World / January 11, 2024

South Africa’s ICJ Case Against Israel Is a Call to Break Free From the Imperial West

South Africa is not only challenging Israel—it is trying to break the spell of US hegemony.

Tony Karon

Palestinians carrying flags and banners gather at the Nelson Mandela Square to demonstrate in support of the genocide case filed by South Africa against Israel at the International Court of Justice, on January 10, 2024, in Ramallah, the West Bank.

(Issam Rimawi / Anadolu via Getty Images)

Unfortunately for long-suffering Palestinians, the “necessity” of organized violence to slaughter many thousands of civilians is in the eye of the beholder. And Israel is betting that its war on Gaza falls within the parameters of what is deemed acceptable in the corridors of power in the imperial West, where terms like “collateral damage” sanitize today’s version of the colonial-era massacres of brown-skinned people in “pacification” campaigns. “Necessary” brutality is a centuries-old principle in the pursuit and maintenance of Western power, whether in the form of European colonizers, American settlers decimating Native populations, the US military bludgeoning the Vietnamese, Afghanis, or Iraqis to bend to Washington’s will, or then–Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telling Lebanon to grin and bear the mass death and destruction wrought by Israel’s 2006 invasion as the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.”

Indeed, no less an ideologue of Western power than “Clash of Civilizations” theorist Samuel P. Huntington admitted as much: “The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion (to which few members of other civilizations were converted) but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.”

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Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, founder of the Revisionist Zionist movement that has been the hegemonic force in Israeli politics for most of the past five decades, seemed well aware of the point Huntington made a half century later. Jabotinsky’s influential 1923 pamphlet, “The Iron Wall,” was an unsentimental call to arms to those who sought to build and maintain a Jewish ethno-state in Palestine: “We are seeking to colonize a country against the wishes of its population, in other words, by force. Everything else that is undesirable grows out of this root with axiomatic inevitability.”

The violence that Israel is unleashing is the same kind of violence that made the West the dominant force in the international system. And it is Israel’s grounding in a Western colonial order that’s used to justify the savagery it rains down on Gaza. Violence that is unfortunate but necessary to defend the frontiers of “civilization” from “barbarism” is a long-standing principle of Western powers. And it is by that principle that Israel demands support for its campaign in Gaza. The New York Times reported that in diplomatic conversations and public statements, Israel officials “have cited past Western military actions in urban areas dating from World War II to the post-9/11 wars against terrorism…to help justify a campaign against Hamas that is claiming thousands of Palestinian lives.”

But the charge of genocide South Africa has brought at the International Court of Justice in hope of halting Israel’s campaign is a reminder of Huntington’s observation that non-Westerners never forgot how the West was made, nor are they willing to accept its prerogatives. Many in the Global South see in Israel’s violence an echo of their own historical brutalization and humiliation at the hands of Western power.

South Africa is not only stepping up to confront Israel; it is effectively challenging the United States, Israel’s key enabler, which aggressively blocks any attempts to hold Israel accountable to international law. By filing suit at the ICJ, South Africa is telling the world that the US and its allies cannot be trusted to halt Israel’s genocidal campaign.

South Africa’s apartheid regime had been Israel’s ideological soulmate and closest ally; post-apartheid South Africa now honors the moral obligation laid out by the late President Nelson Mandela, to not rest until Palestine is free. And its action also implies an inheritance of the moral responsibility to lead global civil society to act against apartheid that derives from its own experience of struggle abetted by international solidarity.

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Millions marching on the world’s streets tell us that much of civil society stands with the Palestinians. Yet most of governments that aren’t directly supportive of Israel’s criminality have nonetheless failed to act. And it’s not hard to see why. Israel bombs and starves civilians, deliberately destroying their means of survival. And it acts with a well-grounded confidence that the American munitions it drops on the mothers and children of Gaza will keep flowing while Washington provides political cover. South Africa has acted to try to break the US-mandated passivity, offering an example of independent action by the Global South to halt Western-approved war crimes.

When Mandela, released from prison in 1990, was challenged in the US on his relationship with Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat, he politely but firmly made clear to the US establishment that “your enemies are not our enemies,” a principle of nonalignment that his heirs now pursue.

Of course, there have always been limits on the ability of Third World governments to stand up to the US and Europe, chief among them the centrality of Western-run global financial markets to the ability of those governments to govern. The grotesquely unequal global economy created by the West’s colonial pillaging was maintained, after political decolonization, in the form codified private-property relations that essentially gave the US and Europe veto power over the political independence of the former colonies. Even today we see this leverage with Egypt under pressure to accommodate tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees ethnically cleansed from Gaza, in exchange for writing off $160 billion of its national debt.

Despite its subordinate position in the global financial system, South Africa has begun to resist the geopolitical demands of the United States, most notably refusing, in concert with most of the Global South, to take the NATO side in the Ukraine war. That may reflect a decline in US power relative to others and the growing economic independence of the middle powers. But South Africa’s ICJ action breaks new ground as a geopolitical challenge to the US. Because when you charge Israel with genocide, you can’t avoid the reality, unstated though it may be, that you’re effectively indicting the United States as an accomplice.

A corollary to Huntington’s point about non-Western memory comes in a pattern where moments of successful organized violence by non-Western peoples against ostensibly invincible Western powers sometimes inspires resistance across the Global South. Pankaj Mishra has illuminated this pattern in the impact of Japan’s defeat of imperial Russia in 1905 on intellectuals ranging from Sun Yat-sen to Jawaharlal Nehru to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to W.E.B. Du Bois: “They all drew the same lesson from Japan’s victory: White men, conquerors of the world, were no longer invincible.”

A similar frisson of inspiration was felt across the Global South when Vietnamese revolutionaries defeated the French colonial army at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. And again when they defeated the Americans who had replaced France. Or when bearded Cuban revolutionaries ejected a US-backed dictator and fought off efforts to restore the ancien régime. The South African generation who led the 1976 Soweto uprising against the apartheid government were emboldened by the spectacle, months earlier, of Pretoria’s supposedly invincible army being forced to retreat from Angola by Cuban and MPLA forces. Hezbollah’s 1999 victory in the 15-year guerilla war to force Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon had a similar inspirational effect on Palestinians and their neighbors. And so on.

Many will note that while Israel has pulverized much of Gaza and continues to kill hundreds of civilians every day, it’s failing to destroy Hamas’s fighting capability. “Skepticism grows over Israel’s ability to dismantle Hamas,” warned The New York Times. And far from marginalizing Hamas, Israel’s actions have made the movement more popular than ever among Palestinians and across the Arab region, while weakening leaders aligned with Israel and the United States.

Palestinian organizer Fadi Quran recently argued that Israel’s offensive is actually diminishing its “deterrent” image: “We’ve seen a massive shift in the average perspective on the Israeli military in the MENA region. It used to be viewed as an intimidating advanced force to be reckoned with, with a level of supremacy that could not be broken,” he wrote. “Now it is perceived as extremely weak and fragile. Specifically, the current perspective is that it would be easily defeated if it didn’t have unlimited American backing.”

Israel’s reliance on aerial bombing and shelling of urban population centers, Quran argues, is “being perceived as the most cowardly tactic of a military that’s afraid of fighting ‘face to face’ with a militia that is a TENTH its size, has 1 percent of its resources, and has been under siege for 17 years. Israel’s ground incursions happen through fortified tanks after massive aerial and artillery bombardment and yet still fail to effectively hold territory.”

Israel’s tactics of collective punishment and the extent and nature of the violence Western powers are willing to countenance against a captive, colonized people in Gaza are also a reminder to formerly colonized people and their descendants of how the West was made.

Israel expects understanding in Western capitals because of the traditions of “necessary violence” of Western imperial dominance, almost implying it is antisemitic to deny Israel the right to behave in the early 21st century in ways that European powers and the US did in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Here it’s worth recalling an observation by the late British historian Tony Judt on the consequences of Israel being late to the settler-colonial game:

The problem with Israel, in short, is not—as is sometimes suggested—that it is a European ‘enclave’ in the Arab world; but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a “Jewish state”—a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded—is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.

Adds Financial Times columnist Adam Tooze:

The Israelis are the last group of (mainly) Europeans to engage in the wholesale arrogation of non-European land, justified in their mission by theology, claims to civilizational superiority and nationalism. Of course, land grabs go on, all over the world, all the time. But, in the present day, the Israeli project is uniquely coherent and uniquely unapologetic as an instance of “classic” settler-colonial ideology.

So Israel is waging a classic colonial war of pacification of a native population resisting colonization—at a moment when much of the global citizenry is producing the receipts of centuries of Western violence and enslavement, demanding justice and a reordering of global power relations. Standing up for Palestine has become shorthand for that global struggle to change how the world is ruled.

Gaza has laid bare the basic hypocrisy of Biden’s “rules-based international order”—a system of hypocrisy that legitimizes and enables violence against the colonized Palestinians and Israel’s systemic violations of international law. Israel’s military campaign—and its apartheid system—may be tolerated by Western powers, but they are intolerable to the citizenry of the Global South.

In its moment of unipolar post–Cold War dominance, Washington demanded monopoly control over the international community’s Israel-Palestinian file. The result was a “peace process” in which Israel relentlessly expanded and deepened its apartheid occupation, while US officials shut down any discussion of restraining Israel by intoning vacuous mantras of a “two-state solution” that might be imperiled if Israel were made to comply with international law. That moment is over.

South Africa is sending a message, via its ICJ case, that accepting US leadership over global events means accepting the slaughter of tens of thousands of Palestinians and ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands more.

The US playbook aggressively resists initiatives like South Africa’s ICJ complaint, just as it routinely vetoes any UN Security Council effort to restrain Israel’s systemic violations of international law. South Africa’s legal action breaks the spell of US hegemony that paralyzes so much of the world community from taking action to hold the genocidaires accountable. It’s a clarion call to the Global South to defy the limits on international engagement set by Washington. If countries in the Global South want the bloodbath and the ethnic cleansing to be stopped, they can’t rely on Israel’s US accomplice to deliver that.

The setting for this geopolitical challenge may be the cataclysmic urgency of stopping Israel’s crimes, but whether or not it succeeds, the ICJ case may mark a new chapter in the shift away from US hegemony and a world run according to rules that legitimize war crimes by the US or its allies.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Tony Karon

Tony Karon is the editorial lead of Al Jazeera’s AJ+ and a former senior editor at Time magazine, and was an activist in the anti-apartheid liberation movement in his native South Africa.

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