No. 3

1948: Israel, South Africa, and the Question of Genocide

The UN’s failure to dismantle the colonial order foreclosed the application of the Genocide Convention to Israel, South Africa, and the United States.

Palestinians gather around a statue of Nelson Mandela after South Africa files a landmark case against Israel at the International Court of Justice, Ramallah, Jan. 10, 2024. Photograph by Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images.

If the United Nations decides to amputate a part of Palestine in order to establish a Jewish state, no force on earth could prevent blood from flowing there. … [O]nce such bloodshed has commenced, no force on earth can confine it to the borders of Palestine itself.

— Dr. Mohamed Hussein Heykal Pasha, Egyptian delegate to UN Ad Hoc Committee on Palestine, 1947


South Africa’s application to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) instituting proceedings against Israel for violating the UN Genocide Convention sent U.S. officials into a frenzy. More than 200 members of Congress signed a bipartisan letter condemning the charges as “grossly unfounded and defamatory.” On Feb. 6, 2024, Representatives John James, a Black Republican from Michigan, and Florida Democrat Jared Moskowitz introduced a bill meant to punish South Africa. The bill falsely asserts that the governing African National Congress (ANC) supports Hamas and accuses ANC leaders of antisemitism for “expressing concern of ‘escalating violence’” and describing the war on civilians in Gaza as “genocide.” The bill makes no mention of the more than 30,000 Palestinians killed and at least 72,000 wounded in Gaza in the course of more than 160 days, the roughly 1.9 million displaced people, and at least 399 Palestinians killed by settlers and Israeli occupation forces in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since Oct. 7. The Biden administration must know that the ICJ’s finding of a plausible risk of genocide implicates the U.S. as a party to Israel’s crimes. But rather than withhold its financial and military resources and do what is required of UN member states — act decisively to stop the genocide — the Senate voted to send Israel a whopping $14 billion to finish the job, more than triple the aid the U.S. typically sends Israel every year. Bipartisan fealty to Israel, no matter the consequences, is unsurprising. The apoplectic tone of the attacks on the case has much to do with who filed the complaint with the ICJ, however.

The ANC and its allies that make up the tripartite alliance (the Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions) have for decades been declared enemies of both the U.S. and Israel. Before the end of formal apartheid in 1994, South Africa, Israel, and the U.S. formed a very different tripartite alliance committed to the defense of racial capitalism, apartheid, and Zionism. The U.S. and South Africa in particular have maintained strong economic ties since the early 20th century. By 1948, South Africa’s mining and manufacturing sectors had absorbed considerable flows of American capital. As white “republics” built on the exploitation and disenfranchisement of Black labor, they shared a mutual defense of racial segregation and a zealous opposition to communism. Anticommunism, especially during the Cold War, provided ideological cover for the suppression of all opposition movements. Just as the U.S. promoted Israel as “the only democracy in the Middle East,” it regarded South Africa as its closest ally on the African continent. All three nations allied to suppress communism and “terrorism” — namely, the forces fighting for the liberation of Palestine, against apartheid, and for revolutionary change in the U.S. — through joint counterinsurgency, shared intelligence, arms sales, and mutual military buildup.

The insurgents built their own ties with one another. Black solidarity between the U.S. and South Africa predates World War I, and their respective connections to the Palestinian liberation movement can be traced to the early 1960s. Their ties deepened in the 1970s, when the UN General Assembly approved the Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, passed a resolution declaring that “zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination,” recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the ANC, and sought to expel Israel and South Africa from its body. (They managed to suspend South Africa in 1974, which lasted until the ANC came to power 20 years later.) Israel’s occupation of Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem following the 1967 war came to resemble the colonial violence in southern Africa, especially as the PLO, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and other armed groups escalated their resistance. The PLO and the ANC maintained strong ties, and decades after the downfall of apartheid, the ANC’s solidarity with Palestine has not wavered. The ANC has consistently supported the BDS campaign since 2012.

Demonstrators protesting for freedom and equality, Johannesburg, South Africa, 1952. Photograph via Popperfoto/Getty Images.

It might feel like a moment of poetic justice to watch the victims of the old tripartite alliance lead efforts to protect Palestinians. But one wonders, given Israel’s documented history of ethnic cleansing and a 17-year siege that has turned Gaza into a massive concentration camp, why it has taken so long for any country to ask the ICJ to investigate Israel for violating the Genocide Convention. Article II of the convention defines the term to mean any effort to “destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” by causing “serious bodily or mental harm” to group members, imposing “conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part,” which includes preventing births. I am not interested in debating whether Israel is, or has ever been, guilty of genocide. I believe the evidence for genocide dating back to the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe) is irrefutable. Instead, I contend that the UN’s failure to dismantle the colonial order, buttressed by Cold War imperatives, foreclosed the application of international law, particularly the Genocide Convention, to Israel, South Africa, and the United States. While the U.S. has occasionally used its veto power in the Security Council to shield both Israel and South Africa from accountability to international law, during the first decade of the UN’s existence it rarely had to. Israel not only had the votes in the General Assembly but also, similar to South Africa, never had to face charges of genocide. More than two decades would pass before the General Assembly treated both countries as pariah states. Perhaps because the Holocaust became the paradigmatic case of genocide, the threshold of proof was very high — arguably too high. The convention turned into a tool of last resort, rendering it a deeply flawed instrument to prevent genocide.


The state of Israel, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and the Genocide Convention were all “born” in 1948, in the shadow of the Holocaust and in the light of the recently formed United Nations. This was also the year South Africa officially became an apartheid state, although the policies introduced by the largely Afrikaner National Party did not radically depart from three centuries of colonialism, mineral extraction, and exploitation of African labor. Nevertheless, apartheid seemed anachronistic in an era of African independence and civil rights. Israel and South Africa were both settler-colonial regimes founded on violent dispossession that maintained some form of military rule over subject populations at a time when colonialism was said to be dying and the UN was supposed to usher in a new world order. Dr. Fayez A. Sayegh, renowned scholar and rapporteur of the special committee established under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, underscored in a 1970 essay the incongruity of Israel’s settler-colonial project “in a historical era marked by universal rejection of colonialism in principle and near-total liquidation of colonial empires in practice.” But despite the various charters, declarations, and conventions that confirmed human equality and condemned discrimination, the UN was founded on the principles of what the historian Mark Mazower calls “imperial internationalism.” Its principal architects represented nations that still held colonies and/or practiced racial segregation. It was a South African prime minister, General Jan Smuts, who added the phrase “human rights” to the UN Charter. Unsurprisingly, Smuts’s elevated role as statesman did not sit well with the Black majority back home. The Non-European Unity Movement, a multiracial coalition with ties to the Workers Party of South Africa, issued a statement in July 1945 informing the world that South Africa’s nonwhite population “live and suffer under a tyranny very little different from Nazism,” and thus “it is ludicrous that this same South African Herrenvolk should speak abroad of a new beginning, of shaping a new world order, whereas in actuality all they wish is the retention of the present tyranny in South Africa, and its extension to new territories.”

A “Net Blankes, Whites Only” sign, South Africa, Oct. 7, 1977. Photograph by Andrzej Sawa/Sunday Times/Gallo Images/Getty Images.

W. E. B. Du Bois and Mohandas Gandhi tried in vain to persuade the UN’s architects to declare colonialism a crime against humanity. If this were not done, Du Bois warned: “There will be at least 750,000,000 colored and Black folk inhabiting colonies owned by white nations, who will have no rights that the white people of the world are bound to respect. Revolt on their part can be put down by military force; they will have no right of appeal to the Council or the Assembly; they will have no standing before the International Court of Justice.” Du Bois’s appeals went nowhere because the UN was designed to recognize nations and not peoples. Only nations had standing, which meant an attack on colonialism was an assault on the sovereignty of the colonizing nations. During its formative years, the UN distinguished “civilized nations” from the rest, a hierarchy consistent with its founding commitment to preserving the Anglo-American alliance over the freedom of 750 million people in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean.

The UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide could have been an instrument for victims of colonial violence to seek relief and justice. The convention was the brainchild of Raphael Lemkin, the distinguished Polish Jewish jurist credited with coining the term “genocide” by combining genos, the Greek word for “race” or a group of people claiming common descent, with cide, the Latin suffix for “killing.” The word first appeared in print in his 1944 book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, followed by the Genocide Convention, which came before the United Nations in 1946. After two years of debate, the General Assembly approved the convention on Dec. 9, 1948, ratified by some member states in October 1950, and put it in force the next year.

Lemkin’s best-known work focused on the Nazi extermination of Jews and Poles and the Armenian genocide under the Ottoman Empire, but colonialism was an important frame of reference. He considered past massacres of Indigenous peoples in the Americas and the Atlantic slave trade examples of genocide and directed students to study Belgium’s atrocities in the Congo and Germany’s genocide against Namibia. His definition of genocide was far more expansive than what ended up in the final draft of the convention. He deemed the destruction or erasure of culture an act of genocide, but his resistance to reducing genocidal acts to distinct categories led him to hesitate calling it “cultural genocide.” Yet an early draft by the ad hoc committee did mention “cultural genocide,” which it defined as “any deliberate act committed with intent to destroy the language, religion or culture of a national, racial or religious group” through banning the use of specific languages or “destroying, or preventing the use of, libraries, museums, schools, historical monuments, places of worship or other cultural institutions and objects of the group.” Since acts of erasure and destruction are common features of colonialism, the inclusion of the phrase would have left more Western nations vulnerable to the charge of genocide. Little wonder the U.S., France, Canada, and the Netherlands were among the most fervent critics of the phrase.

Paul Robeson with W. Alphaeus Hunton of the Council on African Affairs on his right at a UN Security Council meeting, Lake Success, N.Y., 1950. Photograph via Bettmann/Getty Images.

Lemkin had some blind spots, notably underestimating the structural violence and racist subjugation required to maintain the settler state, especially within modern herrenvolk republics such as the United States and South Africa. He would come to recognize this order of structural violence as genocide by the end of his life, but not during the convention’s formative years. In 1951, when William L. Patterson, a Black Communist and the executive director of the Civil Rights Congress, and Paul Robeson submitted a 240-page petition to the UN charging the United States with committing genocide against Black people, Lemkin accused the authors of being “un-American,” bent on sabotaging the U.S. Senate’s ratification of the convention and diverting “attention away from the crimes of genocide” perpetrated in the Soviet Union. The provocatively titled We Charge Genocide: The Historic Petition to the United Nations for Relief From a Crime of the United States Government Against the Negro People documented hundreds of incidents of anti-Black violence — from police killing to lynching — just in the six years since the end of the war and drew on the convention to argue that systematic violence and terrorism was state policy. In a letter to The New York Times, Lemkin claimed the authors confused “genocide with discrimination.” Contending that the numbers of those killed or harmed were so low that the case for genocide must rest on “serious mental harm,” he then poses a rhetorical question: “Can one be guilty of genocide when one frightens a Negro? Obviously not, because fear alone cannot be considered as serious mental harm as meant by the authors of the convention; the act is not directed against the Negro population of the country and by no stretch of imagination can one discover in the United States an intent or plan to exterminate the Negro population, which is increasing in conditions of evident prosperity and progress.”

A vast majority of African Americans begged to differ. In fact, Black journalists recognized the applicability of the Genocide Convention in the U.S. before the release of We Charge Genocide. On Oct. 21, 1950, The New York Amsterdam News ran an article headlined “UN Law May Be Hard on Dixie,” arguing that the “lynching of Negroes in the United States [and] race destruction in the Union of South Africa” would be considered crimes of genocide. Southern senators also understood the implications immediately. Having consistently opposed a federal anti-lynching law, they believed that the convention would be used to prosecute lynchers and would not support it without assurances that it could not be used against the U.S. for treatment of its own citizens. The U.S. did not ratify the Genocide Convention until 1988. Meanwhile, Lemkin changed his mind, influenced by Ruth Benedict’s Race: Science and Politics (1940). According to his biographer, Lemkin’s unfinished manuscript Introduction to the Study of Genocide included “the lynching of African Americans … [as] acts of genocide in the United States legitimized by race thinking.”

South Africa joined the U.S. in refusing to ratify the convention and did not become a party to the convention until 1998. The apartheid government would not agree to pass complementary domestic laws, prosecute perpetrators of genocide in domestic courts, or extradite people wanted for the crime of genocide. Its position was predictable. The 1948 election of the largely Afrikaner National Party was considered a retreat even from General Smuts’s United Party — actual Nazis made up the new regime. National Party leader John Vorster declared in 1942, “We stand for Christian Nationalism which is an ally of National Socialism”; he later served as prime minister from 1966 to 1978. The deepening fascist turn should be understood as a response to heightened Black opposition during the 1940s, when African miners waged a massive national strike in 1946, and the ANC Youth League pushed its parent organization to support mass uprisings against consumer and transportation racism. The National Party promised separation of the races and the complete disfranchisement of all nonwhites. Once in power, it passed a slate of apartheid laws — what the journalist and Communist activist Brian Bunting wryly called “South Africa’s Nuremberg laws.” During the first three years alone, under prime minister Daniël F. Malan, the new regime expelled Indians from Parliament, curtailed Coloured voting rights, outlawed interracial marriage, excluded nearly all Africans from receiving unemployment insurance, assigned every person to a racial category defined by the state, designated race groups to specific locations, required Africans to carry passes to monitor and control their movement, and under the Suppression of Communism Act effectively outlawed every opposition movement in South Africa.

A Nazi-led apartheid government did not diminish South Africa’s standing in the UN. In 1946, before the National Party came to power, India filed a complaint against South Africa for passing a law severely limiting where Asians could purchase land, arguing that it violated the UN Charter’s prohibition on racial discrimination. In its defense, South Africa — with support from the U.S., the U.K., Belgium, Canada, New Zealand, and the Netherlands — invoked a separate clause in the UN Charter prohibiting member states from interfering in the affairs of another nation. India prevailed, but South Africa simply ignored the resolution and in 1948 passed even more draconian anti-Asian legislation as part of a slate of apartheid measures. In December 1950, the General Assembly passed a resolution condemning apartheid but referring only to anti-Indian discrimination. South Africa continued to enjoy the protection of the Security Council until 1960, when the council adopted a resolution deploring the police killing of 69 unarmed African protesters in the township of Sharpeville. Three years later came the first meeting of a Special Committee on the Policies of Apartheid. In 1966, the General Assembly declared apartheid a crime against humanity. The main source of tension between the apartheid regime and the UN, however, was South Africa’s occupation of Namibia.

Illustration of the German garrison of Windhoek attacking the Herero people, from Le Petit Journal, Feb. 21, 1904. Image via Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images.

Like Israel with its occupation of Palestine, South Africa ruled Namibia as a colony in an era of decolonization. But as legal scholar Noura Erakat observes, unlike the case of Israel, the UN had recognized since at least 1946 that South Africa’s occupation of what was then called South West Africa violated international law and chose to use “the legal infrastructure within the United Nations to shepherd Namibia to independence.” A German colony since the 1880s, Namibia was the site of the first 20th-century genocide: Between 1904 and 1908 German settlers massacred between 40,000 and 80,000 Herero people (about 80 percent of their population) and 10,000 Nama people (about half of their population). During World War I, South Africa occupied the colony and held it as a League of Nations mandate after Germany’s defeat. Instead of restoring Indigenous land rights, the South African government encouraged German and white South African settlement, forcing the Africans into the largely uninhabited territory around the Kunene River. After the collapse of the League of Nations during World War II and the creation of the UN, Namibia was supposed to become a UN Trust Territory. But South Africa refused to enter a trusteeship — the Smuts government and subsequent regimes wanted to annex Namibia outright. The Africans wanted freedom. In 1947, a delegation of Nama leaders petitioned the UN secretary-general to demand the immediate return of their lands and restoration of their sovereignty. When the UN rejected South Africa’s request to annex the territory, the Parliament under Malan passed the South West Africa Amendment Act (1949), moving further toward illegal annexation by giving white settlers in Namibia representation in Parliament. The General Assembly asked for an advisory opinion from the ICJ, which issued separate opinions in 1950, 1955, and 1956, all declaring South Africa’s refusal to allow Namibia to be placed under trusteeship illegal. Because the opinions were not enforceable, South Africa continued to defy international law, imposing apartheid laws and tightening repression. In 1966, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution ending the mandate and launching a new trusteeship in preparation for Namibia’s independence, but South Africa refused to leave. In 1960, the newly formed South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) launched an armed struggle for independence.

Palestinian women waiting for rations at a refugee camp, Gaza, 1956. Photograph by Burt Glinn/Magnum.


Israel signed and ratified the Genocide Convention promptly and without reservations. Unlike that of South Africa, Israel’s founding was treated by much of the world as an unmitigated triumph. Zionists believed it fulfilled the dream of a Jewish state in Palestine, authorized by God Himself in accordance with the Hebrew Bible. For survivors of the Holocaust, Israel became a safe haven for Jewish resettlement and the vehicle through which Germany could pay reparations. Labor Zionists looked to Palestine as a potential socialist promised land. In fact, the international Communist movement’s support for Zionism and Israel’s ruling party, the Mapai or Workers Party, obscured Israel’s formation as a settler-colonial state. Moshe Dayan, a military hero in the Nakba, harbored no illusions: “Before [the Palestinians’] very eyes we are possessing the land and villages where they, and their ancestors, have lived. … We are the generation of colonizers, and without the gun barrel we cannot plant a tree and build a home.”

By 1947, the creation of some kind of Jewish state in Palestine was a fait accompli; the question was whether it would be one binational state or two separate states. The British planned to withdraw and transfer the responsibility for determining Palestine’s future to the United Nations. A majority of Zionists wanted a state of their own and believed all the land, Eretz Israel, belonged to them. Yet they accepted UN Resolution 181, passed on Nov. 29, 1947, dividing Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. The partition plan set aside 56 percent of the land for a Jewish state and 44 percent for the Palestinians. Arab leaders were never consulted and did not agree to the plan. Palestinians argued that the partition was illegal and unjust, and asked that the matter be referred to the ICJ for an advisory opinion, but pressure from the United States blocked it.

Mapai Party leaders publicly accepted the terms of the agreement but secretly prepared to wage war to expel the Palestinians and seize additional territory. The British were on their way out, so the narrative that the war for Israel’s independence was an anti-imperialist struggle begs credulity. The pretext for war was the presence of Arab armies dispatched either to protect the borders with Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt or ostensibly to protect Palestinian villages outside the designated boundaries of the Jewish state. But the Arab states had financial and geopolitical interests in limiting Israel’s expansion that were not necessarily shared with Palestinians. Jordan’s King Abdullah I, for example, wanted to annex the West Bank — which the partition plan designated as part of the Palestinian state — and made a secret agreement with the Zionists not to intervene in the war in exchange for the West Bank. Moreover, David Ben-Gurion, the Zionist leader who became Israel’s first prime minister, knew the Arab armies posed no serious threat. Nevertheless, he used fear to mobilize Jewish support and sway world opinion by making public statements comparing Arabs to Nazis and warning of “a second Holocaust.” In private, he used language similar to that of colonial officers preparing for a campaign. The man who in his younger days fashioned himself a “Zionist Lenin” wrote in his diary on Jan. 1, 1948: “There is a need now for strong and brutal reaction. We need to be accurate about timing, place and those we hit. If we accuse a family — we need to harm them without mercy, women and children included. Otherwise, this is not an effective reaction. During the operation there is no need to distinguish between guilty and not guilty.”

Members of the Haganah in an Arab village captured during its campaign to take or destroy Palestinian property, c. 1948. Photograph by Robert Capa/International Center of Photography/Magnum.

Under Ben-Gurion’s leadership, Israel’s militias — the Haganah, Irgun, the Stern gang, the Palmach — waged a deliberate, well-organized campaign to terrorize, kill or injure, and dispossess Palestinians; raze their villages; take or destroy their property; and above all take their land. The architects of the campaign laid out a military strategy across four different plans, the most consequential and far-reaching being Plan D, or Plan Dalet. Adopted on March 10, 1948, the “plan” entailed using terrorism as a strategy of elimination. Zionist paramilitary groups were instructed to raze villages “by setting fire to them, by blowing them up, and by planting mines in their rubble,” and to encircle others, conduct searches, and force people to flee; when faced with resistance, “the armed forces must be wiped out and the population expelled outside the borders of the state.” From December 1947 to July 1949, Zionist militias drove three-quarters of a million people, 80 percent of the Palestinian population, from their land; destroyed or emptied over 500 villages; and demolished homes, sometimes setting them ablaze or blowing them up while families were still inside. Men were lined up and shot, women killed and raped, children shot, a pregnant woman bayoneted. Wholesale massacres in the villages of Deir Yassin and Tantura are etched in Palestinian collective memory. The cruelties are legion. In Haifa, the militias rolled barrels of explosives and large steel balls into Palestinian neighborhoods, followed by a generous stream of oil and gasoline, which they then set alight.

By the armistice of 1949, the state of Israel occupied 78 percent of Palestine. Western nations accepted Israel’s new borders, but the Arab states refused to recognize the state of Israel unless it allowed Palestinian refugees to return — an impossibility, because the point of the forced population transfer was for Israel to maintain demographic dominance. The roughly 160,000 Palestinians remaining within Israel’s borders were placed under military administration until 1966. Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon reluctantly absorbed tens of thousands of Nakba survivors, though the responsibility for providing necessities like food, shelter, and education fell to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

The Nakba must be understood as both a crime against humanity and organized armed robbery. Israelis seized land and homes. They also stole furniture, rugs, jewelry, money, radios, and other valuable items. As the Palestinian historian Nur Masalha shows, in Jaffa (now part of Tel Aviv), Acre, Lydda, and other cities, Palestinian-owned businesses were left intact so that they could be taken over by Israeli entrepreneurs. Tens of thousands of acres of olive and fruit groves that Palestinians had owned and cultivated produced enough fruit to account for nearly 10 percent of Israel’s foreign currency earnings from exports in 1951. Arabic place names were changed to Hebrew, and to ensure the erasure the Jewish National Fund (JNF) planted forests on the land of destroyed Palestinian villages. Israeli settlers seized or destroyed personal archives and appropriated a massive body of literature in Arabic, part of which ended up in Israel’s National Library. Being forced to leave behind precious texts and artifacts to live in a tent or a refugee camp is what is meant by “cultural genocide.” To be displaced from the land of one’s family and ancestors, from the deep social bonds of the village and its churches, mosques, and schools, from ancient olive trees that have anchored Palestinian culture, is also cultural genocide.

In contrast, in 1947, the U.S. military government in West Germany passed a law for the purposes of restoring property seized from Jews under Nazi rule. In 1952, the German government agreed to pay restitution for what historian Marilyn Henry categorizes as “identifiable assets, including machinery, real estate, business enterprises, and cultural properties.” Palestinians received no such compensation. Israel’s Absentees’ Property Law of 1950 transferred all property owned or used by Palestinian refugees to the state of Israel, and then denied their right to return or reclaim their losses. Even Palestinians living inside Israel’s 1948 borders are declared “present absentees” if they are not physically on their property and ineligible to reclaim it. Another 1950 law transferred confiscated Palestinian land and private property to Israel’s Development Authority, which turned over much of it to the World Zionist Organization’s Jewish Agency for Israel and the JNF to support migration to Israel and forestation on Palestinian land. A land acquisition law passed in 1953 empowered the state to confiscate Palestinian land for military use and Jewish settlements.

Destruction caused by Israeli strikes in the village of Khuza‘a, near the border fence between Israel and the southern Gaza Strip, Nov. 27, 2023. Photograph by Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images.

Just five years into Israel’s history it had begun to resemble South Africa. So where was the UN Charter? The invocation of the Genocide Convention? The outrage of member states? Criticism came almost exclusively from Arab states. In October 1950, Egypt’s UN ambassador, Mahmoud Bey Fawzi, complained that Israel had conducted a “large-scale military operation” to drive Bedouins from a demilitarized zone near Jericho and decried the deteriorating conditions for Palestinian refugees. “While we are pondering and debating here,” he told the Security Council, “many thousands of fellow human beings in Palestine are subjected to a most inhuman treatment, expelled from their homes, and forced to seek shelter elsewhere against the cold and the hardships of a speedily approaching winter.” In response, Israeli ambassador Abba S. Eban dismissed Egypt’s “atrocity stories” as “unsubstantiated by any creditable source.”

The atrocities continued, and the UN began to take notice. In 1956, retaliating against Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s decision to nationalize the French- and British-owned Suez Canal Company, Britain, France, and Israel invaded Egypt. Israel took advantage of the war to occupy Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula. Ben-Gurion wanted to annex Gaza but did not want to bring 300,000 Arabs, 215,000 of whom were Palestinian refugees, into the state of Israel. On Nov. 3, 1956, Israeli armed forces invaded the city of Khan Yunis and summarily executed 275 people, more than half of them Palestinian refugees. Similar atrocities were committed in Rafah on Nov. 12, when Israeli forces invaded a refugee camp and killed at least 111 Palestinians; evidence from some eyewitnesses counted 197 dead and 23 disappeared.

Whether or not these massacres were part of a new ethnic cleansing campaign, this time the Palestinians refused to flee. Zionist dreams of taking Gaza had to wait. The UN — backed by both the Soviet Union and the U.S. — forced Israel to pull out.


A few months before the massacres in Gaza, Raphael Lemkin had helped Muhammad H. El-Farra, chief of the UN Section of the Arab States Delegation Office, with an article accusing French officials of committing genocide against Algerians. Published in 1956, “Algeria and the United Nations” is a 56-page indictment detailing atrocities, torture, psychological warfare, and cultural erasure. The evidence compiled led El-Farra to conclude that under French colonial rule the “conditions of life have been deliberately inflicted on the Arab populations to bring about their destruction.” In a short piece in Africa Today, he summarized the case against France and described the situation on the ground: “Entire villages are shelled, bombed, or burned; acts of genocide are committed against the inhabitants of towns and villages; an indiscriminate campaign of extermination is now taking place; civilians are machine gunned daily by ground forces; summary executions of patriots falling into the hands of French soldiers are likewise carried out. … These are acts of genocide committed against people whose only crime is their love for liberty and their desire to preserve their own culture.”

El-Farra was writing not simply as a UN official but as a Palestinian born in Khan Yunis. He grew up in Jaffa, was active in various Arab youth organizations, and left in December 1947 to attend college in the U.S. just as the Nakba unfolded. He recalled fleeing Jaffa under Israeli gunfire, unsure about the fate of his family. He managed to escape the worst of the fighting, but his family’s property was confiscated and his brothers dispersed. He could not return right away, and it haunted him. In 1952, while pursuing a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, he took a research job at the UN information department and worked his way into the Syrian and then Jordanian diplomatic corps.

El-Farra regarded Israel’s war and occupation of Palestine as an ongoing genocide that began in 1948, and he devoted the rest of his life trying to stop it. In his 1987 memoir, he asked why Israelis “kill in cold blood” innocent civilians, women, farmers, schoolchildren, and the like. His answer: “It is because they feel that only through the complete destruction of the people of Palestine can they have safety and security in the beloved Palestinian homeland.” El-Farra believed the UN was a critical, if flawed, vehicle to stop genocide and possibly bring peace. But it wasn’t the only vehicle, he pointed out: “Israel has thus left the Palestinians no other choice but to resist. What else is left for a man who lost everything? Is he to surrender his values and heritage? Should he and his accept being a people without a country, without a future? This would mean their complete destruction, and this is why they have resisted occupation.”

The “complete destruction” of a people is the consequence if genocide is not stopped. And there are genocides happening all around us. In Sudan, the indiscriminate killing, torture, rape, and brutality conducted by the Rapid Support Forces constitute an imminent threat of genocide, on a scale that should compel the UN to use all of the powers at its disposal to stop it. Our chants of “Cease-fire now” should ring in every conflict zone, and the lessons of Palestine, South Africa, Namibia, Vietnam, Algeria, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, India, the former Yugoslavia, and others ought to be remembered: colonialism and its rapacious destruction of the world through dispossession, extraction, racial ordering, war, and partition is what got us here.

Robin D. G. Kelley is a professor of American history at U.C.L.A. and the author of Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression and Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination.

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