Palestine and the Contours of the Third World

No one watching the proceedings in the International Court of Justice on January 11 and 12, 2024—when South Africa accused Israel of genocide in Gaza—could have missed the racialized geopolitical atmospherics of the moment. On the South African side stood a multiracial team speaking primarily in South African and Irish accents; on the Israeli side, a white-passing delegation speaking in Australian, British, US, and Israeli accents. The racialized affective dynamics of the proceedings are more than borne out by the official positions that states have taken on the case. While Malaysia, Turkey, Jordan, Bolivia, the Maldives, Namibia, Pakistan, Colombia, and Brazil were early supporters of the South African position, at the time of writing, the fifty-seven-member Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC), the twenty-two-member Arab League and the 120-member Non Aligned Movement have also expressed support. Few Western states have supported the case, with the US, the UK, and Germany explicitly condemning it.  When Germany announced its intention to intervene as a third party in the proceedings in support of Israel, Namibia broke the internet with its damning response. Reminding the world that Germany had committed the first genocide of the twentieth century between 1904–08 against the Herero and Nama people on Namibian soil, it declared that “Germany cannot morally express commitment to the United Nations Convention against genocide, including atonement for the genocide in Namibia, whilst supporting the equivalent of a holocaust and genocide in Gaza.” Meanwhile the UN General Assembly has sought an advisory opinion from the ICJ on the legal consequences arising from Israel’s longstanding occupation of Palestine, with Indonesia playing a leading role in these proceedings. And Chile and Mexico have requested the International Criminal Court to investigate Israel for possible crimes committed during the course of its war on Gaza.

The racialized geopolitical fault lines at work here have brought the contours of what used to be called the Third World shimmering back into view. As Vijay Prashad has written, the Third World was not a place but a political project pursued by a large group of recently decolonized states between the 1950s and 1980s, which attacked the hierarchical international structures in which they found themselves by championing self-determination, sovereign equality, racial and economic justice, and cultural liberation. The project reached a rhetorical high point in the 1970s with the Declaration of a New International Economic Order, which codified many of its long-standing demands, before being killed off by both success and failure. The spectacular economic growth of US Cold War allies, notably the “Asian Tigers,” tempted some constituents of the Third World to abandon its political critique of the economic order and to embark on alternative projects of state downsizing and trade liberalization. The failures were produced by a series of vicious imperial interventions in the “second” Cold War in places such as Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Angola, Vietnam, Cambodia and elsewhere, but were also evident in the economic stagnation and severe indebtedness that wracked much of the bloc. The lack of a collective Third World response to the debt crisis that erupted in 1982 seemed to signal its demise as political project. The very term “Third World” was now replaced by the more anodyne “global South,” proposed by the Brandt Commission which had been charged with studying international “development,” the bland spatiality of this new term fully euphemizing what remained a deeply hierarchical, imperial relationship.

The cohesiveness of the Third World project was always challenged by its sheer size, heterogeneity, and the reality of its members’ proximity towards one or the other of the superpowers, the oratory of nonalignment notwithstanding. Yet two issues anchored the rhetorical unity of the project: a commitment to the liberation of South Africa from apartheid, and of Palestine from Israeli occupation. These commitments were articles of faith, evidenced by their repetition and prominence in the communiques issued by successive summits of the Non Alignment Movement. As such, the 1990s were a moment of profound disorientation. South Africa’s transition out of apartheid and Palestine’s apparent emergence into statehood of a kind as a result of the Oslo process paradoxically robbed the project of two of its linchpins. In retrospect, it seems apposite to suggest not (or not only) that the Third World kept the question of Palestine burning on the global agenda, but that Palestine and other national liberation struggles interpellated the Third World, giving it a coherence and an ideological glue that it otherwise lacked. Might the return of this question—with renewed urgency in light of the ongoing genocide in Gaza as well as Israel’s annihilation of the prospect of viable Palestinian statehood over the post-Oslo period—have brought the Third World back into being?


Closer attention to the contours of this reconstituted Third World, such as it is, make simple claims about revival or reversion implausible. For conspicuous by its volte-face in allegiance is India, which has moved from apparently staunch support for Palestinian liberation to an equally vociferous commitment to the security of Israel. Hours after the Hamas attack of October 7, 2023, Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed solidarity with Israel. Later that month, India abstained from a UN General Assembly resolution calling for a “humanitarian truce.” And even as Israel has sought to reduce its dependence on Palestinian labor, India has rushed to fill the gap by fast-tracking the recruitment of construction workers, nurses, and caregivers, dispensing with the protections usually afforded to Indian workers traveling abroad to conflict zones. Nor have these solidaristic responses been limited to state interactions. Hindu right-wing troll farms have become major sources of disinformation and anti-Palestinian propaganda. And members of Hindu nationalist groups have volunteered to serve with the IDF, seeing in its war on “Islamist terrorists” in Palestine a cause that resonates with their Islamophobic worldview.

The strength of the Indo-Israeli bond is overdetermined by interest and ideology. In his landmark study of the relationship, Azad Essa suggests that even in the heyday of its support for Palestinian liberation—as the first non-Arab state to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1974 and its declaration of Palestinian statehood in 1988—India was moved by its own interests in cultivating the support of Arab states (especially vis-à-vis Pakistan) and in bolstering its credibility as a leader of the formerly colonized world. Those interests find their most concrete manifestation in the military-industrial complex that ties the two countries together. Israel has become one of India’s most reliable arms suppliers—particularly in moments when assistance from the US and USSR/Russia have been less forthcoming—and India its biggest customer, accounting for 46% of Israeli arms exports. Essa quotes Prabir Purkayastha’s startling observation that at some point in the 2000s, Israel was supplying more arms to India than it was to the Israeli army. Such technologies equip India with ever more sophisticated capacities for militarized border management, surveillance, and cybersecurity while also entrenching its settler colonial occupation of Kashmir which seeks to emulate Israeli policies of land seizure and settlement in Palestine.

Modi’s accession to power in 2014 intensified the bonhomie between the two countries, given his admiration for Israel as a militarily powerful ethno state founded on a singular notion of culture, religion, and nation. Essa traces this ideological affinity to the kindred visions of V. D. Savarkar and Ze’ev Jabotinsky—the fathers of Hindutva and Revisionist Zionism respectively—who articulated the foundational ideologies of these movements in texts authored coincidentally in 1923. In the intervening century, Hindu nationalists have admired both the European fascisms that exterminated and expelled Europe’s Jews and the Zionist movement that sought a homeland for persecuted Jews in historic Palestine—a set of affinities that appear less contradictory when one recognizes all three movements as blood and soil nationalisms that bind racialized groups to territory. Post-Cold War geopolitical realignments have provided a conducive environment in which these ideological kinships have become reasons of state. India’s “normalization” of relations with Israel has been of a piece with its tilt towards the US. The three countries together with the United Arab Emirates form the so-called West Asia Quad, which enables closer cooperation in defense, trade, energy, and other sectors. Meanwhile the lexicon of “pragmatism” allows India to speak out of both sides of its mouth, strengthening its relationship with Israel even as it continues to pay lip service to friendship with Palestine and a two-state solution.


Even as India and Israel have become more intimate, South Africa and Israel have grown more estranged. One month before South Africa filed its case against Israel in the ICJ, its Parliament voted to suspend diplomatic relations with Israel and to close its embassy in the country. Indeed, it has not had an ambassador in Israel since 2018. South Africa’s solidarity with Palestine is of course an extension of the long-running camaraderie between the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and the PLO as liberation movements battling settler colonialism, evident also in the deep personal friendship between Nelson Mandela and Yasser Arafat. The night before hearings began in the ICJ, Palestinians rallied in Nelson Mandela square in Ramallah around a statue of the anti-apartheid giant to pay tribute to South Africa, a brass band in attendance playing the South African national anthem.

The South Africa–Israel rift is also driven by the memory of Israel’s clandestine military assistance to the apartheid government. In his account of this shadowy alliance, Sasha Polakow-Suransky locates the beginnings of the relationship in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, when Israel was transformed in the eyes of many Black African leaders from socialist utopia to colonial occupier—a status that was further entrenched by its gains in the 1973 war. With its economy in dire straits despite military victory, the Israeli arms industry emerged as an indispensable source of revenue, its needs and opportunities increasingly driving diplomacy. Facing increasing international isolation on account of global denunciations of Zionism and apartheid as manifestations of state racism, the two countries found willing partners in one another. In return for access to military know-how including nuclear technology, South Africa provided Israel with revenue, raw materials such as uranium and tritium for its own covert nuclear program, and missile testing facilities. With the ascent to power of the Likud Party in 1977, a relationship that had hitherto been concealed by rhetoric professing Israeli opposition to apartheid on moral and religious grounds, was spoken of more openly, with both Revisionist Zionists and Afrikaner nationalists imagining themselves as threatened outposts of Western civilization holding the line against Soviet communism and native barbarism. Polakow-Suransky reckons that between the mid-1970s and early 1990s, South Africa became Israel’s largest arms purchaser and its second or third largest trading partner. It was only when a post-apartheid government turned its back on the relationship that Israel looked to India and China to purchase its weapons.

South Africa’s animosity towards Israel is fueled as much by the past as by the present or, more precisely, by a perception that the Israeli present is the South African past. Its submission to the ICJ as well as numerous prior statements pointedly describe Israel’s stranglehold over the Occupied Territories—effected by a regime that subjects Palestinians to segregation, discrimination, house demolitions, arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, censorship, expulsion, and assassination—as containing all the key ingredients of apartheid. Indeed it is difficult to resist the conclusion that Israel imported some of these technologies of oppression from apartheid South Africa, its acquiescence in the creation of a Palestinian state comprising a bewilderingly complex set of miniscule and non-contiguous territories in the West Bank resembling the Bantustans created by the apartheid regime. When the latter were created to segregate and concentrate the Black population of South Africa in “homelands” where they could ostensibly pursue “separate development,” Israel was one of the few countries in the world to accord them de facto recognition by allowing private investment and trade representation and welcoming visiting leaders.


At stake in the contrasting trajectories of India and South Africa vis-à-vis Israel/Palestine are not only different domestic stories of the afterlives of liberation but contrasting performances of Third Worldism that seem to stem from rival understandings of the term itself. Some consider the term redundant, rendered obsolete by the disappearance of the communist Second World and the “end of history.” Many seem to view it as pejorative, redolent with connotations of backwardness and “third class” status. Yet when French demographer Alfred Sauvy first coined the term in 1952, he seems to have chosen it to describe a militantly unapologetic project for the revolutionary transformation of world politics. Likening the emerging group of decolonized states to the radical third estate that formed the vanguard of the French Revolution, he argued that the Third World, like the third estate—ignored, exploited and scorned—strove for a recognition that it had hitherto been denied (‘ce tiers-monde ignoré, exploité, méprisé comme le tiers état, veut lui aussi, être quelque chose’). Far from constituting a category of abjection from which its members might wish to seek exit at the earliest opportunity, the comparison imbued the Third World with a revolutionary spirit that promised to overturn extant hierarchies of international relations.

Recalling these dueling connotations of Third Worldness might do much to explain the contrasting conceptions of leadership and responsibility that animate the positions of India and South Africa respectively on the question of Palestine. The Modi regime has made much of India’s supposed role as the “Voice of the Global South” and as a vishwaguru (teacher of the world). Yet as Kate Sullivan de Estrada demonstrates, such posturing seems to be motivated less by a desire to transform international politics than to obtain the recognition of the liberal western powers that dominate it—a recognition that would ratify Modi’s domestic claims to having restored Hindu civilizational greatness on the world stage. Such recognition has flowed more from a perception of India’s usefulness as a bulwark against China and from its participation in Western security architectures in which the normalization of relations with Israel has been a cornerstone. The contrast with South Africa in the present moment could not be greater. Speaking in the South African National Assembly, the government’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor was emphatic and expansive in outlining her vision of justice:

… our role must be to seek to build a better world. That that benefit we enjoy, of human rights, of a fantastic constitution, of having institutions that are democratic and work for all of us, that privilege is not just for us. It must be for everyone. And in any debate we have, if we are true to ourselves, if we are true to our history, if we are true to what we’ve achieved, we will stand up and say: “what is being done to the people of Palestine is wrong, is intolerable, and we will not pretend to accept it.”

Yet in celebrating South Africa’s championing of the Palestinian cause as a legacy of the ruling ANC’s past as a liberation movement, we would be remiss to ignore the other promises of liberation that it has betrayed—in its capitulation to neoliberalism, its failure to deliver basic services to many of its poorest people, and its descent into corruption, all of which have produced a tinderbox of discontent that has sometimes combusted in xenophobic moral panics against migrants from elsewhere in Africa who are scapegoated for the state’s failings. More generally, notwithstanding the sense of hope that Third Worldist challenges to Israel in international legal spaces have engendered, there is something troubling about the celebration of an essentially statist challenge to state violence given the demonstrated moral and political bankruptcy of the nation-state form itself (one does not have to look too hard to see that many of Israel’s critics themselves have less than spotless records on questions of pluralism, democracy and human rights). It was precisely the contradiction between lofty internationalist rhetoric and domestic repression that underpinned South Asian Marxist critic Aijaz Ahmad’s withering criticism of the Third World project. Ahmad was skeptical of its transformation of anti-imperialism from a socialist project pursued by mass popular movements to a developmentalist project pursued by the national bourgeoisies of weaker states. But he was also cognizant—like Marx himself—of the fact that because imperialism’s political system took the form of a hierarchically structured system of nation-states which provided the terrain on which class conflict actually unfolded, any revolutionary struggle against imperialism had to organize within the political space of the nation-state with the revolutionary transformation of the state as its immediate practical objective, even as it set its sights on a universalist socialist utopia. The corollary of this realization must surely be that we cannot lose sight of the transitional, contingent nature of the state form, recognizing that as long as they are with us, states will only ever be as progressive as their popular classes force them to be by bending oppressive structures towards emancipatory futures. As anti-apartheid activist, politician and scholar Allan Boesak says, “The ICJ case is a great thing, and apart from credit to the South African government, credit has to go to the people. We have been on the streets for weeks before [President] Ramaphosa and the government even thought of doing anything.” That, ultimately, is why we cannot stop marching everywhere and chanting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!”


Cover image: “Third World Round-Up: The Palestine Problem: Test Your Knowledge,” SNCC Newsletter, June-July 1967, 4–5, Retrieved from SNCC Digital.   

Rahul Rao

Rahul Rao is reader in international political thought in the School of International Relations, University of St Andrews. He is the author, most recently, of Out of Time: The Queer Politics of Postcoloniality (Oxford University Press, 2020).