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  1. World
  2. Middle East
1 February 2024

The fractured reality of Israel’s war in Gaza

From the ICJ ruling to the defunding of UNRWA, global divisions over the conflict are becoming further entrenched.

By Alona Ferber

There has been little joy in Israel or Palestine in recent months, but on 28 January there were scenes of jubilation in Jerusalem. Dancing and waving Israeli flags, hundreds of religious Zionists sang “Am Israel chai” (the nation of Israel lives) at a conference organised by settler groups calling for Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip.  

This messianic view is not held by most Israelis, but it is more politically consequential than ever. Twelve government ministers reportedly attended the conference, including those from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party. The national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, one of the most extreme members of the government, told those gathered that the only way to avoid another attack like the one that took place on 7 October is “to return home and control the land” and “encourage emigration” of Palestinians from Gaza.

Only two days before this very public call for ethnic cleansing, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague had delivered its first ruling in the case brought by South Africa accusing Israel of genocide. A final verdict could take years, but a majority of 17 judges decided that, as the case continues, “provisional measures” were needed to ensure no acts of genocide acts take place in Gaza.

Stopping short of calling for a ceasefire, the court said Israel must take “all measures within its power to prevent” acts of genocide against the Palestinians in Gaza. Between numerous sips of water, the ICJ president Joan Donoghue, an American, also ordered Israel to prevent and punish any “direct and public incitement” to genocide and to take “immediate and effective measures” to ensure adequate humanitarian assistance was allowed into Gaza. Israel must report to the court by 26 February on the steps it has taken to uphold the ruling. Donoghue also called for the immediate and unconditional release of the remaining hostages taken by Hamas on 7 October.

In the court of world opinion, already deeply polarised on the Israel-Palestine issue, the complexities and careful wording of the ruling are rife for misinterpretation. Had the ICJ ruled that a genocide was under way? Had the ICJ absolved Israel? People on both sides have tried to claim a victory. 

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For the human rights community, the very fact that Israel was being held to account for its actions in Gaza was a vindication for the rights-based order. Before the ruling, Kenneth Roth, former head of Human Rights Watch, told me he didn’t see how Israel “would overcome” South Africa’s case. He stands by his prediction, he said via email after the ruling. But whether the court’s provisional orders – in essence, stop attacking civilians, allow unimpeded access to humanitarian aid, stop the incendiary statements from senior officials – will fundamentally change the situation on the ground “depends significantly on the Western reaction”, Roth said. The court’s decision is legally binding but only the UN Security Council can force Israel to act. Yet the US veto is likely to protect Israel from that eventuality: both the US and the UK have called the ICJ case meritless.

Indeed, for those who see the case as such, Israel’s day in court was a reminder of the country’s precarious position in the community of nations. Chuck Freilich, who was Israel’s deputy national security adviser from 2000-05, told me South Africa’s charge – which he describes as “outrageous” – is “a huge blow to Israel’s international standing”. Part of Israel’s problem is confused war messaging and strategy. Netanyahu’s declared goal of obliterating Hamas is virtually impossible to achieve. A more specific aim, however, of destroying Hamas’s military capabilities, is achievable, Freilich said, and should have been declared from the start.

The war’s vague goals and Israel’s apparent indecisiveness over what happens to the Gaza Strip on the day after a theoretical Hamas defeat, is partly explained by a split that plagues Israeli politics. As the American University professor Guy Ziv writes in his new book Netanyahu vs the Generals: The Battle for Israel’s Future, while Israel’s prime minister spent years honing an image as “Mr Security” – duly shattered by the failures that led to Hamas’s massacre – Israel’s security establishment “has long viewed him as a security liability”. And “Mr Security”, whose trial for corruption charges has been paused because of the war, has also long put his own political interests ahead of the nation’s. “He doesn’t want to talk about [the day after],” says Freilich, “because his coalition will come apart.” 

Hamas has claimed that the ICJ ruling is a win and has isolated Israel. But so long as the US continues to support the country, at the UN Security Council and diplomatically, Israel can carry on as before. The US Palestinian scholar Dana El-Kurd told me there is a perception among Palestinians that the provisional measures didn’t go far enough in not ordering a ceasefire. “Israel has certainly not taken any of the provisional measures into consideration and bombardment continues unabated.” 

Within Israel, there is little public pressure to end the fighting. Recent polling from the Israel Democracy Institute shows most Jewish Israelis oppose a hostage deal in exchange for a halt in fighting and the release of all Palestinians prisoners held in Israeli jails. For the first time in months, such a deal seems imminent. On 28 January, Qatar and Egypt mediated hostage deal talks between Israel and Hamas, with US involvement, in Paris.  

Meanwhile, Israel has managed a PR coup. Following a New York Times report on 28 January that staff employed by UNRWA – the UN agency that has long run the humanitarian infrastructure supporting the two million Palestinians in Gaza – were involved in the 7 October attack, 13 countries, including the US, Canada, Britain and Germany, cut their funding to the organisation. Israel has long claimed that UNRWA was beholden to Hamas, and has lobbied for it to be defunded. In 2017, for instance, the then foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, asked the US to stop giving money to the agency, after a report by the right-wing think tank Kohelet highlighted concerns over its links to Hamas. Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA’s commissioner-general, described the cuts as “collective punishment”. UNRWA, which delivers health, social and education services to Palestinians, is one of the largest employers in Gaza. In wartime, it plays a particularly vital role in delivering much-needed aid and providing shelter for displaced Palestinians. Defunding the agency will “hasten starvation in the Gaza Strip”, says El-Kurd.  

Freilich is adamant that, notwithstanding the Biden administration’s dissatisfaction with Netanyahu and the growing domestic public pressure to stop the war in the US, the Israeli-American relationship remains “extraordinarily strong”. The US’s support of Israel since 7 October cements its standing in the eyes of the Global South as a bad-faith actor who repeatedly gives Israel a pass when it breaks international law. As El-Kurd put it, “The behaviour of Western countries, the US most importantly, during this war has only hastened the international systems’ erosion, and lack of legitimacy.”

With the war long past its 100th day, the divisions over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have only become more entrenched. Events like the ICJ ruling or the defunding of UNRWA, further widen the chasm, splitting the world in two – and every development is a Rorschach test for where a person’s sympathies lie, and how they view the realities of this war.   

[See also: Former Israeli prime minister: “Time to stop the war”]

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