For decades, Palestine has been framed by international law. This convenient perspective, rendered mainstream by the international community and the Palestinian Authority, has made international law a weapon to turn against the colonised. Noura Erakat’s latest book, Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine (Stanford University Press, 2019) unravels the use and misuse of international law when it comes to Palestine. “The law has the capacity to dominate as well as to resist,” she writes. In terms of strategic use of international law, the PA has embarked upon a series of failures that highlights how Israel, on the contrary, was able to harness its power to justify its colonisation of Palestine.
In the preface, Erakat states that “the law’s ability to oppress is evidence not of its failure but rather of the fact that it can be strategically deployed.” This fact is juxtaposed against the foundations of international law, which are derived from the colonial order and are, hence, a weapon of power against weaker political actors. The absence of global enforcement of international law is also a weakness that is exploited to the detriment of the colonised, as in the case of Palestine. With these contradictions, Erakat notes that the only promise international law makes “is to change and serve the interests of the most effective actors.”
For Palestinians, there is a long history that shaped the present legal contraptions. The author reflects on how the Balfour Declaration was incorporated into Britain’s League of Nations Mandate, “thereby transforming British colonial prerogative into international law and policy.” Furthermore, Israel’s acceptance at the UN normalised colonialism and ethnic cleansing, and justified, as Erakat writes, “the erasure of Palestinian peoplehood.”
In later years, the PLO and the PA preferred to maintain allegiances to the US rather than mobilise international law in their favour. The intermittent use of international law as applied by the PA stands in contrast to Israel’s constant seeking to manipulate self-declared exceptionalism in its favour, in particular after 1967 when humanitarian provisions were applied to Palestinians based on the premise that they held no sovereignty. While Israel continued to protect its colonial expansion politically, Palestinians were deemed “refugees necessitating humanitarian concern but not a dispossessed people in need of a political solution.”
The book’s chronological approach makes it possible to discern the shifts in how Palestinians moved from revolutionary strategy to diplomacy; the latter making their subjugation through international law more evident. The stance taken by colonial powers against the armed resistance of the colonised was at first followed by the PLO’s call for liberation and a Palestinian state. At a diplomatic level, the PLO and Fatah exhibited discordance, with Fatah making overtures to the US that contravened Palestinian liberation and which, in the long run, tethered Palestinians to their leaders’ failure to think and act strategically in terms of how international law can be an asset for Palestine.
The politics underpinning international law, Erakat argues, was used to dispossess Palestinians. In the PLO’s dealings with the UN, this dynamic was pushed to the fore time and again, as doubts regarding the UN’s power to implement the Palestinian right of return surfaced prior to the Oslo Accords. These discrepancies, always to the detriment of Palestinians, were sidelined as the PLO was affirmed as the only representative body of the Palestinian people and its overtures to diplomacy paved the way for the two-state paradigm.
One observation by Erakat depicts international law as “a living instrument that is continually made, implemented, broken and remade.” The book shows that while Palestinians were pursuing diplomatic options at the UN, Israel had already laid the groundwork for perpetual armed warfare and consistently tested the parameters for doing so. To maintain continuity, Israel promoted its warfare narrative at an international level, while its refusal to classify its confrontation with Palestinians avoided the use of “international armed conflict” in order to delegitimise the Palestinian right to armed struggle at an international level.
The manipulation of international law makes the legislation itself a web of injustice. Israeli colonialism intentionally applied ambiguity in order to make the case for exceptionalism; to achieve such aims it always had the backing of the international community and, in more recent years, the explicit support of the US.
Palestine has suffered legally due to the political constraints it has faced since the British Mandate. Prior to, and in the aftermath of, the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian leadership’s relinquishing of resistance contributed to the exclusion envisaged and coveted by Israeli colonialism. The autonomy framework, which is far removed from Palestinian political rights, became the ultimate betrayal upon which the rhetoric of purported conflict gained ground over colonisation. Politically, this justified the two-state paradigm while attributing authority and leadership to Israel. At an international level, Palestinians sealed their subjugation.
Israel’s politicisation of international law has turned Palestinians into perpetual targets. Its manipulation of international law is based upon speculation and pre-emptive measures; the results are violations of international law which are overlooked due to the international community’s legitimisation of Israel’s actions.
By contrast, Palestinians have not leveraged any political gains at an international level which, as a result, has thwarted their struggle for justice. Israel has gained acceptance at an international level for its erasure of Palestinians. Meanwhile, as Erakat observes succinctly, “The Palestinian Authority has internalised the colonial logic that its compliance and good behaviour will be rewarded with independence.”
For Palestinians, the rights-based approach is inadequate, Erakat argues. Palestinians need a political paradigm, something that has been missing in its international interlocution and which the Oslo Accords and PA acquiescence have rendered almost obsolete, despite the need. The politics of resistance have long been abandoned by the Palestinian leadership, leaving Palestinians vulnerable to the diplomacy pursued by the PA at an international level. Countering what Erakat terms “diplomatic respectability” will require an assertive, political struggle against settler-colonial dominance.
Erakat’s detailed analysis paints a dismal reality, yet it is one that must be acknowledged and worked from. Her meticulous discussion on the inherent injustice in international law propels attention towards what so far remains overlooked and calls the reader to reflect upon action that veers away from what the international community keeps demanding of Palestinians.