ICJ hague
General view of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, Netherlands Image Credit: Reuters

South Africa has brought a case against Israel to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), asserting genocide in Gaza. Initiated on Dec. 29, 2023, this action aims at ICJ issuing an injunction to stop Israel’s military action against Palestinians immediately.

This case is distinct from the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) probe into alleged war crimes by both Israel and Hamas following the Oct. 7 attacks. The ICJ addresses accusations against states, whereas the ICC prosecutes individuals for war crimes.

The 84-page submission by South Africa contends that Israel’s actions are intended to eliminate a significant portion of the Palestinian national, ethnic, and racial group, breaching the 1948 Genocide Convention. Israel refutes these accusations, dismissing them as “blood libel”.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry is rallying to counter South Africa’s accusation of genocide in Gaza at the ICJ. On the other hand, a coalition of distinguished Israelis is calling out their nation’s legal system for its apparent neglect in addressing what they describe as “widespread and flagrant” calls for genocide and ethnic cleansing in Gaza by influential public personalities of Israel.

More op-eds by Prof Ashok Swain

Staggering displacement

In a strongly worded letter addressed to the attorney general and state prosecutors, this group is urgently demanding intervention to halt the growing acceptance of rhetoric that they argue violates not only Israeli but also international legal standards.

The ongoing devastation in Gaza since 7 October 2023 is now among the gravest assaults on a civilian population in contemporary history. Each passing day brings heart-wrenching images of more deceased children, plunging the innocent inhabitants into ever-deeper levels of suffering.

In the Gaza Strip, the scale of displacement is staggering, with nearly the entire population uprooted from their homes. The relentless barrage of air, land, and sea attacks has left two-thirds of residences either severely damaged or completely destroyed.

At the same time, a recently leaked Israeli government document, proposing the mass relocation of Gaza’s 2.3 million inhabitants to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, has sparked intense alarm over potential ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

Though it’s not an officially adopted policy, the proposal has rekindled painful memories of the mass displacement experienced during the tumultuous events of 1948 surrounding the establishment of Israel.

Thus, South Africa’s petition against Israel at the ICJ represents a crucial moment in international law and politics. More than a legal disagreement, it is a pivotal point in the global response to suspected genocide acts and the dynamics of international relations.

International law and human rights standards

The World Court has presided over several cases involving genocide allegations, playing a vital role in enforcing international law and human rights standards.

These include the landmark Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro (2007) case, where Bosnia accused Serbia of genocide during the Bosnian War, and the Croatia v. Serbia case (2015), concerning accusations of genocide during the Croatian War of Independence.

The ICJ also deals with the Application of the Genocide Convention in the Myanmar v. Gambia case, where Gambia has accused Myanmar of genocide against the Rohingya Muslims.

International tribunals like the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) have also played key roles in adjudicating genocide cases.

The International Criminal Court (ICC), established by the Rome Statute, has jurisdiction over genocide among other grave offences. Special tribunals and hybrid courts, like the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), further contribute to the legal framework against genocide.

In this context, the current case against Israel by South Africa is a crucial test for the ICJ and the wider international legal system. It examines the ability of international law to address and act upon the most serious allegations. The case’s proceedings and decision will have broad implications, not just for Israel and Palestine, but also for the credibility and effectiveness of international legal mechanisms in addressing genocide accusations.

Legal meanings and historical implications

The case’s emphasis on genocide, a term with precise legal meanings and deep historical implications, adds to its complexity. Demonstrating genocide in an international court demands substantial evidence of an intent to annihilate, in part or entirely, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.

The limited enforcement power of the ICJ further complicates potential case outcomes. While the ICJ can issue rulings, its dependence on the politically divided UN Security Council for enforcement often limits its effectiveness.

Beyond legal dimensions, this case resonates with South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, drawing parallels with the Palestinian situation. It’s a powerful statement about human rights and international justice, reflecting South Africa’s legacy of fighting injustice and its support for the Palestinian cause.

The case against Israel at the ICJ transcends a legal dispute, embodying a statement of political and moral values, and a scrutiny of the international justice system. It highlights the intricacies and limits of international law, particularly in addressing sensitive issues like genocide and underscores the high stakes involved, not only in legal terms but also in its broader geopolitical and humanitarian implications.

The outcome may or may not stop mass-killings in Gaza but will inevitably have a lasting impact on international relations and the global conversation on human rights and justice.