South Africa, Israel and the International Court of Justice – Interview with Weizmann Hamilton

UN General Assembly chamber (Photo; CC)

On January 11 and 12, 2024, the United Nation’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) heard the South African government’s case accusing Israel of carrying out “genocidal acts” in Gaza. On 26 January the court issued a provisional Order calling on Israel to “take all measures to prevent any acts that could be considered genocidal”.  But the court failed to order Israel to suspend its military campaign in Gaza. In any case, the court is powerless to enforce its rulings, especially in the case of the Israeli state, which is protected by the US and UK governments within the structures of the UN.

These are all capitalist institutions. The working class and poor masses – including, and especially, the Palestinians – can have no trust in the international organisations and legal architecture of capitalism nor the government’s that opportunistically and hypocritically use them to advance their own interests and agendas.

Nevertheless, the court case was hugely significant and reflected the pressure of the extreme anger felt around the world at the Israeli-state’s war of state-terror on the people of Gaza, especially in the neo-colonial world. It became a focus for opposition to the war, for a time, especially given the feelings of powerlessness felt by so many in the face of the Israeli-state’s brutal onslaught. The provisional ruling, limited and toothless as it was, felt like a moral victory to many.

South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) government and its president, Cyril Ramaphosa, have postured on the moral high ground in explaining why they laid the charges against Israel. In particular, parallels have been drawn between the struggle against the racist segregation system of apartheid that existed in South Africa until the early 1990s and the treatment of the Palestinians today. For many, especially an older generation, this can be extremely emotive.

Unfortunately, the ANC government, and Ramaphosa, are less than genuine. Elections are due in South Africa this year in which the ANC is expected to lose the parliamentary majority it has enjoyed for thirty years. Widespread corruption, crime, poverty, mass unemployment, the collapse of infrastructure, especially electricity,  and relentless attacks on public services and public sector  workers have led millions of South Africans to turn their backs in disgust at the ANC and Ramaphosa. The concern that they claim to hold for the Palestinian people’s well-being is not extended to the South African people. But Ramaphosa hopes that the case will boost the ANC’s electoral prospects.

Further, the hypocrisy of the ANC government bringing a case in which legal definitions, in particular of genocide, have played such a central role, exposes their utter hypocrisy. In 2012, the South African police massacred 34 striking mineworkers. Ramaphosa was a shareholder and non-executive director in the mining house at the time. He insisted that the strike was not a “labour dispute” but a “dastardly criminal” act demanding “concomitant action” which he lobbied the Security Minister for. In the debates about policing at the time this immediately injected the idea of an armed response. The next day the massacre took place. To this day the ANC refuses to call Marikana a massacre, instead referring to it as “the Marikana tragedy”.

The ANC government has used the ICJ rather than the International Criminal Court (ICC) because it has a more complicated relationship with the latter despite being a signatory to it. The ANC government’s recognition of ‘international law’ is selective. In 2017, the ANC government refused to arrest then-Sudanese dictator, Omar al-Bashir, an architect of the genocide in Darfur, when he passed through South Africa. Earlier this year Ramaphosa met with Sudanese General Mohamed Dagalo, who has renewed the genocide in Darfur, and elsewhere in Sudan, following the eruption of civil war last year.

The ANC government has periodically debated withdrawing from the ICC. This debate resurfaced last year because the ICC has charged Russian president Vladimir Putin with war crimes over his regime’s invasion of Ukraine. Putin calls his war a “special military option” however and the ANC government has abstained from any condemnation of the Russian-regime within the structures of the UN. The Ukrainian government has accused Putin’s regime of conducting a genocide and has been supported in this definition by the parliaments of  Canada, Estonia, Poland, Ireland, Latvia, and Lithuania. The ANC government says nothing about this however.

Ultimately, the legal definitions used by capitalist governments, the international bodies that they recognise, and their policies within them, are dictated by their class and geo-political interests. The South African government’s hypocritical balancing acts confirm this, which themselves reflect the complications of the increasingly multi-polar world that the CWI has identified.

On January 19, 2024, Gauche Révolutionnaire (Revolutionary Left – the CWI in France) interviewed Weizmann Hamilton, general secretary of the Marxist Workers Party, the South Africa section of the Committee for a Workers’ International, the International that Gauche Révolutionnaire is part of.

GR: Weizmann, why did South Africa file this complaint?

Weizmann: Looking at the brief put together by the legal team representing South Africa, it is clear that there were very serious, legitimate legal and political reasons for filing such a complaint against the Israeli government. The notion of proportionality was completely flouted and the number of people killed far, far exceeded the number of human lives lost during the events of October 7. This sparked a widespread feeling of revolt throughout the world.

Until then, the actions of the ANC government could, being very generous, be described as symbolic – and even ambiguous: the government rejected a motion adopted by Parliament calling for the closure of the Israeli embassy and the expulsion of the ambassador. Companies that have extensive commercial ties with Israel bring in several hundred million rands to the South African government…

But the Israeli government’s offensive has intensified to monstrous levels. The evidence provided by the South African legal team helped illustrate the targeted destruction of cultural centres, churches, universities, schools, hospitals, individuals within Palestinian society, journalists, doctors, academics, etc.

There is much more at stake here than just the supposedly defensive response of a state that has been attacked. What Netanyahu did through this war was to remind the Palestinians in particular of the fact that they had already been pushed back onto barely 20% of the land that formed historic Palestine in 1947, before the UN decision to establish the State of Israel. These 20% of land had been granted to them supposedly so that they could exercise their right to self-determination. But even that has been made impossible by the actions of this same Netanyahu, in defiance of the stated goals of the Oslo Code, the Camp David Protocol, the Oslo Accords, etc. It is common knowledge that he wants to make it impossible for the so-called Palestinian-only state to be viable. And then, of course, there is everything that people know, even before the events of October 7: the apartheid wall, the fact that they do not have the right to have their own port at sea… Now this occupation is being allowed to develop its own momentum, with the objective of the complete destruction of Gaza and obliterating the very notion of a Palestinian people with their own right to exist…the same right as the State of Israel itself claims to exercise!

The ANC responded thanks to the anger of the South African population, the similarities between the suffering of the Palestinians and that of the black majority under apartheid, and the historic statements of the ANC, according to that they would “not be completely free until the Palestinians are free”… We have seen an unprecedented level of propaganda, orchestrated by the international mainstream media, to keep people in the dark. Unfortunately, it must be pointed out that the South African media itself, at first, avoided fully covering the situation, so the full horror of what was happening was not clear to people in the country, they who have benefited from international solidarity at a level that very few struggles in the world have reached. This pressure therefore ended up weighing on the ANC to take the case to the International Court of Justice.

GR: Do you think the legal action and the ICJ will help stop the massacre in Gaza?

Weizmann: Well, look, it is not certain that the International Court of Justice is going to issue the order that the South African government is asking for, namely – and this without the question of knowing whether it is indeed of genocide be decided on its merits, as it will take more than a year – an interim order regarding acts which the ANC government has convincingly demonstrated complied with all the criteria of the definition of genocide a genocide. And that, therefore, these acts had to stop until the case was decided.

But regardless of any decision on this issue, I believe that the very act of taking Israel to the International Court of Justice has done serious damage to Israel’s credibility and also to that of the US. They will be under enormous pressure to abstain if the issue comes before the Security Council, rather than voting against it. The Israeli government has also defended its case very poorly, even from a legal point of view. And this gave enormous encouragement to the international solidarity campaign in support of the Palestinians. So I think, from that point of view, it’s excellent.

I think most people, including the legal team, went into this process without the illusion that automatically, a strong case, competently presented, would be enough to win the battle. We know that these international institutions were designed by the dominant powers, particularly the United States, so that no negative decision taken by these institutions could harm them – but also to use them to justify, as we know it, the war in Iraq, etc. So, politically, the decision will not be made simply on the legal grounds of the case. There is a problem for these institutions themselves, because if a case has been presented as well as it has been, and you are still not able, as a court, to make a decision which corresponds to the evidence presented and the arguments put forward, this further prejudices the court itself.

So, you see, whatever they do, it’s a problem for US imperialism and for Israel in this particular case. So let’s wait and see. So I think that if we limit ourselves only to the legal process, it is abundantly clear that that alone will not stop the carnage that we are witnessing in Gaza right now.

GR: According to you and the Marxist Workers Party, what should be done then, in South Africa and internationally?

Weizmann: Every support must be given to the strengthening of working class organisations in Palestine, Israel and across the region. In the South African struggle against apartheid the decisive factor was working class organisation and struggle within the country, by which I mean mass mobilisation in strikes, stay-aways and marches rendering the system of oppression unworkable. The international solidarity was an enormous boost to this, but ultimately played a supporting role to this.

But the same applies internationally. I think the biggest weakness of the solidarity campaign so far has been the absence of the role of workers’ organizations.

If we return to the international actions organized against the apartheid regime, there are several excellent examples of the direct impact on the South African government, on an economic and even military level, of the action carried out by the unions, by dockers, in London, for example. I personally had the privilege of visiting dockworkers in Greece when I was in exile. And the Greek dockers told me: “The day you decide that you want us to come and take up arms and fight alongside you, please call us.” The story of Irish workers at the Dunnes chain of stores, who refused to handle South African products in Dublin stores, is very famous. When disciplinary measures were taken against them, the workers decided to take action. Initially, their own union did not want to support them, or even the official anti-apartheid movement. The workers took action every day for almost three years. Their determination resulted in Ireland becoming the first Western European country to impose sanctions against the South African government. They were supported by the late comrade Nimrod Sejake, who was a member of the Marxist Workers Tendency in the ANC at the time, and who was in Ireland and remained with them throughout their action. The only time he wasn’t on the picket line was when he felt bad, the old man.

These kinds of actions – the disruption or severing of sporting, even cultural, ties, all of this – because it was an organized movement, had a considerable impact on the pressure exerted not only on the apartheid regime , but also on the governments which defended it. Let us not forget that the United States and Britain in particular, Israel’s strongest supporters today, were those who engaged in what was then called “constructive engagement.” » with the apartheid regime, and unambiguously refused to condemn the white minority regime and its own racism at that precise moment. Mandela remained on the list of people suspected of terrorism four years after being elected president following the official end of apartheid!

We can therefore have no illusions in these imperialist governments. Their position in the current situation is steeped in completely toxic hypocrisy. It is just as hypocritical as their position of empathy with the Jews themselves. They exploit and destroy the true memory, the true struggle of the Jews themselves against pogroms, against discrimination and injustice.

So I think what we need to call for is a reawakening of these old methods of struggle: that all arms deliveries, no matter at which end of the chain, from the very beginning, wherever they are manufactured , be stopped by the labour movement. But I also think that we should go even further. I think what is needed is coordinated action by the global labour movement on this issue. And if the governments of the countries in which these unions are active, such as the US or Great Britain, continue to ignore people’s opinions on this issue, then action must be taken against these governments themselves, under the leadership of the unions in these countries. This is what we would call for because it is the most effective solidarity action.

Let us also remember that the First World War ended following the insurrection of the German working class. The British comrades, in material they have written about the war, say that the working class is the real superpower. It is this power which must be brought to bear on these events, from the point of view of the working class.

Ultimately, I would say that what these events have shown us is the correctness of what Trotsky developed in the 1940s: that the establishment of an Israeli state in the Middle East would be a trap for the Jewish working class. . This is exactly what happened. But now this has created the problem of the Jewish working class and the oppressed Arab masses as well. Out of this chaos, only solidarity between the Israeli working class and the Palestinian working class, and indeed with the working class throughout the Middle East, in the common struggle against capitalism and to establish a socialist Middle East, with a socialist solution that the Jewish working class and Palestinians agree on. And which allows all subjects to be put on the table to be debated democratically on this basis. Once an agreement is reached on the real enemy, the capitalist system, then all other subjects will become a discussion, not between enemies but between friends, between allies, between comrades in a common struggle – whether on the question of religion, culture, language…

GR: Thank you very much Weizmann for this very interesting quality interview. Do you have any other final comments?

Weizmann: Well, you know, in response to events and also wanting to share our experience in South Africa with our brothers and sisters in Palestine, as the Marxist Worker’s Party, we have a responsibility to share with the Palestinian people our own experience on what was supposed to be the end of apartheid; what it actually really meant to us. Because in our struggle the leadership, especially under the influence of the South African Communist Party and its “stages” theory, separated the question of the economic foundations of post-apartheid South Africa from the question of democracy. The result was that we were given the right to vote… but the power to take over the economy was excluded and placed beyond the reach of our democratic rights, in the so-called “most progressive” Constitution in the world . The consequence of this is that we have not achieved our own liberation. The CWI warned about this at the time.

South Africa is today the most unequal society in the world. And the greatest inequality is no longer between whites and blacks, but within the black population itself. Unless the Palestinians inscribe on the banner of their liberation struggle not only the realization and removal of their domination by the Israeli regime but also the abolition of the capitalist system itself, then it matters little what form this takes, it will not be a liberation. Because the Palestinian society that will be built on this basis will have left the capitalist system intact, and a tiny parasitic elite will take the place of those who previously exploited the Palestinian working class, for their own benefit.

Among the workers of South Africa there was an understanding at the time, among the ruling layers of the working class, particularly in the mid-1980s, that we could not achieve our liberation unless we overthrew simultaneously the white minority regime and capitalism itself. Unfortunately, the leadership of the mass movement prevented the struggle from being carried out in this direction, and has kept the question of ownership of the economy, and therefore of the capitalist system itself, beyond the democratic reach of the masses themselves, and in fact, anchored it in the new constitution.

The result: the horror, the social misery experienced by the majority of the black working class today. Youth unemployment rates among the highest, crime rates and violence against women the highest in the world, still millions of people suffering from HIV/AIDS… This is the fate that awaits the Palestinians, unless they adopt a socialist program for their liberation. What they need to examine are the obstacles that stand in the way of achieving their liberation on this basis. And this base is the Israeli state itself, which has a social base, founded on the Israeli working class. An appeal must be made to the Israeli working class to fight with them for the socialist transformation of society, and therefore, an appeal to the Israeli working class to turn against its own exploiters: the Israeli capitalist class. On this basis, a struggle that might otherwise take the form of the horrors of a national civil war, consuming the lives of all, on both sides, can be avoided, and a relatively peaceful transformation of society can be achieved on this basis. This is what we believe to be our internationalist duty to the Palestinians, to share with them the lessons of our own experience.

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