise, Gallant’s statement “We will eliminate everything” refers to Hamas and its structures—not all human beings in Gaza.
It’s harder, though, to explain away a much-publicized October 12 statement by Israeli President Isaac Herzog:
It is an entire nation out there that is responsible. It is not true this rhetoric about civilians not aware, not involved. It is absolutely not true. They could have risen up. They could have fought against that evil regime which took over Gaza in a coup d’état.
Herzog asserted that the ICJ “twisted [his] words, using very, very partial and fragmented quotes,” and specifically omitting the part where he says that Israel is acting in conformity with international law. In fact, the ICJ ruling quotes his entire statement, including the line, “We are working, operating militarily according to rules of international law.” Since that line is followed by the one about an “entire nation” being responsible, there is some ambiguity: Is Herzog saying that Israel is not targeting civilians, or that in this instance international law does not exempt civilians from being targeted?
Herzog doesn’t determine policy—the post of president in Israel has no executive powers—and he made that statement in the immediate aftermath of the October 7 attacks, when he was speaking for a traumatized nation. It may have been imprudent or morally questionable; it was still a long way from a program of, or incitement to, genocide.
While the Israeli military has operated with less restraint in this war than in previous operations, there is still abundant evidence that it has tried to get civilians out of harm’s way. That task is vastly complicated by Hamas’s longstanding practice of violating the law of armed conflict by hiding among civilians (its fighters are not uniformed) and of operating from residential neighborhoods and civilian institutions that serve humanitarian needs, such as schools, mosques, and hospitals. These facts counter the accusations of genocide.
And yet the talk of collective responsibility remains troubling. Hamas’s war crimes do not justify war crimes against the people behind whom they hide; nor do they render every resident of Gaza a complicit combatant.
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Often, “no innocents” rhetoric comes from hurt and frightened people, including those who lost loved ones on October 7 or personally experienced Hamas brutality. One can hardly criticize Mia Schem, a 21-year-old French-Israeli woman who spent nearly two months in captivity and endured horrific mistreatment, including starvation and surgery without anesthesia for the gunshot wound to her arm, for saying in a post-release interview that “everyone there are terrorists . . . there are no innocent civilians, not one.” But such a statement can only be seen as a cry of pain and anger, not a guide to fact. (Yes, of course all the people with whom Schem’s Hamas captors allowed her to interact with were Hamas supporters, including the wife of the man whose apartment served as her prison; that doesn’t tell us anything about all or even most of Gaza’s civilian population.) And sometimes, even if driven by pain, these views can lead to truly odious attitudes. For example, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg reports that in one primarily Hebrew-language Telegram group, the statement that “The people of Gaza are not innocent!” seems to serve as justification for some posters to share “celebratory photographs of dead and injured Palestinians.”
BUT MOST DISTURBING, PERHAPS, are attempts by journalists and commentators to use such statements as a foundation for a collective-guilt argument. Just two days before the preliminary ICJ ruling, Tablet, an online magazine which focuses on Jewish news and culture (and for which I have occasionally written), published an article by Israeli writer Deborah Danan that labels the October 7 attack a “pogrom” rather than a terror attack and concludes, on this basis, that it represents “a phenomenon where not just a vanguard, but a society at large participates in the ritual slaughter of Jews.” (The flaws in this argument should be immediately obvious: Not only is it backward logic—I call this attack a pogrom, therefore it bears all the features of a pogrom—but not all historical pogroms have involved society’s collective participation. In nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Russia, where the term originated, the Tsarist authorities often effectively condoned anti-Jewish violence, but large segments of society deplored it.)
Danan catalogues evidence of Gaza civilians’ extensive participation in the raids, noting that it “has sparked a debate in Israel that challenges the inclination to draw distinctions between ordinary Palestinian civilians of Gaza—often referred to in Israel as bilti me’uravim (uninvolved)—and their terror leaders.” Danan’s article, however, airs and covers only one side of this debate: the side which says that “All of Gaza is Hamas.”
Yet some of Danan’s own material seems to undercut this conclusion. She admits that “Differentiating between terrorists and civilians is tricky, particularly since Hamas terrorists often wear civilian clothing.” While she notes that “other indicators help make this distinction, such as the absence of weapons,” many of her examples of civilian involvement in the attack seem to be based solely on civilian clothing.
No one would deny that many civilians in the Gaza strip do support Hamas. One may endlessly debate the various factors that contribute to this support, from the complicated history of the Israeli occupation to de facto Hamas control over education in Gaza. (Even non-Hamas schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, currently under investigation for some employees’ alleged involvement in the October 7 attacks, may be implicated.) Of course, for those Gazans who do harbor murderous hatred toward Israeli Jews in their hearts, explanations of the origins of that hatred don’t excuse it in Gaza any more than they do in Israel.
Even so, support for Hamas in Gaza is far from universal. The onlookers cheering while the bloodied body of a murdered Israeli is paraded through the streets or jeering as hostages are being driven past them in Red Cross ambulances are dismaying sights. But they represent only a fraction of Gaza’s two million civilians.
Indeed, a December survey Danan cites as evidence of complicity—42 percent of Gaza residents approve of Hamas and 57 percent approve of its decision to attack Israel—actually shows a remarkable level of anti-Hamas sentiment, all the more impressive in a society where people may be afraid to express dissent. Danan also makes a passing mention of “several videos by ordinary Gazans” criticizing Hamas, “some of whom were silenced mid-sentence.” Yet she still builds her narrative around Israeli opinions which hold that, given Gaza civilians’ failure to rise against Hamas, “most of them should be treated as involved.”
In abstract terms of moral judgment, collective responsibility is a difficult and painful question. Answers on either extreme are unsatisfying. It can’t be that people have no duty to oppose crimes committed by authoritarian or totalitarian governments in their name and with their tax money; but it also can’t be that, as Herzog and other people quoted by Danan seem to be implying, every person must risk ruin, torture, and death to oppose an unjust government or be considered an accomplice. The answer is somewhere in the vast, murky middle.
THE QUESTION OF COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY has arisen more than once regarding Russia’s war in Ukraine, with many Ukrainians arguing that all Russians—even dissidents—should be seen as complicit in Vladimir Putin’s war. But in that case, the debate largely concerns relatively low-stakes questions, like whether Ukrainian writers are justified in refusing to work with Russian citizens.
In Israel and Gaza, the stakes are much higher: It’s widely understood that claims of collective guilt could be treated as an excuse for collective punishment, which the Fourth Geneva Convention explicitly defines as a war crime.
It is, above all, Israel’s friends and supporters who should be challenging such rhetoric.