Last week’s ruling by the International Court of Justice that Israel has a case to answer on accusations of genocide against the Palestinian people was cause for celebration as a reaffirmed vindication of the primacy of international law and the UN-centered global system, after decades of neglect and deliberate sabotage had allowed crimes against humanity to become the new worldwide normal.
No less a figure than US President Joe Biden hailed the court last November as “one of humanity’s most critical institutions to advance peace around the world.” Though Biden may now be regretting this praise, the court is indeed one of the few precarious bulwarks we have against savage laws of the jungle, and genocidal campaigns against Uighurs in China, Rohingya in Myanmar, Syrians, Ukrainians, India’s minorities, and Darfur communities.
The calm and precise manner in which presiding judge Joan Donoghue — the American lawyer and legal scholar — delivered her judgment was particularly impressive. “An entire generation of children in Gaza is traumatized. Their future is in jeopardy,” she warned.
Although the ruling stopped short of explicitly demanding a ceasefire, the court specifically ordered Israel to take “all measures within its power” to prevent the genocide of Palestinians and to allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza. A defiant Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would not be constrained by the ruling, and retorted: “We will act as needed for our security.” Nevertheless, a chastized Israel must submit a report in one month confirming how it is implementing the court’s orders. The judgment also rightly called out Hamas for its bloody Oct. 7 attack and ordered it to liberate the 130 or so Israeli hostages it still holds.
With judges nominated by countries such as the US, France, Germany, Australia and Japan, it cannot be claimed that the court is stacked against Israel – although British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak fumed that the decision was “totally unjustified.” Member states such Russia, India and China — with problematic human rights records — can hardly be accused of nominating activists. Even the Israeli judge Aharon Barak voted for two of the court’s six orders.
The rulings have blown a large and irreparable hole in the aura of impunity that Israel has forever enjoyed, evidenced by Netanyahu’s furious reaction that they were a “disgrace that will not be erased for generations.” Never have truer words been spoken regarding the Gaza carnage.
Israel’s international donors and champions will be understandably reluctant to find themselves accused of abetting genocide, particularly as the court will take several years to reach a final judgment. The EU demanded “full and immediate” implementation of the ruling. Countries must consider their legal exposure if selling arms to Israel, and there are implications for Israel losing voting and membership rights in international bodies if it refuses to comply. The ruling also provides rocket fuel for worldwide initiatives toboycott Israel.
With 30,000 staff members, UNRWA is the UN’s largest agency and one of its longest-running operations. Around 152 UN staff have already been killed in Gaza. Whatever the substance of the latest allegations against a small number of staff members, for numerous states to suspend donations at this crucial moment is cruel and ill considered, every bit as much an act of collective punishment as Israel’s post-Oct. 7 retaliation.
Israel may hate having the G-word used against it, but genocide and ethnic cleansing are inscribed within the ethos of the brutal Gaza campaign.
It is difficult not to see this as yet another strand of Israel’s efforts to starve and extinguish Gaza’s population, while simultaneously seeking to discredit the UN. As Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said: “The tens of thousands of men and women who work for UNRWA, many in some of the most dangerous situations for humanitarian workers, should not be penalized.”
Israel may hate having the G-word used against it, but genocide and ethnic cleansing are inscribed within the ethos of the brutal Gaza campaign. As Washington Post journalist Karen Attiah argued, Netanyahu’s emphatic rejection of Palestinian sovereignty necessitates either dominating or eliminating the Palestinian people: “Either apartheid or ethnic cleansing. How can these words be understood any other way?”
Numerous Israeli officials have been categorical about never allowing Gaza’s civilians to return to their homes, or eradicating them altogether. Netanyahu has given credence to such calls with his reluctance to publicly clarify his vision for the Gaza endgame, and with his own quoting of Biblical injunctions that command: “Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants.” Such manifestly genocidal statements persuaded the court to refer specifically to “incitement” in its interim judgement.
Cheerleaders for Israel have angrily retorted that the court ruling is especially offensive wielded against Israel, a country that was forged in the ashes of the worst genocide in human history. The latter point is not in dispute. But actual historical genocide against Jews in no way permits Israel’s leaders to embark on their own genocidal acts. Neither can such historical facts be used as a blunt instrument with which to bludgeon those holding Israel to account. The Nazi Holocaust is a compelling reason why the world has such robust — albeit weakly enforced — human rights and war crimes laws.
In the aftermath of Hamas’s atrocities, Israel’s campaign of vengeance and annihilation has been so brutal that more than 30,000 Palestinians, mostly civilians, are already almost certainly dead, including those lost under the rubble. In its rush to exact collective vengeance against Palestinians, Israel has brought itself full circle to the point where it is almost universally viewed as, like Hamas, the criminal and not the victim. As one analyst put it: “It is not the Palestinians alone who must be saved from Israel. Israel needs to be saved from itself.”
The urgency with which the US has revived behind-the-scenes negotiations toward hostage release and a longer-term ceasefire demonstrates how fundamentally the court ruling has reconfigured the Gaza status quo.
This court ruling should be a first step toward wholesale rehabilitation of grievously abused international justice and conflict resolution mechanisms: a blueprint for how, when international justice speaks, the world is compelled to decisively respond.