Israel is facing accusations of war crimes and genocide at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague this week. The case was brought by South Africa and alleges that Israel committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during military operations in the Gaza Strip.
Background to the Conflict
The Gaza Strip has been under an Israeli blockade since 2007 when the Islamic militant group Hamas took control of the territory. There have been four major Israeli military operations in Gaza since 2008, in response to rocket attacks into Israel by militant groups.
The latest violence flared in May 2021 when Hamas launched rockets at Jerusalem after weeks of tensions in the city. Israel responded with air strikes on Gaza, to which Hamas retaliated with more rocket barrages. After 11 days of fighting, a ceasefire was brokered by Egypt.
Over 260 Palestinians were killed in the fighting, including 66 children. Hamas rockets killed 13 people in Israel, including two children.
South Africa’s Genocide Case against Israel
In November 2022, South Africa notified the ICJ that it is seeking to institute legal proceedings against Israel. South Africa alleges that Israel has committed the crime of apartheid and persecution against Palestinians, which amounts to genocide under international law.
Specifically, the case alleges:
- Israel imposes inhumane acts on Palestinians to maintain Jewish domination, meeting the definition of apartheid
- This includes killing, torture, and forcibly removing Palestinians from their homes
- These acts are committed with intent to destroy Palestinians as a group, meeting the definition of genocide
While previous efforts to accuse Israel of genocide have failed due to lack of evidence, legal experts say South Africa’s case is detailed and relies on empirical data from human rights groups.
“This case has significant legal merit based on the facts,” said John Dugard, an international legal scholar. “If the court proceeds with hearings, Israel will face tough questions.”
Israel Appoints Top Judge to Lead Defense
Israel announced this week that former Chief Justice Aharon Barak will lead its legal team at the ICJ hearings. Barak is considered one of the most influential legal scholars in Israeli history.
As head justice of Israel’s Supreme Court from 1995-2006, Barak established a reputation as a champion of civil liberties. He is known for groundbreaking rulings upholding free speech, gender equality, and the rights of minorities.
“There is no one better to argue Israel’s case on the international stage,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in appointing Barak. “He deeply understands these complex issues and will present facts to correct the false narrative.”
However, some right-wing politicians in Israel criticized Barak’s appointment. They argue his liberal rulings expanded the power of the courts at the expense of security concerns.
“This case should be fought by someone who puts our self-defense first, not vague notions of equality,” said a spokesman for the New Right party.
Hearings to Begin January 10th
The ICJ has scheduled public hearings on the case to start January 10th in The Hague. The hearings are expected to last 5-7 days.
South Africa and Israel will each have multiple days to present evidence and arguments supporting their positions. A panel of 15 judges will oversee the proceedings.
It is uncertain if the ICJ will rule on the broader accusations of apartheid and genocide. The court may decide to only focus on specific incidents raised in South Africa’s filing.
A final ruling could take months or even years after hearings conclude. The losing party can appeal a judgment, further extending the process.
If Israel is found guilty, potential penalties could include sanctions and international arrest warrants for leaders responsible for war crimes. However, the ICJ has no authority to directly punish countries for non-compliance with its verdicts.
Global Reaction Mixed on Prospects
The United States slammed South Africa’s case as “meritless” and “a distraction from real human rights violators.” However, a group of over 50 US congress members urged the Biden administration to remain neutral, not take sides, and “avoid obstructing judicial proceedings.”
Several Middle Eastern countries expressed support for the genocide case. Turkey said Israel’s treatment of Palestinians fits the definition of genocide under international law. Qatar and Kuwait called the case long overdue to hold Israel accountable.
In Europe, reactions among leaders were mixed. Germany, France, and the UK voiced strong support for Israel to argue its case fairly at The Hague. But a group of over 100 European parliament members signed a petition praising South Africa for its stand against Israeli apartheid.
Concerns Over Broader Fallout
If the ICJ agrees to hear the substance of the case, it risks widening divisions over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and unraveling years of work to bring the two sides together, experts warn.
Just holding hearings on the explosive accusations could fuel efforts to boycott Israel and stoke antisemitism. On the flip side, a proceeding could lead Israel to feel unfairly prosecuted, damaging hopes for cooperation.
“However it plays out, this risks entrenching both sides behind their maximalist positions,” said Daniel Kurtzer, former US ambassador to Israel. “With tensions already running high, violence could easily spiral.”
With so much at stake, defenders and critics of Israel both await the imminent court date. Within days, arguments will formally be heard on one of the most enduring, emotional geopolitical issues of the modern era.
What Comes Next
All eyes will be on the ICJ hearings starting January 10th to see if South Africa can present evidence that sways the court to take concrete action regarding accusations of Israeli war crimes and genocide. Groups around the world supporting both sides will closely monitor the proceedings and react vocally.
If the case moves forward through additional hearings, any final decision would likely take over a year given legal complexities. A guilty verdict could have massive implications, though the court has no power to directly enforce sanctions.
In the meantime, expectations are low that the case will lead Israel and Palestinian militant groups like Hamas to change their military tactics. Without a fundamental shift in approach, further violence seems inevitable when the next flashpoint erupts in the enduring conflict.
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