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  • Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine by Noura Erakat
  • Terry Rempel (bio)
Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine, by Noura Erakat. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019. 352 pages. $32.

It is difficult to write about the struggle over Palestine without reference to international law. Major junctures in the struggle have coincided with significant developments in law. The ways that the international community, whether through the League of Nations or the United Nations, has dealt with the struggle have raised important questions about the substantive content of international law. While the struggle over Palestine has in turn contributed to the development of various principles of international law, Palestinians have seldom benefitted from their application. As the editors of a recent collection of legal studies on the role of international law in the struggle over Palestine succinctly put it, "[t]he precepts of modern international law and the decades-old Israel–Palestine conflict have had a long, tangled, and disquieting relationship."1

In Justice for Some, legal scholar, attorney, and activist Noura Erakat explores the relationship between international law and politics in the context of the Palestinian struggle for freedom over the course of a century. Building on the substantial body of literature which examines various aspects of the struggle over Palestine through an international law framework, Justice for Some advances neither legal prescriptions nor makes exhaustive legal arguments. Focused rather on the Janus-faced nature of international law, Erakat explores the capacity of law for both domination and resistance. Positing international law as one of many tools in the struggle for freedom, the author [End Page 672] argues that its efficacy is dependent on multiple factors—geopolitical power, national and international interests, personnel capacity, strategic cohesion, and effective leadership—with the existence of a political vision being the most significant (p. xiii).

Imperialism and settler-colonialism figure prominently in Erakat's analysis of international law's dual role in the struggle over Palestine. The cautionary tale that unfolds over the course of five main chapters is shaped by the author's initial examination of international law's colonial origins and of the sovereign exception to suspend the application of international law in Palestine (p. 15). It is this second aspect of international law, namely, the centrality of the state in its making (or breaking) and in its enforcement that likewise informs Erakat's less prescriptive approach. Central to the reconstitution of Palestine as a Jewish national home through immigration, acquisition of, and settlement on the land, the author further explains how the subsequent treatment of Palestine in law as sui generis, that is to say, unlike anything else, created the need to establish new law which sustains the original exception.

Erakat's opening chapter on "colonial erasures" illustrates how application of the sovereign exception through the Mandate for Palestine rendered the country's indigenous population nonexistent in law. This is why legal resistance, on its own, as the author further explains, has been ineffective in securing release from what Rashid Khalidi described in reference to the terms of the mandate as the "iron cage"2 since it was their designation as an exception "that rendered Palestinians ineligible for normal rights in the first place" (p. 17). While Erakat is less concerned about legal prescription, her conclusion that "[t]he ability to declare an exception to the international is predicated upon the strength of the sovereign to withstand censure and punishment" (p. 16), nevertheless, appears to offer a potential way forward. As Erakat goes on to

In the four inter-related chapters that follow, Erakat explains how the recalibration of the regional and international balance of power as a result of major wars in 1967, 1973, 1990/91, and the second Palestinian intifada or uprising that began in 2000 created what she describes as "moments of 'principled opportunism,' or instances when actors were able to use international law as a tool" (p. 4). Drawing upon Duncan Kennedy's notion of "legal work," the book illustrates how at each junction both state and non-state actors "shaped the meaning of the law as a site of resistance or oppression, and how law thereafter structured...


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