WE planted an olive tree at the University of Glasgow on Monday, in a quiet ceremony, as part of a keynote lecture I gave.

Within an hour of our planting, news broke that the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Karim Khan KC, was making an application for the prosecution of both Hamas Military Brigade leaders and Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and defence minister Yoav Gallant.

I checked on the olive tree at the end of the week. It was in good health; a small olive already forming. On Friday, the International Court of Justice – the court responsible for the Genocide Convention – made a further historic provisional order. This time ordering an immediate halt to military action in the Gaza Strip – especially in Rafah – unhindered access for humanitarian assistance and unimpeded access for the Court’s investigators to assess the evidence for genocide.

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This is quite simply stunning and a vindication of the tenacity and brilliance of the South African legal team.

There can be no peace without justice. No olive tree can survive if it is removed from the soil or the water.

The same is true of human beings. Over the last 76 years – intensively since October 8, 2023 – the Palestinians living in Gaza and the Occupied Palestinian Territories have been removed from the conditions that enable life. And they have been subjected repeatedly to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The prosecutor at the ICC, after taking far longer than anyone believed was conscionable, has now agreed.

Hamas military leaders are accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity relating to the attacks of October 7 – in particular, the accusation and evidence of sexual violence used in conflict and of the taking of hostages, illegal under the Rome Statute and Geneva Convention.

While much has been made of the announcement addressing war crimes and crimes against humanity on both sides, it is crystal clear from the prosecutor’s statement that the matters laid at Netanyahu and Gallant’s door are substantial, yes, morally – that is plain to see – but importantly, legally.

For a legal case to be made, there must be evidence and evidence that can be corroborated. This means there need to be investigators on the ground, in areas of conflict, to assess the accusations made about war crimes and crimes against humanity that have been taking place. In Gaza, this has been difficult, as international access has not been allowed except by medical workers, such as the University of Glasgow’s rector Ghassan Abu-Sittah, below left, who himself presented evidence for the ICJ in January.

The more journalists, academics, archives, libraries and universities have been eradicated in the Gaza Strip, the harder it has been to reach the standards required for evidence to ascertain that crimes have been committed. The Israeli leaders, however, will potentially stand trial for crimes for which, so far, sufficient evidence is deemed to have been collected, if the application for arrest warrants is granted by the ICC. In particular, the crime against humanity of mass starvation.

Tom Dannenbaum, associate professor of international law at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, writing for Just Security, notes that evidence of humanitarian aid being blocked, the closure of the Rafah crossing, the need for airdrops and a pier, and statements by the Israeli leadership cited in the application all point to planned mass enforced starvation.

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Statements by the leaders and actions on the ground are congruent: “Defence Minister Gallant announced on October 9, 2023: ‘I have ordered a complete siege on the Gaza Strip. There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel. Everything is closed. We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly.’ Ten days later, Prime Minister Netanyahu stated: ‘We will not allow humanitarian assistance, in the form of food and medicines, from our territory to the Gaza Strip.’

“Territories Major General Ghassan Alian made a video-recorded announcement: ‘Hamas became ISIS, and the citizens of Gaza are celebrating instead of being horrified. Human beasts are dealt with accordingly. Israel has imposed a total blockade on Gaza – no electricity, no water, just damage. You wanted hell – you will get hell.’”

There is no doubt that hell is Gaza now. UN chiefs themselves now use this remarkably immoderate language for diplomats. Gaza is hell on earth.

My own friends and colleagues in Gaza have lost their words and screamed for help until they are hoarse, and then too weak, and then too hopeless, just needing it all to stop – the bombing, the siege, the pointless statements, the inaction of those who could stop this and could have stopped it years ago.

In both cases, it is right that the actions undertaken are properly investigated and come to the court in The Hague. In order for charges to be pressed and arrest warrants to be issued, the panel of judges would need to be convinced by the evidence amassed by the prosecutor.

Francesca Albanese, UN Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestinian Territories, said in an interview, immediately following the prosecutor’s application: “This is a historical day. It is not a small thing that the ICC prosecutor has issued an arrest warrant for two Israeli leaders. And it is not just for war crimes. It is for crimes that have been committed intentionally and wilfully. The whole state policy that has animated this campaign against the population in Gaza is put into question.”

The momentousness of the application in the face of such visible acts of criminality rests on the fact that Israel can no longer enjoy immunity from prosecution for war crimes and crimes against humanity. There are likely to be more warrants to come.

The frustration felt by international lawyers and those of us who have been part of movements and campaigns for a just peace for the Palestinians has been intense. Israel enjoyed impunity for many years. UN Rapporteur Albanese asked in an interview following the application announcement: “Why did it take so long? [Khan] could have acted before the October 7. In February 2023, there was a government agreement in Israel that was clearly an annexation plan.

“The settlements have been the crux of the matter, and the settlements are clearly that, a war crime entailing other war crimes which are a crime against humanity.

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“He could have investigated other apartheid, forcible transfer, population transfer, deportation, unlawful imprisonment, almost one million Palestinians have been detained, many of them in arbitrary conditions without charge, without trial, including children. What was he waiting for?”

Why indeed? Imagining how many lives could have been saved had the ICC acted in a timely manner – both on October 7 in Israel and since in Gaza – is almost too much to bear.

Israel’s response to being held to account was predictable. They disrespected the ICC judges, trotted out the dangerously tired accusation of antisemitism – now entirely hollowed out from misuse by themselves – and carried on relentlessly with the killing of Palestinians in Gaza and the occupied West Bank.

Immediately after the Order from the ICJ on Friday, they intensified their bombing of Gaza. What is now needed is a UN Security Council Resolution. If the US vetoes this, it is over for the world order based on criminal accountability for states. And then there needs to be a humanitarian protection force on the ground to ensure compliance with the order.

For Netanyahu and Gallant, the ICC application – should it be granted – will mean there are precious few countries to which they can travel. Germany, for instance, has already said they would comply with their obligation to arrest, as parties to the ICC. The UK Government spokesperson has simply said they find the ICC application “unhelpful”. But after last week – when the UK Prime Minister clearly couldn’t see why an umbrella might be helpful in a rainstorm – these words should indeed be treated with the contempt they deserve.

I don’t sleep

We don’t sleep

Nothing stops the wicked

They are smug in their impunity

They curse the judges

They bludgeon the peace-makers

They erase the conditions for life

Nothing stops the wicked

Our words are broken

Our words are broken fragments

Our words are ashes

I’ve been posting these short cries, laments, for months now. A small gesture against the propaganda and lies, a way of telling the truth against the obfuscation or into the deathly silence of those who should know or do better.

My friend and colleague Khala Badwan, from Gaza, replies:

I can’t breathe

We can’t breathe

Nothing stops the wicked

They have a tight grip

The grip is getting tighter

They have no humanity

Humanity crumbles at their hand

Nothing stops the wicked

They manipulate facts

They twist words

Our systems are broken

Are breaking

Are crumbling

The olive tree planters were busy in sessions at our annual Unesco Chair Spring School when the ICC announcement came through. We work to use participatory, creative and multilingual approaches to peace-making and restoring lives for people who have sought asylum or refuge. Unesco’s mission says that if wars are made in the lives of people, then it is in the minds of people that the defences of peace must be constructed.

I’d love to claim that there was a link between the planting of an olive tree and the prosecutor’s application. Between our closing ceremony at Spring School looking at the statements and articles and prayers and poems written in defence of peace in Gaza and Israel since October 8, 2023, and the ICJ order. Obviously there isn’t. And yet, for months now, in ever-growing numbers, protests, statements, symbols and direct actions have made it clearer and clearer that the actions of Israel as an occupying power in the Gaza Strip, Occupied West Bank and Occupied East Jerusalem are crimes against humanity.

What we have been witnessing as citizens across the world has been collected and sifted as mounting evidence by panels of experts. Justice is urgently needed to sustain a peace that cannot come soon enough.

Until then, keep doing everything you can to hold our leaders to account and to prevent war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of genocide.

Alison Phipps is Unesco Chair for Refugee Integration in Education, Languages, Arts at the University of Glasgow