Palestinian minister accuses Israel of ‘colonialism and apartheid’ at International Court of Justice

19 February 2024// The Guardian

Riyad al-Maliki presents Palestinian case at start of week of hearings called by UN general assembly vote

The Palestinian foreign minister has accused Israel of “colonialism and apartheid” at a world court hearing on the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands since 1967.

“For over a century, the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination has been denied and violated,” Riyad al-Maliki told a bench of judges at the international court of justice (ICJ), the UN’s highest court, in The Hague. “Palestine was not a land without people. It was not, as Israeli leaders have described it, a wasteland. There was life on this land.”

He was presenting the Palestinian case at the start of a week of hearings called for by a UN general assembly vote in 2022.

Within the next few months the judges are expected to provide the assembly a non-binding assessment of how the Israeli policies of Jewish settlement and annexation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem “affect the legal status of the occupation” and its consequences for the rest of the world.

The hearings are separate from a case brought to the ICJ by South Africa in January under the Genocide convention, in which the court was ask to order a ceasefire in Gaza.

In that case, the court stopped short of that request but issued “provisional measures” on 26 January that called on Israel to rein in its military operations and ensure the provision of humanitarian relief to besieged Palestinians. The measures are legally binding but have not made a noticeable difference to the way Israel has pursued its military campaign in Gaza.

In Monday’s hearing, Maliki illustrated his presentation with five maps, showed the dramatic erosion of Palestinian territory from the land established as Palestine under a League of Nations mandate in 1920.

The maps depicted the territory’s proposed partition under a failed 1947 UN plan, its reduction to the West Bank and Gaza after the 1948 war that led to the creation of Israel and the fragments of Palestinian-run areas in the West Bank left by 2020, after decades of Jewish settlement.

Finally, a picture was shown of the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, at the UN general assembly last September, holding up a map that he called the “new” Middle East in which all vestiges of Palestinian territory had been removed.

“There is no Palestine at all on this map, only Israel, comprised of all the land from Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea,” Maliki told the hearing. “This shows you what the prolonged, continuous Israeli occupation of Palestine is intended to accomplish – the complete disappearance of Palestine and the destruction of the Palestinian people.

“The Palestinians have endured colonialism and apartheid. There are those who are enraged by these words. They should be enraged by the reality we are suffering.”

Helping present the Palestinian case, Anglo-French lawyer Philippe Sands said the ruling by the court would clarify the obligations of the international community.

“The right of self-determination requires that UN member states bring Israel’s occupation to an immediate end,” Sands told the judges. “No aid, no assistance, no complicity, no contribution to forcible actions, no money, no arms, no trade. No nothing.”

Israel denies accusations that its actions are a form of apartheid and that its offensive on Gaza, which was sparked by a Hamas attack on southern Israel on 7 October, constitutes genocide.

An unprecedented 52 states are due to present arguments in this week’s hearings on the occupation, including the US and Russia. Israel has said it will not participate but it submitted a written argument in July, urging the ICJ to dismiss the request for an opinion.

Netanyahu’s office said the conflict should be resolved through negotiations and that the case brought before the ICJ was “aimed at harming Israel’s rights to defend itself from existential threats”.

A spokesperson for the Israeli foreign ministry, Lior Haiat, claimed in a post on the social media platform X that the ICJ was being used as a “political tool to attack Israel” and that this harmed “both global trust in the international legal system and the chances of reaching a resolution of the conflict”.

Agnès Callamard, the secretary secretary of Amnesty International, said: “Israel’s occupation of Palestine is the longest and one of the most deadly military occupations in the world.

“Over the years, Israel’s military occupation has evolved into a perpetual occupation in flagrant violation of international law. The world must recognise that ending Israel’s illegal occupation is a prerequisite to stopping the recurrent human rights violations in Israel and the [occupied] Palestinian territories.”

Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem in a 1967 war. It has since allowed Israeli settlements to be built in the West Bank and for them to be steadily expanded. Israeli leaders have long disputed that the territories are formally occupied on the basis that they were captured from Jordan and Egypt during a war rather than from a sovereign Palestine.

The United Nations has since 1967 referred to the territories as occupied by Israel and demanded that Israeli forces withdraw.