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South Africa’s Case Was a Display of International Solidarity — We Should Support It

At the International Court of Justice, South Africa spoke on behalf of the billions of people who oppose Israel's genocide in Gaza — and put Western governments to shame for their deplorable complicity.

Palestinians gather at Nelson Mandela Square in Ramallah to demonstrate appreciation to South Africa. (Credit: ramallahmunicipality)

‘There is no safe space in Gaza and the world should be ashamed.’

Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh’s closing speech at the International Court of Justice will stay with me forever. Devastating and forensic in equal measure, Ní Ghrálaigh spoke for millions of people around the world who have been utterly appalled by the horrors unfolding live on our screens. ‘This is the first genocide in history where its victims are broadcasting their own destruction in real time,’ she said, ‘in the desperate and so far vain hope that the world might do something.’

Here was an Irish lawyer — who had previously worked on the Bloody Sunday Inquiry — speaking on behalf of South Africa, in support of the Palestinian people. For the Irish and the South Africans, the plight of occupied peoples is only too familiar. It should not come as any surprise, then, that South Africa’s case opened by placing Israel’s latest activity ‘within the broader context of Israel’s 25-year apartheid, 56-year occupation and 16-year siege imposed on the Gaza Strip.’ It was remarkably refreshing to hear South Africa articulate something so obvious yet routinely ignored by politicians in this country. Exposing the shallow state of our own political system, the hearing will go down in history as a momentous display of international solidarity from a people who know what it’s like to endure — and dismantle — apartheid.

This solidarity has grown and grown; South Africa’s case eventually gained the support of many countries, including Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia, as well as interstate actors like The Arab League. Politicians in this country can deny it all they want: millions of people around the world are desperate to see an end to the massacre of human beings, and will continue to support efforts to build a just and lasting peace.

We were required to be at the Court before 6am to gain entry, queuing in desperately cold weather. The International Court of Justice in the Hague is a beautiful building. It was built after the First World War, when there was real hope that the League of Nations and its judicial system would bring about peace. There was something poignant about Palestinian people who had lost relatives in Gaza and the West Bank, who were outside the Court to bear witness in search of justice.

South Africa presented its case against Israel under the Genocide Convention. The hearing was devastating — horror after horror, laid out in plain sight for all to see. The arguments were brilliantly marshalled by South Africa, and they should be commended for doing so. It is regrettable that most of our media did not deem these arguments important enough to broadcast. The BBC did not provide a live stream of South Africa’s case, choosing instead only to show Israel’s response the next day. It is to the credit of Al Jazeera that they not only live-streamed the hearing, but provided continuous and accurate coverage of the conflict, despite witnessing the deaths of their colleagues in the process. 

South Africa pointed out that the Genocide Convention existed to protect all people, and that the Israeli action met the requirements of the convention in its deliberate and systematic destruction of civilian life in Gaza. South Africa also cited several statements from Netanyahu and other Israeli politicians pledging to diminish the population of Gaza by at least 90 percent. South Africa demonstrated what Palestinians have been trying to tell us all along: this was not a war of equals, but the systemic slaughter of the Palestinian people. 

South Africa is determined not only to be on the right side of history, but change the course of it — and if the International Court of Justice was true to its name, it would give due consideration to South Africa’s case. It would find that the bombardment is wrong, the bombardment is illegal, and the bombardment represents the collective punishment of the Palestinian people. And it would rule that acts of genocide have been committed by the Israeli Government.

In the meantime, the South African case asked for interim relief, which would require a rapid call for an immediate ceasefire. It is a call that should be made by any political representative anywhere in the world committed to the protection of civilian life. It is to the great shame of the British and American political systems that relatively few elected representatives in either country have supported this call for an end to the loss of human life.

There is no way forward other than a ceasefire observed by all sides, which would present the opportunity then to map out a just and peaceful future. This is a decision to be made by the Palestinian people, not by those of us who support them. Acts of solidarity cannot entail telling others what to do.

Outside, after the hearing finished, the fantastic team of lawyers took questions from a huge group of journalists on the steps of the ICJ, in utterly freezing conditions. I was there on behalf of the Progressive International. We held a media event in the street in front of us, and made the case that the popular voice of ordinary people around the world is one of peace, and that we would campaign for as long as it takes to bring about justice for the Palestinian people.

‘We did what we could. Remember us.’ Ní Ghrálaigh finished her address by showing two photos of a whiteboard at a hospital in Gaza. The first showed a handwritten message on it by a doctor. The second photo was of the same whiteboard after an Israeli strike on the hospital. It showed the board completely destroyed. The author of the message had been killed. 

Millions are appalled, watching in real time the destruction of human life in Gaza. History will not forget those who refused to treat Palestinian and Israeli lives with equal worth. But neither will it forget those who are determined to campaign for a more peaceful world.