12 min read
15 Jan

We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. 

(Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s well-known statement, delivered in a speech at the National Cathedral, on the 31st March 1968) 

If looks could kill, they probably will
In games without frontiers
War without tears

(The article’s main title as taken from Peter Gabriel’s cynical anti-war commentary song on conflict and the nature of international diplomacy)  


The war between Israel and Hamas (involving various interlinked conflicts, but referred to as such for ease of reference here) seems to many observers, including those in the conflict management field, to be a truly intractable conflict. Decades of war, only differing in intensity of hostility and public focus, spiral around and around, with the occasional one step forward inevitably countered by two steps backwards. 

Both sides regard themselves as being locked in an existential battle, often openly declaring, at various levels of leadership, the intention of physically destroying the other. A conflict incapable of resolution unless the one party is wiped off the face of the earth, a conflict where even the starting date is in dispute. 

The January 2024 International Court of Justice (ICJ) application (heard on the 11th and 12th January) brought by South Africa has led to further polarization of views, and general public responses to the application range from an understanding that it may bring an end to the current war, a ceasefire or to it being an inappropriate and ill-considered adventure, with various points of nuance and perspective differences on the spectrum between those options. 

It is the premise of this article that, while none of this was originally to be hoped for, the current realities of the Israel / Hamas conflict may in fact benefit from the ICJ application, and that we can establish this regardless of our own political views on the matters at hand, and importantly, regardless of the decision of the ICJ itself. While the main issues involved in the application may take years to come to finality, the application for urgent provisional measures is the area that we will be focusing on here, as that will inevitably, and relatively soon, lead to the scenarios we are considering. 

In assessing this possibility, we will need to work with a few technical conflict concepts and principles later on in the article, but before we do so, we need to acknowledge the very clear harm potentially done, and to be done, by the application. 

The ICJ application and the harm it does 

In choosing to bring the application, as opposed to using alternative diplomatic channels and various measures of persuasion, South Africa has of course taken a public stance on the conflict. The charge of genocide is a very serious accusation to bring against a state, arguably one of the worst possible accusations to make. To bring such charges against a nation who is particularly sensitive to and involved in the concept and realities of genocide, given their past history and views on the threats faced by Israel, is to burn important bridges, a decision that will play out in the relationship between South Africa and Israel, and those they have respective influence over, for decades to come. 

Here also, as we will see later on, the result of the Court’s deliberations will be of secondary importance. The decision to bring this application has, in its own unobtrusive way, started or exacerbated a range of new and latent conflicts, including a few internal ones that South Africa will be facing. A limited focus on the court’s decision in simplified terms show, once the initial public excitement and sense of justice has been removed from such calculation, that either of the two main results can be inconclusive, or lead to further complications for the conflict. Should South Africa be successful in the application, Israel may simply choose to disregard the interim measures, in whole or in part. The support that Israel has maintained throughout proceedings, and even after the conclusion of the respective arguments on behalf of the two parties, may make such a reaction a viable proposition for Israel. Should the application be dismissed however, Israel and her supporters will feel vindicated in their actions and persistence, which in itself will of course have both direct and indirect consequences for the conflict itself. 

This realization also highlights another conflict outcome reality: no court case, no external party can, in itself, bring a sustainable and realistic resolution to a complex conflict such as the present one. Whether it happens now or decades from now, this will only be meaningfully resolved once the parties themselves sit down and create such a solution. While this is hard to always bear in mind given the heat and the noise of the current rhetoric, this is a simple reality that conflicting parties throughout history have been forced to acknowledge at some stage or another. That, or eventual annihilation of the one, which of course is no solution at all. A negotiated settlement affords the parties at least some measure of control over their own destinies, as opposed to a military defeat or a court imposed set peace. Just as you cannot legislate morality, you cannot litigate yourself to a lasting peace. 

Our focus is, however, on the effects that the application may have on the wider canvas of the Israel / Hamas conflict. If these benefits are realized, in whole or in meaningful part, then increased tensions and a deterioration of the SA-Israel relationship may be viewed by some as a price worth paying. But the application has also caused harm outside of that limited diplomatic relationship. The increased publicity and public scrutiny necessarily brought about by a court hearing of this magnitude has clearly caused further diplomatic polarization between countries. The publicity and real or engineered interests and risks involved have made it increasingly difficult to remain politely neutral, uninvolved to do diplomatic work behind the scenes. Interests, some of which are only remotely connected to the primary Israel / Hamas conflict, have become drivers of the main conflict, and the generators of a range of secondary, if no less intense and important, conflicts. 

Taking an even wider lens view of the application, we see how it sets on fire some of the dynamics of the changing global geopolitical power relationships, realignments and the development of the Second Cold War. The global attention given to the primary conflict, of course increased by the ICJ application, plays perfectly into the agendas of various states and non-state actors involved in those larger geopolitical manoeuvres. These potential harms could be disastrous, both for the Israel/Hamas conflict as well as the other, wider current and future conflicts that are involved. Some of these negative conflict outcomes, if they materialize, could of course be to South Africa’s detriment. Its stance in this conflict, seen by many as courageous and necessary, can also build and strengthen other valuable bridges, and position South Africa better in what appears to be the government’s chosen alliances in these changing geopolitical times.  

A cautious reading of these risks may nevertheless lead one to conclude that the application was ill-advised, and so it may turn out to be, unless a meaningful number of the following conflict benefits result from the current position. 

Potential conflict benefits resulting from the ICJ application 

My argument here is not a cheery silver lining type of view. As we can see, the decision to bring the application is a risky one, with many potential unintended and far-reaching, negative consequences. To have done so was an unenviable judgment call that only history can properly judge. Like so many other events in this awful conflict, it is now a given, and all decisions will be justified if a benefit to the primary conflict can be salvaged from what has gone before. Those who stand outside this conflict, using it on an ongoing basis for their own purposes, would of course not wish to see such benefits, and may actively work against eventual resolution. 

We of course need to keep an eye on those efforts, but we need not take their views into consideration. For those, on all sides of the various fences involved here, who have an interest in meaningfully resolving this conflict, the following work lies ahead. 

Potential benefit 1: Escalation 

Conflict escalation (and de-escalation) is a technical modern conflict management concept, where we note how conflicts can actually benefit from an increase in hostilities. In simple terms, this is a case of “things need to get worse before they get better”. As research and case studies will however show us, both insofar as group and individual conflicts are concerned, this is normally a highly technical skill, and if not conducted with near-perfect application, sequence and timing, things can also get worse before they get even worser, if we can create a word to illustrate the result. 

The Israel / Hamas conflict has already, to a smaller degree, benefited from the idea of conflict escalation (see e.g. the ceasefires after 2010), and skilled escalation aimed at further constructive negotiation can lead to further and more lasting gains in such a peace process. What is needed here, and what the events since October 7 and the ICJ case could lead to, are what is known in conflict studies as turning points, when the escalating events lead to “unequivocal breaks with prior strategies” and the parties perceptions about their relationships and possible outcomes begin to change (see e.g. Zartman / Vukovic below). Effectively managed conflict escalation is an exciting field of study in modern conflict management, and holds real promise for this seemingly intractable conflict. 

As imperfect as the resolution of the conflicts in Ireland, South Africa and East Timor (to mention but a few examples) may have been, we see the patterns and benefit of escalation before important breakthroughs were made. If the given reality of the clear conflict escalation brought about by the ICJ application is skilfully managed by some of the parties involved in the primary conflict, those increased levels of focus, of attention, even of hostility, can be used to drive through comfort zones, areas where complacency has set in, sunken cost arguments have taken root or where impasse can now be broken as a result of new dynamics brought about by the application. This will require a skilful and sustained managing of such opportunities. Even if we see little other than an increased polarization and shrillness in rhetoric in the short-term, that is exactly what conflict escalation looks like, and it is in itself not an indication of failure of that strategy.   

Potential benefit 2: Mutually hurting stalemate 

Modern conflict theory and practice has begun using the so-called ripeness theory (see Zartman / Vukovic as recent examples), where conflict resolution becomes more probable when a conflict has reached so-called conflict ripeness, where conditions are optimal for a negotiated settlement to be reached. A highly complex topic in itself, this conflict tool can, for our purposes simply be understood as the best time and best conditions for the involved parties to work at, and reach, a resolution of their differences. 

Such conflict ripeness can of course be reached through the conflict events itself, or be managed and steered by those involved. Here we can use the rather self-evident concepts of the mutually hurting stalemate (MHS) or the mutually enticing opportunity (MEO), a conflict stage that parties reach after running out of some or all of their other options. Nothing brings realism to a conflict negotiation table as effectively such as the failure of a much-vaunted previous strategy or option. The result of the ICJ application, whatever it may be, will close certain doors as far as options go, and previously held convictions may require recalibration. Certain of these permutations may create either an MHS or an MEO for the primary parties to consider. These developments may affect and alter the parties” so-called zones of possible agreement, all caused by a cumulative expansion or narrowing of their costs, options and solutions. 

We may argue that the conclusion of the ICJ application, at least as far as the provisional measures are concerned, as well as the glaring publicity of the hearing, the operational military challenges, the increased and varied costs for the various supporters of the various interests, internal and external pressures all combine to now have brought us to Zartman’s mutually hurting stalemate, where the involved parties start reconsidering their conflict options, where previously rejected solutions are forced to be reconsidered, and where an increased level of realism may stimulate increased creative solutions. This may also be true of some of the supporters and allies’ positions. 

Public pronouncements by both parties to the primary conflict, and ably assisted by their supporters, would have us believe that they are winning their various conventional wars, and that victory (whatever that means in these circumstances) will be theirs. This is of course more bluster than substance, more appropriate to a Clint Eastwood movie than modern co-existence. Recent weeks in the war zones and in the ICJ would have tested some of those assumptions. It seems clear that at least Israel is experiencing some strong internal criticism of certain of its decisions, so the public shows of resolve will be tested on an ongoing basis. The parties are, in my view, clearly in that mutually hurting stalemate situation, but it is crucial that they both realize this. That, hopefully, is an important contribution that the application can bring about. 

Potential benefit 3: Improved differentiation 

In conflict studies, the idea of differentiation is a crucial, and often overlooked or neglected, phase where the parties get to properly and comprehensively air their side of the dispute, and where a factual basis is laid for further discussion and potential problem solving. It follows, as a general principle, that any oversight or omission in the differentiation phase leads to a limitation or skewing of the resolution phase. While it may seem difficult to comprehend that there are any information gaps or deficiencies in the Israel / Hamas conflict, a quick glance at the record of the arguments presented at the hearing (see bibliography and resource index below), and the various arguments holding sway at a popular level will show us the vast differences of fact and legal interpretation that bedevil the conflict itself. 

While the ICJ application is of course limited in scope to a charge of genocide, the presentation of the various arguments and the relatively high visibility of the hearing should lead to an increased level of accuracy and definition of at least some of the issues at hand. If nothing else, it should serve to increasingly educate the general public on the various arguments of the respective parties, presented in clear and best form. At least Israel has now also committed itself to a particular narrative, which could be useful in future negotiations. 

Potential benefit 4: Decreased conflict avoidance 

The application and the attendant escalation of the conflict in the court of public perception have forced many a previously apparently neutral party out of the closet of impartiality, or as it often translates to in geopolitics, indifference. For various reasons, mostly of course those of self-interest, states and groups have been forced to take a side to some extent, and to become more actively involved. While these pressures are often resented, we may see an increased number of states and influential pressure groups now taking a more active role in the general conflict. If carefully marshalled, this can be an asset in the primary conflict. 

Potential benefit 5: an increased understanding of this as an identity conflict 

The ICJ application has, not for the first time in this conflict, highlighted the futility of trying to persuade people by conventional argumentation when they are involved in an identity conflict. While this is not the place to discuss identity conflicts in-depth (see links and references below), this conflict is one of the most illustrative identity conflicts on the global stage. The deep, emotional levels of participation and engagement experienced by the primary parties, the absolutely existential content of the majority of the arguments, and the history of the conflicts have created, and continue to create, clearly establish and entrench all of the markers necessary for a complex identity conflict to be present. 

We have the clear and well-defined in-group / out-group dynamics, the rewarding of “correct” in-group behaviour and the punishment of “incorrect” behaviour towards the out-group, the vilification and demonization of the other, the use and abuse of existential fears, the creation of the safety and meaning of the in-group, the cyclical nature of the conflict events and a long list of other such markers. As a well-established list of case studies and practical experiences show us, conventional fact-based arguments, often regarded as objective in nature, play a very small role in persuading people of incorrect behaviour or viable alternatives. Those studies show, in fact, how fact-based arguments can be counter-productive and lead to further entrenched views and polarization. Political and community leaders, with very few exceptions, continue to use the wrong tools to persuade and to change hearts or minds. 

In the process, and as a direct causal result of such poor conflict management, we find all of the adverse conflict symptoms to be expected from such strategies, such as further polarization, the onset or exacerbation of conflict rigidity, repetitive conflict spirals and an increased attractiveness of extremist “solutions”. As much as some may find it difficult to visualize a resolution of the conflict between people who hate each other to this extent, these conflict processes can and should show the reasonable and viable nature of this as the best conflict outcome. This can only be done in this instance if identity conflicts are understood, and managed, at an extremely advanced level. So far we see precious little of that in the public arena. 

On a secondary tier we, the spectators in this conflict in general, and the application in particular, are also involved in our own identity maintenance and even, for some, an identity conflict. The primary conflict is, by now, a symbol for many of our own views: how to treat aggressors, the difference between combatants and civilians, the limits of retaliation and revenge, who the “good” side is and who the “bad” side may be, what type of people believe A or B, and so on. The arguments presented in the ICJ application have probably served little purpose other than confirming our worldviews held prior to the commencement of the hearing, and in some instances, may even have strengthened those views. It would take some understanding of those subtle but powerful processes that we are all subjected to in order to realize a few things valuable and necessary to the future of this conflict, such as the fact that demonization and vilification of groups of people are unfounded and unhelpful to take the conflict constructively forward, that objective facts have a very limited use in this conflict and that persuasion must work with your opponent’s actual worldviews, not as you wish to have them defined. 

If South Africa’s application has, for some, shown the futility of these fact-based strategies in the larger conflict, then it has served a very important purpose. All of those involved in this conflict, however close to the table or peripherally, need to recalibrate how they think of the other side, and what it will take to persuade them. 

Potential benefit 6: increased conflict visibility 

Increased conflict visibility is another conflict management tool that may alter the dynamics of a complex, and seemingly intractable conflict such as this one. Geopolitics at times rightly regard public perception as a valuable currency, especially in democratic states. The sudden, and largely unexpected, escalation of the conflict brought about by South Africa’s application would have cast a spotlight in places that some may have preferred to keep unlit. 

The application in itself (again, without much need to consider the actual result) has caused a conflict dynamic where polarization may actually be a conflict asset, at least in the short-term. While the primary parties continue to boldly claim their indifference to public opinion and judicial constraints, this is not so when we consider some of the most influential supporters and backers of those parties. The year 2024 is a crucially important political year, with several elections to be held globally. The US in particular will not make the mistake of undervaluing public perceptions of the primary conflict, at least as far as that develops in the US itself, and we can already see a subtle change in some of the public US statements regarding the primary conflict. The same, if to a slightly lesser extent, goes for several European states. The fact that a state takes a clear and public stance on the conflict in general or the application in particular (such as Germany in recent days) does not detract from this important consideration, it in facts establishes it. 

States and other organizations are increasingly seeing a cost to neutrality in extremely polarized conflicts such as the present one. The domestic political and other dynamics are starting to play an increasingly important role (for a while at least) in this increased conflict visibility, with its own complex influence on the primary conflict. Here again, and whether intended or not, South Africa’s application has played an undeniable role in the escalation and ripening of the conflict itself. The high profile application would also have highlighted the truth or perception that certain global conflicts receive an imbalanced level of aid and attention, and some of the more marginalized combatants may be emboldened to seek resolution at the ICJ. The application also, while not unique, does represent a possible development in the geopolitical power struggles and shifting power dynamics that we briefly alluded to earlier. 

Approaching the ICJ for the urgent relief sought here could be the first of a pattern of future conflicts where countries, especially those in the so-called Global South, may seek at least these urgent remedies and build up a progressively helpful body of authoritative jurisprudence to assist them, and to present their arguments in this high visibility format. If so, the South African application, regardless of its result, may be the start of a future trend that some countries may wish to defuse as soon as possible. This may in its own way lead to further constructive pressure and possible progress in at least the Israel / Hamas war. 


In making these arguments I hope that it is clear that I am not celebrating the application or its arguable necessity. Most of us would have sincerely wanted the conflict to have been resolved long ago, for the primary parties and the region to prosper and get on with the business of serving its people, for the death and destruction that we see on our screens on a daily basis not to have existed, for South Africa not having seen the need to bring the application in the first place – but that is of course, at this stage, wishful thinking, and wishing is a terrible conflict strategy. We are here, awaiting the court’s ruling on the preliminary measures, and all we can do is to be ready for when that part of this awful journey falls into place. 

I am also certainly not claiming any special recognition for South Africa in bringing the application. If my argument holds up in the next decade then the application will have been one of an interlinked set of factors in the conflict dynamic mix that may have led the parties to a better place in this war. Even if these arguments are correct, as I believe they are, they are nothing other than seeds, nothing more than potential conflict outcomes. 

They will need understanding, a high level of technical expertise, patience, money and sustained management by a largely incompatible group of people. It will need urgent and sustained support on a myriad of levels (see for instance practical concepts such as Roger Mac Ginty’s everyday peace or Peter T. Coleman’s strategies in combating polarization). The only easy part of the debate is to realize that, as difficult as all of this may be, as improbable as a negotiated settlement may seem from where we are standing right now, it is the only conflict outcome that a decent, modern global society would want to support and bring about. History will tell us, eventually, what role South Africa’s application has played in how this ended. 

Summary of main sources, references and suggested reading 

1. Everyday Peace, by Roger Mac Ginty, Oxford University Press (2021) 

2. Dangerous Magic: essays on conflict resolution in South Africa, by Andre Vlok, Paradigm Media (2022) 

3. The Way Out, by Peter T. Coleman, Columbia University Press (2021) 

4. Rethinking Conflict Resolution and Management, by I. William Zartman and Sinisa Vukovic, Edward Elgar Publishing (2023) 

5. Existential Risks in Peace and Conflict Studies, by Noah B. Taylor, Palgrave Macmillan (2023) 

6. For more comprehensive reading on the crucial place of identity conflicts in this and other conflicts, see the invaluable work done by Jay van Bavel and Dominic Packer in The Power of Us, Little Brown Spark Publishers (2021), their continued work on the topic, and various other important work by Yascha Mounk (The Identity Trap, Penguin Press (2023), any related work by Jonathan Haidt, or my article at DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS - part 2/3 - The Conflict Conversations (conflict-conversations.co.za) 

7. The verbatim record of the South African arguments at the ICJ proceedings can be accessed at CR 2024/1 (saflii.org) (85 pp). The Israeli verbatim arguments can be accessed at CR 2024/2 (icj-cij.org) (75 pp) 

8. My article on conflict visibility and the effect that has on subsequent conflict dynamics can be accessed at CONFLICT VISIBILITY AND ITS ROLE IN CONFLICT DYNAMICS - The Conflict Conversations (conflict-conversations.co.za) 

  • Full references, further reading material, courses, coaching and study material are available on request.

(Andre Vlok can be contacted on andre@conflictresolutioncentre.co.za for any further information

(c) Andre Vlok

January 2024

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