Having invoked the 1948 Genocide Convention, the state of South Africa brings a forensically-detailed 84-page indictment against Israel to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
In a landmark intervention, South Africa is seeking to show that statements made by a range of Israel’s top political and military leaders, and the actions which have followed, demonstrate clear intent to commit genocide:
“According to the application, “acts and omissions by Israel … are genocidal in character, as they are committed with the requisite specific intent … to destroy Palestinians in Gaza as a part of the broader Palestinian national, racial and ethnical group” and that “the conduct of Israel – through its state organs, state agents, and other persons and entities acting on its instructions or under its direction, control or influence – in relation to Palestinians in Gaza, is in violation of its obligations under the genocide convention.””
South Africa is also asking for an interim ruling from the ICJ for “special measures” requiring Israel to “immediately suspend its military operations in and against Gaza”, bringing about a durable ceasefire, and for aid to be allowed into Gaza unimpeded by Israel.
As a signatory to the Convention, and facing growing international pressure, Israel has decided to defend itself at this first hearing in The Hague.
Whether it complies with any findings against it seems a lot less certain. Yet a test case in June 2001 firmly established that the ICJ’s rulings were binding, given the court’s “basic function of judicial settlement of international disputes.”
Whatever their response, any ruling against Israel by the court would bring not only major ‘reputational’ damage, but an obligation on other states and international bodies to prevent Israel carrying out its genocidal acts.
Crucially, South Africa's case also puts Israel’s western allies directly in the frame for aiding and abetting their genocidal crimes. As Jonathan Cook notes, citing leaked cables:
“Israel expects support from western capitals because they have nearly as much to fear from a verdict against Israel as Israel itself. They have staunchly backed the killing spree, with the US and UK, in particular, sending weapons that are being used against the people of Gaza, making both potentially complicit.”
Israel's defence lawyers, he points out, also have a more immediate concern:
“Israel’s “strategic goal” at the court, according to the leaked cable, is to dissuade the judges from making a determination that it is committing genocide. But more pressing is Israel’s need to prevent the Hague court from ordering an interim halt to the attack.”
In other words, Israel is seeking legal authorisation to continue the genocide.
Over 23,000 people have now been systematically murdered in Gaza, with thousands more still unaccounted for, and over 60,000 wounded. Gaza's entire infrastructure of homes, hospitals, schools, mosques, churches, courts and every other civil building has been decimated. Starved and homeless, over 2 million people face an existential crisis, with generations of trauma to come.
How much longer will news reports talk of an “impending” humanitarian catastrophe? It’s already here.
And all of that's after 17 years of brutal siege and concentration camp existence.
As footage of Israel’s horrific crimes in Gaza continue to emerge, the genocidal intent is now overwhelming. An entire population is being targeted, bombed and erased. Refugee camps are attacked without mercy. Hundreds are being murdered daily, death on an industrial scale. With ruthless precision, over 100 journalists have been targeted and killed. With not the slightest regard for the Geneva Conventions, prisoners are tied, stripped and paraded on the back of trucks. Homes, schools and places of worship, what's left of them, are violated. Mass graves are desecrated. People are randomly shot dead in the street.
In one such incident, a group of civilians, mainly women and children, walk through a bombed out street waving white flags. A shot rings out from above and one of the women, a grandmother, lies dead on the floor, others fleeing and screaming in panic. It's a callous, heartbreaking scene, one of so many, repeated daily across the West Bank too.
Now the ICJ will finally hear and see vivid evidence of such atrocities.
Using the 'G' word
While the case for due justice is pursued, the terrible spectacle of Gaza is helping to bring the word ‘genocide’ itself into common usage when speaking about Israel's war crimes.
From ‘occupation’ to ‘apartheid’ and now to ‘genocide’, all this terminology now has the stamp of international authenticity. It’s an established vocabulary of legal reference, as well as a rising language of public outrage. Despite constant media suppression, the ICJ case gives a massive boost to Israel’s crimes now being talked of specifically as genocidal.
South Africa's case has also been endorsed by a significant number of other states:
- The Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC): The 57-member bloc, which includes Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and Morocco, voiced their support for the case on December 30.
- Malaysia: In a statement released on January 2, the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed the South African application. It reiterated a call for an independent Palestinian state “based on the pre-1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital”.
- Turkey: Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Oncu Keceli posted on X on January 3 welcoming South Africa’s move.
- Jordan: Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said on January 4 that Amman would back South Africa.
- Bolivia: On Sunday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bolivia dubbed South Africa’s move as historic, becoming the first Latin American country to back the ICJ case against Israel.
- The Maldives, Namibia and Pakistan: The three countries expressed support for the genocide case filed by South Africa during a UN General Assembly session on Tuesday.
All of which provides impetus for forcing our own elected politicians to speak and act accordingly.
That task looks like an onerous one with regard to Sunak and Starmer, who won’t even bring themselves to approve a ceasefire. But, as noted, they will also now be deeply aware of the potential legal - as well as political - consequences of withholding such support and facilitating the genocide.
In Scotland, First Minister Humza Yousaf has gone considerably beyond the UK and called Israel’s actions in Gaza “a textbook case of ethnic cleansing”. A welcome statement. But he could have been even more specific and accurate in calling it “a textbook case of genocide”.
Despite voting for a ceasefire and an UNRWA-led aid/refugee programme, the Scottish Government has also failed to use its available powers to break ties with, and sanction, Israel, including over the production of weapons/components in Scotland for supply to the regime.
The task of calling out genocide is also being actioned across many cities. Just as Barcelona now stands in dedicated support of Gaza and the Palestinians, pressure is being mounted in Glasgow for its council to denounce the genocide and initiate a motion of meaningful support for Gaza and the Palestinian people.
Four months into this catastrophic emergency, it's truly shameful that so many of our political class continue to utter unctuous words about ‘humanitarian concerns’.
Until they speak about Israel’s blanket slaughter, physical destruction and ethnic expulsion as precisely genocidal, they are effectively complicit in those crimes.
Indeed - not that they should need it - South Africa’s admirable case before the ICJ now gives them the most perfect ‘political cover’ to do so. How afraid must they be to raise their heads above the political parapet when the nation that momentously broke apartheid is now standing up against the apartheid oppression and genocidal killing of Palestinians? As Mandela himself famously said:
“We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”
As South Africa’s historic case opens at the ICJ, here are some simple words you can ask your own local councillor, MSP or MP to endorse and propose:
This Council/Parliament welcomes the application of the South African government to the International Court of Justice calling for formal investigation of Israel under the 1948 Genocide Convention.
We condemn Israel's genocide in Gaza, and affirm our support for the Palestinian people.
The responses we get back, if any, will allow us to hand down our own verdict on their compliance or complicity.
Whatever the ultimate outcome at the ICJ, we will at least know that we asked the right questions, denounced the genocide in Gaza, and stood on the right side of history.