Turkey backs up South Africa’s genocide case against Israel at The Hague

Karam Said, Tuesday 16 Jan 2024

Turkey is one of several countries to back South Africa in its case against Israel in the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

South Africa s Minister of Justice Ronald Lamola (R) delivers remarks to journalists outside the Int
South Africa s Minister of Justice Ronald Lamola (R) delivers remarks to journalists outside the International Court of Justice (ICJ) after the first day of hearingd on the genocide case against Israel brought by South Africa, in The Hague on January 11, 2024. AFP

On 13 January, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that his government had sent documents to The Hague corroborating South Africa’s charge that Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians in Gaza.

“At this moment, they [Israel] have begun to present their defence,” President Erdogan told reporters after performing Friday prayers in Istanbul. “But all the documents we have submitted are having a serious impact in The Hague. We will continue to send more and more documents. I believe that, for the most part, they are visual documents, and with their help, Israel will be convicted there. This is what we expect because we believe in the justice of the ICJ.”

Erdogan’s remarks sparked anger in Israel, whose foreign minister lashed out at “the president of the country with the Armenian Genocide in its past” for targeting Israel with “unfounded claims.”

Turkey also sent the chairman of the Turkish parliament’s Justice Committee, Cuneyt Yuksel, to The Hague to follow the progress of the ICJ’s hearings of South Africa’s case against Israel.

Speaking to reporters outside the Peace Palace, on Thursday, Yuksel said, “we expect the court to order a provisional measure calling on Israel to cease its assault on Gaza. We hope the process will proceed as soon as possible and we believe that the court will be very thorough in its deliberations. We will continue to follow the situation closely.”

Turkey had officially come out in support of South Africa’s case against Israel on 3 January, releasing a Foreign Ministry statement welcoming the application that South Africa had submitted to the ICJ regarding Israel’s violation of its obligations under the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

President Erdogan then incurred Israel’s ire by comparing Netanyahu to Hitler. He also criticised the widespread clampdowns on criticism of Israel and expressions of pro-Palestinian solidarity saying: “Just like 80 years ago in Nazi Germany, scholars worldwide who have the courage to decry the oppression and persecution in Gaza are facing pressure and threats.”

Although Turkish-Israeli relations had rapidly begun to warm after the two countries restored full diplomatic relations in 2022, they have quickly soured again since 7 October 2023 as Ankara’s discourse grew increasingly critical of Israel’s conduct of the war in Gaza, which has killed at least 24,000 Palestinian civilians.

Although Erdogan has primarily targeted Netanyahu, he has also directed anger at other Israeli leaders as well.

In his press conference on 13 January, Erdogan took aim at his Israeli counterpart, Chaim Herzog, with whom he had more cordial relations: “Who can be fooled by Israel?  Netanyahu has no place to run, has nothing to defend. I thought Herzog was sincere, but lately he too has taken after Netanyahu, making strange statements.” 

The Turkish Bar Association has been documenting and collecting evidence of Israeli war crimes since November.

Shortly before this, Erdogan had told thousands of people gathered in a protest rally that his government was preparing to declare Israel a “war criminal” over its actions in the Palestinian Occupied Territories.

Israel recalled its diplomats from Turkey in response and Ankara did likewise, saying that the crimes Israel was committing in Gaza could not be tolerated.

Turkish-Israeli relations deteriorated further since the beginning of this year when, on 3 January, Turkish authorities arrested 46 people allegedly connected with a Mossad cell operating in Turkey. The suspects were accused of spying on and plotting to assassinate and abduct foreign nationals residing in the country.

Ankara’s already strained relations with the US have grown tenser against the backdrop of the massive death and destruction Israel is wreaking in Gaza. In November, Erdogan refused to meet with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the last leg of a Middle East tour related to the war on Gaza.

The two country’s views diverge sharply over the Palestinian cause, and they are diametrically opposed on the matter of South Africa’s charges of genocide against Israel. Blinken has dismissed the South African case as “worthless” while US National Security Council Spokesman John Kirby described it as “meritless,” “counterproductive,” and “completely without any basis in fact whatsoever.”

Ankara and Washington have long been at loggerheads over other issues, foremost among which is the US’ continued support of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Syria.

Turkey regards the predominantly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which leads the SDF, as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey designates as a terrorist organisation.

Another bone of contention is Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile defence systems, for which the Pentagon has kicked Turkey off its F35 fighter jet programme. Sanctions related to that have affected other areas of military cooperation.

While tensions over the S-400 have eased, Congress has yet to approve of the sale of 40 advanced F-16 fighter jets to Turkey.

Although Erdogan met with Blinken during the secretary of state’s visit to Turkey on 7 January as part of Washington’s attempt to rally support for plans on how to govern Gaza after the war ends, this is not a sign of smoother times ahead for that rocky relationship. On Palestine in particular, the two sides are as far apart as ever, and Erdogan has clearly not tempered his invective against Netanyahu.

However, as Turkey’s recent actions have shown, there is more to its stance against Israel’s conduct than words. Its decision to back South Africa’s case, together with many other countries, is important symbolically and carries considerable political weight. Also, the corroborative evidence it is submitting to the ICJ may prove helpful to the case.

Turkey, in its determination to help defend the Palestinians, appears willing to risk escalating tensions with both Israel and the US. However, it may also calculate that relations with Tel Aviv are unlikely to revert to rupture and that the US has too many reasons to try to keep Turkey on its side, or at least not against it, on other issues.

Meanwhile, Ankara is taking advantage of the current international climate in support of the Palestinians to do what it can to notch up the pressure on Israel and its Western backers to stop the war on Gaza.

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