On the Gaza ‘shoah’ and the ‘banality of evil’

War by war, Israel has slowly but surely normalised genocidal violence against the Palestinian people.

Palestinians carry the shrouded bodies of relatives, killed in Israeli strike, at the Nasser hospital in Khan Yunis
Two Palestinian men carry the shrouded bodies of their children, killed in Israeli bombardment, at Nasser hospital in Khan Younis on December 28, 2023 [AFP]

“[T]he reality of concentration camps resembles nothing so much as medieval pictures of Hell.” – Hanna Arendt


In February 2008, Matan Vilnai, then Israel’s deputy defence minister, threatened the Palestinians of Gaza with a “holocaust”. “They will bring upon themselves a bigger shoah because we will use all our might to defend ourselves,” he said in an interview for the Israeli army radio station, using the Hebrew word for holocaust.

It is important to recall this statement today as activists and analysts are being berated for comparing what is happening now to the people of Gaza to what European Jews suffered at the hands of the Nazis last century.

The word “shoah” is never used in Israel outside discussions of the Nazi extermination of Jews during World War II. Many Israelis, especially Zionists, have a serious problem with people using it to describe other genocides.

Yet, the deputy minister decided to threaten the Palestinians with a “shoah”. It is clear he knew what he was referring to and he did not mince his words.

In December 2008, 10 months after Vilnai’s interview, the Israeli occupation forces launched a massive military onslaught on the Gaza Strip that lasted 22 days. Israel killed more than 1,400 people in this onslaught, the overwhelming majority of whom were children and women.

At the time, no one referred to the prohibited word. No one dared to compare the military operation, grotesquely dubbed “Cast Lead”, to the “shoah”.

The so-called “international community” did nothing to protect Palestinian civilians. Just as it did nothing in the late 1930s, when it stood aside and watched idly, refusing to give shelter to the innocent civilians fleeing slaughter at the hands of the Nazi monster regime.

The Nazi war criminals acted with full impunity for a long period of time, relying on the support of ordinary Germans and the indifference of the “international community”, who facilitated what the late philosopher Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil”.

Because of this, the Nazis felt at ease repeating the same crimes again and again. What Nazi officers did then looked “terrifyingly normal”. As Arendt described the actions of one Nazi bureaucrat: he committed crimes “under circumstances that made it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he was doing wrong”. The Nazis killed and afterwards felt no remorse whatsoever.

Nowadays, we would describe this as the normalisation of war crimes and crimes against humanity. In Palestine, we are currently observing the normalisation of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and apartheid.

Because the 2008 bloodbath committed by apartheid Israel was not taken seriously by the UN, the UN Security Council, the European Union, and the Arab and Muslim worlds, the besieging and slaughter of the Palestinians of Gaza in a concentration camp became “normal”, or as Arendt would call it, “banal”.

As a result, Israel found it easy to repeated the bloodbath in 2012, 2014, 2021 and today in 2023 – all while maintaining the hermetic, medieval siege imposed in 2006. The mass killing of civilians as well as the cutting off of electricity, food, water, medicine, internet, communications and other essential goods and services all became “normal”. The Palestinians of Gaza are, after all, “human animals” – as the current Israeli defence minister, Yoav Gallant, put it frankly – and their deaths do not cause any remorse.

In normailsing genocidal violence, Israel has been aided and abetted by the colonial West. This is hardly surprising given Western countries’ own track record of waging wars all over the world, from Asia to Africa to Latin America, destroying in the process Indigenous cultures and civilisations. These countries have committed heinous crimes as part of the white man’s “civilising mission”.

In the Arab World, they have also maintained an imperialist project which has had two aims: one, protecting Western interests in guarding oil fields and crushing the rising nationalist sentiments; and two, managing the liberal guilt complex regarding the worst pogrom committed in the 20th century, namely the “shoah”.

This is why the Gaza “shoah” is being tolerated. The brown-skinned Palestinians of Gaza are not weighing on the Western liberal conscience, and the “banal” deaths of 21,000 Palestinians at the hands of a genocidal army, do not threaten Western interests in the Arab World. Hence, the failure of the UN Security Council to enforce a total ceasefire in Gaza.

So, are we to understand that Israel’s genocide of Gaza is acceptable, ie, “normal” for the West? That the UN Security Council doesn’t see the urgency of a total ceasefire now? That the UN Security Council is only an extension of the US Department of State?

Sadly, the answers to all these questions is yes.

That we find ourselves in this genocidal reality today does not mean that there is no possibility of another world order with a better UN where all votes are equal. The pro-Palestinian rallies attended by millions people who have taken to the streets in the US, the UK, France, South Africa, Spain, Morocco, Indonesia, Malaysia, Yemen, Jordan, Spain, Italy, Chile, Argentina, Colombia and elsewhere and the conscionable decisions taken by the governments of Belize, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, and South Africa, among others, show that the world wants and can be different.

It is not too difficult to imagine a near future where there is equality and real respect for human rights of all human beings regardless of race, religion, sex and ethnicity.

German poet Bertolt Brecht had this to say in one of the darkest times of human history:

In the dark times

Will there also be singing?

Yes, there will also be singing.

About the dark times.

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