The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has commenced a two-day public hearing into the case filed by South Africa, accusing Israel of committing genocide in the Gaza Strip.
The hearings scheduled for January 11 and 12, 2024, will include the first formal response by Israel before an independent court to allegations of genocide against the Palestinian people since October 7, 2023.
On December 29, 2023, South Africa filed a case accusing Israel of violating the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
On January 2, Israeli officials confirmed that Israel would be represented at the ICJ to oppose the South African government’s application. South Africa contends that Israel has violated the Genocide Convention by committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza, and by failing to prevent it, including by not holding senior Israeli officials and others accountable for their direct and public incitement to genocide. The case is not a criminal proceeding against individuals but seeks a legal determination of state responsibility for genocide.
“South Africa’s case is about Israel’s obligations under the Genocide Convention and puts its conduct in Gaza in sharp focus before the United Nations’ highest judicial body,” said Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “South Africa has asked the World Court to issue urgent measures to protect Palestinians in Gaza who face catastrophic living conditions as a result of war crimes carried out by Israeli authorities.”
While the case may take several years to reach a final ruling, South Africa has asked the court to order provisional measures to protect the Palestinian people in Gaza from further harm, ensure Israel’s compliance with the Genocide Convention, and safeguard South Africa’s ability to have the case fairly adjudicated. South Africa has asked the ICJ to issue these measures “as a matter of extreme urgency,” saying that Palestinians in Gaza are in “urgent and severe need of the Court’s protection.” Arguments on the request for provisional measures are the subject of the January 11 and 12 hearings.
Among the provisional measures sought are for Israel to immediately suspend its military operations in Gaza and abide by its obligations under the Genocide Convention. South Africa also seeks measures to prevent the destruction and ensure the preservation of any evidence related to the underlying case – including by giving fact-finding missions, international mandates, and other bodies access to Gaza.
South Africa also asked the court to require Israel to report to it on steps taken to carry out a provisional measures order within a week of its issuance and then at regular intervals until the court issues its final ruling. In its oral arguments on January 11, South Africa could specifically ask the court to make Israel’s reports public.
In its application to the ICJ, South Africa says that Israel is killing Palestinians in Gaza in large numbers, causing them serious bodily and mental harm, imposing measures intended to prevent Palestinian births, and inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about the destruction of Palestinians as a group. South Africa cited expulsions and mass displacement; deprivation of access to adequate food and water, medical care, shelter, clothes, hygiene, and sanitation; and the destruction of the fabric of Palestinian life in Gaza.
South Africa further contends that the “acts of genocide” should be placed in “the broader context of Israel’s conduct towards Palestinians during its 75-year-long apartheid, its 56-year-long belligerent occupation of Palestinian territory and its 16-year-long blockade of Gaza.”
South Africa contends that numerous statements by Israeli political and military officials amount to evidence of a clear intent to destroy Palestinians in Gaza as a group. It says that the “clear inference from the acts of the Israeli army on the ground…is that those genocidal statements and directives are being implemented against the Palestinian people.” South Africa’s application refers to several statements by UN experts who have warned of a risk of genocide.
The court will hear Israel’s formal response on January 12. Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, in a published statement on December 29, 2023, described South Africa’s application as “blood libel” and that the claim “lacks both a factual and a legal basis and constitutes despicable and contemptuous exploitation of the Court.” One media report said that the Israeli Foreign Ministry instructed its diplomats to press officials in their host countries to issue statements against South Africa’s case. The Israeli foreign minister has also specifically urged the United Kingdom to oppose South Africa’s application. The media reported on January 9 that UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron said that he did not think the ICJ case was helpful.
The United States National Security Council spokesman described South Africa’s application as “meritless, counterproductive, and completely without any basis in fact whatsoever.” The US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said separately that Washington had not “at this point seen acts that constitute genocide” and that the ICJ case was “not a productive step at this time.”