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  • Alaa Hajyahia & Seetha Tan

Reimagining Justice Through Transformative Solidarity

Solidarity movements are generative spaces, fortifying existing connections while also forging new relations. They possess the ability to unite communities and align parallel struggles. They are also spaces where justice can be reimagined and transformed. Against the backdrop of ongoing atrocities in Gaza, where Israel continues its assault by land, air, and sea, various groups have demonstrated solidarity in diverse ways. Sisters Uncut, a feminist group combating domestic violence, staged a sit-in at Waterloo Station in London, while Simply Smashed, a Bengali-owned halal burger joint in Mile End, pledged a portion of its sales to the Human Aid appeal in Gaza. In Australia, Palestinian activists frequently address Invasion Day protests, reciprocated by vocal support from Aboriginal activists calling for a ceasefire. In the United States, students have organised divestment campaigns, establishing dozens of pro-Palestinian encampments across different college campuses. These are just a few examples that illustrate how movements against colonialism, oppression, and patriarchy intersect, finding common ground in Palestine.


For these different groups, Palestine serves as a global symbol of resistance against various forms of oppression. Its struggle speaks to different histories and contexts, resonating deeply with marginalised communities worldwide. When a Palestinian flag the length of half bus is carried down the streets of London, this act, in its simultaneity with other acts occurring across the globe, reflects the transnational reverberations of​​ solidarity. ​​The same songs and slogans that travel along the streets of London echo in New York City, Paris, and Melbourne. Solidarity reverberates through these echoes. Transnational protest movements—particularly those in solidarity with Palestine—transform our understanding of global interconnectedness. 


Photo credit: the authors.
"Yet, solidarity protest movements are more than just spaces of connection and community. They are also sites of witness and testimony, of contestation and grievance. These movements possess the potential to reshape relationships to justice, challenging the narrow apolitical language of the law. Solidarity movements continue to weaponise legal language and frameworks in their activism. And where formal legal institutions have struggled over questions of framing, terminology, time, narrative, and responsibility, solidarity protest movements perform an important social and political function by putting these categories ‘on trial.’" 

In doing so, solidarity movements reveal the inadequacies and contradictions of formal channels of justice.


Law as a means to an end rather than an end in itself 


Recent discussions on Palestine are often constrained (and shaped) by narrow legal frameworks: does the war in Gaza meet the legal criteria of genocide? Can we apply legal definitions of self-defence and war crimes or not? Is the response of Israel following Hamas’ October 7th attacks proportional? The law tends to depoliticise as well as dehistoricise these discussions by focusing solely on questions of legality, while the historical context of imperialism or settler colonialism has proven difficult for the law to integrate into its analysis and judgment. 


Many legal and non-legal scholars have articulated their disappointment with international law as channel of justice and liberation. In their critique, they have highlighted how international law has historically served as a tool for imperialism (e.g., Anghie, 2006; Gathii, 2019). By examining how current doctrines codify imperialist agendas from the colonial era, these scholars argue that legal frameworks continue to perpetuate forms of colonialism (e.g., Gathii, 2020; Anghie, 2004). This analysis has been extended to Palestine, where scholars have demonstrated how legal frameworks—such as those of international law—have systematically excluded Palestinian voices and interests. They have highlighted the ongoing implication of these legal frameworks in settler colonialism and the subordination of Palestinians (e.g., Erakat, Reynolds, et al., 2024; Erakat, Li & Reynolds, 2023; Li, 2011; Imseis, 2009). These scholars suggest that instruments of international law further marginalise Palestinians within the global legal system while prioritising Israel’s interests, perpetuating a legacy of colonial dominance. 

"If we take these critiques seriously, then why do solidarity protest movements persist in engaging with the law, employing legal language in the form of slogans, signs, statements, and letters? What distinguishes the legal language used by solidarity protest movements from that of legal practitioners and formal legal institutions? What do solidarity movements mean when they use terminology like genocide, occupation, and apartheid? How does this differ from the way these terms are used by formal legal institutions?" 

In our reflection, we suggest that Palestine solidarity protest movements use the law as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Solidarity protest movements stress the importance of using legal findings and language to organise demonstrations, meetings, marches, and signature campaigns to advance a broader political end. However, solidarity protest movements do not stop there. By mobilising the language of the law, they also actively and creatively challenge its narrow vocabulary and its claims to universalism. 

If you visit any protest in solidarity with Palestine and read some of the slogans printed on cardboard placards or embroidered onto fabric banners, you will notice the way activists insist on a reclamation of legal language.​​ For instance, we can see this in banners that read: 


‘Occupation is a crime’ 

‘Bombing kids is not self-defence’ 

‘We do not support genocide’ 

‘It’s not a war, it’s a genocide’ 

‘Charge Israel with war-crimes’


"With the recurrent usage of legal terms like ‘occupation,’ ‘apartheid,’ ‘self-defence, ’self-determination,’ and ‘genocide,’ activists and solidarity protest movements use the streets to insist​​ on a re-definition of the law and its terms."


Photo Credit: the authors

Proceedings in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and International Criminal Court (ICC) have agonised over the suitability and applicability of these terms to Gaza, applying these categories cautiously and conservatively. By contrast, the placards, chants, and demands present in solidarity demonstrations reveal a confident application of this terminology to the situation in Gaza. Protests highlight the absurdity of the law’s check-box approach that assesses unfolding violence against a rigid and historically dependent criteria of genocide while thousands of individuals continue to die. By mimicking the law, solidarity protests draw attention to its shortcomings and the inconsistency between intent and practice. 


​​In many ways, these acts of reclaiming language point to the slippage between words and action, or the gap between the principles of international law and its politicised application. Solidarity protests do not simply utilise the language of the law, they mobilise it to reveal its inconsistencies. In foregrounding this slippage between the principle and its application, solidarity protests attempt to hold lawmakers, legal institutions, individuals, and states accountable. 


Audre Lorde may interject here: but ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house!’ What might it mean for an anti-colonial movement to weaponise the tools of empire to deconstruct it? Perhaps Homi Bhabha’s notion of slippage and mimicry can shed light on this. In appropriating the coloniser through the act of mimicry, the colonised ‘appropriates and cannibalises colonial discourse’ revealing its inconsistencies and ‘destabilis[ing] its authority’ (Jazeel, 2019, p. 130). In the act of mimicry, the colonial subject performs an act that is ‘almost same, but not quite’ (Jazeel, 2019, p. 130), exposing the slippery space between ‘mimicry and mockery’ (Bhabha, 1984, p. 127). Bhabha writes, ‘the menace of mimicry is its double vision which in disclosing the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority’ (1984, p. 129). Through this double vision, can the liberal language of the law ever be rehabilitated for decolonial ends? 


Photo Credit: the authors

Using the language of the law, however, is not new, nor is it unique to Palestine. For decades, anti-imperialist and anti-colonial protest movements have mobilised the language of international law to pursue their political objectives, despite recognising its limitations and imperialistic tendencies. As a framework, international law was embraced by the Russell Tribunal on Vietnam established in 1966, and later by the World Tribunal on Iraq in 2003. As civil society initiatives, they employed the language and the frameworks of international law for the purpose of anti-colonial resistance (Krever, 2023; Çubukçu, 2018). By documenting and publicising American aggression—aggressions that formal media channels obfuscated—these tribunals produced a comprehensive account of the impact of American imperialism and occupation on Vietnamese and Iraqi people. As Russell argued during the first session of the Russell Tribunal on Vietnam: ‘[w]e investigate in order to expose. We document in order to indict. We arouse consciousness in order to create mass resistance’ (Duffett, 1968). In the case of the Russell Tribunal, its focus on the legality of the war was two-fold. First, to conclude that the war was illegal. Second, to use this legal finding to mobilise the masses to generate wide-spread resistance. Their aim was to depict that the war was illegitimate on multiple levels beyond unlawfulness. Their goal was to therefore highlight the structural flaws within the international community and international law that facilitated atrocities such as those in Vietnam and Iraq (Çubukçu, 2018).  


In attempting to understand why the language of the law persists as an anti-colonial strategy of resistance, there may be useful parallels with Mueller’s (2021) distinction between categorical and dialectical abolitionism. For Mueller (2021), the desire to imprison police like Derek Chauvin or Darren Wilson for crimes of police brutality, is not incompatible with the aims of prison abolitionism. He writes, ‘prisons were designed to contain the poor and the marginal, not the police who were designed to do the same. Demanding the imprisonment of police undermines the political functions of both’ (Mueller, 2021). Like the prosecution of police vis-à-vis the aims of abolitionism, using the language of international law may appear to be incompatible with the emancipatory aims of decolonial movements. How might the usage of this language by solidarity protests undermine the exclusions, or the ‘political function’ of a colonial legal system? Perhaps the colonial foundation of the law can never be entirely rehabilitated for decolonial ends, but its authority can be disrupted, exposed, and undermined. 


Redefining legal time


Mainstream legal debates on whether Israel’s assaults in Gaza can be classified as a genocide tend to revolve around claims that legally determining genocide takes time. We are often told by formal legal institutions that establishing genocidal intent is a challenging task, requiring robust evidence and a thorough examination that is often only feasible after the conclusion of the violence and in the fullness of time

"Solidarity protest movements place this legal time ‘on trial’. In contesting ‘legal time’, solidarity demonstrations again foreground the structural shortcomings of the law and the gap between the purported intent of justice and its practice. Activist time, on the other hand, can contest and disrupt the authority of ‘legal time’ through solidarity protest movements."  

Instead of waiting for the conclusion of the violence, activist time insists and fulfils the ‘intent’ of the Genocide Convention, i.e. to prevent genocide in real time. 


As mentioned earlier, solidarity protest movements were among the first to assert that the events unfolding in Gaza constituted genocide, predating any decision from formal legal institutions, such as the ICJ or the ICC. On 26th January 2024, the ICJ issued provisional measures in South Africa’s case against Israel, indicating that Israel’s actions potentially amounted to genocide in Gaza. Unlike solidarity protest movements, courts move at a glacial pace. The ICJ will follow an established protocol including a ‘preliminary objections’ phase, which will involve further written statements and oral hearings. The ICC has been even less effective, illustrating its double standards by failing to prioritise Palestine despite ample evidence. Legal proceedings and judicial actions undertaken by bodies such as the ICJ and the ICC inevitably take time. This requires the victims to wait for the filing of documents and the organisation of hearing dates and the review of evidence. It requires them to wait to see whether Israel will comply with the Court’s verdict. And in the meantime, the death toll continues to rise, surpassing 34,000 at the time of this writing, with over 70,000 reported injuries, over 1.7 million displaced Palestinians, and with public health experts estimating that a quarter of the Gazan population could succumb to disease within a year. 


Conversely, solidarity protest movements are reactive, responding immediately to evolving developments on the ground. One of the most common slogans found on placards in demonstrations is the simple phrase: ‘Ceasefire NOW’. There is an urgent responsiveness to solidarity demonstrations. Social media has, in part, enabled this. While solidarity protests are held around the UK on a regular basis, activists mobilised social media to organise additional emergency protests and vigils as events unfolded. On 17th October, when al-Ahli hospital was struck, organisers in London were able to immediately organise an emergency vigil outside 10 Downing Street for 18th October. By insisting on urgency, solidarity protest movements reveal the structural problems with seeking justice through formal legal channels. 


Solidarity movements also understand that the temporality of legal discourse, including that of courts, is limited and narrow. They recognise that examining​​ the situation in Palestine and Gaza within the narrow confines of legality necessarily means omitting the long history of settler colonialism Palestinians have faced since the 1948 Nakba. ​Therefore, solidarity movements interrupt the timeline enforced by formal legal institutions, which ignores events that occurred before 7th October. Activists point to earlier antecedents of the conflict, creating placards that read, ‘​​This Nakba has to end.’ By suggesting that events following 7th October are a continuation of hostilities rather than the beginning, activists contest​​ the chronology of the conflict.   In Jeremy Corbyn’s speech on ​14th October 2023, at a demonstration in London that amassed over 200,000 supporters, he concluded by emphasising the fact that, ‘over 70 years ago, the Nakba took place, over 70 years ago, hundreds of thousands of people (700,000) were removed from their homes. Many made their homes in Gaza and are now, seven decades later, being told to move on to somewhere else.’ By grounding current events within a longer history of violence and occupation, solidarity movements disrupt prevailing temporal narratives. Gradually, international lawyers are beginning to push against the temporal assumptions and conventions of international law. In the recent ICJ proceeding, the South African case began its narrative in 1948. However, the ICJ’s decision reflected a reinstatement of a narrow temporal frame, reasserting the beginning of the legal narrative story as 7th October.   


What is the significance of marking the beginning of the ongoing conflict with 7th October 2023, as opposed to 15th May 1948 (the Nakba) or 25th April 1920 (the beginning of the British Mandate for Palestine)? What is the power of time in eliciting or inhibiting solidarity? Whose chronology do we adhere to? Time is a political resource and a weapon, which often determines how a story can be told. Questions of periodisation and time are important in determining whose narratives are legitimate and whose cultural trauma claims are deemed relevant and recognised.


While solidarity protest movements use the language of the law, they are not necessarily or exclusively in a conversation with the law and its formal legal institutions. Rather, solidarity protest movements utilise the language of the law to target complicit private and public actors on local, state, and transnational levels. As we have previously argued, the structural problems of formal legal channels (i.e., international courts) have compromised their ability to deliver justice. Courts are by nature, slow-moving. Furthermore, critiques of the enforceability of international law raise deeper questions about the ability of international courts to affect meaningful change. By contrast, executives and legislatures are supposed to be democratically responsive and accountable to public opinion. In the case of Gaza, there are very immediate consequences if the UK or US governments ended arms sales or called for a ceasefire. Accordingly, social movements tend to direct their action towards these political institutions, in the hope that mass mobilisation will precipitate material change. We increasingly see activist groups mobilise the language of the law to exert pressure on universities, corporations, and politicians which control tangible material power. A common chant in UK protests: ‘Rishi Sunak, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide’, weaponises this language of the law to target the political elite. Comparably, pro-Palestinian encampments across the US articulate their demands for divestment on the grounds of genocide and illegal occupation. As such, solidarity protests extend beyond engaging solely with legal avenues. Instead, they leverage the language of the law to effect change. Therefore, analysing this approach underscores the fact that solidarity movements for Palestine view the law not as an end in itself but as a strategic means to drive meaningful societal transformation.


"Solidarity movements in support of Palestine serve as transformative spaces that challenge narrow and apolitical legal ​​discourse. In doing so, these spaces appear to insist on a broader political commitment to fight against structures of colonialism and imperialism embedded within legal frameworks. By mobilising legal language, these movements seem to assert their political objectives while simultaneously interrogating the limitations inherent within formal legal institutions and legal discourse." 

They therefore approach the law as a resource to be mobilised as part of a broader political agenda. In doing so, they disrupt and transform the form of the law, reimagining its potential. Through slogans, placards, public hearings, and various political actions, activists and solidarity movements reclaim terms and concepts, demanding accountability and justice outside traditional legal frameworks. Solidarity protests disrupt mainstream chronologies, insisting on a broader understanding of historical context and acknowledging the ongoing impacts of settler colonialism. Their efforts are marked by creativity and, most of all, urgency. 


As we reflect on the role of solidarity movements in transforming political realities and confronting power structures, it becomes evident that these movements demonstrate the capacity of civil society to respond to the failure of formal, legal institutions to deliver justice. They signal new bridges towards reconceptualising justice as emerging not out of formal legal frameworks but out of collective and communal action, namely, the people.



The views expressed in this piece are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect those of the Editorial Board, the Scholars’ Council, the Gates Cambridge Trust or the University of Cambridge.


 

Alaa Hajyahia ['22] is a PhD candidate in the department Social Anthropology, King’s College. Her ethnographic research focuses on the Palestinian movement, lawyering, and the relationship between law and power.


Seetha Tan ['22] is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology, St Catharine's College. Her current research examines storytelling and postcolonial migration to London. Her previous work focused on diasporic solidarity protest movements. 


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