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How To Read the ICJ Decision and End Genocide, War and Settler Colonialism

A better understanding of the legalese inherent to international law mandates reveals the tools activists can use to organize more strategically for Palestinian freedom.

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On Jan. 26, the International Court of Justice, or ICJ, issued a historic decision that some progressives applauded while others decried it as not going far enough to demand a ceasefire in the Israeli war on Gaza.

The decision was a partial ruling in a case taken against Israel by the government of South Africa, an interesting note given that some — myself included — have been suggesting for months that the best path for peace and justice in the region will follow a pattern similar to the one that brought an end to the political apartheid of the racist South African regime of the 20th century.

In order to not lose sight of the ultimate goal — an end to the genocide, war and settler colonialism in Palestine — a better understanding of the ICJ decision is crucial. Here then, are answers to four of the most common questions stemming from the legalese inherent to international law mandates. As you’ll see, this better understanding reveals the tools activists can use to organize more strategically

1. But ICJ didn’t call for a ceasefire?

Yes, that’s exactly what Netanyahu has said, and parroting this point might well play into Israel and the United States’ hands in trying to avoid the verdict the ICJ actually did commit to and had the jurisdiction to render. The ICJ is and has never been a military tribunal, a mediating force, or the word of the Almighty. Hopes that a strong decision could quickly end the violence in Gaza have never been based on a realistic assessment of what is possible. I wake up every morning wishing that my own country wasn’t in such a mess, with two elderly and less-than-ideal front-runner presidential candidates! But I don’t cry out about that reality; I get to work doing what strategically I am able to do to make things better.

The ICJ carefully ruled on the very limited legal procedures that were laid out before them: whether or not the current Israeli military actions in Gaza constituted a form of genocide – one of the most extreme human rights violations any court or international legal body can rule on. Israel argued that these claims were “baseless.” Between the choices before them of “baseless” or “plausible,” the court, in overwhelming majority, ruled that the South African genocide allegations were in fact plausible and that all possible measures must be taken by Israel to end and prevent any acts that could reasonably result in continued genocide, including the allowance of humanitarian aid.

South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor, in her remarks at The Hague following the decision, noted that “if you read the order, by implication, a ceasefire must happen.” The only way they can reasonably comply with the ICJ ruling is through a ceasefire. Militant Palestinian lawyer and activist Lamis Deek added that a ceasefire is a “condition precedent” in the ruling. Deek, a spokesperson for the International Coalition to Stop Genocide in Palestine and convener of the Global Legal Alliance for Palestine added that the historic verdict “profoundly reshapes the geopolitical and legal topography…changing international and domestic approaches to stopping the genocide.”

2. But what if Israeli doesn’t comply?

A sober assessment of the current war and humanitarian crisis has long suggested that Israel, fully backed by the U.S. and other (mainly European) countries, would refuse to abide by or follow any ruling from the ICJ. Huwaida Arraf, Palestinian co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement and former chair of the Free Gaza Movement, noted weeks ago that “Israel is so accustomed to operating with impunity, it may very well refuse to abide by any order of the court, just like it has refused to abide by numerous UN Security Council resolutions, which are also binding.”

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The point has never been that an ICJ verdict will force an immediate end to the violence, genocide or occupation. As Deek noted, “the question now is how to deal with the anticipated U.S.-Israeli obstruction of that decision.” Again, Arraf summarized it best: The ICJ verdict will not matter without the building of popular campaigns. “Global civil society can help,” she wrote, “by continuing to mobilize to pressure our countries to support South Africa. We can also put pressure on our countries to take their own measures against Israel if it refuses to comply [with court rulings].

As of the ICJ decision, continuing to supply Israel with weapons amounts to complicity in supporting genocide — “the mother of all crimes.” The ICJ decision is first and foremost an organizing tool for Palestinian solidarity — one of the strongest tools of the past 70 years if we understand it and use it well.

“Words are not enough,” Arraf continues. “Palestine needs action. UN resolutions without enforcement measures are useless… We must continue our work in the streets…continue to demand sanctions; demand Israel’s suspensions from international fora such as Eurovision and international sporting arenas;…and use the principle of universal jurisdiction to prosecute Israeli war criminals in national courts, which is already being pursued.”

Like the building of the massive, international anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s — largely built on boycott, divestment and sanctions strategies in conjunction with South African anti-apartheid resistance — if we are serious about solidarity with Palestine, we will stop worrying about the technical machinations of the ICJ and redouble our work to build grassroots movements in every local community.

3. So, are ICJ verdicts and related international legal proceedings worthless?

They are neither worthless nor all-powerful; they are imperfect mechanisms set up by even more imperfect governments in a very imperfect world.

In 1966 and 1967, distinguished philosopher Bertrand Russell convened the International War Crimes Tribunal with even less formal legal or UN support than the ICJ. Yet it helped shift global public opinion against the “American war” and in support of the Vietnamese resistance. In 1974, the United Nations General Assembly excluded the apartheid regime of South Africa from its annual proceedings, recognizing instead both the African National Congress and the Pan African Congress as the official representatives of the South African people. Despite this defiant act from the UN’s highest body, formal political apartheid did not end for another two decades, but the UN decision greatly strengthened the global movements as well as the clandestine and above-ground organizing within South Africa, which made the 1994 election of Mandela inevitable.

In 1989, a special session of the Permanent Peoples Tribunal convened in Barcelona to hear the case of Puerto Rico, with a focus on the Puerto Rican political prisoners and prisoners of war held in U.S. jails. Most progressives in the U.S. and many in Puerto Rico itself had never heard of POW status applied in reference to the U.S.-Puerto Rican colonial dispute. By 1999, most of the Puerto Rican political prisoners were freed, and today all are free! The key to these victories was the ways in which the tribunal verdicts were actively and intensively used as organizing tools by the people of Puerto Rico and their international allies.

In 2021, the U.S.-based and Black liberation movement-led Spirit of Mandela coalition initiated an International Tribunal on U.S. human rights violations against Black, Brown and Indigenous peoples, with the U.S. ultimately being found guilty of genocide on five counts of international law by an panel of independent jurists. The point, again, was not primarily to get formal UN support but to have a grouping of globally respected human rights experts affirm the conditions that BIPOC people in the U.S. are largely aware of. The verdict, like the ICJ verdict on South Africa’s case against Israel, is a tool. In the case of the Spirit of Mandela coalition, that tool helped to build a massive, bottom-up, Peoples Senate of disenfranchised, oppressed, and colonized voices from throughout the U.S. empire.

If the people of the world do nothing but read, or only affirm (or even decry) the ICJ decision, it could end up being close to worthless. On the other hand, it lays the seeds of ending not just genocide but Israeli settler colonialism, of freeing Palestinian political prisoners, and of creating a more lasting peace in the region if pressure is increased to end the Zionist project of unending occupation and racism.

4. So, is there no reason for hope?

Israeli teenager Tal Mitnick, quoted in the Jerusalem Post, has proclaimed: “I refuse to fight a war of revenge.” The young pacifist continued: “I refuse to believe that more violence will bring security… In a world full of corrupt interests in which we live, violence and war are another way to increase support for the government and silence criticism.” Mitnick is the first Israeli resister to be jailed specifically for refusing to fight in the current Gaza campaign, and he was recently re-arrested (as he will be so long as he continues to resist). But Mitnick remains undeterred, and he is not alone.

There is great reason for hope in the new generation of anti-Zionist Israeli Jews who, in growing numbers despite repression and an ocean of nationalistic, militaristic Israeli propaganda, continue to recognize the inevitability of Palestinian freedom. Throughout the diaspora, people of Jewish descent in record numbers are risking arrest, saying “not in our name” to Israeli apartheid, affirming that “never again” means NEVER, not just the Holocaust: Never again for anyone.

There is reason for hope in continuing Palestinian resistance, which takes many forms including ones not found in screaming headlines. There is widespread understanding and agreement that the future requires a one-state solution that is both secular and inclusive — though with the rights of Palestinian people to return to their land enshrined in any justice-based resolution of conflict. Throughout the Arab world, people are rising up in support of their Palestinian cousins in record numbers, despite whatever hesitancies or reactionary positions their national governments might have.

And there is now reason for hope that a greater proportion of the world will take notice and feel inspired, or morally obligated, or politically pressured into doing the right thing, especially in light of what UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur and distinguished Princeton Law Professor Emeritus Richard Falk calls the “greatest moment in the history of the [World Court].”

I have hope in the leading voices and especially the vital work of the three women quoted in this article, two of them Palestinian. These hopes, however, will be short-lived if they are not accompanied by stronger-than-ever popular movements that bring together growing numbers of the not-yet-committed to join the call. The only true Pro-Semitic Peace must derive from the treatment of the Holy Land as if it were a holy place for Muslims, Jews, Christians and all others.

This story was produced by IPRA Peace Search
Matt Meyer is author of numerous books on resistance and social change chiefly published by PM Press and Africa World Press. He is the Secretary General of the International Peace Research Association, a long-time leader of both the War Resisters League and Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Senior Research Scholar of the Resistance Studies Initiative, and an advisory board member of Waging Nonviolence.