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War on Gaza: South Africa accuses Israel of 'genocidal intent' at The Hague

Amid Israel's ongoing three-month war in Gaza, more than 23,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, have been killed
South Africa's Minister of Justice Ronald Lamola and South African Ambassador to the Netherlands Vusimuzi Madonsela ask judges at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on 11 January 2024 to order Israel to stop its military actions in Gaza (Reuters)

South Africa accused Israel of "genocidal intent" over its war on the besieged Gaza Strip on Thursday, and pleaded with judges at the UN International Court of Justice (ICJ) to issue an interim order demanding Israel halt its offensive in the embattled territory.

'Israel's political leaders have systematically and in explicit terms declared their genocidal intent'

Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, lawyer

South African lawyer Adila Hassim told judges at The Hague that "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 as a plausible claim of genocidal acts."

"Israel deployed 6,000 bombs per week … No one is spared. Not even newborns. UN chiefs have described it as a graveyard for children," she said.

"Nothing will stop the suffering except an order from this court."

South Africa submitted its case against Israel at the ICJ last month and has said Israel's actions in Gaza are "genocidal in character because they are intended to bring about the destruction of a substantial part of the Palestinian national, racial and ethnic group".

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Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, another South African lawyer at the hearing, said Pretoria was not alone in drawing attention to Israel's genocidal rhetoric. 

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Ngcukaitobi said that at least 15 UN special rapporteurs and 21 members of the UN working groups have warned that what is happening in Gaza reflects a genocide in the making.

He added that genocidal intent was evident in the way Israel's military was conducting attacks, including the targeting of family homes and civilian infrastructure.

"Israel's political leaders, military commanders and persons holding official positions have systematically and in explicit terms declared their genocidal intent," he added.

Ngcukaitobi said the "genocidal rhetoric" had become common within the Israeli Knesset, with several MPs calling for Gaza to be "wiped out, flattened, erased and crushed".

On Wednesday, Nissim Vaturi, a member of Israel's ruling Likud party, said it was a "privilege" for his country to appear at The Hague as he doubled down on earlier remarks where he said there are "no innocent people" in Gaza.

This is the first time Israel is being tried under the United Nations' Genocide Convention, which was drawn up after the Second World War in light of the atrocities committed against Jews and other persecuted minorities during the Holocaust.

During Thursday's proceedings, Professor Max du Plessis, another lawyer representing South Africa, said Israel had subjected the Palestinian people to an oppressive and prolonged violation of their rights to self-determination for more than half a century.

Du Plessis added that based on materials shown before the court, the acts of Israel are plausibly characterised as genocidal. 

"South Africa's obligation is motivated by the need to protect Palestinians in Gaza and their absolute rights not to be subjected to genocidal acts," he said.

Genocide cases, which are notoriously hard to prove, can take years to resolve, but South Africa is asking the court to speedily implement "provisional measures" and "order Israel to cease killing and causing serious mental and bodily harm to Palestinian people in Gaza."

The court's decisions are typically recognised by member countries, but the ICJ has few means of enforcing them. Any outcome is therefore likely to be symbolic.

In 2004, the court issued a non-binding opinion that Israel’s construction of its concrete barrier wall in the occupied West Bank was illegal and that it should be dismantled. More than 20 years later, walls and fences are still standing.

'Opportunity to act in real time'

Thursday's hearing consisted of three hours of detailed descriptions detailing what South Africa says is a clear example of genocide. Israel will have three hours to respond on Friday.

The spokesperson of the Israeli Foreign Affairs hit out at the comments made in the hearing, calling it "one of the greatest shows of hypocrisy," and demonstrated "false and baseless claims."

Lior Haiat added that South Africa is "functioning as the legal arm of the Hamas terrorist organisation," and is seeking to "allow Hamas to commit the war crimes, crimes against humanity and sexual crimes they committed repeatedly on October 7."

As South Africa did in its 84-page legal filing ahead of the case, the country's Minister of Justice Ronald Lamola repeated that he “unequivocally condemns Hamas” for the 7 October attack.

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Speaking to reporters outside The Hague, Lamola said he hoped the case would be "impactful" for the people in Gaza. 

"This case presents the court with an opportunity to act in real time to prevent genocide from continuing in Gaza by issuing an urgent injunction," Lamola said. 

"We believe that without the intervention of this court, the international community, we will see the total destruction of the Palestinian people in Gaza," he added."

Following the hearing, Bassem Naim, a member of the Hamas political bureau, welcomed the session and said he looked "forward to the court issuing a decision that does justice to victims, by calling to stop the aggression & holding war criminals accountable."

The hearings, the first step in a lengthy process, should the case go forward, come amid Israel's ferocious offensive on the impoverished territory.

Since declaring war on Gaza, Israel has targeted schools, hospitals and residential areas, killing at least 23,000 people, more than two-thirds of whom are women and children.

Since South Africa submitted its application at the ICJ, several countries have voiced their support for the case with the Organisation of Islamic Countries, which represents 57 Muslim-majority nations, backing it on Wednesday, some 96 days after the war commenced and 12 days after it was filed by Pretoria.

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