South Africa has filed a case against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), accusing it of crimes of genocide against Palestinians in Gaza after nearly three months of relentless Israeli bombardment has killed more than 21,500 people and caused widespread destruction in the besieged enclave.
In an application to the court on Friday, South Africa described Israel’s actions in Gaza as “genocidal in character because they are intended to bring about the destruction of a substantial part of the Palestinian national, racial and ethnical group”.
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“The acts in question include killing Palestinians in Gaza, causing them serious bodily and mental harm, and inflicting on them conditions of life calculated to bring about their physical destruction,” the application said.
The ICJ, also called the World Court, is a UN civil court that adjudicates disputes between countries. It is distinct from the International Criminal Court (ICC), which prosecutes individuals for war crimes.
As members of the UN, both South Africa and Israel are bound by the court.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has compared Israel’s policies in Gaza and the occupied West Bank with his country’s past apartheid regime of racial segregation imposed by the white-minority rule that ended in 1994.
Several human rights organisations have said that Israeli policies towards Palestinians amount to apartheid.
— CIJ_ICJ (@CIJ_ICJ) December 29, 2023
South Africa said Israel’s conduct, particularly since the war began on October 7, violates the UN’s Genocide Convention, and called for an expedited hearing. The application also requests the court to indicate provisional measures to “protect against further, severe and irreparable harm to the rights of the Palestinian people” under the Convention.
“South Africa is gravely concerned with the plight of civilians caught in the present Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip due to the indiscriminate use of force and forcible removal of inhabitants,” a statement from South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) said, adding that the country has “repeatedly stated that it condemns all violence and attacks against all civilians, including Israelis.”
“South Africa has continuously called for an immediate and permanent ceasefire and the resumption of talks that will end the violence arising from the continued belligerent occupation of Palestine,” the statement added.
Israel has rejected global calls for a ceasefire saying the war would not stop until the Hamas group, whose October 7 attack triggered the current phase of the conflict, was destroyed. Some 1,200 people were killed in the Hamas attack in Israel. The Palestinian group has said its attack was against Israel’s 16-year-old blockade of Gaza and expansion of settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. Settlement expansions pose the biggest hurdle in the realisation of a future Palestinian state comprising Gaza, occupied West Banka and East Jerusalem.
In the latest development in Israel’s war on Gaza, tens of thousands of newly displaced Palestinians in the centre of the Palestinian enclave on Friday were forced to flee further south as Israel expanded its ground and air offensive in the centre of the enclave.
Israel has faced global condemnation for the mounting toll and destruction and is accused of meting out collective punishment on the Palestinian people.
‘A very important step’
The court application is the latest move by South Africa, a vociferous critic of Israel’s war, to ratchet up pressure after its lawmakers last month voted in favour of closing down the Israeli embassy in Pretoria and suspending all diplomatic relations until a ceasefire was agreed.
Al Jazeera’s Gabriel Elizondo, reporting from the United Nations headquarters in New York, said the move was “clearly a very important step to try to hold some accountability to Israel.”
“Now that South Africa is pushing this to the ICJ, it will be on [the UN’s] agenda to try to make a ruling on this very important question,” he added.
On November 16, a group of 36 UN experts called on the international community to “prevent genocide against the Palestinian people”, calling Israel’s actions since October 7 a “genocide in the making”.
“We are deeply disturbed by the failure of governments to heed our call and to achieve an immediate ceasefire. We are also profoundly concerned about the support of certain governments for Israel’s strategy of warfare against the besieged population of Gaza, and the failure of the international system to mobilise to prevent genocide,” the experts said in a statement.
Israel rejects South Africa’s accusations
Israel has rejected South Africa’s move as “baseless”, calling it “blood libel.”
“South Africa’s claim lacks both a factual and a legal basis, and constitutes despicable and contemptuous exploitation of the Court,” Israel’s minister of foreign affairs, Lior Haiat, said in a statement posted on X.
“Israel has made it clear that the residents of the Gaza Strip are not the enemy, and is making every effort to limit harm to the non-involved and to allow humanitarian aid to enter the Gaza Strip,” the statement added.
“It does rally public opinion to the reality of what’s going on in Palestine, not just in Gaza but also in the West Bank,” said Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst Marwan Bishara.
According to Article 2 of the Genocide Convention, genocide involves acts committed with the “intent to destroy, either in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.”
“Where the disagreement lies is whether there is intent or no intent,” Bishara said.
“The three leading Israeli officials have declared the intent, starting with Israeli President Herzog when he said there are ‘no innocents’ in Gaza, the defence minister who said Israel will impose collective punishment on the people of Gaza because they are ‘human animals’,” Bishara said, adding that prime minister Netanyahu also used a biblical analogy in a statement widely interpreted as a genocidal call.
The Palestinian ministry of foreign affairs welcomed South Africa’s move, and called on the ICJ to take immediate action to “prevent further harm to the Palestinian people”.
“Israel’s stated policy, acts and omissions are genocidal in character are committed with the requisite specific intent to the destruction of the Palestinian people under its colonial occupation and apartheid regime in violation of its obligations under the Genocide Convention,” a statement by the ministry said.
“The State of Palestine appeals to the international community and the Contracting Parties to the Convention to uphold their obligations and support the Court in the proceedings.”