THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — South Africa has filed a case at the United Nations’ top court, alleging that Israel’s military campaign in Gaza amounts to genocide.
Israel’s testimony and decision to defend itself at the International Court of Justice set up a high-stakes showdown before a panel of judges in the Great Hall of Justice.
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The case will likely drag on for years. At its heart is the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, drawn up after World War II and the Holocaust.
The convention defines genocide as acts such as killings “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group”.
Here are some further details on the case and its ramifications.
WHAT IS SOUTH AFRICA’S ARGUMENT?
South Africa’s 84-page file says Israel’s actions “are genocidal in nature because they aim to destroy a significant part” of Palestinians in Gaza.
It is asking the ICJ, also known as the world court, for a series of legally binding rulings. He wants the court to declare that Israel has “violated and continues to violate its obligations under the Genocide Convention” and to order Israel to cease hostilities in Gaza that could amount to a violation of the convention, offer reparations and provide for the reconstruction of what has been destroyed in Gaza.
The filing argues that acts of genocide include killing Palestinians, inflicting serious mental and physical harm, and deliberately causing conditions to “bring about their physical destruction as a group.” And he says statements by Israeli officials express genocidal intent.
South Africa argues that the court has jurisdiction because both countries are signatories to the genocide convention. Article nine of the convention says that disputes between nations about the convention can be submitted to the International Court of Justice.
Many South Africans, including President Cyril Ramaphosa, have compared Israel’s policies on Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank to the apartheid regime of South Africa’s racial past. Israel rejects such claims.
WHAT WAS ISRAEL’S RESPONSE?
Israel’s government quickly rejected the genocide claim. In a statement the foreign ministry said South Africa’s case lacked legal basis and constituted a “despicable and contemptuous exploitation” of the court.
Eylon Levy, an official in the Israeli prime minister’s office, accused South Africa on Tuesday of “providing political and legal cover” for the October 7 attack by Hamas that sparked Israel’s campaign. But he confirmed that Israel would send a legal team to The Hague “to dismantle South Africa’s senseless blood libel”, he said.
An Israeli official said the country, which has a history of ignoring international courts, decided to defend itself for several reasons. Among them are Israel’s role in promoting the original post-Holocaust genocide convention and his belief that “we have a strong case.” He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing behind-the-scenes consultations.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to continue the war until Hamas is crushed and the more than 100 hostages still held by the militant group in Gaza are freed. He said this could take several months.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
South Africa’s filing includes a request for the court to urgently issue legally binding interim orders for Israel to “immediately suspend its military operations in and against Gaza.”
Such orders, known as temporary measures, will stay in place while the case progresses. They are legally binding but not always followed. In 2022, in a genocide case filed by Ukraine against Russia, the court ordered Moscow to immediately suspend its invasion. The order was ignored and the killing strikes continue.
The court will soon schedule public hearings. South African and Israeli lawyers can make arguments. Judges from around the world will likely take days or weeks to issue a decision on the preliminary injunctions.
The court will then enter into a lengthy process of considering the full case.
Israel could challenge jurisdiction and seek to have the case dismissed before lawyers start arguing. Other countries that have signed the genocide convention could also apply.
IS THE COURT HAVING SIMILAR CASES?
Two other genocide cases are in the busy court. The case filed by Ukraine shortly after the Russian invasion accuses Moscow of launching the military operation based on false allegations of genocide and accuses Russia of planning acts of genocide in Ukraine.
Another ongoing case involves Gambia — acting on behalf of Muslim nations — accusing Myanmar of genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority.
In a previous case brought by Bosnia, the court in 2007 ruled that Serbia “breached the obligation to prevent genocide … in relation to the genocide that occurred in Srebrenica in July 1995”. The court refused to order Serbia to pay compensation. Croatia also sued Serbia in 2015, but the world court ruled that Serbia did not violate the convention in that case.
ICJ OR ICC?
The Hague calls itself the international city of peace and justice. It is the home of not only the ICJ, but also the International Criminal Court, located just a few miles (kilometers) away, near the North Sea coastline.
The two courts have different mandates.
The ICJ, which held its first session in 1946 as the world was emerging from the carnage of World War II, hears cases between nations. These often involve land and sea border disputes, as well as disagreements over the interpretation of international treaties.
The ICC is much newer. It began operating in 2002 with the lofty goal of ending global impunity for atrocities. Unlike the ICJ, it seeks to hold individuals criminally responsible for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The ICC has an ongoing investigation into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, dating back to the last war in Gaza. So far no arrest warrants have been issued.
ICC prosecutor Karim Khan said last month that investigating possible crimes by Hamas militants and Israeli forces “is a priority for my office.”
WHAT ABOUT PREVIOUS UN CASES?
Two defunct UN tribunals also held landmark genocide trials.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia convicted a number of high-ranking Bosnian Serbs, including former president Radovan Karadzic and his military chief General Ratko Mladic, for their role in the massacre of more than 8,000 men and boys in Bosnia in July 1995. city of Srebrenica.
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Both Karadzic and Mladic were sentenced to life in prison.
The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has convicted a number of leaders involved in the African nation’s 1994 genocide, when some 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis, were slaughtered.