The seismic shock of the ICJ against Israel

While October 7, 2023, will be forever seared into the memory of many, especially Israel, which claims to have lost 1200 lives in the midst of clashes on its border with Gaza, Israel’s adamant denial position — that it has the right to self-defense as provided by Article 51 of the United Nations Charter — will now come under serious and systematic scrutiny in perpetuity.

Just as importantly, the reputation, indeed, the soft power of the United States (US), is at stake, just when the US needs every bit of power to position itself as the “leader of the free world”, if not the rules-based order too.

Indeed, it was on January 26, 2024, a Friday, when a panel of 17 judges at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) voted with a verdict of 15 vs 2 to grant South Africa the motion to proceed with its monumental genocide case.

That Israel has, without a shadow of a doubt, violated numerous provisions of the right to self-defense, obviously bent on a genocidal campaign against 2.3 million Gazans, and potentially close to 5.2 million Palestinians of all backgrounds in the West Bank, too.

To be sure, to the credit of South Africa, Pretoria has put up its best legal team to come up with a dossier of various pieces of evidence and sound legal arguments to confirm what South Africa had believed in all along.

The Israeli “government,” indeed, the War Cabinet of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — comprising no more than 5 individuals — has conducted the war in a manner egregious enough to be adduced as “Genocide”.

As it were, for the first time ever, the world witnessed the legal showdown of South Africa, a country that has freed itself from Apartheid, against Israel.

What makes it both visceral and powerful is the fact that this was a scenario where Israel was backed against the wall. The resolutions of the ICJ are all legally binding. What’s more, back in 2021, Israel had already been confirmed by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and BTselem — the latter being a top human rights NGO in Israel — as an Apartheid state.

When Israel’s abuses were read out at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), this reality courtroom drama became a seismic event.

One that shook the bedrock of international relations. While stopping short of calling for a permanent ceasefire, the ICJ has called upon Israel to enhance its measures to safeguard the lives and rights of the civilians in the Gaza Strip.

One month to prove otherwise

As things are, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government has been given the deadline of one month from the verdict to present the evidence that it has not acted beyond the bounds of the Geneva Convention in 1949, which is the basis of International Humanitarian Law.

What’s more, Israel must outline the steps to improve the full protection of all civilians in Gaza, potentially the West Bank, when the conflict expands to all occupied territories still held by Israel since the Six-Day War in 1967.

However, the ICJ’s decision poses a delicate challenge for the Biden administration too. President Joe Biden is now compelled to navigate between its almost blind support for Israel — a pledge that has clearly gone awry — and the Biden Administration’s apparent commitment to upholding human rights.

Thus, the ruling comes amidst escalating tensions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly in the Gaza Strip, where carpet bombings have resulted in civilian casualties and widespread devastation. 60 percent of what remains of the Gaza Strip is severely damaged, while another 30 percent are affected since they are devoid of running water, sanitation, and fuel. Digital connectivity is down to zero. And only sporadically available. All phones are tapped by the signals intelligence unit of Israel too.

The US stake

While the Biden administration has reiterated its unwavering support for Israel’s right to self-defense, it has also emphasized the importance of protecting civilian lives and promoting a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

For the Biden administration, the ICJ’s decision presents a complex diplomatic and policy dilemma.

On one hand, the United States has a long-standing relationship with Israel, underscored by military aid and diplomatic support. Nonetheless, the administration has also to consider its committment to human rights and the rule of law even if this may be just mere lip service particularly in conflict zones.

The ICJ’s ruling underscores the need, almost immediate, for the Biden administration to strike a delicate balance between these competing interests.

It further highlights the importance of holding all parties accountable for their actions and ensuring that civilian lives are protected, even amid armed conflict.

Not surprisingly, the administration’s response to the ruling will, from this point onwards, be closely watched by international observers.

They will provide insights into the Biden Administration’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict writ large.

One potential implication of the ICJ’s decision is its impact on US-Israel relations at a time when the support of the Zionist lobby in Washington DC, if not the whole of the US, is critical to President Biden’s prospect of a second term on November 3, 2024.

Whether President Biden is up against former President Donald Trump for a rematch remains unknown, granted that Trump himself is implicated in 91 charges of civil and criminal misconduct.

While the Biden administration has reaffirmed its support for Israel’s security, it has also expressed concerns about the high civilian casualties and human rights violations in the Gaza Strip.

Ruling a pressure to Biden

As of February 1, 2024, 70 percent of the 26,000 fatalities in the Gaza Strip are women and children. A statistic that has never been seen anywhere else in the world since the end of World War II.

Inordinately, the ICJ’s ruling has put additional, if not downright acute pressure on the administration.

The Biden Administration must address these concerns and compel Israel to take concrete steps to minimize any harm to all civilians and places of worship, even schools, hospitals, and cemeteries, in Israel’s military operations.

Furthermore, the ICJ’s decision has prompted the Biden administration to reevaluate its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For example, while the Biden Administration continues to peddle the validity of a two-state approach, it verges on the farcical when Israel is the one that is given a free rein on what constitutes its security.

Meanwhile, due to the severity of the military operations and siege against the people of all faiths in the Gaza Strip, the residents, as reported on January 31, 2024, have begun resorting to eating grass.

At the current trajectory, 250,000 people in the Gaza Strip will perish from man-made famine. Should this come to be, the mortality rate would be well above 10 percent of the population in the Gaza Strip, Christians, or Muslims notwithstanding. They will die of hunger if not malnourishment.

While the administration has thus far focused on facilitating a ceasefire negotiation and providing humanitarian assistance to the Gaza Strip, the ICJ’s ruling highlights the need for a more comprehensive strategy that addresses the underlying causes of the conflict, if anything, to promote a just and lasting peace.

US in the war too

There is, however, a very important twist. While it may seem like the Biden administration may feign some degree of importance to champion human rights, it beckons the world’s bewilderment that the US has started attacking various targets in Yemen too.

To be sure, while the Houthis have shown solidarity with the people in the Gaza Strip by using their cheap but sufficiently sophisticated drones and mid-range missiles to try to disrupt the journey of selected commercial vessels in the Red Sea, the likes of China and Russia have called for negotiations too. The aim is to prevent the conflict from further widening to other parts of the Middle East, as the Houthis are ostensibly backed by Iran.

Meanwhile, there are murmurs in the corridors of power in South Africa that Pretoria may attempt further legal action against the US for its alleged complicity in the genocidal acts perpetuated by Israel.

There is a legal basis for South Africa to proceed with its legal motion that was separately backed by Turkey and Malaysia. But the final verdict from the ICJ would take many more years to be reached.

Authors – Maszsyuhada Maszri and Dr Abdul Latiff Mohd Ibrahim are researchers at the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies.