THE HAGUE: South Africa on Thursday accused Israel of breaching the UN Genocide Convention, arguing that even the deadly October 7 Hamas attack could not justify such alleged actions, as it launched a landmark case at the top UN court.
Pretoria has lodged an urgent appeal at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to force Israel to “immediately suspend” its military operations in Gaza.
Israel has dismissed the case as “atrocious” and “preposterous” and vowed to set out a robust defence on Friday.
“No armed attack on a state territory, no matter how serious... can provide justification for or defend breaches of the convention,” said Pretoria’s Justice Minister Ronald Lamola.
The countries denying claims of genocide and supporting Israel: United States, United Kingdom
“Israel’s response to the October 7 attack has crossed this line and given rise to the breaches of the convention,” he added.
The Gaza war erupted when Hamas launched its unprecedented attack, which resulted in about 1,140 people killed in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.
Israel has responded with a relentless military campaign that has killed at least 23,357 people, mostly women and children, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry.
A world away from the death and destruction in Gaza and Israel, robed lawyers battled it out over technical legal arguments in the Peace Palace in The Hague.
South Africa argues Israel is breaking its commitments under the UN Genocide Convention, a treaty signed in 1948 in the wake of the Holocaust.
Top lawyer for South Africa Adila Hassim said Israel’s bombing campaign aimed at the “destruction of Palestinian life” and had pushed Palestinians “to the brink of famine”.
“Genocides are never declared in advance, but this court has the benefit of the past 13 weeks of evidence that shows incontrovertibly a pattern of conduct and related intention that justifies a plausible claim of genocidal acts,” she said.
As a fellow signatory to the treaty, South Africa can take Israel to the ICJ, which rules on disputes between countries and is often described as the “World Court”.
The International Criminal Court, based a few miles (kilometers) away in The Hague, prosecutes individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
The case revolves around the genocide convention that was drawn up in 1948 in the aftermath of World War II and the murder of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. Both Israel and South Africa are signatories.
Israel is back on the International Court of Justice's docket next month, when hearings open into a UN request for a non-binding advisory opinion on the legality of Israeli policies in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
The ruling African National Congress (ANC) has long been a firm supporter of the Palestinian cause, often linking it to its own historic struggle against the white-minority government, which had cooperative relations with Israel.
South Africa has acknowledged the “particular weight of responsibility” of accusing Israel of genocide. It “unequivocally” condemned the Hamas attacks that sparked off the war in Gaza.
‘Atrocious and preposterous’
Israel President Isaac Herzog has already hinted at his country’s likely defence against what he called an “atrocious and preposterous... claim”.
“We will present proudly our case of using self defence... under international humanitarian law,” he said.
Herzog said the Israeli army was “doing its utmost under extremely complicated circumstances on the ground to make sure that there will be no unintended consequences and no civilian casualties”.
The United States is backing its ally Israel, with the State Department describing the charges as “unfounded”.
“In fact, it is those who are violently attacking Israel who continue to openly call for the annihilation of Israel and the mass murder of Jews,” said State Department spokesman Matthew Miller.
As it is an urgent procedure, the ICJ could rule in a matter of weeks.
Its rulings are final and cannot be appealed. However, countries do not always follow the court’s verdicts - the ICJ has ordered Russia to stop its attacks on Ukraine, for example.
But a court ruling against Israel would certainly increase political pressure on the country, with many speculating it could serve as a pretext for sanctions.
Cecily Rose, assistant professor of public international law at Leiden University, noted the court did not have to rule on the fundamentals of the case at this stage - that issue will likely take years.
“Instead, the court would only be evaluating whether there is a risk of irreparable prejudice to rights held under the Genocide Convention, in particular the right of the Palestinians in Gaza to be protected from acts that threaten their existence as a group,” Rose told AFP.
Dutch police kept rival demonstrations apart in The Hague. Hundreds of pro-Israeli protesters waving flags marched through the streets while a smaller group of pro-Palestinian supporters brandished placards saying: “End Israel apartheid.”
Pro-Israeli protester Ada Deyl, an 80-year-old pensioner, said: “I think it’s a shame that Israel - who is doing all the right things and is attacked by Hamas - is now facing a lawsuit.”
On the other side, Zohar Janovitch, 40, alleged that Israeli leaders had “explicitly expressed their disregard for the lives of Palestinian civilians.”