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Genocide is the word hanging over the unfolding humanitarian disaster in Gaza

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to spend a few minutes now talking about a word that you've been hearing more and more as the war between Israel and Hamas drags on, and that word is genocide. Israel says the October 7 massacre by Hamas took more than 1,200 lives, mostly civilians. Some have called that genocide or the beginning of one. In Gaza, the Palestinian Health Ministry says Israel's military response has taken now more than 12,000 lives, and that number is growing - mostly civilians and thousands of children. And some are calling this genocide. Now, we know this is a word that many people use to express their horror and revulsion at the loss of life, but we realized that it also has specific meaning in international law. And we wanted to know what that is. So our co-host Leila Fadel posed that question to David M. Crane. He is a founding chief prosecutor on the U.N. Special Court for Sierra Leone.

DAVID M CRANE: Whomever is perpetrating this international crime has to have a specific intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. If I was charged with investigating and prosecuting genocide, I would have to have in large measure a smoking gun, in other words, someone - a rebel group, a person, a head of state - directing his organizations to destroying whole or in part a peoples. It's a difficult crime to prove.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

I'm going to play you an excerpt from an Al Jazeera interview with Craig Mokhiber, a former director of the New York office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. He resigned, protesting the U.N. response to Israel's military campaign in Gaza. And when he resigned, he called what is happening in Gaza a textbook case of genocide.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CRAIG MOKHIBER: The intent by Israeli leaders has been so explicitly stated and publicly stated by the prime minister, by the president, by senior cabinet ministers, by military leaders that that is an easy case to make. It's on the public record.

FADEL: I'm just curious what you think. As someone who has actually investigated this type of charge, is it an easy case to make?

CRANE: It's not an easy case because you have to have that smoking gun. So, you know, I respectfully disagree with his approach on this. If you look at both parties in this tragedy that is unfolding, the prime minister of Israel has to specifically state that, I intend to destroy, in whole or in part, the Palestinian people. And I would suggest, respectfully, that that has not been said. Now, they have a long-term problem politically, practically and legally related to their treatment of the Palestinians. But I would beg to differ. I don't think one would categorize that as genocide. But let's flip this on the other parties - Hamas. Hamas has clearly stated that they intend to destroy, in whole or in part, the Israeli people and the Israeli state. That is a declaration of a genocidal intent. And so one can argue a little bit more strongly that Hamas has actually started and committing a genocide, as well.

FADEL: I'm going to read you some of the things that have been cited to us as examples of intent, several from the defense minister. We are fighting human animals. Gaza won't return to what it was before. We will eliminate everything. Knesset members - one saying, right now, one goal - Nakba, a Nakba that will overshadow 1948 - Nakba referring to the mass displacement of Palestinians in 1948 during the war around the creation of Israel. Do these show intent?

CRANE: All of this is largely political rhetoric. You know, when you have a genocide, you have to really have someone who specifically can actually carry out the genocide, as well. And statements by members of the Knesset or members of Congress or whomever...

FADEL: The defense minister.

CRANE: ...Who say these things - you know, that's not intent.

FADEL: So we're speaking about the legal terms, but as we speak, there are innocent civilians being killed. And there is a lot of concern from everyone about the images that are coming out and the amount of people that have been killed. I mean, is there - what can be done in this moment? Like, what should be done when you think about it from a legal perspective?

CRANE: Well, try to hold the parties to the rule of law and protect civilians. This is not going to end peacefully. This is not going to end anytime soon. All the international community can do is try to contain, assist, discuss and to hold conversations with everyone to mitigate the suffering on both sides.

FADEL: David Crane, former war crimes prosecutor and scholar of international law, thank you for your time and your insights.

CRANE: It's been my pleasure.

FADEL: For more coverage and differing views, go to npr.org/mideastupdates.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALMORHEA'S "CLEAR LANGUAGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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