Patrick Lawrence – The Palestinians Won in The Hague: So Did the Rest of Us

Western politicians and media can deny it as much as they want, but the ICJ ruling was a significant moment.

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a media critic, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century

Cross-posted from ScheerPost

Picture by Alisdare Hickson

Half a dozen years ago I sat in the lobby lounge at the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan talking at length with Richard Falk, the scholar, lawyer, U.N. rapporteur, and advocate of Palestinian rights. Inevitably, the conversation turned for a time to international law, a topic on which Falk has long been a recognized authority. Here is a little of what he said as we took our afternoon tea:

When international law is on the side of the geopolitical actors, then they are very serious about its relevance. When the American embassy was seized in Tehran after the Iranian Revolution, they talked about the flouting of international law as if that was the most sacred body of law that ever existed. International law is used very instrumentally. If you’re protecting private investment in Venezuela or Chile, then it’s barbaric not to uphold it. But if it’s blocking the pursuit of some kind of interventionist project, then it’s flaky or irrelevant to talk about it …

I thought about that exchange over the weekend, as I considered the International Court of Justice’s ruling last Friday that the apartheid state of Israel may be guilty of genocide against Gaza’s Palestinian population, as South Africa charges, and that the case Pretoria brought last month must proceed. Later Friday, the estimable Phyllis Bennis quoted Falk in a piece she wrote for In These Times. Falk called the decision the court’s “greatest moment,” and went on to explain, “It strengthens the claims of international law to be respected by all sovereign states—not just some.”

Consistency of thought: It does not get more admirable than this.

There are many, many ways to look upon the ICJ’s ruling, many things worth saying. The very first of these is that the significance of the ICJ’s interim finding lies beyond dispute. Will the barbarities of a nation self-evidently suffering a collective psychosis now stop? No. What Dick Falk said six years ago still holds: Israel has already made clear it will ignore The Hague’s judgment. 

But what “the Jewish state” does this week or next is not for the moment our question. What are the enduring consequences of this ruling for the global order? How shall we situate the court’s judgment? Where does its importance lie? These are our questions. And Falk was right last Friday, too: The ICJ has begun the work—the long work—of restoring international law as a foundational feature of a world order worthy of the term.

Having made this point, I must immediately note the abject deflections we find in the reports of our corporate media—which, nearly to a one, urge their readers, listeners, and viewers to dismiss the ICJ’s interim finding as, borrowing from Falk, more or less flaky and irrelevant. In the second paragraph of its main story Friday, The New York Times, fairly bursting to get the point across, wrote, “The court did not rule on whether Israel was committing genocide, and it did not call on Israel to stop its campaign to crush Hamas…”

Three untruths here, straight off the top.  One, the South Africans did not ask The Hague to issue a ruling on genocide one way or the other. In the cause of expedience, to stop the savagery as quickly as possible, it asked for what it got—a swift interim judgment so the court could order Israel to stop the violence and that the larger case on genocide could proceed.

Two, a mountain has been made of the fact that the ICJ did not, in so many words, call upon Israel to cease fire in Gaza. This is preposterously misleading. Peruse the six stipulations that comprise the ruling, the first of which reads, “Israel shall take all measures within its power to prevent all acts within the scope of Genocide Convention, Article 2.” Here I defer to Raz Segal, an Israeli historian who professes at Stockton University in New Jersey. This is from a segment of Democracy Now!, distributed last Friday:

We’re already seeing headlines in The New York Times today which frame this as, “The court did not issue an order for a ceasefire”—which, in effect, it actually did, because if it ordered that Israel should cease from genocidal acts, and it ordered Israel should facilitate the entry of humanitarian aid, it actually said, “You have to cease fire because there is no [other] way of doing that.”

And three, what Israel is doing in Gaza—as any review of the daily death toll will make clear, any five minutes of video footage—can be characterized as “a military campaign to crush Hamas” only by those so abjectly committed to defending Israeli atrocities that all thought of honest reporting and writing is cast aside. 

Almost all major media have followed The Times’s lead, per usual. Among the exceptions—and I confess my surprise here—is National Public Radio. It got the no-ceasefire bit wrong, but it otherwise published a quite good, balanced report from London that included worthy material from its South Africa correspondent (unless NPR took this off the wires):

Since former President Nelson Mandela’s administration, South Africa has long supported the Palestinian cause, saying it sees echoes of apartheid in the situation between the Israelis and Palestinians.

“We, as South Africans, will not be passive bystanders and watch the crimes that were visited upon us being perpetrated elsewhere,” [South African President Cyril] Ramaphosa said Friday. He noted the ICJ affirmed South Africa’s right to take Israel to court, “even though it is not a party to the conflict in Gaza.”

But exceptions prove rules, let us not forget. For the sheer nonsense of its reporting, I have to single out—the envelope, please—the reliably egregious MSNBC. You may want to take a moment to read this twice. In its Friday evening newscast, it had it that the ICJ ruling is nicely aligned with the Biden regime’s calls to minimize civilian casualties. Further, we need to know what The Hague’s finding is not and what it does not do: It is not any kind of indictment of the Biden regime’s policy, no, and it does not make Biden and the U.S. complicit in genocide. 

It is and it does, in my view. 

The running theme in American media is that The Hague’s judgment has changed nothing. Who can be surprised? Nothing ever changes when these media are telling us about the world. America is never wrong. America never makes a mistake. America is never on the wrong side. America is always good. America never loses. 

Let us now consider what enormous changes occurred when Joan Donoghue, an American judge who currently presides at The Hague, read out the ruling.  

As the Israeli military and propaganda machines reached full throttle late last autumn, a friend sent me a video link to a film called Defamation, made in 2009 by an Israeli documentarian named Yoav Shamir. It is a strangely lighthearted but thoroughly serious treatment of how Israel drills into its people, youth and adults alike, the thought that the world, all of it, rages with anti–Semitism, that they are destined to be hated, that they must remain a people apart. My friend urged me to watch it amid the circus-like charges of anti–Semitism everywhere just then overtaking America. I found the film sad—as I do the cynical manipulation of history and memory by people who seem to think nothing of pimping their own past and the suffering of the six million. 

I watched Defamation again over the weekend. Here I transcribe a brief passage that features one Suzanne Prince and her husband, Harvey, who are active in the Los Angeles office of the American Defamation League. Shamir, who speaks from behind his camera, has asked them why the ADL makes incessant references to events that occurred many decades in the past:

S.P. To combat it [anti–Semitism] effectively you have to take responsibility for everything that happened in the past, then reach the present, and then go forward….

Y.S. Sometimes you need to give some slack to get what you want. 

S.P. No, no, absolutely not…. I bring up everything from the past…. We need to play on that guilt.

Y.S. Maybe the guilt trip we are giving them doesn’t help. Maybe we should give them some slack. 

H.P. Moderate.

S.P. The guilt of the father should not be visited upon the sons, true….

H.P. You cannot let it go down, but you can’t keep playing on it as heavily as some people do. You have to be moderate. 

This dialogue is now 15 years in the past. Until last Friday I would have said it is likely we are in for at least another 15 years of this kind of thing. We may be: The Israelis have already begun to sound the anti–Semitism bell in response to the ICJ decision. Over the weekend they accused a dozen U.N. employees—of 13,000 in Gaza—of collaborating with Hamas on October 7. I will believe this when I see evidence of it—evidence other than what the Israelis claim is evidence. The Zionist propaganda machine is now exposed. There is no air left in the tires of the Suzanne and Harvey Princes among us. At long last, the disgraceful decades of guilt-tripping is up and one can say so publicly. The Holocaust card, to put the point another way, is at last played out. 

Let us not miss the significance of this moment. As others have noted, 75 years of Israeli impunity will now draw to a close. Israel’s crimes can now be called Israel’s crimes.  Contempt for the Zionist state can now be legitimately expressed. I describe as best I can a change of consciousness, or of the rules of discourse, or both. All the rubbish condemning criticism of Israel as anti–Semitic can now be discarded for what it is. The ICJ, in the six stipulations it imposes on Israel, requires Tel Aviv to report to the court in one month of its efforts to “prevent genocide.” This is subtle, and very astute. It imposes a higher authority on the Israelis. It tells them, “You are answerable now to something other than yourselves (and, of course, the United States). You are answerable to the community of nations.”

There are many things that are for the moment unclear. If Israel ignores the court, as seems likely, and the U.N. Security Council convenes in response, what will the 

Biden regime do? Veto a disciplinary resolution? Abstain? To what extent will Israel be isolated? And to what extent the U.S. with it? What about the Europeans? Will they act with some measure of autonomy in response to The Hague’s judgment? Cut off arms sales, scholarly and cultural exchanges? There are too many such questions to list. 

However such eventualities turn out, there are larger matters we must not miss. International law, as Richard Falk noted well, stands to count more now, even if the Israelis transgress it for the umpteenth time. Equally, or maybe this is a yet larger point, it is highly significant that it was South Africa that precipitated last week’s events. The South Africans have emerged over the past year or so, maybe a little more, as committed advocates of a new world order I will call post–Western. They have an enlarging identity as a non–Western power.  

We must all stand with the Palestinians, yes, however each of us is able to make this manifest. But we cannot isolate the ICJ’s ruling as a remedy for one incidence of genocide or one case of the aggression of Western power against the non–West. What happened last Friday in The Hague is best understood as a step, a big one, to ending half a millennium of genocides and violence. 

The non–West has spoken, it has raised its voice. And it will have ever more to say from here on out.

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