South Africa's case against Israel has exposed post-colonial fissures around the world

Former colonial powers like the US are acting recklessly in their support for Israel, an occupier of the Palestinian territories

A Palestinian man holds a portrait of late PLO leader Yasser Arafat and former South African president Nelson Mandela in Bethlehem last week. AFP
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I have often discussed with friends and colleagues in South-East Asia and the Gulf how extraordinary it is that the UK has such good relations with nearly all of its former colonies.

For the most part, being ruled from London involved a huge extraction of goods and wealth, as detailed by the writer and politician Shashi Tharoor in his 2017 book Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India– and that’s just the half of it. Yet this doesn’t generally appear to impede very cordial ties today with countries across the continents.

Similarly, US-Philippines relations appear to be little affected by the fact that America destroyed the First Philippine Republic when it declared independence from Spain in 1898, with Washington taking over as the colonial power instead. Neither, when my family were living in Papua New Guinea in the late 1980s, did I hear anything about Germany’s colonisation of part of the island in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

There’s even a joke about Irish people’s largely benign view of their British neighbours, despite hundreds of years of frequently brutal occupation. “What’s a few centuries of oppression between friends?”

But the experience of colonisation is far from forgotten. That is why it was no surprise to see an Irish lawyer, Blinne Ni Ghralaigh, making the coruscating closing remarks in South Africa’s case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over whether Israel is committing genocide, or acting with genocidal intent, in Gaza. Ireland is one of the most pro-Palestinian countries in Europe. Its parliament voted to condemn Israel’s “de facto annexation” of land in the Occupied Territories in 2021, and its leaders have gone further than most in calling for a ceasefire.

Power is shifting inexorably away from the colonisers and towards the formerly colonised

It’s also why it was no surprise that Germany’s announcement that it would be supporting Israel in the ICJ case was swiftly followed by a furious statement from Namibian President Hage Geingob. From 1884 to 1918, the country was called German South West Africa, and after a rebellion against colonial rule, the Germans perpetrated atrocities against the local Herero and Nama peoples that led to mass deaths estimated to constitute at least 50 per cent of both populations.

“Germany committed the first genocide of the 20th century in 1904-1908, in which tens of thousands of innocent Namibians died in the most inhumane and brutal conditions. The German government is yet to fully atone for the genocide it committed on Namibian soil,” Mr Geingob’s statement said. “Germany cannot morally express commitment to the United Nations Convention against genocide, including atonement for the genocide in Namibia, whilst supporting the equivalent of a holocaust and genocide in Gaza.”

The pattern is clear. Israel’s side at the ICJ is being supported by former colonisers – the US, UK, Germany and Canada. While those with experience of being colonised, treated as second-class citizens in their own lands, their lives often considered expendable – including Malaysia, Pakistan, Brazil, the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation and the Arab League – are supporting South Africa and Palestine.

They can see who are on the receiving end of what Pope Francis has called acts of “terrorism” and open declarations of what many have construed to be genocidal intent by a host of Israeli leaders.

All this is leading to divisions in the world that are fast becoming chasms.

The former colonisers are acting recklessly in their support for Israel – at the ICJ in this case – which is unarguably a colonising power in the West Bank and in its formal occupation of Gaza. For the leeway they are extending to Israel to act as it likes is resurrecting the past and outraging the many countries that see similarities between how the Palestinians are being, and have been, treated and their own histories of colonisation.

But this is a changed world. Power is shifting inexorably away from the colonisers and towards the formerly colonised. The latter simply aren’t prepared to stand for what they view to be the outrageous double standards of the colonisers any more.

“The Global South is moving,” the veteran Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi said in a recent interview. “The Global North has been exposed for the racist, hypocritical, neocolonial system that it is, and of course Israel has been laid bare as busy committing genocide in plain sight. The equations are shifting now, and all sorts of fault lines have been exposed.”

“It’s going to take time for this to play out,” she added – perhaps more presciently than she knew. For a group of South African lawyers announced this week that they are preparing to file a lawsuit against the US and UK governments, accusing them of being complicit in “war crimes” committed by Israel against the Palestinians.

The latter case may well not get very far, and we do not know what conclusions the ICJ will draw. As compelling as South Africa’s charge sheet may be to many, it is unfortunately possible that its verdict may end up owing more to political influence than to the interests of justice. But I agree with Ms Ashrawi: we are witnessing a seismic shift. Leaders of the former colonising nations don’t seem to be aware of just how much goodwill they are squandering, or of how their actions are hardening attitudes against them, around the globe.

As the order they instituted after the Second World War begins to crack and splinter – not least through the exemptions to its supposedly inviolable rules they grant to friends and to themselves – it may not be long before they have cause to regret it. If their former colonies could agree not to let imperial powers’ arrogance and indifference to human suffering in the past interfere with friendly relations in recent decades, no such lenience will be extended to their actions today.

Published: January 17, 2024, 4:00 AM