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Reflections from Ramallah: Why the ICJ Hearings Could Be a Watershed Moment

On January 11, 2024, South Africa’s unprecedented case against Israel for genocide in Gaza at the International Court of Justice brought a rare breath of hope for Palestinians. Ambassador Vusi Madonsela’s acknowledgement of the ongoing Nakba was empowering, marking a historic shift in the narrative. Maha acknowledges the potential impact of the ICJ ruling but emphasises the twofold nature of their ongoing Nakba, ICJ proceedings and global complicity/silence, arguing that while international law is crucial, true liberation lies in people’s power.

Image credit: f11photo
Maha Batran
18 January 2024

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.

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Maha Batran

Maha, a passionate Palestinian based in Ramallah, recently joined WILPF as the Monitoring, Evaluation, Learning, and Partnerships Advisor. Maha was raised in Ramallah, Palestine where she also obtained her undergraduate degree from Birzeit University and launched her career, and then moved to London to continue her education. Maha has worked on diverse international projects in Palestine and globally including on education, livelihoods and agriculture, governance, and women’s rights and political participation. Committed to social change, she has actively participated in campaigns such as “Say No to Sexual Harassment”, volunteered for the Right to Education Campaign at Birzeit University, and is now part of the Palestine Campaign at WILPF.

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Melissa Torres

VICE-PRESIDENT

Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani

VICE-PRESIDENT

Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo

PRESIDENT

Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

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WILPF Germany (+Young WILPF network), WILPF Spain and MENA Regional Representative

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Demilitarisation

WILPF uses feminist analysis to argue that militarisation is a counter-productive and ill-conceived response to establishing security in the world. The more society becomes militarised, the more violence and injustice are likely to grow locally and worldwide.

Sixteen states are believed to have supplied weapons to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020 with the US supplying 74 % of weapons, followed by Russia. Much of this equipment was left behind by the US military and is being used to inflate Taliban’s arsenal. WILPF is calling for better oversight on arms movement, for compensating affected Afghan people and for an end to all militarised systems.

Militarised masculinity

Mobilising men and boys around feminist peace has been one way of deconstructing and redefining masculinities. WILPF shares a feminist analysis on the links between militarism, masculinities, peace and security. We explore opportunities for strengthening activists’ action to build equal partnerships among women and men for gender equality.

WILPF has been working on challenging the prevailing notion of masculinity based on men’s physical and social superiority to, and dominance of, women in Afghanistan. It recognizes that these notions are not representative of all Afghan men, contrary to the publicly prevailing notion.

Feminist peace​

In WILPF’s view, any process towards establishing peace that has not been partly designed by women remains deficient. Beyond bringing perspectives that encapsulate the views of half of the society and unlike the men only designed processes, women’s true and meaningful participation allows the situation to improve.

In Afghanistan, WILPF has been demanding that women occupy the front seats at the negotiating tables. The experience of the past 20 has shown that women’s presence produces more sustainable solutions when they are empowered and enabled to play a role.

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