The Global South’s stand on Israel’s war in Gaza | Explained

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki and Palestinian U.N. envoy Riyad Mansour attend a public hearing held by The International Court of Justice to allow parties to give their views on the legal consequences of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories before eventually issuing a non-binding legal opinion in The Hague, Netherlands on February 19, 2024.
| Photo Credit: Reuters

The story so far: Israel’s war in Gaza in retaliation for the October 7 terror attacks by Hamas took centre-stage at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) this week again, as the UN General Assembly raised the question of illegal Israeli settlements in the court, with public hearings that will end on February 26. The hearings sparked a further divide between Western countries, many of whom sought to defend Israel’s bombardment of Gaza as the “right to self-defence”, and were ranged against Global South countries, most of whom had supported South Africa’s bid to have the ICJ try Israel for “war-crimes” for its actions. The latest hearings opened in the backdrop of a major rift between Brazil and Israel.

What are the ICJ hearings about?

The current hearings of the ICJ at the Peace Palace in The Hague (The Netherlands) are not a consequence of the Israel-Hamas conflict of the past few months, but pre-date them. In December 2022, the UN General Assembly had asked the court for an “advisory opinion” on two specific questions pertaining to Israeli actions in the past: first, what are the “legal consequences” for Israel over its policy of “occupations, settlement and annexation” of Palestinian territories since the 1967 war, and attempts to change the demographic status of Jerusalem, and second, what legal consequences arise for all other states and the United Nations over Israel’s “discriminatory” policies towards Palestinians. As many as 52 states and three international organisations gave written and oral comments during the hearings scheduled from February 19-26, led by Palestine, and followed by South Africa.

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Who were the key speakers and what have they said so far?

While a majority of the speakers at the hearings are from the Global South led by Brazil and South Africa, all P-5 members of the UN Security council submitted comments, although Israel chose not to participate. India was not among the speakers, but its neighbours, Pakistan and Bangladesh were strongly critical of Israel’s actions. Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki gave a three-hour high-powered submission in which he said Israeli governments had left only three choices for Palestinians: “displacement, subjugation or death”, calling their actions: “ethnic cleansing, apartheid or genocide.” The U.S., U.K. and allies began submissions with condemnations of the October 7 attack in which more than 1,100 were killed in Israel. Ireland, however, has diverged quite dramatically from the West and the European Union in its criticism of Israel’s actions, countering arguments on the “right to self-defence” by saying that international law “limits the use of force in self-defence to no more than what is necessary and proportionate”. More than 29,000 people have been killed in Gaza since Israel’s bombardment began. While the ICJ case pertains to events pre-2022, it was clear that the destruction of nearly half of all structures in Gaza in four months are precipitating concerns that Israel plans to occupy and resettle that territory as well. Brazil’s ambassador in particular called for the ICJ to pronounce Israel’s actions of confiscating land, demolishing Palestinian homes, establishing Israeli settlements, and constructing the West Bank barrier wall as illegal.

Why have Brazil and Israel drawn daggers?

While Brazil and Israel have had close relations in the past, Brazil’s President Lula da Silva has been openly critical of “Zionism” in the past. For instance, he refused to visit the grave of Theodor Herzl during a visit to Jerusalem in 2010. Last week, Israel declared Mr. Lula a “persona non grata” who won’t be allowed to enter the country after he compared Israel’s bombardment of Palestinians to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany in which six million Jewish people were killed. Brazil has since recalled its ambassador to Israel.

What is India’s stand?

Despite its abstention in one vote calling for a ceasefire in October 2023, India has consistently voted in favour of UN resolutions that are critical of Israel’s occupation and annexation of Palestinian territory. Unlike the rest of the Global South, however, the Modi government has chosen to keep public comments on the issue to a minimum, and the decision not to speak at the ICJ is in line with that. Several factors complicate clarity on the Indian position. On the one hand, there is an expectation from the Arab world, particularly from close partners such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, for India to stand with Palestine. Qatar, for instance, may have expectations after the Prime Minister’s visit this month to thank the Emir for releasing eight Indian naval officers. This may explain why New Delhi has spoken strongly about zero tolerance for the October 7 terror attacks, but has not designated Hamas as a terror group so far.

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On the other hand, there is India’s close defence and surveillance equipment cooperation with Israel. While India has been buying defence equipment from Israel, recently, it shipped drones made by Adani-Elbit Advanced Systems in Hyderabad to help Israeli operations. In addition, the government has green-lighted the recruitment of tens of thousands of Indian workers by Israeli companies dealing with labour shortages due to the expulsion of Palestinians from jobs post October 7 attacks. However, the area of greatest concern for Indian diplomacy will come if it is seen as an outlier to the Global South that India seeks leadership of, which has been clearly critical of Israel’s actions, and is increasingly speaking in one voice for international judicial accountability for them.

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