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Genocide, urbicide, domicide – how to speak about Israel’s battle on Gaza | Israel-Palestine clash Information

South Africa has taken Israel to the International Court of Justice, accusing it of committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza – and 12 other countries have backed the case.

“Genocide” is a legal term that has been increasingly used to describe what Israel is doing in Gaza as it kills more people, a figure nearing 40,000.

What other terms have been used to describe what’s happening in Gaza?

Genocide, killing a people

Genocide is the “deliberate killing of a large number of people from a particular nation or ethnic group with the aim of destroying that nation or group”.

It was coined by Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin – “geno”, the Greek word for race or tribe, and “-cide”, Latin for killing – to describe the Nazi murder of Jews and other groups during the Holocaust.

The term “genocide” appeared early on in this war – in October, more than 800 scholars signed a letter warning of “potential genocide in Gaza”.

In a March report, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territory, Francesca Albanese, said there were “grounds to believe that the threshold indicating the commission of the crime of genocide… has been met”.

Analysts and rights monitors point to statements from senior Israeli officials, as well as soldiers fighting in Gaza, advocating for the destruction of Gaza and displacement of its population.

Urbicide, killing a city

Coined in the 1960s, urbicide describes the deliberate destruction of a city and became widely used in the wake of the Serbian siege of Sarajevo between 1992 and 1996.

Russian attacks on Grozny, Chechnya in 2001, Israel’s destruction of Beirut’s southern suburbs in 2006, Bashar al-Assad’s government destroying the Syrian cities of Homs and east Aleppo between 2012 and 2017, ISIL’s (ISIS) campaign in Mosul, Iraq, and Russia attacking Mariupol and Bucha in Ukraine have been described as urbicide.

Between October 7 and May 31, Israel damaged or destroyed about 55 percent (or 137,297 structures) in Gaza, according to a report by the UN Satellite Centre (UNOSAT).

As these structures are the makings of a city – homes, schools, hospitals, cultural sites, religious sites and infrastructure related to water, electricity and transport – some researchers deem Israel’s actions to be the killing of Gaza’s cities, or urbicide.

Domicide, killing home

Domicide is an extension of urbicide and means the deliberate and systematic destruction of living spaces, targeting intimate places of residence so that any form of stability, physical or emotional, is replaced with a feeling of constant flux.

Of everything destroyed by Israel since October, Gaza’s housing has been hit worst. UNOSAT counted 135,142 damaged housing units, mostly in Gaza City, Khan Younis and northern Gaza.

With homes no longer habitable and their sense of connection destroyed, some Palestinians will feel they have no choice but to leave Gaza.

Despite this being a forced migration, it would in a sense allow Israeli officials to deny any responsibility for Palestinians leaving their homeland.

The UN says restoring Gaza to pre-conflict levels would take decades of labour-intensive clearance of rubble, unexploded munitions and landmines.

Politicide, killing representation

Politicide is when a powerful actor works to politically execute the public and private spheres of their enemy.

The term first appeared in the 1970s to describe the destruction of groups of people who share a political identity.

It is also used to refer to the killing of political leaders and later grew to include the destruction of structures that allow political entities to exist.

Politicide “was used… to describe Israeli policy towards the Palestinians on the eve of and during the second Intifada in 2000, when Israel’s clear objective was to destroy the conditions for the mere existence of a Palestinian state”, Ziad Majed, a professor of Middle East studies and international relations at the American University of Paris, wrote in Orient XXI in December.

Ecocide, killing the environment

Ecocide – destroying the environment – was coined in 1970 by biology professor Walter W Galston, protesting the US use of the toxic herbicide Agent Orange in Vietnam to destroy plant growth the Viet Cong hid under.

Israel’s munitions have had a serious impact on the climate and ecosystems in Gaza where Israeli attacks have contaminated soil and groundwater with munitions like white phosphorus.

Israel has destroyed more than half of Gaza’s farmland, according to an Al Jazeera investigation.

While this makes vital resources like water dangerous to access or consume, the full extent of the damage is still not known.

In 2021, 97 percent of Gaza’s water was not suitable for human consumption after more than a decade of Israeli blockade and multiple wars.

Israel continued attacking infrastructure and blocking aid, rendering desalination and wastewater treatment plants non-functional.

By last November, 130,000 cubic metres (34.3 million gallons) of untreated sewage were being dumped into the Mediterranean Sea each day, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Even the air in Gaza became dangerous during Israel’s war – smokey and polluted by Israeli bombs or fires made by displaced people out of whatever scrap they found.

Researchers and experts at environmental organisations say the long-term damage has led to calls that Israel’s actions be called ecocide.

Educide and scholasticide, killing knowledge

Educide and scholasticide are the systematic destruction of an education system and its institutions.

Educide, in particular, is the systematic killing of academics and intellectuals, or the genocide of education, according to British academic Rula Alousi.

The term was first used in 2009 to describe the killing of Iraqi educational personnel after the 2003 US invasion.

UN experts have warned of scholasticide in Gaza as at least 90 percent of the territory’s schools have been damaged or destroyed.

All 12 universities and higher education institutions in Gaza have been destroyed, while thousands of students and teachers have been killed.

More than 600,000 students have been deprived of schooling since October 7.

Culturcide, killing a sense of self

Culturcide is the destruction of a culture, especially one unique to a specific ethnic, political, religious, or social group.

Israel has destroyed or damaged about 200 historic cultural sites in Gaza.

Archaeological sites, historic mosques housing rare manuscripts, one of the world’s oldest Christian monasteries and an ancient harbour dating to 800 BCE are among the cultural casualties.

South Africa included wiping out Gaza’s cultural heritage in its suit against Israel at the ICJ.

“Israel has damaged and destroyed numerous centres of Palestinian learning and culture,” it said in its application to the World Court.


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