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How the ICJ ruling could finally break Israel's siege of Gaza

If Israel continues to delay aid and target Palestinian civilians, pressure will mount on the UK and US to start air dropping food into the territory
People mourn victims of an Israeli bombardment outside a morgue in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on 14 November 2023 (Mahmud Hams/AFP)
People mourn victims of an Israeli bombardment outside a morgue in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on 14 November 2023 (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Friday’s ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) drives something bigger and more powerful than a D9 bulldozer through the western position supporting Israel’s blitzkrieg on Gaza, which has continued for nearly four months.

The ruling establishes that what is going on in Gaza is not a war aimed at disabling an enemy militant group, but an operation aimed at disabling a people, and a nation. There can be no more momentous legal judgement in the history of the conflict, certainly in the current century. 

This judgement reestablishes the morality, impartiality and standing of international law, and will show the impunity that Israel has been granted by its major arms suppliers and backers for what it is: a license to kill.

There can be no bigger hole knocked through the position of a US administration that bogusly claimed “diplomacy is back”, and then went on to to defend and furnish the most murderous bombardment in the recent history of this conflict.

Israel is now in the dock on a charge of genocide and will be obliged to report back to the court in a month, for its accuser South Africa to review, on the measures it has taken to prevent incitement to genocide and genocide itself and to allow more aid into Gaza.

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Yes, there will be disappointment that the ICJ stopped short of demanding an immediate ceasefire. The court did this on the legal grounds that only one side in this war is recognised as a state. 

Palestinians don’t need a court judgment validating their suffering. They were expecting a measure that would end this genocide, rather than putting the ball in Israel’s court to act in a way that everybody knows it will not. But Israel had already signalled its intention to ignore any ruling of the ICJ, so it is not to Israel that anyone should look to change this situation.

The ICJ ruling’s only power is to change western policy allowing US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to wring his hands as if Washington is impotent to stop the daily slaughter. It plainly is not. 

Clear urgency

A judgment such as this also provides much-needed force to several court actions around the world involving lesser, but equally important, charges of war crimes. If the designation of apartheid was a huge blow to Israel’s attempts to establish itself as a normal, western democracy, the genocide label surely nails the lid on the coffin.

Clearly, the court did not believe Israel’s defence, and in delivering the judgement, ICJ president Joan Donoghue made ample use of South Africa’s evidence. The South African team is right to claim victory.

The urgency of this ruling is plain for all to see. More than 750,000 people are facing “catastrophic hunger” in Gaza, according to the United Nations. The lack of clean water is leading to a spike in waterborne diseases, such as diarrhoea, which is a major child killer.

There are already 158,000 cases, and the UN has warned that many thousands of children could die of diarrhoea before they starve to death.

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Only 15 of 97 bakeries are functioning in Gaza after three-and-a-half months of Israeli bombardment. In central Gaza, the shortage of wheat is so acute that people are mixing bird feed and animal fodder into the dough. 

Meanwhile, army bulldozers are hard at work ploughing up Gaza’s most fertile orchards and fields. The immediate aim is to establish a security zone, but the strategic aim is to ensure that the territory will never again be able to feed itself.

While David Cameron, the British foreign secretary, films himself pushing pallets of British aid onto a plane in Doha bound for Egypt, the Israelis at the other end of the supply chain are doing everything in their power to turn the flood of aid into a trickle.

The siege, which permits Israel to regulate the degree of pain it inflicts upon every living soul in Gaza, is the most precious and diabolical weapon in its armoury

There is a several-week wait for trucks to get into Gaza. Trucks can be unloaded and loaded multiple times. If forbidden items are found in the load, the lorry goes to the back of the queue and the whole process starts all over. Israel has reportedly rejected such items as feminine hygiene products, water testing kits and hand sanitisers.

Where emergency aid does get through, hungry people are targeted by tanks and snipers. There have now been so many recorded instances of this, it can no longer be seen as accidental. 

“People queue up in the area to get hold of the items since there are no teams to help with the distributions. There are large numbers of people there… so when Israeli forces attack the area there are dozens of deaths,” said a correspondent for Middle East Eye in Gaza.

Queues of civilians at Dawaar al-Kuwait near the Salah al-Din area were recently attacked by Israeli forces, killing eight and wounding dozens. On Thursday, Israeli forces killed at least 20 Palestinians and wounded 180 others who were waiting for humanitarian relief in Gaza City.

Laughing and shooting

Little of this is accidental, or the result of the fog of war. It has been calculated and thought through. It is happening by design. 

Faced with Egypt’s refusal to allow a mass exodus of Palestinians into Sinai, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tasked Ron Dermer, his minister for strategic affairs, to devise a plan to “thin out” the population of Gaza by enabling a “mass escape” of Palestinians to Europe and Africa by sea.

The plan, first revealed by Israel Hayom, was being tightly circulated due “to its obvious explosiveness”. The plan argues that if millions of Syrians, Libyans and Tunisians can take to the boats to flee civil war and poverty, why can’t the same apply to Palestinians?

Despite months of behind-the-scenes arm-twisting from US President Joe Biden, there is no indication that either Netanyahu or the army is deviating from the plan to make Gaza permanently unliveable. 

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The two have different objectives. Netanyahu wants continuous war in the knowledge that as soon as it stops, his extreme right-wing coalition breaks up, and he is in big trouble, having to answer for the massive security lapse that allowed Hamas to rampage across southern Israel in October. Only a substantial exodus of Palestinians from Gaza will satisfy the extreme right.

The army's high command cares little for a permanent occupation of Gaza and is resisting orders to reoccupy the Philadelphi Corridor around the Rafah crossing with Egypt. It wants to restore lost honour and reestablish deterrence with Hamas. 

But for the moment, the two are working in tandem. There is no indication that Israel is giving up on a strategic plan to empty Gaza of a substantial part of its population. Soldiers film themselves gloating as they raze whole areas of the territory. 

That’s the mood in Israel. Soldiers have long since stopped “crying and shooting”; today, they are laughing and shooting.

The imminent prospect of tens of thousands more deaths in Gaza from famine and disease throws a harsh light on the refusal of the international community to do anything to alleviate this mass man-made suffering, which openly flouts the Geneva Conventions and all the rules of war, and amounts to genocide - whether or not the ICJ eventually rules as such.

Netanyahu is openly disregarding the US, UK and EU demands that there should be no re-occupation of Gaza, no security corridors along the existing border with Israel and no collective punishment of the civilian population, and that food and water should get through. Israel continues to face no sanctions for this behaviour.

Make-believe policy

As for Cameron, there is a distinct whiff of nostalgia about his attempt to reframe the US artillery shells and smart bombs being supplied to Israel through the RAF base at Akrotiri in Cyprus as a caring, sharing, people-loving venture.

No-one should forget his personal contribution to the disaster of military intervention in the Middle East, which was the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and the civil war to which it led. But even if his audience has had a sudden attack of amnesia, his policy on Gaza is make-believe.

Speaking over the sound of jet engines revving up at al-Udeid air base in Qatar, Cameron said that none of the aid destined for Gaza would work properly unless there was an “immediate pause to the fighting”.

Remind me, for how many weeks after 7 October did Britain resist calls for an immediate ceasefire on the grounds that Israel had the right to defend itself?

Cameron then said that a pause in the fighting had to be turned into a sustainable permanent ceasefire. Has he been listening to what Netanyahu has been saying? “Nobody will stop us - not The Hague, not the [Iranian-led] axis of evil and not anybody else,” the prime minister’s office noted earlier this month on Twitter/X. 

Does Cameron not understand that the moment Netanyahu deviates from that line, he loses his government, and possibly also his liberty over impending court cases for corruption?

Cameron goes on to prescribe what Hamas, which is classified as a terrorist organisation in the UK, should do: “We’d have to see the Hamas leadership come out of Gaza.” It will never do this.

“We’d have to see Hamas’s mechanisms of being able to launch rockets and terrorist attacks on Israel be dismantled.” Did the Irish Republican Army decommission before or after the Good Friday Agreement was negotiated? When has an insurgency ever given up its arms before a peace agreement was hammered out?

Whatever happens, Israel will not want to lose its monopoly on enforcing the siege on Gaza that it has maintained for more than 16 years

“We’d have to see a new Palestinian Authority that is capable of providing the government and services not just in the West Bank, but in Gaza too.” The PA is currently incapable of governing Nablus and Jenin, let alone Gaza. 

“And crucially, we’d have to have a political horizon so that the Palestinian people and the Arab states in this region could see that there’s a pathway from where we are now to a Palestinian state.” This is what Netanyahu now boasts his life mission was set to prevent.

Cameron should well have said from the busy tarmac of al-Udeid that nothing less than regime change in Tel Aviv is needed for such a plan to come about. And he should come clean about his responsibility for this carnage. 

It was the serial inaction over a Palestinian state by Cameron, along with his predecessors and successors - with the government of which he is now a member still not recognising Palestine as a state - that created the political deadlock that led to the renewed insurgency we see today, not just in Gaza but all over the occupied West Bank.

The case for air drops

If Israel does not comply with the ICJ ruling and continues to delay aid at the border and target civilians queuing up for food, as I fully expect it to do, pressure will mount on the UK and US to start air drops of food into Gaza itself.

War is no barrier to this. It was done in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Bosnia; why can’t it be done in Gaza? Jordan and France have led the way with limited air drops to support a Jordanian field hospital. What stops Britain and the US from doing the same?

Obviously, the answer is Israel. Let’s be clear about what is at stake here. Whatever happens, Israel will not want to lose its monopoly on enforcing the siege on Gaza that it has maintained for more than 16 years.

The siege, which permits Israel to regulate the degree of pain it inflicts upon every living soul in Gaza, is the most precious and diabolical weapon in its armoury. If it loses that, it loses the war.

This is what is at stake in the ICJ judgement - and why this is such a watershed moment. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He is a commentator and speaker on the region and analyst on Saudi Arabia. He was the Guardian's foreign leader writer, and was correspondent in Russia, Europe, and Belfast. He joined the Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.
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