The Guardian • Issue #2083

South Africa takes Israel to the ICJ for genocide

Palestinian flag.

Photo: Efrem Efre – (public domain).

A brilliant, sharp, and targeted presentation from South Africa has made history. Its 84-page filing to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has condemned Israel for crimes of genocide against Palestinians in Gaza. “Provisional Measures of Protection” is the initial goal of South Africa in launching proceedings against Israel under the Genocide Convention. Thus the hearings on 11 and 12 January were not primarily to establish genocide per se, but turn on whether the court should make a ruling of preliminary measures to prevent further carnage from the ongoing genocide in the short term.


In its argument for genocidal intent, South Africa drew attention to the genocidal language of Israeli state actors; not only the well-known “human animal” phrase used by Netanyahu himself, but other genocidal language – “elimination,” “no innocent civilians,” “erasing,” “Amalek” (the biblical foe of Israelites) – articulated by Israeli state representatives at the highest level: President, Prime Minister, Minister of Defence, and throughout the political leadership presenting genocide as state policy and determining the behaviour of the Israeli army.

But as Yoana Gonen of Haaretz news puts it, language and statements are only half of it: reality is Israel’s real problem. Among the most forceful remarks in South Africa’s case came from lawyer Adila Hassim, who identified four genocidal acts by Israel:

  • Killing Palestinians
  • Injuring Palestinians
  • Creating conditions that cannot sustain life
  • Destruction of medical infrastructure

Hassim further pointed out that the majority of the recorded 23,400 deaths (with thousands missing, which takes it to at least 30,000 in real terms) are women and children, and that was only over three months, making it one of the heaviest conventional bombing campaigns in the history of modern warfare. Hassim also noted how Israel’s targeting of medical facilities and medical aid prevents births in Gaza. Together, the South African lawyers stressed the exceptional nature of Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people and the speed at which the death toll is increasing.


Why has South Africa been so bold? The short answer is, of course, history, and apartheid. South Africa knows more than anyone else what apartheid feels like. But let’s be clear that this is also because of the role the African National Congress (ANC) has played in the ongoing work of liberation since Mandela, continuing under Cyril Ramaphosa’s leadership. The Tripartite Alliance that the ANC participates in (composing also the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party), remains an activist governing force. Indeed the activist remnants of the Former Liberation Movements of Southern Africa (FLMSA), of which the ANC is a member, and the trading alliance BRICS, provide some significant basis for an independent group of nation-states that can stand up to the West and Israel. We cannot forget that a long history of international and local struggle has allowed South Africa to pluck up courage on this scale.

Make no mistake: attempts to disrupt the role of the ANC in South Africa have been made and will continue to be made. It wasn’t until 2008 that the United States removed Reagan-era classifications of the ANC as a “terrorist organisation.” The United States intelligence apparatus has never liked the ANC and wants it out.


Let us not forget also that the evils perpetrated by the state of Israel are evils aided and abetted by Western forces (Australia included), who are now waging a war against the Houthis in Yemen, while Israel bombs Lebanon. Biden has sought to bypass Congress to send weapons to Israel and bomb Yemen. There is no doubt that Western countries will attempt to veto provisional measures of protection or moves to stop the escalation of all-out war in the Middle East.

Our response must be to put pressure on our own media to end the obfuscation and the silence. The “g”-word must be deployed with the full force of facts. We have the responsibility to relentlessly emphasise again and again that Israeli officials have indicted themselves in their own words, much of it on record. Unlike any other genocide in history, this genocide has been livestreamed.

Western powers will be hoping most of all that the evidence doesn’t gain airtime. The International Court of Justice does not have the power to enforce its judgements, which means even if it makes a ruling in support of the Provisional Measures South Africa has brought to the table, it will be the international community that has to act in concert to pressure Israel to end genocidal acts now.


Consequences are vast.

Externally, the international community, especially the global majority, is likely to turn further against the West. South Africa has cited The Gambia vs. Myanmar case as a key precedent in its filing, and the concept in the Genocidal Convention of erga omnes – relation to everyone – meaning the obligation of all states to prevent genocide. The international community must respond to erga omnes – to the universal nature of genocide as a crime and as one which relates to all humanity.

Within Israel, parties like Hadash have expressed support for South Africa’s petition, which has resulted in the expulsion of Hadash member Ofer Kassif from the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Democracy is all but dead in Israel. From the current right-wing government, the most right-wing in its history, there will be little toleration for dissent. Israel’s position will harden against dissenters.

Western media will go all out to turn our heads away from the facts. We need to do what South Africa has done; point to evidence and hold it up to the light. We need to maintain our presence on the streets. We must point to the sheer scale and speed of the genocide taking place, and to paraphrase Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh, the Irish lawyer who gave the closing statement of the South African case, the extraordinary moral failure of the world to respond in time to prevent it.

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