Nigel Biggar

Palestinians in Gaza are suffering. That doesn’t mean it’s genocide

[Getty Images]

Last week Lord Cameron, the Foreign Secretary, expressed his concern that Israel ‘may have breached international law’ in its three-month bombardment of Gaza. Two days later, at the International Court of Justice, South Africa’s lawyers presented their case accusing Israel of genocide. 

The number of civilian casualties is indeed horrifically high. According to the ministry of health in Gaza on 9 January, more than 23,000 Palestinians had been reported killed since the start of the conflict. However, since the ministry is run by Hamas, that figure can’t be taken at face value. Indeed, it’s a practical certainty that it contains Hamas combatants – according to one reckoning, as many as 8,500. Still, when all the relevant qualifications have been made, the suffering of civilians in Gaza remains appalling in kind and massive in scale. 

But is that sufficient to make it immoral or illegal? Most people in the West – or at least its English-speaking parts – think that the war to defeat genocidal Nazism in 1939-45 was morally justified. And yet Allied warfare inflicted huge costs upon civilians. One conservative estimate has it that British and American bombers killed more than 350,000 non-combatants in Germany. Air raids over France are supposed to have killed 70,000 French civilians – 30,000 during the crucial Normandy campaign alone.    

Civilian suffering on a large scale is, by itself, no more a sign of genocide than it is of military disproportion

Anyone unaware of the human cost of defeating Hitler should read James Holland’s latest book, The Savage Storm, which chronicles 12 months (1943) of that five-year war in one place (Italy). Old men, women and children suffered grievously from the Allied invasion, torn apart by bombs and shells, exposed to the wintry elements by the destruction of their homes and starved of food and water. The British and Americans had no desire to inflict such suffering; they were often horrified by the effects of their warfare, and they sought to provide relief where they could.

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Written by
Nigel Biggar

Nigel Biggar is regius professor emeritus of moral theology at Oxford University and the author of In Defence of War.

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