An American coalition consisting mainly of Iraqi forces destroyed the city of Mosul in northern Iraq in 2017, with civilian casualties estimated at somewhere between 2,500 and 40,000. The Associated Press count was 11,000 civilians dead but it might have been much higher. ISIS fighters prevented civilians from leaving as the US and its allies bombarded the town, and no one knows to this day how many are buried under the rubble.
No one called this genocide because it didn’t feel like genocide. Muslims killing Muslims is a tragedy but Jews killing Muslims feels like genocide in the mind of the Muslim world and some who sympathize with it. Humiliation equals death in traditional society, and it is not the death count in Gaza but the humiliation of Hamas that elicits the charge of genocide.
When Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said, “We love death like our enemies love life! We love martyrdom, the way in which [Hamas] leaders died,” the world should have taken him at his word. Hamas leaders might experience martyrdom vicariously from hotel suites in Qatar but they are sincere about martyrdom and do not care how many martyrs they make among non-combatants. This is not genocide but rather genosuicide.
The purging of ISIS from Mosul parallels Israel’s efforts to root Hamas out of Gaza after the October 7 massacre of 1,200 Israelis accompanied by unspeakable sexual and other atrocities, and the abduction of another 240 Israeli hostages. 25,000 Gazans are alleged by the Hamas-controlled health ministry to have died, of which almost 10,000 are Hamas fighters by Israel’s count.
The civilian death toll is about the same as Mosul’s. With 2 million residents in 2014, Mosul had roughly the same population as Gaza so the per capita death rate of civilians is roughly the same—assuming that the unverified figures circulated by Hamas and echoed by the United Nations are accurate.
An Internet search for items posted before 2020 shows that the term “genocide” appeared frequently in connection with Mosul but only and exclusively in association with ISIS, which perpetrated genocide against the Yazidi religious minority, according to a UN commission. There is barely a single instance in which the term “genocide” was used to characterize the destruction of Mosul itself, apart perhaps from the heading of a 2017 Arab Center Washington DC think tank report.
Why then accuse Israel of genocide in Gaza for collateral damage among civilians in a similar campaign to extirpate a terrorist army? The charges brought against Israel at the International Court of Justice are absurd on the face of it.
The ICJ averred that Israel had not committed genocide, nor done anything that warranted a cease-and-desist order, but politely admonished Israel not to commit genocide in the future—surely the silliest verdict ever handed down by a respectable court in the entire history of jurisprudence.
The charge of genocide has nothing to do with the scale of civilian casualties in Gaza—real or invented. Palestinian entities and their supporters in non-governmental organizations have alleged that Israel has been committing genocide against Palestinian Arabs for years, during periods in which the number of civilian deaths was minimal. In 2016, the Center for Constitutional Rights, an American NGO, declared:
“While there has been recent criticism of those taking the position that Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians, there is a long history of human rights scholarship and legal analysis that supports the assertion. Prominent scholars of the international law crime of genocide and human rights authorities take the position that Israel’s policies toward the Palestinian people could constitute a form of genocide.”
The Center for Constitutional Rights argues that the charge of genocide has nothing to do with the death toll: It quotes the inventor of the term “genocide,” Raphael Lemkin, who wrote: “The end may be accomplished by the forced disintegration of political and social institutions, of the culture of the people, of their language, their national feelings and their religion. It may be accomplished by wiping out all basis of personal security, liberty, health and dignity. When these means fail the machine gun can always be utilized as a last resort.”
It is hard to fit the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) into that frame. Outside the region’s oil-producing countries, West Bank residents are the richest, best educated and healthiest Arabs in the world. The West Bank’s per capita income is US$6,245, compared to $3,019 in Egypt, $4,405 in Jordan and $4,208 in Tunisia.
Life expectancy is 76 years in the West Bank compared to 69 years in the Arab world as a whole. Female literacy on the West Bank is 96% versus only 68% for the Arab world. There are 132,000 West Bank university students. By contrast, in Gaza, from which Israel withdrew in 2005, per capita income is only $3,664.
The legal status of the West Bank has been undetermined since Israel’s War of Independence when Jordan illegally occupied the territory in defiance of the United Nations’ 1947 partition resolution. After Jordan attacked Israel in 1967, Israel seized the West Bank as a defensive measure and has held it since. 40% of the West Bank is governed by the Palestinian Authority, the rest by the Israelis.
It would be easy – too easy – to dismiss the repeated charge of Israeli genocide against West Bank Arabs as invidious nonsense given the undisputed facts just cited. But a deep psychological truth lurks behind the propaganda: Hamas believes that traditional Muslim culture is dying and blames the intrusion of the West in the person of Israel for what they perceive as social death.
Israel’s modernizing influence that brings higher incomes, longevity and education to West Bank Arabs, according to Hamas, is an act of genocide because it leads to the dissolution of tribal culture.
I noted in these pages in 2007:
“We [Arabs] have become extinct,” said Syrian poet Adonis in a March 11 Dubai television interview transcribed by the Israeli media monitor MEMRI,  but ignored by the mainstream Western media. The prognosis by Adonis, the only Arabic writer on the Nobel Prize shortlist, for the Arab prospect has become more bleak over the years, and his latest pronouncement has a Spenglerian finality.
“We have become extinct … We have the masses of people, but a people becomes extinct when it no longer has a creative capacity, and the capacity to change its world … The great Sumerians became extinct, the great Greeks became extinct, and the Pharaohs became extinct,” he said.
Poets are given to hyperbole, to be sure, but Adonis (the pen-name of Ali Ahmad Said) makes a deeper point in his writings on Arabic poetry. He argues that Islam destroys the creative capacity of the Arabs, who in turn cannot become modern. What he calls the “hell of daily life” is the subject of his poetry, of which a representative sample is available in English translation.
It is hard to quantify the disruptive effect of modernity on tribal societies. In my 2011 book “How Civilizations Die”, I observed that fertility rates in the Muslim world collapsed in lockstep with the rise of female literacy. This reflects a fundamental change in the role of women, from secluded housewives and mothers to educated participants in the workforce and civil society.
This occurred first in Iran and then in the Arab world, starting in the late 1970s. Iran’s total fertility rate had fallen to just 1.7 births per female, barely above the industrial world average of 1.5 births, while the Arab world’s TFR has fallen to about 3 births per female.
In a single generation or less, the Arabs of the West Bank have jumped from a traditional world where marriages are arranged, female insubordination to family and clan can be punished by death and women are confined to the home, into a modern world where young Arab women in headscarves learn to code computers.
For many Arabs, notably Arab citizens of Israel, this is a welcome improvement in conditions of life. The Israel Democracy Institute found in a November 2023 poll that 70% of Arab citizens in Israel identify as Israelis, compared to only 48% in June 2023.
Israeli Arabs attend university (including prestigious faculties such as medicine) in proportion to their presence in the population, elect Arab members of parliament, sit on Israel’s Supreme Court and otherwise share in Israel’s prosperity.
For other Muslims, the dissolution of traditional culture brings with it what Emil Durkheim called anomie, or social dissociation. It is even more poignant in sub-Saharan Africa, where per capita GDP is only $2,000 and a large part of the population subsists on $3 a day, than it is in most of the Arab world.
It can also have devastating consequences in the real world. What happens to countries that get old before they get rich? China’s aging population is the subject of endless speculation about its possible decline, mitigated by much higher rates of university education, automation of industry and services, and the export of labor-intensive industries.
Iran, as I have noted in several past studies, is most at risk economically among the rapidly aging countries. Elderly Iranians today had an average of seven children per couple, compared to fewer than two children today. As they become elderly, who will care for them or pay taxes to provide pensions and health care?
The United Nations Population Prospects low fertility scenario shows Iran’s elderly dependent ratio (the number of people over 65 divided by the working-age population aged 20-64) rising to European levels by mid-century and exceeding European levels by the end of the century.
But Europe has a per capita GDP of $43,000, compared to Iran’s $4,100. The shock of demographic transition sets in motion a social disaster for Iran in the not-too-distant future. This helps explain Iran’s fanaticism and aggressiveness.
Modernizers like Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud or Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi are struggling to bring their countries into the modern world. In 2016, al-Sisi called for a reform of Islam to counter extremists, with an emphasis on women’s rights, that may succeed.
As I showed in a recent study for American Affairs, digital broadband, cheap smartphones and artificial intelligence can rapidly raise incomes in developing countries. China is far ahead of the United States in applying digital technology and AI to the Global South but that is more a problem for the United States than it is for the Global South.
Hamas – like ISIS in the Levant, Boko Haram in West Africa, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Jaish-e-Mohammed in Pakistan – will fight to the death because modernity for them constitutes social death. They are the Islamic equivalent of the Native American Ghost Dance movement of 1890, a suicidal last stand against encroaching settlers of European origin backed by the military might of the United States government.
Statistically, the normal end-point for human societies is extinction. As I argued in my 2011 book, civilizations die because they want to. Most of the Muslim world has chosen to embrace modernity in one form or another; a few tragic holdouts possessed by the desire to perpetuate traditional society will fight to the death – and take with them as many innocents as they can.