Harsh Israeli rhetoric against Palestinians becomes central to South Africa's genocide case

AP , Thursday 18 Jan 2024

Fighting “human animals.” Making Gaza a “slaughterhouse.” “Erasing the Gaza Strip from the face of the earth.” Such inflammatory rhetoric is a key component of South Africa’s case accusing Israel of genocide at the UN World Court.

FILE - South Africa s Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Ronald Lamola, centre, and Palestinian Assistant Minister of Multilateral Affairs Ammar Hijazi, right, address the media outside the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, Jan. 2024. AP


 South Africa says the language — in comments by Israeli leaders, soldiers and entertainers about Palestinians in Gaza is proof of Israel’s intent to commit genocide.

Rights groups and activists say they're an inevitable byproduct of Israel's decades-old, open-ended occupation of Palestine and that they've intensified during the war. They say such language has been left unchecked, inciting violence and dehumanizing Palestinians.

“Words lead to deeds,” said Michael Sfard, a prominent Israeli lawyer. “Words that normalize or legitimize serious crimes against civilians create the social, political and moral basis for other people to do things like that.”

The genocide case against Israel opened last week at the International Court of Justice at The Hague. South Africa is looking to prove that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza and that Israel has a specific intent to commit genocide. It is using the litany of harsh statements as part of the evidence in its case.


With the ground offensive getting underway in late October, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cited the Bible in a televised address: “You must remember what Amalek has done to you.” Amalekites were persecutors of the biblical Israelites, and a biblical commandment says they must be destroyed. South Africa argued that the remarks showed Israel's intent to commit genocide against Palestinians.

Two days after the Hamas operation, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Israel was “fighting human animals,” in announcing a complete siege on Gaza.

Deputy Knesset speaker Nissim Vaturi from the ruling Likud party wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, that Israelis had one common goal, “erasing the Gaza Strip from the face of the earth.” Israeli Heritage Minister Amichay Eliyahu, from the far-right Jewish Power party, suggested that Israel drop a nuclear bomb on Gaza and said there were “no uninvolved civilians” in the territory.

Israeli soldiers were caught on video making similar remarks as they sang and danced in the early days of Israel’s ground offensive.

On Oct. 7, a journalist wrote on X that Gaza should become “a slaughterhouse” if the roughly 250 captives held by Hamas were not returned.

South Africa is asking for a series of legally binding rulings declaring that Israel is breaching “its obligations under the Genocide Convention” — a decision that could take years — and for a binding interim order that Israel ceases hostilities, a ruling on which is expected in the coming weeks.


Critics say statements against Palestinians have gone unpunished or undenounced. Lawyer Sfard appealed to the country’s attorney general earlier this month on behalf of a group of prominent Israeli figures, demanding to know why the rhetoric hasn't been reined in.


The war is being fought under Israel’s most hardline government ever, dominated by far-right Cabinet ministers with a long record of controversial remarks well before Oct. 7.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich once called for “erasing” a Palestinian West Bank town. National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir talked of the supremacy of freedom of movement for Jewish West Bank settlers over that same right for Palestinians.

And since Oct. 7, such speech has moved further into the mainstream.

While little appears to have been done to confront violent rhetoric directed at Palestinians, Palestinian citizens of Israel who have shown empathy for people in Gaza are facing a crackdown, according to Adalah, a legal rights group. Police say the speech amounts to incitement, promotes violence or shows support for terror groups.

Adalah says at least 270 Palestinian citizens of Israel have had some sort of interaction with law enforcement — arrests, investigations or warnings, with at least 86 charged for speech offences. Some Jewish Israelis who expressed sympathy for Palestinians have also faced arrest or sanction by their employers.

Aeyal Gross, a professor of international law at Tel Aviv University, said that how Israel responds to the inflammatory rhetoric matters in the case of South Africa, because Israel, as a signatory to the Genocide Convention, is prohibited not only from committing genocide but also from inciting to genocide.

Gross said that it was probably too late for Israel to take steps that show it doesn’t condone such speech. Punishing such remarks could have sent a message to the court as well as to Israeli society that the state doesn’t tolerate incendiary rhetoric.


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