Israel puts Western imperialism on trial: Why the outcome doesn’t matter

The West is deeply worried that its long-standing strategy of employing law and violence is gradually backfiring against it, beginning with Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine and now the South African case. Picture: Remko de Waal/ANP/AFP

The West is deeply worried that its long-standing strategy of employing law and violence is gradually backfiring against it, beginning with Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine and now the South African case. Picture: Remko de Waal/ANP/AFP

Published Jan 21, 2024


By Siyabonga Hadebe

AN analysis of global events in both local and international media and other sources consciously avoids two realities happening in the world today.

Firstly, the so-called modern world has not really transformed in its thinking about communities outside the West, and these communities have accepted this as their natural state of being. Secondly, the West currently experiences seismic shifts emanating from a gallant fight by the “other” in the quest to gain recognition.

This article utilises the South African legal case before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to provide evidence that the world is ill-prepared to address efforts to uphold the rights of the “other” within the international system.

The West is deeply worried that its long-standing strategy of employing law and violence is gradually backfiring against it, beginning with Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, and now the South African case.

On 29 December 2023, South Africa took the world by surprise when it complained to the ICJ, charging that Israel was committing genocide in Gaza. This legal case is based on ongoing reports of crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

South Africa suggests that acts meeting the threshold of genocide or related crimes, as defined in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, have been, and may still be, committed in the context of the ongoing massacres in Gaza.

South Africa and Israel are both signatories to the convention, and this allows Pretoria to raise objections to how the Middle Eastern state has failed to fulfil its obligations to prevent genocide.

In its application, South Africa outlined nine interim orders it seeks the court to grant. These include Israel immediately suspending its Gaza offensive, halting the forced displacement of Palestinians in the territory, facilitating humanitarian access, and preserving evidence. The court is expected to decide in the next few weeks.

The decisions of the ICJ are binding upon countries and cannot be appealed. However, the ICJ has no direct enforcement mechanism, and its rulings are sometimes ignored or not fully implemented.

For instance, Russia has not yet complied with the ICJ’s 2022 order to halt its invasion of Ukraine. The US, which is a key ally of Israel, has called South Africa’s case “meritless”, leading to speculation that Tel Aviv is likely to follow in the Russian footsteps.

While everyone seems preoccupied with the legal aspects of the damning accusations against Israel, this article argues that something more significant is unfolding in the background: the West is facing judgment for its centuries-old civilisational projects against the people it once colonised, exploited, and damaged.

Sudanese journalist and author Nesrine Malik agrees, stating, “It’s not just Israel on trial. South Africa is putting the West’s claim to moral superiority to the test.”

The reality is that today’s world is moulded in the Western image since European countries not only colonised the world but also exported everything wicked with them. Besides its physical and psychological operations, the dark side of modernity is violence that is expertly inserted in language, terminologies and knowledge.

As American scholar Michael Parenti argues, the knowledge taught at universities and stories in newspapers brainwash the masses into believing that their physical and mental conditions are normal. Thus, they assist the West to retain its world dominance today.

In a more abstract framework, Boaventura de Sousa Santos introduced the concept of ‘abyssal thinking’ to describe a defining feature of modern Western thought, distinguishing between what is considered thinkable, understandable or imaginable and everything that lies beyond.

This mindset operates under the assumption that only what can be conceived has the potential to exist, leading to the active exclusion from reality and acknowledgement of anything beyond its scope of imagination.

Abyssal thinking is a concept that suggests that Western thought is limited to what it can understand and visualise. It disregards anything outside its scope of understanding, including the identities and cultures of people who do not fit into its square pegs.

This exclusionary mindset has led to the West’s ongoing mistreatment of ‘’others“. This explains why many in Israel and the West struggle to grasp why Israel could be accused of genocide since violence is a normalised practice ingrained in Western thought as a means of controlling the behaviour of those deemed less civilised.

South Africa’s case is not only a legal challenge to Israel’s actions. Still, it is also a symbolic indictment of the West’s hypocrisy and the flawed international order it has imposed on the world.

The fact that South Africa, a country scarred by the horrors of colonialism, apartheid and the legacy of racial injustice, is leading this charge adds a powerful layer of symbolism to the case. It serves as a stark reminder of the West’s complicity in perpetuating oppression and the need for a more just and equitable global order.

As a mode of thinking, abyssal thinking establishes a figurative ‘abyssal line’, demarcating the boundary between what it can envision and what lies beyond its conceptual reach. This line functions as a division between the “civilised” and “pagans”, with the latter almost relegated to a state of perpetual backwardness and “underdevelopment”.

Parenti strongly argues that poverty in the Global South is not an original historical condition but was imposed by colonising forces.

Nevertheless, one mechanism by which abyssal thinking, interwoven into the fabric of the standard of civilisation, relegates subalterns to the abyss lies in the employment of terms such as “tribe”, “developing countries”, “rule of law”, etc.

Moreover, notions such as human rights frequently carry a condescending implication, implying that if tribes adhere to specific behaviours, they could be uplifted and recognised as complete rights holders. But this is like chasing waterfalls because rules change all the time.

As the ICJ proceedings unfold, Yemen is facing bombardment from the US and the UK. Rishi Sunak, who is of Indian ancestry himself, justifies airstrikes on the Houthis and cites, “breaches of international law” and the need to prevent parties from “acting with impunity”.

What is peculiar or contradictory in this regard is that he employs language reminiscent of norms currently being violated in Gaza. This implies that the use of violence is deemed an exclusive privilege of the West, denying others this right.

The case against Israel is currently being forcefully dismissed, particularly by the US, UK, Canada, Germany and others. Malik argues that there is a cost to dismissing concepts and processes that underpin the very legitimacy of these countries’ unassailable claim to moral authority. Nevertheless, they are not bothered since acting contrarian is in their nature.

Not so long ago, Germany’s crocodile tears showed up in Windhoek to pretentiously accept responsibility for genocide against the Herero and Nama populations. Now, Berlin promises to join the ICJ proceedings on Israel’s side.

Perhaps it is time for Namibians to reject the despicable two-faced character from the undisputed champion of the world in committing genocides. It is now on course to march into complicity in genocidal acts committed by Israel.

Anyone who criticises Israel’s actions in Gaza is invariably met with rebuke, resembling the experience of Ireland, which has firmly severed its ties to the West's abusive practices.

When Ireland denounces Israel, it is often dismissed as an outlier, a perceived “weak link” disrupting a prevailing narrative. Ireland is also scorned as another member of the seemingly less influential group deemed exempt from the weighty obligations associated with great power status.

Abyssal thinking is at the root of the outrage directed at Israel and South Africa for challenging the established order. The notion that a “barbaric tribe” (the black South African government) would dare to take a “civilised nation” (Israel) to the ICJ and even accuse it of genocide has ignited fury.

Germany’s dismissal of the complaint as an “instrumentalisation of the ICJ” effectively labels it an illegitimate suit. This reaction is unsurprising given the global tendency to resort to violence against “misbehaving tribes” like Palestinians and Houthis.

Concealed in legal arguments, experts have written to suggest that South Africa is irrational and will lose the case. This intellectual outrage stems from a perception of a supposedly barbaric tribe (a black South African government) not only bringing a civilised nation (Jews or the State of Israel) to the ICJ, but also accusing it of genocide.

This resentment is fuelled by the belief that violence is typically reserved for tribes deemed to be misbehaving, a pattern observed globally, including in the treatment of Palestinians.

A growing number of nations have voiced their support for South Africa’s case, including Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia, Turkey, Malaysia and Namibia, as well as the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

This burgeoning global solidarity underscores the widening divisions that characterise the world today, yet the self-proclaimed architects of a new global order seem quiet. In response to Germany’s dismissive attitude, one expert contends that many of the old powers are failing to grasp the impending demise of Western imperialism.

It is important to note that not all African countries unanimously condemned Russia’s military action in Ukraine. Likewise, anti-European sentiment has re-emerged in the aftermath of coups in former French colonies across the continent.

While global and local media outlets may dismiss these occurrences as merely a fleeting trend, they represent a mounting surge of scepticism towards the legitimacy of the international human rights system and the norms that underpin it.

In conclusion, the court case against Israel symbolises a much bigger problem. It is prompting people to examine whether the international human rights system is fair or if it is simply a tool for powerful countries to intimidate weaker ones.

In all fairness, it does not matter whether the ICJ will rule against Israel, as the ball is already in motion. It is unclear if the US and its Western allies will end up bombing the entire world of “others” as they are doing Yemen.

While a favourable outcome may offer temporary relief for Palestinians, it does not really matter in the bigger scheme since the point has already been emphatically communicated. The West’s two faces cannot be tolerated any longer.

* Based in Geneva, Hadebe is an independent commentator on socio-economic, political and global matters.