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Expert panel at SOAS discuss accountability for Israel’s Gaza war crimes and Genocide

June 21, 2024 at 3:56 pm

War on Gaza: Holding Account through International Law event

The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), in collaboration with Influencing the Corridors of Power (ICOP), held a pivotal event at the Brunei Gallery yesterday evening as part of its ongoing Palestine series that has been running at SOAS and in the UK Parliament.

The session, entitled “War on Gaza: Holding Account through International Law”, focused on the pressing issue of state accountability under international law amid current conflicts, placing a particular emphasis on the legal and diplomatic implications of genocide and war crimes.

Among the panel of experts was UN Special Rapporteur on the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Francesca Albanese.

Dr. Nimer Sultany, Reader in Law at SOAS and editor-in-chief of the Palestine Yearbook of International Law, reminded the audience that “law can be complicit in injustice,” and that “moral judgement is not reducible to law.” Sultany called out the reluctance of human rights organisations, legal scholars and the like to call the unfolding situation in Palestine a genocide, stating that the human rights agenda is too focused on the lack of enforcement. Echoing the words of Edward Said, Sultany said we are facing “a wall of denial.”

Speaking on the importance of international accountability, Yasmine Ahmed, UK director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), stated that without accountability, we have impunity, “and impunity leads to continued violence.” She called out the double standards within international regimes, arguing they undermine rules-based order. While she noted that we are seeing the wheels of justice turn in a way we hadn’t before, she acknowledged that the war crimes being perpetrated in Palestine would not be happening without the complicity of other states. She added that we must fight for individual criminal responsibility for those aiding and abetting the Israeli government in order to make their world smaller and smaller.

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Tayab Ali, director at the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians and head of International Law at Bindmans LLP, agreed with Ahmed’s claim that the wheels of justice are finally starting to turn, but asserted it is nowhere near enough. Ali stated that the war in Gaza has demonstrated “in visceral detail the international community’s lack of commitment to any real international law-based order, particularly if it would in some way be against their own perceived national interests.” He emphasised that, despite Israel’s own repetition of genocidal intent, “Western leaders are guilty of viewing Palestine and Israel through the prejudiced prism of a merciless Palestinian terrorists against the gentle Jewish victims who are desperately maintaining the only democracy in the Middle East.” As a result, the UN Security Council has “failed immeasurably” to uphold any significant acts that might prevent violations of international law.

However, Ali argues that the risks should have been blatantly clear to politicians in the UK, at the very least. In 2009, it was clear to a British Court what Israel was capable of doing after Ali jointly led a legal team in a successful application based on evidence collected in the UK for an arrest warrant against former Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni for her role in alleged war crimes during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. The operation resulted in the killing of 1,400 Palestinians, including 300 children, and more than 5,000 injured. In 2014, Israel killed 2,189 Palestinians, including 513 children, and injured over 11,000. By May 2024, Israel has killed over 38,000 people, most of whom are women and children.

Reflecting on the implications of the ICC’s ruling and subsequent mandate for arrest warrants, Ali added that the current proceedings at the UN, ICC and ICJ shed light on an inherent weakness in the structural protections in place for when rights and international law are violated: “We do not have independent and objectively operating instruments to put into place any practical protections for people when their rights are being violated, even when the allegation is genocide.” Despite the loss of 75 million lives during World War II, we still do not comprehend the cost of war and have “no effective mechanism” to prevent vast war and genocide.

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Thanking the students for their continued resilience, Francesca Albanese, UN special rapporteur on the Occupied Palestinian Territories, emphasised the need to pay tribute to Palestinians, who stand as a symbol of international crisis and have changed our understanding of the word “resistance.” Albanese reminded the audience that Western nations “share so much with Israel when it comes to apartheid modus operandi and practices,” stating that the Palestinian crisis is testing many freedoms and rights, such as the freedom of expression and the right to protest, within so-called democracies.

Albanese spoke about the crucial importance of understanding what genocide is; without this understanding, it would be incredibly difficult to ascertain and then hold accountable those who are complicit. Responding to claims that the aggression in Gaza cannot constitute genocide on the basis of the lack of crematoria, shestated that “Gaza works like a concentration camp,” adding that we have been too cautious with our language by referring to Gaza as an open-air prison. “Even in prison there are more rights than what has been granted to most people in Gaza,” she added. However, Albanese pointed out that the existence of crematoria is not a requisite to determine the existence of the crime of genocide.

Albanese also discussed the difference between genocide and extermination, highlighting that settler colonialism is inherently genocidal. She argued that it does not matter that many of Israeli’s early citizens were refugees of another genocide; “They didn’t go to Palestine as refugees, they went and took the land or partook in a project of the arbitrary taking of the land of another people, displacing them, killing them, forcing them into an exile that was also the dismemberment of their homeland and their nationhood.”

Sharing her thoughts on the ICC and ICJ’s rulings, Albanese noted that this is going to be the first settler colonial genocide which has ever been brought to an international court, thereby providing a “huge potential to set the record straight with history” for all those who have been destroyed in the process. This is particularly critical given that Israel has been allowed to practice as a secular colonial endeavour during a time where colonialism was illegal. “By bringing Israel to trial, all its accomplices will have to face this moment of reckoning.”

The panel was chaired by Neve Gordon, professor of International Law & Human Rights, Queen Mary University of London, who said: “If Israel wins, they will be using the Geneva Convention to justify genocide.”

UPDATE: This article was updated on 4 July 2024 at 12.45 to correct the attribution of some of the quotes.