Israel faces genocide charges at the ICJ

Al-Ahram Weekly , Tuesday 2 Jan 2024

South Africa has instituted proceedings against Israel at the International Court of Justice on charges of genocide in Gaza, setting an important precedent for international responses to the war.

Israel faces genocide charges at the ICJ


On 29 December, the Republic of South Africa filed an application instituting proceedings against Israel before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) concerning violations by Israel of its obligations under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide over its war on Gaza since 7 October.

More than 22,000 Palestinians have been killed in less than three months, while at least 70 per cent of Gaza’s buildings and infrastructure have been destroyed by Israeli forces.

Israeli officials have gone on record in expressing plans to obliterate the Gaza Strip and transfer its 2.2 million population to neighbouring Arab countries.

According to South Africa’s application, “acts and omissions by Israel [in Gaza] ... are genocidal in character because they are intended to bring about the destruction of a substantial part of the Palestinian national, racial, and ethnical group, that being the part of the Palestinian group in the Gaza Strip.”

The application listed the acts in question as including 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 starvation of civilians as a method of warfare, and other war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

While Israel justified its actions in Gaza as a response to Hamas’ incursion into Israel on 7 October in line with the rules of international law, South Africa’s application presented an indirect refutation of this rhetoric.

“The acts are all attributed to Israel, which has failed to prevent genocide and is committing genocide in manifest violation of the Genocide Convention, and which has also violated and is continuing to violate its other fundamental obligations under the Genocide Convention,” including by failing to prevent or punish the direct and public incitement to genocide by senior Israeli officials and others, the application said.

The Hague-based ICJ, known as the world court, is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations. While its rulings are binding on the parties to a case without appeal, the court has no power to enforce them on the ground. In practice, however, the political impact of the ICJ’s findings and advisory opinions have the power to raise awareness and influence international pressure on parties involved in conflicts.

In 1971, the court called for South Africa to withdraw its illegal occupation of Namibia while highlighting its Apartheid policies in the African country. The international pressure that mounted against South Africa’s own Apartheid regime eventually led to sanctions and the subsequent end of that regime in 1994.

Because of South Africa’s long history of Apartheid, the significance of its surprise action last week against Israel, where accusations of an Apartheid system imposed on Palestinians have been documented by international and even Israeli rights groups, was not lost on observers.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry immediately rejected the accusations, calling them a baseless “blood libel,” an anti-Semitic trope dating from the Middle Ages in Europe falsely accusing Jews of killing Christians to use their blood in religious rituals.

The ministry accused South Africa of collaborating with Hamas, “a terrorist group that calls for Israel’s destruction.” But both Israel’s security establishment and the State Attorney’s Office are concerned that the ICJ could charge Israel with genocide.

According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) top brass have been warned that there is a “real danger” that the court will issue an injunction calling for a ceasefire, “noting that Israel is bound by the court’s rulings.”

The paper said there was concern among Israeli international law experts that the proceeding could cement claims of genocide against Israel and thus “lead to its diplomatic isolation and to boycott or sanctions against it or against Israeli businesses.”

South Africa’s application takes accusations by Palestinians of Israel’s genocide against them in Gaza, dismissed by both Tel Aviv and Washington, to the ICJ.

The application noted that Israel’s genocide in Gaza forms “part of a continuum” towards the Palestinians since 1948, described by South Africa as its “75-year-long Apartheid, its 56-year-long belligerent occupation of Palestinian territory, and its 16-year-long blockade of Gaza, including the serious and ongoing violations of international law associated therewith, including grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention and other war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Less than 48 hours after South Africa submitted its petition, Israel said it was partially withdrawing from Gaza.

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was ratified by the UN General Assembly in 1948 and entered into force in 1951. Article 2 defines genocide as “any acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.”

Article 5 of the Convention stipulates that the “contracting parties undertake the necessary legislation to give effect to its provisions and to provide effective penalties for persons guilty of genocide.”

* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 January, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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