South Africa Accuses Israel of Genocide in U.N. Court

Israel selected Aharon Barak, a Holocaust survivor who served as president of the Israeli Supreme Court, to join the ICJ’s regular members for the case.
Israel selected Aharon Barak, a Holocaust survivor who served as president of the Israeli Supreme Court, to join the ICJ’s regular members for the case.

Summary

The International Court of Justice hears arguments that Israel’s response to Hamas attacks breaches the 1948 Genocide Convention.

The International Court of Justice begins hearings Thursday on South Africa’s accusation of genocide against Israel, contending that the Jewish state’s military response to Hamas attacks launched from Gaza violates the international treaty drafted in the aftermath of Nazi Germany’s systematic extermination of six million Jews.

More than 150 countries have ratified the Genocide Convention, which allows a nation to file a complaint against another it believes is committing genocide even if, as in South Africa’s case, it has no direct connection to the conflict. South Africa argues that Israeli military operations, which the Gaza health ministry says have cost more than 22,000 Palestinian lives, are intended to wipe out Palestinians in Gaza as a distinct group.

“Our opposition to the continuing slaughter of the people of Gaza has driven us as a country to approach the ICJ," South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Wednesday. “As a people who once tasted the bitter fruits of dispossession, discrimination, racism and state-sponsored violence, we are clear that we will stand on the right side of history."

Israel has reacted to the claim with outrage and plans a vigorous defense when it responds Friday. Israeli officials say Hamas, which is classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union, has exacerbated casualties by embedding its personnel in civilian areas and turning protected places such as hospitals and religious institutions into legitimate targets by using them for military purposes.

“We will be there at the International Court of Justice and will present proudly our case of using self-defense," Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, said Tuesday. “We are doing our utmost under extremely complicated circumstances on the ground, to make sure that there will be no unintended consequences and no civilian casualties."

At Israel’s request, the ICJ, a United Nations court in The Hague that hears disputes between countries, extended the hearing to a total of six hours, divided between the parties, from the typical four hours. Under the court’s rules, Israel was entitled to appoint a judge to join the court’s 15 regular members; it selected its most towering jurist, Aharon Barak, a Holocaust survivor who served as president of the Israeli Supreme Court.

The Biden administration is strongly backing Israel’s position. Speaking in Tel Aviv Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said accusing Israel of genocide is “particularly galling, given that those who are attacking Israel—Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis, as well as their supporter, Iran—continue to openly call for the annihilation of Israel and the mass murder of Jews."

South Africa is asking the ICJ to issue provisional orders for a cease-fire in Gaza while proceedings on the genocide claim, likely to take years, move forward. A decision on provisional measures could come within weeks of the hearing. Israel says stopping military operations before Hamas is defeated would allow the group, which has controlled Gaza since 2007, to rearm and commit further atrocities.

The ICJ has no means of enforcing its orders, and few expect Israel to stop military operations at The Hague’s direction. But analysts on both sides say that even a provisional order for a cease-fire would place Israel’s allies, particularly the U.S., in a bind.

“If South Africa actually gets the ICJ to say all parties have to immediately abide by cease-fire, that’s earth-shattering," said Raed Jarrar, advocacy director at Democracy for the Arab World Now, a group that supports the genocide claim against Israel.

In its legal filing, South Africa argues that “across Gaza, Israel has targeted the infrastructure and foundations of Palestinian life, deliberately creating conditions of life calculated to bring about the physical destruction of Palestinian people." The brief links the military campaign following the Oct. 7 attacks to what South Africa calls Israel’s “75-year-long apartheid, its 56-year-long belligerent occupation of Palestinian territory and its 16-year-long blockade of Gaza," which began after Hamas seized power in the enclave in 2007.

South Africa cites rhetoric from Israeli leaders it says reflect genocidal intent following the Hamas attacks, in which militants killed more than 1,200 people, sexually assaulted women and abducted some 250 hostages, according to Israeli figures.

“On 16 October 2023, in a formal address to the Israeli Knesset, [Netanyahu] described [the] situation as ‘a struggle between the children of light and the children of darkness, between humanity and the law of the jungle,’ a dehumanizing theme to which he returned on various occasions," the brief says.

South Africa hasn’t always strictly enforced international laws against genocide, allowing then-Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to attend a 2015 African Union summit in Johannesburg and depart without incident, despite arrest warrants issued by the ICC accusing Bashir of genocide and war crimes. In 2017, a panel of ICC judges found that South Africa, which is a member of the court, violated its duty to arrest Bashir and surrender him to The Hague for trial.

Anat Peled and Gabriele Steinhauser contributed to this article.

Write to Jess Bravin at Jess.Bravin@wsj.com

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