INTERVIEW: ‘Israel now joins the ranks of genocidal countries’

Amira Howeidy , Wednesday 31 Jan 2024

The International Court of Justice dealt Israel a decisive blow in its ruling on 26 January, Palestinian analyst Diana Buttu says in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly

 Israel now joins the ranks of genocidal countries


Palestinian-Canadian lawyer, political analyst and lecturer Diana Buttu is a former legal advisor to the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). Her name came to international attention after joining the PLO’s negotiating team in her early 30s in the peace talks with Israel two decades ago. During her tenure, she was involved in the case brought before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2004 by Palestine on the legality of Israel’s massive separation wall on occupied Palestinian Territory, which the court advised was illegal.

In a telephone interview with the Weekly from Haifa, Israel, on Tuesday, Buttu, 54, explained that ICJ’s ruling on 26 January in the case brought by South Africa against Israel is tantamount to a call for a ceasefire and places Israel firmly in the ranks of rogue states.


With so much analysis of the ICJ ruling on South Africa’s case against Israel, there seems to be a mainstream narrative that at its heart, the Court’s decision is a victory for Israel and a disappointment for the Palestinians because it fell short of calling for a ceasefire in the war on Gaza.

The Court’s decision is definitely not a victory for Israel. It’s a decisive blow. 

I’m not in Gaza. And because I’m not in Gaza, I understand that what people were hoping to hear in Gaza were very definitive words: ceasefire. And that’s because they’re in the inferno. But because I’m outside the inferno, I can see how the fire is going to go out.

But first, why is the ICJ ruling a blow to Israel? The Israelis were hoping the case would be dismissed. It was not. They were hoping that they could avoid the stain of being a country that is plausibly committing genocide. They did not get that. 

Leave aside these two simple things. This is what the Court said and remember that its 15 judges agreed compared to two, with one of them [Aharon Barak] being a non-judge and the other Ugandan judge exhibiting reasoning that wasn’t reasoning.  

The Court said that:

1- Israel should take measures to prevent genocide.

2- It should order its military to prevent genocide.

3-   It needs to preserve evidence.

4-   It needs to ensure effective humanitarian aid. 

5-   It needs to prosecute statements of incitement.

The only way you can do the first four is by a ceasefire. 

Even the passage the Court was reading about effective humanitarian aid, if you go back and read the full document [it quotes] the UN Commissioner for Human Rights who says it can only be in place if there’s a ceasefire. 

The interesting thing about genocide that people miss is the international legal system is not like the regular legal system. In the regular legal system the law applies to everyone. That’s not the way it works in the international system, which is by consent except, and this is the important part, when it comes to genocide. Countries individually and collectively have to work to prevent genocide, and that is why Israel is freaking out. 


Are you saying that the ICJ’s wording could not have been better? Many Palestinians have found it frustrating that the Court asked Israel, the party that is committing acts of genocide, to adhere to the ICJ’s provisional measures to prevent genocide.

That is exactly the point. The only way this can be done is through a ceasefire. Why didn’t they say ceasefire? One: they can’t. This might be surprising for some, but war is legal and it has to be done within confines and boundaries. And because of this, they can’t order a ceasefire. But what the Court said was we can order a prevention of genocide, which is much higher.
If you look at similar cases that have been brought to ICJ, the finding of a ceasefire doesn’t come at this preliminary stage. It didn’t in Myanmar and others. But some will say, oh but they did, they ordered Russia. But that’s a totally different case because Russia was using the Genocide Convention to launch an attack on Ukraine. So, the ICJ said you are misusing the concept of genocide, and therefore you must stop – totally different. 

What do you make of Israel’s external and domestic narratives and interpretations of the ICJ ruling?

Externally, Israel says they won, that the Palestinians didn’t get the magic word [ceasefire] and that the Court said they have the right to self-defence, which it did not. What Israel is afraid of is being treated as though it is not a normal country – and it’s not a normal country. So, what they’re trying to do is tell the outside world: don’t boycott us, there is no reason, we actually have a Court that is saying we didn’t do anything wrong. That’s the outside language. 

But the inside language is a little different. You see articles saying this is a yellow card for Israel, you have the President of the country [Israel] saying his words have been misinterpreted, and that he didn’t mean that there are no innocents in Gaza when he said that “there are no innocents in Gaza.” You have the Prime Minister saying they abide by international law.

So, you get a mixed [narrative] because they can try all the propaganda they want, but it doesn’t take much for them to be able to read that a decision came down against them 15 to one. And the person who read the decision is an American judge, so the cards Israel normally uses like antisemitism, etc., don’t work, and they have their own judge who agreed with two provisions on increasing humanitarian aid and prosecuting individuals for inciting genocide. So, as much as the Israelis try to hide, and they will try to hide, I think they know that the usual labels won’t work.

Since you mention him, why do you think Israeli Judge Aharon Barak voted for these two provisional measures?

This is in line with his legal history. He used to be the President of the Israeli Supreme Court, and his whole way of approaching things has always been to view this through the lens of a humanitarian security framework, security always overriding anything else. So, people knew that the only way you can get a positive ruling from Barak was if you could somehow manage to convince him that there is a slight humanitarian need that needs to be weighed against what he calls the security imperative.

He’s a fascist judge. Barak is a judge who said that it was okay to demolish Palestinian homes, to assassinate people, to build and expand [illegal Israeli] settlements [on Occupied Palestinian Territory]. He is the judge who said that Israel’s [Apartheid] Separation Wall is legal, although the ICJ ruled in 2004 that it is illegal, and he has voted in favour of measures to divide Palestinian families. I really think that some of the worst lawmaking was done during his period in office.

So, his votes in favour of two of the ICJ’s provisional measure were meant to whitewash Israel’s image, in this case due to the gravity of the accusation of genocide? 

Of course. He’s been a judge who’s done a great job of white-washing Israel’s image.  Imagine if a decision comes out to increase humanitarian aid that he votes against it. Or if he came out and said do not punish people who make incitement comments? Every single day, without fail, I hear some statement of incitement to kill. Every single day.

The database Law for Palestine, for example, which compiles genocidal incitement statements, has logged over 500 of them.

How in your view are the ICJ’s provisional measures an indirect call for a ceasefire when Israel’s immediate response was to call for the abolition of UNRWA, the main UN agency that provides humanitarian aid to the Palestinians? How does that serve the Court’s ruling?

This is Israel’s dream. It’s exactly what Israel has been wanting to do for as long as I’ve been alive and for as long as Israel has been alive.

UNRWA isn’t just a UN agency: it is the symbol of the Palestinian refugees, and they want to get rid of the issue. When US President Donald Trump was in office, he stopped funding URNWA.

Right now, Israel is trying to do two things: deflect attention from the ICJ because remember that Israel is now in the ranks of countries like Myanmar, Rwanda, Cambodia, the Former Yugoslavia, and Germany: it’s a genocidal country. How do you deflect from this? You create a situation like this [involving UNRWA] immediately after the ICJ ruling, which is not a coincidence of timing.

Because they’re trying to deal with a decisive blow and they want to get rid of us as Palestinians, they’re attacking UNRWA, so that they can try to claim that there’s no channel to send effective humanitarian aid.  

So, the ICJ calls on Israel to increase humanitarian aid, and Israel responds by killing off the main channel for it? That is both self-incriminating and goes against reason.

Absolutely. But Israel is not logical. Its genocidal.

But by supporting Israel and cutting off aid to UNRWA, as we’ve seen the US, Germany, the UK, Canada, Australia, and other states do, doesn’t this go against what you and other observers describe as the growing pressure for a ceasefire in line with the ICJ’s ruling?

The decision to cut off aid to UNRWA is one thing, but supporting this campaign is something else.In a weird way, it is because they are cutting off aid that the only way they can abide by the Court ruling is once again through a ceasefire. The countries that have cut off aid, with the exception of the US and Canada, are pushing for Israel to abide by the ICJ ruling. And as much as they might be cutting aid to UNRWA at this point in time, they’re also on the other hand saying to Israel, enough is enough because they’re next.

Genocide is not just about South Africa versus Israel :It implicates every country. So, which countries have made an arms embargo against and ostracised Israel? As much as I’m against what’s happening to UNRWA, there are other channels to get assistance. So, all this has to be viewed with a bigger lens. I woke up to the news today that there’s almost going to be a ceasefire. The Egyptians and Qataris are working very hard, and I think this is where the pressure point is going to be: to get Israel to stop. Because there’s no way that this ruling can be implemented without that. 

The ICJ said that Israel has one month to comply with its ruling. What happens next?

It’s going to be a lot of closed-door pressure on Israel. Within 30 days, Israel must file a report to both the Court and South Africa about the measure it has taken to abide by the ruling. So far, the list is not looking good. Any country can then take this to the UN Security Council, and they can get it to censure or place sanctions on Israel. 

And the US veto?

The question then becomes, does the US want to veto a decision regarding genocide?

The US is looking for a way to save face: they don’t want to get into an all-out confrontation with Israel, and accordingly I think they’re going to say it’s time to wrap this up because this is very embarrassing for them, hence the efforts to push for a ceasefire.

What does this unprecedented situation for Israel really mean – that it’s implicated in genocide according to the World Court?

In the eyes of the world Israel now joins the ranks of genocidal countries. Genocide is considered the worst crime in international law, which is why this is a game-changer.

A few years ago, a campaign called Red Card for Apartheid attempted to get the International Football Federation FIFA to expel Israel, which FIFA declined to do on the grounds that they’re not political, and sports are sports. Yet, when it came to Russia, they acted very quickly. 

Remember that law is never going to replace politics, but all these avenues can open up: there will be pressure for no arms sales to Israel. Do you want to visit a country that carries out genocide? Do you want this genocidal country participating in Eurovision or the Olympics? Then it goes deeper: if the US doesn’t act, can a claim be made against them because they didn’t act to stop the genocide? Can Palestinians sue for damages against Luxemburg for failing to take action to stop Israel? 

Again, genocide isn’t a normal crime. It implicates each and everything individually and collectively.

Short link: