For three hours on Thursday 11th of January 2024, Palestinians, across our fragments, whether at the heart of Israel’s killing fields in Gaza or on the margins in Ramallah where I live, we got a breath of air. For three hours we were all watching or listening or following on our phones South Africa presented its case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against Israel for committing the crime of genocide in Gaza. It was a breath of air that smelled of hope and justice. Not that Israel’s genocide stopped or was paused. It was raging then and now and will continue even if the bombs stop and the guns are silenced, through starvation, disease and ethnic cleansing. I am writing these lines with the sound of people chanting in the background coming from the hospital across my house as they receive the body of one of two kids killed by Israeli soldiers nearby.
But for the first time in my life, I felt like all my family and friends around me, that justice may be possible. Israel is on trial. This is unprecedented. For 75 years, Israel, an apartheid state – has evaded – thanks to Western support and complicity, any form of accountability. But now, South Africa, the country that had fought and won against settler-colonial apartheid, has Israel on trial for crimes against Palestinians. In the opening remarks by South Africa delivered by Ambassador Vusi Madonsela, Palestinians heard something that is never said in international forums, let alone the world’s top court.
He said: “In our application, South Africa has recognized the ongoing Nakba of the Palestinian people through Israel’s colonisation since 1948, which has systematically and forcibly dispossessed, displaced, and fragmented the Palestinian people, deliberately denying them their internationally recognized, inalienable right to self-determination, and their internationally recognized right of return as refugees to their towns and villages, in what is now the State of Israel.”
In very few words ambassador Madonsela captured the entirety of the Palestinian experience and the story of our nation, of our families, and us as individuals. To hear these words, the framing of the genocide in Gaza as part of the ongoing nakba, at the the Palace of Peace was empowering. It somehow validated our feelings and narrative. Most importantly it speaks the truth about Palestine and its indigenous people, for what seems like the first time in over 75 years.
But we do not fool ourselves. We do not let the feelings we get from the glimpses of hope seeing the bravery of other people coming to stand with us overcome this unbalanced fight overcome us. Our ongoing Nakba is twofold. The first is what was captured by South Africa at the ICJ. The second is the complicity of some and the silence of others, in our ongoing tragedy. We are where we are today, where Gaza has become a graveyard for children, not because we did not fight or were not resilient in the face of calamity, nor because the Zionist settler colonial project is, in and by itself, so successful, but it is primarily because the world has failed us, just like it failed the Bosnians and the Rwandans and the many other smaller nations and colonised societies.
We know that even if the court rules in favour of the South African applications for provisional measures and rules for a ceasefire and the lifting of the criminal siege on the people of Gaza, this is unlikely to happen. The structures of Western colonialism that have helped establish Israel and support its maintaining of an apartheid regime have been shaken but not dismantled. International law is important and can be a vehicle of justice, but the mechanisms that should uphold it are corrupt. They are still in the hands of colonial masters who wield it according to the interest of Western hegemony. International law will not liberate Palestine, but people’s power can. And herein where the renewed sense of hope following South Africa’s action at the ICJ is found.
Israel is on trial but so is the entire system of international law. South Africa has brought the case to stop the genocide in Gaza but also to salvage what remains of the international law system that was established after the horrors of the Second World War to serve all of humanity, not just some. International law scholar Mohsen Attar captures this very well:
“What has happened before will happen again and, from the embers of despair, the world will be born again. Whether this new world leads to Palestinian self-determination or an international law worthy of the name is anyone’s guess. What we do know is that the future of Palestine is no longer in Israeli hands, just as the future of international law is no longer in Euroamerican ones either.”
So while I felt proud seeing the South African lawyers stand tall, speak truth to power, and defend not just Palestinians, but the whole of humanity, I, as all Palestinians, know too well that justice cannot not come through a courthouse, but will be brought by people standing up together against injustice.
At the end of the hearing in the Hague, the South African delegation came out to speak to the Palestine solidarity protests outside the court. They said thank you to them. Without the global movement that stood for what is right and in support of the Palestinian struggle for justice, freedom, and equality, South Africa would not have been empowered to take on not only Israel but the entirety of the system of Western hegemony to court. This is what defines the moment for me, and which provides all of us a sense of hope. Thank you to South Africa for making this a truly historic moment and encapsulating at the world top court what people around the world have been shouting over the last 100 days: never again, for anyone.
This image captures the view from Maha’s balcony, featuring the hospital mentioned in the piece. Arrows point to settlements situated on the hilltops surrounding the area.