Israel on trial: South Africa lays out genocide case
South African officials attend the opening of the hearings at the International Court of Justice on Thursday. Front right is South African Ambassador to the Netherlands Vusimuzi Madonsela. Next to him is Minister of Justice Ronald Lamola. | Patrick Post / AP

Ceasefire activists around the world who have been asking whether anyone was ever going to stand up for the Palestinians on the international stage got their answer on Thursday. In the Hague, South African lawyers presented opening arguments in a landmark legal case their government has filed with the International Court of Justice accusing Israel of committing genocide.

Speaking before the United Nations’ top court, attorneys made damning claims against Israel and said the current war is just the latest brutal episode in the decadeslong oppression of the Palestinian people.

Referring to their 84-page application to the court, South African lawyers solemnly told the court that it will see undeniable evidence proving Israel is committing “the crime of all crimes” in Gaza.

As the case is likely to take years to wind its way through the international legal system, South Africa is asking the ICJ to issue preliminary binding orders—an injunction—forcing Israel to halt its military attack while the lawsuit is under way.

With over 23,000 people already killed in just a matter of weeks, South Africa told justices that the Palestinians cannot wait for a final verdict; they may all be expelled or dead by then.

“Nothing will stop the suffering except an order from this court,” South African lawyer Adila Hassim told judges and the audience in the packed Peace Palace in The Hague. She pointed out that Israel has carried out the largest conventional bombing campaign in the history of warfare, dropping 6,000 bombs per week.

Injured Palestinians arrive at al-Shifa Hospital following Israeli airstrikes. | Abed Khaled / AP

“No one has been spared, not even babies,” Hassim said. It may take weeks, however, before an injunction could be issued.

Clear genocidal intent

“Genocides are never declared in advance,” she said, “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.”

Tag-teaming with Hassim was another renowned South African lawyer, Tembeka Ngcukaitobi. He told the court, “The scale of destruction in Gaza, the targeting of family homes and civilians, the war being a war on children—all make clear that genocidal intent is both understood and has been put into practice.”

Ngcukaitobi not mince words. “The articulated intent is the destruction of Palestinian life.”

Several top Israeli leaders have themselves repeatedly provided evidence of that intent. A video of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conjuring up the Biblical annihilation of the Amalekites was played in the courtroom, along with footage of Israeli soldiers chanting, “May their village burn; may Gaza be erased!”

For months, Israeli cabinet ministers and major politicians have been clearly broadcasting their desires as well. As recently as last week, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir declared, again, that “Encouraging the residents of Gaza to emigrate to the countries of the world is a solution we must advance.”

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich seconded his call just a few days ago, saying that every Palestinian must get out of Gaza because Israel cannot have “two million people” next door who “wake up every morning with aspiration for the destruction of the State of Israel and with a desire to slaughter and rape and murder Jews wherever they are.”

Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are just two of several current and former Israeli leaders who have trumpeted calls for eliminating the Palestinian people from Gaza since Oct. 7.

Leaked state documents detailing plans to carry out the goal confirm it goes beyond just racist political rhetoric. A memo from the Israeli Intelligence Ministry in October revealed that pushing the Palestinian people permanently out of Gaza was the “preferred policy option.” It envisioned sending Gazans fleeing into the Egyptian desert, never to return.

The memo mirrored an earlier plan made public by the Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy, a think tank headed by Meir Ben Shabbat. He was previously Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s National Security Advisor and is a 30-year veteran of the Shabak, Israel’s secret police agency.

A Misgav paper published in October, titled “A Plan for the Resettlement and Final Rehabilitation in Egypt of the Entire Population of Gaza,” presented the economics of ethnic cleansing. In essence, it was a detailed deportation directive, a blueprint for the State of Israel to follow, complete with an analysis of all the financial costs involved.

In the opening of the policy paper and in a tweet posted by Misgav, its author, Amir Weitmann, said, “There is currently a unique and rare opportunity to evacuate the entire Gaza Strip” and ship out “the entire Arab population” for good.

All these things and more were raised by the South African attorneys on Thursday.

“What state would admit to genocidal intent?” Ngcukaitobi asked. “Yet the distinctive feature of this case has not been the silence as such, but the reiteration and repetition of genocidal speech throughout every sphere of the state in Israel.”

History weighs heavily

The case is laden with history that goes beyond just the Gaza war.

The State of Israel was founded as a Jewish homeland in the wake of Hitler’s genocide in the Holocaust, which saw six million Jewish people murdered in the Nazis’ death factories. To have a country which was the legacy of an earlier genocide now be accused of committing one itself—and doing so with the backing of the world’s biggest superpower—provokes sharp debate.

“The violence and the destruction in Palestine and Israel did not begin on Oct. 7, 2023,” South African Justice Minister Ronald Lamola said as the case got underway in the Netherlands. “The Palestinians have experienced systematic oppression and violence for the last 76 years.”

Netanyahu was on the defensive in statements to the press, saying simply that—despite what his government colleagues have declared, despite what leaked state documents reveal, and despite what his military is doing at this very moment—“Israel has no intention of permanently occupying Gaza or displacing its civilian population.”

The fact that it is South Africa carrying the banner for the Palestinians is also a reminder to the world of the long struggle against another murderous regime: the apartheid state that ruled that country from 1948 to the early ’90s. The current governing party, the African National Congress, was forged in the struggle to overturn white minority rule and its violent suppression of the Black majority.

For the ANC, the policies that Israel enforces in the West Bank and Gaza and the brutality it employs against the Palestinian people look too much like what the old apartheid government did in South Africa. The ANC also has not forgotten how strongly Israel supported the apartheid state, including in the training of its police and military.

Behind the scenes, Israel is worried

British jurist Malcolm Shaw, right, and Tal Becker, legal adviser to Israel’s Foreign Ministry, listen as South African attorneys present opening arguments in their genocide case against Israel on Thursday. | Patrick Post / AP

It will be weeks before South Africa’s injunction request is decided, but Israel’s lawyers will address the ICJ on Friday to answer the charges that have been made so far. Publicly, they are projecting an air of confidence, but a secret government cable obtained by Axios shows Israel is worried.

“A ruling by the court could have significant potential implications that are not only in the legal world but have practical bilateral, multilateral, economic, security ramifications,” the Israeli Foreign Ministry told embassies and diplomats.

Tel Aviv instructed its foreign service officers to pressure other governments and politicians to side with Israel against South Africa. It gave them a fill-in-the-blank template that allies could issue to “publicly and clearly state that YOUR COUNTRY rejects the outrageous, absurd, and baseless allegations made against Israel.”

In Washington, the Biden administration needed no prompting from Netanyahu. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby and Secretary of State Antony Blinken both dutifully declared South Africa’s accusations to be “meritless, counterproductive, and completely without any basis in fact.”

Several other countries, however, disagree. Bangladesh, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Malaysia, Maldives, Namibia, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Turkey, Venezuela—and top U.S. ally Jordan—have all signaled their support for South Africa. Belgium’s Prime Minister Petra De Sutter is pushing her government to also back the case. Hundreds of people inside Israel, including opposition lawmakers, have also signed onto the petition.

According to the cable, Israel’s legal strategy appears to hinge on trying to convince judges to adopt a narrow reading of the 1948 Convention on Genocide, arguing that the complete extermination of a people is necessary for genocide to occur. With such logic, as long as a single Palestinian survives, according to this reading, genocide has not been committed.

‘Thank you, South Africa’: Palestinians rally in front of a Nelson Mandela statue in the West Bank town of Ramallah Thursday evening. | via Ministry of Justice of South Africa

If justices do eventually end up issuing an order for the Israeli military to stop its war, it is unknown whether Israel would abide by the ruling. Should it ignore such a decision, it could face sanctions from the U.N., although the Biden administration may block their implementation with a veto on the Security Council.

In the meantime, South Africa’s lawyers believe they have a strong case. “The evidence for genocidal intent is not only chilling, it is also overwhelming and incontrovertible,” Ngcukaitobi said Thursday.

As the case was being heard, thousands of Palestinians converged at the statue of late South African liberation leader and President Nelson Mandela in Ramallah in the West Bank. Large signs illuminated with the message, “Thank you, South Africa,” were held aloft by demonstrators.

They undoubtedly remembered Mandela’s words: “We know all too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

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C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left.