BRICS condemns Israel war on Gaza in signal to the West

China's President Xi Jinping and South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa at the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa on August 24, 2023 [Alet Pretorius/Reuters]

The grouping, which has previously focused on economic issues, called for an end to ‘war crimes’ in the Gaza conflict.

Leaders of major emerging economies called for an end to Israel’s war on Gaza on Tuesday, and for a cessation of hostilities on both sides to ease the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.

In a virtual summit chaired by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, the BRICS grouping denounced attacks on civilians in Palestine and Israel, with many leaders calling the forced displacement of Palestinians, within Gaza or outside the territory, “war crimes.”

“We condemned any kind of individual or mass forcible transfer and deportation of Palestinians from their own land,” a chair’s summary read. The group, which did not issue a joint declaration, also “reiterated that the forced transfer and deportation of Palestinians, whether inside Gaza or to neighbouring countries, constitute grave breaches of the Geneva conventions and war crimes and violations under International Humanitarian Law.”

The BRICS is made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, all major emerging economies looking for a greater say in a global order long dominated by the United States and its Western allies. These countries are often viewed as leaders of what is referred to in international policy speak as the “Global South”.

But it wasn’t just these five countries that spoke on the war on Tuesday. Earlier this year, the BRICS had agreed to expand and add Egypt, Ethiopia, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran as members from 2024. The leaders of these six countries also participated in the meeting called by South Africa. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres joined the summit too.

The chair’s summary — in essence a gist of the mood in the room — highlights growing calls from the Global South to end the war on the Gaza Strip. The conflict began after an October 7 attack on Israeli communities by the armed group Hamas that saw 1,200 people killed and 240 others taken hostage. In response, Israel has incessantly shelled Gaza, targeting hospitals, schools and refugee camps and killing more than 13,000 people, many of them children, in violation of international laws.

Since then, millions of people across Africa, Asia and the Middle East have marched for a “Free Palestine” and called for a ceasefire. Experts in Africa and elsewhere have accused the United States, United Kingdom and European Union of hypocrisy for claiming to be  bastions of democracy and human rights while supporting Israel’s war in Gaza.

A ‘growing assertiveness’

While the chair’s summary appeared “mild and somewhat balanced” according to Steven Gruzd, an analyst at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), some countries were more combative in their presentations.

In his opening statement at the meeting, the current BRICS chair, President Ramaphosa of South Africa, said that Israel’s actions “are in clear violation of international law” and that the “collective punishment of Palestinian civilians by Israel “is a war crime … tantamount to genocide”. Ramaphosa also said Hamas had “violated international law and must be held accountable”.

India’s stance was comparatively softer, with Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar saying there was “a need for restraint and immediate humanitarian support”, as well as “peaceful resolution through dialogue and diplomacy”.

Many of the member states, including Russia and Brazil, have previously criticised Israel’s non-stop bombardment and now, ground invasion of the Gaza Strip. China, for its part, this week hosted a delegation of Muslim countries, officials and organisations seeking a ceasefire, including the Palestinian Authority (PA).

India, though, has not been as vocal and has in fact cracked down on pro-Palestine marches at home, seemingly siding with Israel and its biggest benefactor, the US, in what is seen as a split within the BRICS itself.

But that split did not seem glaring at Tuesday’s summit, which experts say is a first-of-its-kind meeting for a group that has previously focused on economic issues.

“I am not sure I recall a similar extraordinary summit being called,” Gruzd told Al Jazeera. “It does reflect on the growing assertiveness and confidence of the BRICS grouping, not waiting for the West. BRICS has generally shied away from political and security issues; this meeting goes against that trend.”

Together, BRICS countries represent 40 percent of the world population and a quarter of the global economy.

President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran – Israel’s archenemy – said Palestinians should hold a referendum to determine their fate.

Still, many BRICS nations — not just India — have established ties with Israel that they will be wary of severing.

China has huge investments in Israel, Gruzd notes, while India has even deeper historic ties with the country and enjoys military and technological partnerships with it. But with a fiery Iran set to join the group, India might not be able to influence how a new BRICS+ will react to Israel, Gruzd said.

South Africa, currently the smallest BRICS country, and one that itself experienced oppressive apartheid rule for more than four decades, sees its own struggle reflected in that of the Palestinians and has consistently been one of the loudest calls for a ceasefire, said analysts.

At the same time, it has long been Israel’s largest trade partner in Africa. On Tuesday, that relationship appeared to have reached a turning point.

Parliament members voted to shut down the Israeli embassy in Pretoria, signifying a turning point in the crisis. Diplomats from the country had already been recalled from Israel on November 6. Israel recalled its ambassador to South Africa, Eliav Belotserkovsky, for “consultations” on Monday in response to Pretoria’s growing hostility.

Alongside Bangladesh, Bolivia, Comoros and Djibouti last week, South Africa also submitted a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate whether war crimes have been committed in Gaza.

A turning point?

On Monday, South African Minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni applied further pressure, calling for an ICC warrant against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, adding that it would be a “total failure” if the court did not investigate the leader.

Earlier this year, South Africa had managed to convince Russia not to send  President Vladimir Putin to the annual BRICS Summit in August because of an ICC arrest warrant issued against him for war crimes committed in Ukraine. If Putin had attended the summit in South Africa, the country, an ICC signatory, would have been obligated to arrest him.

Tuesday’s BRICS stance, instigated by South Africa, might push more countries to be vocal in denouncing the war, said Muhammed Desai of Africa4Palestine, an advocacy group.

“South Africa is a significant economic and political powerhouse on the African continent as well as a country with one of the most embassies and high commissions in the world,” Desai said. “Thus, its stance and position does have clout within the diplomatic arena.”

But the coalition’s political weight is not significant enough to have any real impact on the direction of Israel’s war, others say. “Frankly, I do not think they have much leverage on Israel directly,” said Gruzd of SAIIA. “I also do not think it will have much effect on the West, besides adding to voices calling for a ceasefire.”

Their leverage is, however, growing. Dozens of nations have applied or shown interest in joining BRICS, a major reason for the expansion earlier this year, as countries seek to reduce their dependence on the US-led Western financial system.

Russia, which will hold the group’s presidency in 2024, is expected to push to use local currencies for international trade payments, as opposed to the dominant US dollar.

That platform, some say, is necessary for the voice of the Global South to be heard. “Within the global world order, BRICS offers another voice,” Desai of Africa4Palestine said, and “that is necessary to counter the current Western hegemonic view”.



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