South Africa made the dramatic move last week to bring a case against Israel before the International Court of Justice (ICJ), accusing it of committing genocide and crimes against humanity during military operations in Gaza. Israel has vowed to vigorously defend itself against what it calls “outrageous” and “politically motivated” charges. The rare genocide filing sets the stage for a high-profile legal showdown at the UN’s top court in the coming weeks.
South Africa Invokes Genocide Convention, Seeks Provisional Measures
On December 28th, South Africa instituted legal proceedings against Israel at the ICJ in The Hague, formally accusing it of breaching the Genocide Convention during its 2021 military campaign in Gaza. South Africa is basing its claim on Article IX of the convention, which allows disputes between member states to be brought before the ICJ .
In its filing to the court, South Africa requested multiple provisional measures against Israel while the case proceeds, including:
- Immediate cessation of violence and threats against Palestinians
- No further destruction of Palestinian homes and infrastructure
- Allowing humanitarian access and aid to Gaza
- No annexation of further Palestinian territory
South Africa justified its action by stating Israel has shown no accountability for “the systematic oppression and domination of the Palestinian people” and continues to violate their human rights. It alleges Israel’s policies and military actions in Gaza amount to ethnic cleansing and are intended to “inflict conditions of life calculated to bring about the incremental destruction of the Palestinians as a group” .
|Summary of South Africa’s ICJ Filing
|* Requests court order provisional measures against Israel including cessation of violence, allowing humanitarian access
|* Invokes Genocide Convention, accuses Israel of breaching it via military actions in Gaza
|* Says Israel systematically oppresses Palestinians, policies amount to ethnic cleansing
|* Wants court to declare Israel has genocidal intent in its treatment of Palestinians
US, Israel Slam “Meritless” Case, Promise Strong Defense
Israel and the United States swiftly condemned South Africa’s legal move, dismissing the genocide accusations as baseless and politically motivated. Newly re-elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised Israel would present a vigorous jurisdictional defense when it appears before ICJ judges later this month.
The US State Department called South Africa’s action “unhelpful”, stating it saw no evidence of genocidal acts by Israel in Gaza. It reiterated US support for Israel’s right to self-defense against Hamas rocket attacks .
Israel said it “completely rejects” the notion it has genocidal ambitions or policies targeting Palestinians, labeling the case a “blood libel”. It accused South Africa of turning a blind-eye to Hamas terrorism while serving as an Iranian proxy by pushing anti-Israel initiatives at the UN. An Israeli government spokesperson said South Africa had made itself “criminally complicit” with Hamas by bringing the “outrageous” and “false” genocide allegations .
Hearings Slated for January 11th-12th, Court Ruling Expected in Weeks
The ICJ has scheduled public sittings to hear arguments from both South Africa and Israel on January 11th-12th, an unusually rapid timeline that suggests the court views this as an urgent matter. The speedy scheduling also allows the judges to rule on South Africa’s request for provisional measures against Israel within weeks rather than months .
Legal experts say the ICJ will likely approve some of the interim measures sought by South Africa, including ordering Israel to facilitate humanitarian access to Gaza. However, it probably won’t rule on the heart of the genocide case itself before requiring further written submissions and evidence from the two sides later this year.
Still, the stakes are high. A finding that Israel has breached the Genocide Convention could open the door for South Africa or other nations to seek international sanctions. It would also further isolate Israel diplomatically and do significant damage to its image on the world stage.
Case Threatens to Inflame Israeli-Palestinian Tensions
The launch of a genocide case against Israel has predictably inflamed tensions in the region, spurring protests by right-wing Israelis as well as celebrations from Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Critics argue South Africa’s actions endanger the already fragile mediation efforts aimed at securing a long-term ceasefire following last year’s fighting.
Hamas, which controls Gaza and is designated a terrorist group by the US and EU, praised South Africa’s ICJ initiative. It called on other Muslim nations and supporters of the Palestinian cause to actively assist South Africa in building the legal case against Israel. The Islamist group reiterated accusations that Israel had committed war crimes and acts of genocide during military offensives in Gaza over recent years .
Meanwhile, thousands of Israeli protesters gathered outside the South African embassy in Tel Aviv to condemn its “appalling” court action. Demonstrators waved placards accusing South Africa of promoting anti-Semitism and defending Hamas terrorism . Right-wing Israeli groups are lobbying the government to close the embassy and impose diplomatic sanctions.
The genocide case has also sparked tensions within South Africa’s ruling African National Congress party. Prominent Jewish leaders in South Africa delivered a harsh rebuke of the ANC government’s decision to prosecute Israel in The Hague. They argue President Cyril Ramaphosa should be focused on fixing massive unemployment, inequality, crime and corruption challenges facing his country instead of interfering in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict .
Leading South African opposition parties have also questioned why the ANC is prioritizing the matter when South Africa faces far more pressing domestic problems. Critics allege Ramaphosa’s government is using the anti-Israel case to cynically distract the public from its failings on poverty, inequality and delivering basic services to millions of struggling South Africans .
Israel Promises “Battle” to Clear Its Name
Israeli officials say they will forcefully challenge South Africa’s “shameful” genocide allegations when ICJ hearings commence. Israel is expected to argue the court lacks jurisdiction since the Genocide Convention cannot be applied retroactively to past military campaigns. It will also underline its right to self-defense against Hamas rocket strikes targeting Israeli civilians .
Israel has retained prominent Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, an outspoken defender of Israeli government policies, to represent its case in The Hague. Israel aims to prevent the court granting any provisional measures against it and ultimately throw out the main genocide case before evidence sessions materialize later in 2024. Dershowitz has accused South Africa of attempting to turn Israel into an “international pariah” based on Palestinians’ “distorted narrative of victimhood” .
Former Israeli UN ambassador Danny Danon vowed Israel would not allow South Africa and the ICJ to use “false accusations” to besmirch the country’s name without a fight: “We will battle to prevent this perversion of justice – Israel will vigorously defend its reputation and the truth against this atrocious blood libel.” 
Prime Minister Netanyahu has created a top-level legal taskforce comprised of justice ministry officials and external law experts to orchestrate Israel’s defense strategy at the ICJ. He has urged opposition party leaders to avoid politicizing the case and said the government needs wide backing across Israeli society to win the “critical” court battle to clear the country’s name .
Key Dates in Israel – South Africa Court Showdown
|Dec 28, 2022
|South Africa files genocide case against Israel at ICJ
|Jan 2, 2023
|ICJ sets Jan 11-12 hearings for provisional measures
|Public sittings at ICJ, Israel/SA present arguments
|ICJ rules on South Africa’s requests for provision measures
|Further written submissions from Israel and South Africa
|ICJ hears evidence from both sides
|ICJ final ruling on whether Israel breached Genocide Convention
The unusual specter of Israel defending itself in the dock of the world’s highest court on genocide charges sets the scene for a dramatic legal and diplomatic showdown with South Africa in the Hague over the coming 18 months. The ICJ’s final judgment will carry severe political and reputational implications for the state of Israel on the world stage.
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