The case instituted by South Africa against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is a significant development in international law and politics. On December 29, 2023, South Africa filed a lawsuit at the ICJ, accusing Israel of committing genocide in Gaza, particularly in response to the war that began on October 7 of the same year. This move is seen as an attempt to hold Israel accountable under international law for its actions in Gaza, specifically alleging violations of the UN’s Genocide Convention.
The South African move comes after the martyrdom of more than 22,000 Palestinians – most of them women and children – as a result of the ongoing Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip since October 7. Several escalatory steps have been taken by South Africa during the recent period towards Israel. Because of its war on Gaza, the most recent of which was the demand from the International Criminal Court that it should intervene to investigate the leaders of Tel Aviv on charges of committing war crimes and genocide in the Gaza Strip, despite its prior knowledge that Israel is not a member of the court and does not recognize its jurisdiction.
Other steps preceded this: South African President Cyril Ramaphosa held Israel responsible for the escalation due to its failure to implement international resolutions regarding the two-state solution. Moreover, as a sign of solidarity with the Palestinian people, he wore “the Palestinian keffiyeh” and expressed his country’s readiness to mediate between Hamas and Israel to reach a humanitarian truce that would allow the war to stop and aid to enter.
South Africa’s case is grounded on various accusations, including statements made by Israeli officials that South Africa interprets as demonstrating “genocidal intent.” For instance, they cite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s comparison of Palestinians to a biblical nation that God instructed the Israelites to destroy, along with his statements about deepening the fighting in Gaza. The scope of the Israeli military’s operations is also cited, including indiscriminate bombings and the blockade of essential supplies, which South Africa argues have pushed Gaza to the brink of famine.
The application requests the ICJ to take provisional measures to prevent further harm to the rights of the Palestinian people under the Genocide Convention. This case follows the precedent where nation-states can file charges of genocide against other countries under the Genocide Convention, irrespective of their direct involvement in the conflict.
However, Israel has firmly rejected these allegations, insisting that its military efforts are directed only against ‘Hamas’ and other ‘terrorist’ organizations and that it makes every effort to limit harm to non-involved civilians and to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza. The Israeli government has described the South African court action as an attack on the existence of the State of Israel, maintaining its commitment to international law.
The case has attracted global attention and varying reactions. The White House, for instance, has dismissed South Africa’s genocide accusations against Israel as ‘meritless,’ calling the court submission “counterproductive, and completely without any basis in fact whatsoever.”
For its part, Turkey announced its welcome and support of the lawsuit filed by the Republic of South Africa before the International Court of Justice against the Israeli occupation regarding the genocide crimes it is committing in Gaza.
As the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, the ICJ holds significant influence, although its orders have been ignored in some cases with no severe consequences. The hearing for this case was scheduled for January 11-12, 2024, marking a crucial step in this international legal proceeding.
In essence, this case is not just about the allegations of genocide; it reflects the complexities of international law, the challenges of enforcing ICJ rulings, and the geopolitics involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It underscores the role of international courts in addressing allegations of severe international law violations and the difficulties in balancing political interests with the demands of justice and human rights.
It is clear that the case is being pursued by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) in South Africa. Clayson Monyela, a spokesperson for South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation, indicated that their lawyers were preparing for the January 11-12, 2024 hearing. However, the specific identities and backgrounds of these lawyers are not specified in the available sources.
On the Israeli side, the country has taken a strong stance against the accusations. Eylon Levy, an Israeli spokesman, stated that Israel would present its case before the ICJ to challenge South Africa’s claims. It is reported that intensive discussions between top Israeli officials and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have occurred regarding this matter. The Haaretz daily newspaper mentioned that the Israeli army and the Attorney General’s Office were beginning preparations for Israel’s defense at the ICJ. Again, the details of the individual lawyers involved are not disclosed in the available information.
If the International Court of Justice concludes that Israel is guilty of the charges brought against it by South Africa, which include accusations of genocide in Gaza, several potential outcomes and implications could emerge. It is necessary to note that the decisions of the International Court of Justice lack direct enforcement authority. Thus, they do not directly result in punitive measures, unlike a domestic court ruling.
Potential Repercussions in the Aftermath of the ICJ’s Verdict:
- International Recognition and Condemnation: A finding of guilt would represent a significant international legal and moral condemnation of Israel’s actions in Gaza. It would likely amplify global scrutiny and criticism of Israel’s policies and actions in the region.
- Influence on Diplomatic Relations: Countries worldwide may reconsider or adjust their diplomatic relations with Israel in response to a guilty verdict. This could include re-evaluating trade agreements, defense cooperation, and diplomatic support in international forums.
- Impact on Israel’s International Standing: Such a ruling could impact Israel’s standing in the international community, potentially leading to increased isolation, especially in forums such as the United Nations.
- Pressure for Policy Changes: A guilty verdict could exert pressure on Israel to change its policies and practices in Gaza and the broader Palestinian territories. This could encompass reassessing military strategies, altering approaches to settlements, and re-engaging in peace negotiations.
- Potential for Sanctions or Boycotts: While the ICJ does not impose sanctions, a guilty verdict could spur individual countries or international bodies to consider sanctions or boycotts against Israel.
- Influence on Future Legal Cases: Such a ruling could set a precedent in international law regarding state conduct in conflict zones, potentially influencing future legal cases against other states for similar actions.
- Encouragement for Other Cases: A guilty verdict might encourage other countries or groups to pursue similar legal actions against Israel or other states for alleged violations of international law.
- Domestic Impact within Israel: The ruling could influence domestic politics in Israel, potentially impacting public opinion and the stances of political parties.
- Implications for Palestinian-Israeli Relations: The verdict could have significant consequences for Palestinian-Israeli relations, potentially impacting ongoing conflict dynamics and future peace initiatives.
- Calls for Compliance and Enforcement: There may be calls for Israel to comply with the ruling, but actual enforcement would depend on international and domestic political will and mechanisms.
However, it’s crucial to remember that the ICJ’s decisions are more symbolic and reflect international legal opinion rather than enforceable judgments. The practical impact of a guilty verdict would largely depend on the responses of individual nations and international bodies.