Photo courtesy of NPR
As the International Court of Justice prepares to deliver its verdict on South Africa’s case against Israel, now is an opportune moment to reflect on what it means for the West, the Global South, and international law and human rights.
The news from Gaza is pretty grim, and it is getting grimmer by the day. Nearly 24,000 civilians have been killed by Israeli forces since the war began on October 7, and they are dying at the rate of 250 a day. Oxfam has reported that the daily death toll of Palestinians exceeds that of any other major conflict in the 21st century.
Human Rights Watch says that the people of Gaza are being targeted, abused, and killed “at a scale unprecedented in the recent history of Israel and Palestine.” The Secretary General of Amnesty International observes that there is “no end in sight to the mass human suffering, devastation, and destruction we are witnessing on an hourly basis.”
Euro-Med Monitor reports that at least 14 Palestinians are dying by the hour. Most of them, two-thirds to be specific, are women and children. The executive director of UN Women points out that two mothers are killed every hour and seven women every two hours. For a region as small as Gaza, this is a staggering figure.
The statistics belie the horror of what they go through every day: with no access to water and medication, 180 women give birth every day under the most appalling conditions. The newborn face an uncertain future, riddled with hate and violence.
Journalists and artists are also facing the brunt of the attacks. The Committee to Protect Journalists calls the current war the “deadliest period for journalists” since the organisation began collecting data in 1992.
The numbers are harrowing: 82 journalists have been killed so far, including 75 Palestinian and four Israeli. 25 have been arrested, and scores of others have been in some way and form assaulted, threatened, and censored.
Artists, including poets and writers, have become victims too. Israeli forces have killed at least 13 writers and poets since the war began last October. One of them, Heba Abu Nada, wrote the following post on Facebook on October 8.
“Our pages are consolation houses, mourning tents, obituaries, we go from page to page as if we are walking in a crowded, open funerals. Oh God, how heavy are these days!” Twelve days later, she was killed by an Israeli airstrike.
These stories form a tapestry of horror and violence in Gaza and, by extension, in Palestine. Overnight and in the space of three months, ordinary civilians have been thrown into a war they did not call for. They are being pummelled, flattened, erased out of existence, systematically exterminated, like vermin and outcasts. They are being dehumanised. In this context, it’s everybody’s business to care. An entire people are being wiped off the face of the earth. The world cannot wait and watch.
And yet, one half of the world is doing exactly that. In response to South Africa’s case against Israel, one world leader after another is slowly, shamefacedly, getting up, holding lavish press conferences in which they say, in so many words, that what the Israeli government is committing is not a genocide.
The Canadian Prime Minister states that his government does not support the “premise” of South Africa’s case. He denies that there has been a genocide in Gaza. Canada is not a stranger to claims of genocide. In 2021 reports surfaced of more than a hundred residential schools that had been set up to indoctrinate and brutalise indigenous children. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights calls these institutions “part of a broader process of colonialism and genocide.” The schools were little better than concentration camps; one report highlights a death toll of more than 3,200. Meanwhile, in 2023, the Canadian Parliament hosted a Nazi, ironically at an event attended by the President of Ukraine.
Germany, too, has stated it will support Israel. The government claims that Hamas intends on destroying Israel and justifies its support of the Israeli government on the grounds that South Africa’s case amounts to “political instrumentalization.” In response, the Namibian government has condemned Germany, and reminded the German government of the atrocities it committed against two indigenous communities, the Hereros and the Namas, between 1904 and 1908. This is recognised today as the 20th century’s first case of genocide. Germany’s campaign led to the deaths of almost 100,000 indigenous people. In 1985 the United Nations officially classified it as a genocide. In 2004 the German government formally issued an apology. But it refused to compensate the families of the victims.
As for the United States, President Joe Biden’s statement marking 100 days of the war makes no mention of Palestinian civilians. The leader of the free world clearly has his notions of who constitutes people and who do not. For him and his government, the people of Gaza do not meet the criteria, and hence can be disregarded.
In a way, these developments are interlinked. Hitler’s Final Solution had its antecedents in the West’s genocidal campaigns against indigenous communities. Europe’s wars of conquest and the US’s forever wars share much in common in this regard.
As Alex Ross has pointed out in a perceptive piece in the New Yorker, American racism, specifically its campaigns against Native Indian tribes, more or less influenced Hitler’s views on race. Not that they have ever found this reason enough to atone for what they did. As John Wayne once put it bluntly, “I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them… There were great numbers of people who needed new land and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”
It is not ironic that the same Western countries that sanctioned or looked the other when Hitler embarked on his genocidal campaigns should do so today, as tens of thousands of Palestinians, huddled into the world’s deadliest open-air prison, find themselves on the brink of extinction. What is ironic is how these countries are shielding Israel from claims of genocide on the basis that Israel is at the receiving end of a genocide itself.
They frequently cite the October 7 attack, forgetting that the Israeli government’s response to those attacks has been anything but proportionate, and forgetting the many racist if hateful remarks that the most right wing government Israel has elected in its entire history has made, and continues to make, about the people of Gaza.
These countries have also forgotten the hundreds of thousands of Jewish voices who have risen against their own government. Some of these voices include relatives of the hostages captured by Hamas themselves. They say they don’t want this war to continue. Their own government, busy tweeting one ridiculous claim after another against South Africa, the ICJ, and the UN, seems not to have heard their call.
To be fair, not every Western country has made itself complicit in this genocide. Spain and Norway have voiced concerns. Long before the current conflict, the Mayor of Barcelona suspended ties with Jerusalem, citing its subjugation of Palestinians in Gaza.
And while governments have shamefully sided with Israel, civil society organisations, human rights activists, writers, poets, actors, directors and academics have sided with Palestine. Establishment liberals have either gone quiet or chosen to focus on Hamas’s October 7 attack – an attack that warrants criticism. But the most unexpected figures from places like Hollywood have condemned the atrocities of the Israeli forces. As an American friend put it the other day, when Tywin Lannister says you are committing genocide, perhaps you need to rethink your stance.
Nevertheless, the rift between our part of the world and theirs remain. This has several important ramifications. Europe and the United States, with Canada thrown in for good measure, have effectively abandoned what little moral clout they have. Their moral compass does not hold. For that matter, neither do they.
In just 100 days, the West has shown the world just how selectively human rights and all those other values it held dear and still thinks it holds dear can be applied. When Russia invaded Ukraine, and hundreds of Ukrainians fled their homes, the media was awash with journalists crying over their plight. One BBC correspondent thought it emotional “to see Europeans with blue eyes and blond hair being killed every day.” Some victims, it seems, are more worthy than others. Palestinians, clearly, are not.
The West frequently speaks of a rules-based order, and pontificates on the equality of nations. These were values we thought would hold for all situations, for all countries, for all people. That, however, has not been the case. There has been a disproportionate response to the tragedy unfolding in Gaza and most countries in the West have been content in taking the side of those committing the atrocities.
The West refuses to hear the hundreds of thousands of millions of its own citizens who are speaking up for Palestine and for Palestinian lives. It refuses to acknowledge the growing tide of global opinion against Israeli atrocities. It refuses to listen to the hundreds of thousands of Jewish voices that are critical of Israeli forces and what they are doing in Gaza. In short, it refuses to hear, acknowledge or listen.
What does this mean? It means, simply, that the West has absconded from the moral high ground on which it thought it once stood. In doing so, it has given half the world a reason to come together, to gather around in solidarity.
This is a definitive historical moment. As each day passes, the West’s tone deafness makes it clear who is on the right side of history and who is on the wrong.