A quick guide to South Africa’s ICJ case against Israel

As Israel defends itself against genocide charges, pro-Palestine campaigners hope the World Court will put an end to Gaza’s war.

A Palestinian injured in Israeli air strikes
A Palestinian injured in Israeli air strikes is transferred to Kuwait Hospital on January 9, 2024 in Rafah, Gaza [Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images]

The two-day public hearing in South Africa’s genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) begins on Thursday. The South African government brought the case against Israel on December 29, accusing it of “genocidal acts” in its assaults on Gaza.

Palestinians and pro-Palestine campaigners around the world are hoping the ICJ might halt Israel’s devastating military campaign in Gaza, which has seen more than 23,000 people killed – nearly 10,000 of them children.

Here’s the ICJ case, simplified:

What is the International Court of Justice?

The ICJ, also called the World Court, is the highest United Nations legal body that can adjudicate on issues between member states. It is separate from the International Criminal Court (ICC), which tries individuals in criminal cases.

The ICJ comprises 15 judges appointed for nine-year terms through elections at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) and the Security Council (UNSC). The court’s rulings are binding and cannot be appealed by member states, but it depends on the UNSC to enforce the decisions.

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What are South Africa’s accusations against Israel?

South Africa has accused Israel of committing the crime of genocide in Gaza in violation of the 1948 Genocide Convention, which both countries are party to.

The killing of Palestinians in Gaza in large numbers, especially children; destruction of their homes; their expulsion and displacement; blockade on food, water and medical assistance to the strip; the imposition of measures preventing Palestinian births by destroying essential health services crucial for the survival of pregnant women and babies, are all listed as genocidal actions in the suit.

What are South Africa’s immediate demands?

South Africa is requesting that the ICJ move urgently to prevent Israel from committing further crimes in the strip using “provisional measures” – essentially an emergency order that can be applied even before the main case begins.

It argues that provisional measures are necessary “to protect against further, severe and irreparable harm to the rights of the Palestinian people under the Genocide Convention, which continue to be violated with impunity”.

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What has Israel said?

Israel, which has lambasted South Africa for bringing the case, has promised to defend itself at the court. Senior Israeli officials, including President Isaac Herzog, have called the case “preposterous” and say it constitutes a “blood libel”.

Israel is likely to argue that its killing of more than 23,000 people in Gaza is in self-defence. Herzog, speaking to visiting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday, said Israel “will present proudly our case of using self-defense under our most inherent right under international humanitarian law”.

How long will the trial go on?

The initial proceedings will likely last only a few weeks, so we should expect a sentencing from the court, in favour of or against South Africa’s urgent request, in a few weeks.

The main case though, could take much longer – years. The ICJ’s deliberations are a painstaking process, involving detailed written submissions followed by oral arguments and counter-arguments by the team of top legal counsels representing each state. Experts say a sentence in this case could take three to four years.

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How does the ICJ decide cases?

After the initial proceedings this week on provisional measures, and later on in the main case, ICJ judges will take a vote to decide on a sentence.

Judges ought to be impartial but in the past, some have voted in line with their countries’ politics. When the bench voted in favour of a decision to provisionally order Russia out of Ukraine in March 2022, judges from Russia and China voted against the decision.

What’s the response of the international community?

Several countries and organisations have backed South Africa’s suit. Malaysia, Turkey, Jordan, Bolivia, the Maldives, Namibia, Pakistan, Columbia, and members of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) are among them.

The European Union has been silent, but Israel has seen support from its number one backer and weapons supplier, the United States. Department of State spokesperson Matt Miller said in a statement the “allegations that Israel is committing genocide are unfounded”, but he added that Israel must “prevent civilian harm” and investigate allegations of humanitarian crimes.

A Palestinian man sits near the rubble of a house destroyed in an Israeli strike amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, January 9, 2024. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
A Palestinian man sits near the rubble of a house destroyed in an Israeli strike in Rafah on January 9, 2024. [Mohammed Salem/Reuters]
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies