Palestinian demonstrators at Beit El near the West Bank city of Ramallah run from tear gas fired by Israeli troops during the protest against the US announcement that it no longer believes Israeli settlements violate international law. Picture: Majdi Mohammed/AP

Ever since World War II, we have abided by a rules-based international system where states are obliged to adhere to international law. The expectation that states must act according to international law or be sanctioned by the international community is what has prevented the world from descending into the abyss of a third World War. Without these constraints on naked power and arrogance, the law of the jungle would reign with unimaginable consequences. 

The US has spent much of the past few decades undermining international law by vetoing resolutions of the UN Security Council that call on Israel to adhere to international law. In total, the US has vetoed 43 such resolutions since 1972 in order to back its ally Israel. Such actions have eaten away at the integrity of the international rules-based system and encouraged other nations to flout international law, giving the impression that the remaining superpower will turn a blind eye and even provide political cover to select nations that do so. Other countries have also been guilty of violating international law, but as the remaining superpower, one would have expected the US to have led by example.  

But the US announcement last week that it no longer believes Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank violate international law was perhaps the most flagrant attack to date on the international rules-based system. The US is basically putting its middle finger up to the UN system that has painstakingly attempted to maintain international peace and security since World War II, and in effect openly declared itself and the state of Israel above international law, and all accepted norms and standards. 

This is arguably one of the most dangerous precedents set in international relations, which risks the collapse of the global rules-based system upon which post-WWII peace and stability has been built.

If certain states are allowed to flout international law with impunity, with the political cover of a superpower, how can we expect other nations to continue to respect and adhere to the rules devised under international law? It becomes a free for all where the rights of those nations or peoples less powerful or marginalised are trampled underfoot and justified by nonsensical pronouncements. 

Listening to what US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was saying last week in defence of continued settlement building in the occupied territories was nothing short of absurd. It was as if the Christian crusader was riding out in front, baiting war in a grand clash of civilisations - which happened to be the modus operandi of former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. 

In this brave new world, the rules don’t apply, it is just a dictatorship of the most powerful, which will stop at nothing to bring enemies to their knees and force them to bow in submission. For the modern-day Romans, the rights of the Palestinians as a people simply don’t exist, and the idea of statehood is nothing but a joke. Their land will continue to be eaten up hectare by hectare.

For South Africans, this realpolitik is simply unacceptable and unsustainable. If we believed in the righteousness of brute power and naked aggression, our people would have been apathetic and never found the gumption to fight a bitter struggle for over four decades to bring about democracy, human rights and the rule of law. The similarities between the South African and Palestinian struggles are obvious to anyone who has set foot in the occupied territories. 

This week Human Rights Watch was up in arms as the Israeli government expelled their Israel and Palestine Director Omar Shakir, in an intensifying assault on those defending human rights. Human Rights Watch Director Kenneth Roth came out guns blazing saying, “This decision shows why the international community must reboot its approach to Israel’s deteriorating human rights record. A government that expels a leading human rights investigator is not likely to stop its systematic oppression of Palestinians under occupation without much greater international pressure.”

Human Rights Watch maintains that neither Shakir nor the organisation has ever called for a boycott of Israel, but has urged businesses to stop operating in illegal settlements as part of their global duty to avoid complicity in human rights abuses.

“Today, Israel deports Shakir because Human Rights Watch urges businesses to shun illegal settlements,” said Roth. “Who’s next – someone who calls for the International Criminal Court to examine possible crimes in Israel and Palestine, or correctly calls the West Bank ‘occupied’ rather than ‘disputed’?”

There is no longer any pretence on the part of the Israeli authorities that they respect international law or human rights instruments. They will continue their building projects on occupied land in defiance of all international resolutions and conventions. The question is: what will the international community do about it given that UN resolutions have had no impact in changing the behaviour of the state?

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's Group Foreign Editor