For Palestine, justice is not a question of law

M Muhannad Ayyash

The author of A Hermeneutics of Violence (UTP, 2019)
March 07, 2023

These days much of the efforts to dismantle Israel’s apartheid and settler colonial systems of domination over the Palestinian people appear to be following a legal approach.

Scholars, activists and even policymakers invested in the issue increasingly suggest the path towards Palestinian liberation is through securing a legal opinion officially defining Israel’s violent expulsion of Palestinians as apartheid and colonialism.

The recent United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution calling on the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to give an opinion on the legal consequences of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territories is the most recent example of this trend.

I wholeheartedly support and encourage all such efforts, and I am pleased that the UNGA passed this important resolution. Though sceptical, I truly hope that the ICJ opinion will reflect the real conditions that Palestinians suffer, and help dispel Israeli propaganda. Yet I do not believe it is productive or wise to confine all efforts towards Palestinian liberation within the frames of human rights and international law.

The Palestinian struggle for liberation must be multifaceted and multidimensional. We need to ensure that the legal approach does not become the predominant face of the Palestinian struggle. It is – and should remain – merely one of its facets. After all, the core of the Palestinian struggle has never been and will never be a legal one. It is a struggle of and for justice, not law. There is a critical difference between the two.

The legal approach has several shortcomings which means that, if it is pursued on its own, or posited as the leading facet of the struggle, it will harm the Palestinian cause.

First, the international legal system often fails to properly contextualise state violence as a political matter and treats it as a solely criminal one. As a result, it associates justice only with the punishment of individual perpetrators, leaving complex political structures, logic, and dynamics that are at the root of the problem unanalysed and unaltered.

Second, international courts face significant pushback, including questions about the limits of their jurisdiction, whenever they attempt to legally define and issue a verdict on the violence perpetrated by states that belong to the United States’ imperial power bloc (of which Israel is a part). Thus, if a court, such as the ICJ or the International Criminal Court (ICC), dares to designate Israel an apartheid state, it will be attacked by Israel’s powerful and influential allies. And, perhaps more importantly, the opinion will likely lead not to any meaningful punitive action against Israel by the leaders of the international community, but to a watering down of the meaning of the terms used to define Israel’s violent actions.

Beyond these limitations, there is also the fact that the international legal system has been created by imperial powers to protect their hegemony and serve their interests. Indeed, the legal structures that the oppressed and marginalised are told to rely on to deal with imperial and settler colonial violence are themselves a crucial part of the political system that birthed that violence. They actively legitimise, maintain and justify imperial and settler colonial violence, including Israel’s against the Palestinians.

International law, which is supposed to be a neutral vehicle for justice, is, in fact, a form of violence in and of itself. When I say law is a form of violence, I am not referring to how the settler colonial state uses it to legitimise what its military has achieved through brute force. Rather, I am referring to how the law itself is an outcome and continuation of settler colonial and imperial violence. Violence perpetrated by the powerful validates the law – gives it purpose, legitimacy and potency. Thus the law is designed to stifle, not strengthen, Palestinian resistance.

"The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author."

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