The anatomy of Zionist genocide

What are the motivations behind Israel’s genocidal acts in Gaza, and what is the way forward?

An Israeli flag can be seen inside Gaza Strip, looking in from the Israeli side of the border, on November 11, 2023 [Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters]

On October 7, Hamas fighters breached the Gaza prison fence, launching a coordinated attack on at least seven Israeli military installations and more than 20 surrounding residential communities. Over 1000 Israeli citizens, both civilian and military, as well as dozens of foreign nationals, were killed in the attack. Some 240 others were taken captive. Caught off guard and in disarray, the Israeli military responded to the attack in a frenzy, firing indiscriminately on breached localities, slaying Israeli captives alongside Hamas fighters in the process. It took the Israeli forces nearly a day to recapture all lost territory and secure the Gaza perimeter.

Following Hamas’s unprecedented incursion, Israel’s public relations apparatus launched a misinformation campaign aimed at inciting fear and fury and began to spread unverified atrocity propaganda. The campaign, involving tales of babies being “beheaded en masse”, “burned” and “hung on a clothesline”, helped transform the Israeli public’s shock into genocidal tribalism and diverted attention from Israel’s political, intelligence and military blunders that paved the way for the attack in the first place. The campaign also helped the government garner crucial public support for mass mobilisation of reserve units which made the consequent full-scale ground invasion of the Gaza Strip possible.

After securing unconditional military, political and diplomatic backing of its imperial sponsors in the West, most notably in Washington,  and under the pretext of countering Hamas and rescuing captives, Israel then initiated what has since been accurately described as an AI-guided “mass assassination campaign” in Gaza.

Ten weeks on, most of Gaza is now destroyed, nearly 20,000 Palestinians are dead with many more still under the rubble, and the world continues to watch a genocide unfold in real time. Examining these events through a behavioural-neuroscientific lens could offer insights into the Zionist settler colonialist dynamic in general and the particular motivations behind Israel’s current genocidal acts in Gaza, as well as potential paths forward.

The pillars of Zionist propaganda

In response to historical trauma, Jewish people have a deep fear of anti-Semitism. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this fear, along with disdain for oppressors, led to the formation of autonomous Jewish self-defence groups in various geographies.

Zionism, a European colonial movement, recognised the potential of this dynamic. It syncretised Jewish longing for safety and self-defence with white supremacist, messianic and fascistic ideologies. This synthesis birthed a new, nationalist Jewish identity that equates Jewish safety with the construction of an exclusivist homeland in Palestine through the displacement of the region’s Indigenous populations.

Settler colonial endeavours typically depend on depicting the targeted territory as “uninhabited”, and its existing inhabitants as inhuman barbarians unworthy of any land.

This portrayal allowed Zionists to displace the Indigenous population of Palestine without moral qualms, portraying the establishment of Israel not as the destruction of a people but as the construction of a “villa in the jungle”.

Within the Israeli society grounded in land and resource theft, offensive aggression under the guise of “self-defence” (as in “Israel Defence Force”) has been rewarded and reinforced from the very beginning and consequently became a routine part of life. By reinstating fear and hijacking trauma associated with past and present negative experiences of Jewish people, Zionist leaders ensured the settler population’s continued support for aggressive, expansionist, hegemonic, genocidal policies and shielded their corruption and other criminal endeavours from public scrutiny.

To maintain Israel’s violently oppressive status quo and expand the territory of the settler colony, Zionists opportunistically conflated their colonial ideology with Judaism.

Citing divine dispensation, radical, far-right settlers have been encouraged to seize hilltops on Palestinian land, expel those living there, and form illegal outposts. These outposts are later fortified by the Israeli military and eventually “legalised” by the Zionist state.

Beyond justifying violent land theft, the conflation of Zionism and Judaism serves to delegitimise Indigenous resistance by equating any criticism of Zionism or Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians as an attack on Jews. Further, it hinders anticolonial resistance by portraying a political struggle over land and resources between occupying settlers backed by imperial forces and an Indigenous-occupied people as a supposed ancient religious “conflict” between equals.

This conflation encourages Zionist appropriation and exceptionalisation of Jewish victimhood. Israeli hasbara presents the Holocaust as an unparalleled genocide, granting Jews special victim status. This narrative justifies privileges, discounts and allowances for Israel as the “Jewish state” constructed to ensure the safety of Jews, at the expense of Indigenous Palestinians. Notably, Zionist revisionism often neglects and downplays Nazi crimes against other oppressed groups, including communists, socialists, Roma, disabled individuals, LGBTQI and African Germans.

The liberal wing of Zionism serves to whitewash the reactionary core of the movement and conceal its true objectives – expansionism and apartheid. Misleadingly, Liberal Zionists portray Zionism as an ideology aligned with democratic, progressive values and human rights, falsely projecting a genuine commitment to peace, justice and full integration into the Middle East.

Fear and genocidal fervour

Until October 7, Israel upheld its founding aspiration, enforcing a doctrine of endless occupation while oscillating between implicit and explicit forms of genocide, the latter often described as “mowing the lawn” in reference to Israel’s periodical attacks on Gaza since its 2005 “withdrawal” from the besieged Palestinian enclave.  During this time, Israeli Zionists reaped the benefits of Palestinian land and its resources in a modern, affluent, supposedly democratic consumer paradise, fostering robust connections and identification with white US and Europe and oil/cash-rich Gulf monarchies, rather than its immediate neighbours.

On October 7, intense fear and shock gripped Israeli society, presenting Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government with a golden opportunity to quash rising dissent against corruption, and please his coalition membe rs with a genocidal land grab.

Fear in Israel is sustained through militarisation, anti-Palestinian narratives, reframing resistance as “terrorism,” remembering past atrocities, focusing on perceived threats and promoting segregation, ie, apartheid. Chronic fear induces symptoms akin to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), making the Israeli population prone to aggression masked as “self-defence”.

The toxic mix of fear, dehumanising propaganda, rewards for aggression and intense apartheid has bred a lack of empathy in Israelis toward Palestinians. Despite claiming the Gaza conflict as “self-defence”, Israeli leaders openly blame Palestinian society as a whole, essentially sanctioning collective punishment of civilians. Daily, Israeli institutional leaders mock Palestinian culture and cheerlead the torture, displacement and annihilation of Palestinians, revealing a disturbing genocidal mindset.

The path forward

On October 7, the carefully constructed Zionist facade of incremental genocide within a liberal/democratic framework collapsed, exposing Israel’s genocidal and fascistic core. Zionists in Israel and beyond did not mourn the end of this charade, and instead celebrated their newfound freedom to kill and destroy Palestinians without any restraint or pretence. This development not only poses a threat of elimination to the Palestinian people but since the Occupied Territories are used as a laboratory for the development and testing of new military technology and strategies, it could also set the stage for similar violent escalations against oppressed communities in the Global South as well as against BIPOC and immigrant communities within the Global North.

Israel’s genocidal behaviour in Gaza and elsewhere in historic Palestine resonates with patterns seen in the Stanford prison experiment and the Milgram obedience study. In the latter, individuals, swayed by authority, had administered potentially lethal shocks to other participants.

For Zionists to break their addiction to aggression, they would need to go through a process of deprogramming and decolonisation. This would require them to embrace the truth about the history and nature of Zionism, commit to sincere accountability, recognise the humanity of Palestinians, and empathise with their suffering and plight. Once the oppressive structure, Zionism, is disassembled, it can be effectively dismantled, paving the way for a process of rehumanisation and reconciliation through the use of empathy. Liberation, reconciliation and an end to Israel’s genocidal violence can only be achieved within a steadfast and unwavering anti-Zionist framework that aligns with wider leftist, antiracist, anticolonial values.

Dedicated to the late Palestinian poet Refaat Alareer.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.