Key takeaways from South Africa's ICJ application against Israel for genocide in Gaza

Picture: Remko De Waal / ANP MAG / ANP via AFP

Picture: Remko De Waal / ANP MAG / ANP via AFP

Published Jan 9, 2024


In a historic move, South Africa launched a case last month at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against Israel for what it said were "genocidal" acts in Gaza, seeking an emergency suspension of its military campaign.

We list a number of takeaways from the 84-page application.

– The ICJ application describes the alleged violations by Israel of its obligations under the Genocide Convention, and said that, “Israel has engaged in, is engaging in and risks further engaging in genocidal acts against the Palestinian people in Gaza”.

– South Africa in its application goes on to say that Israel has been acting “with the requisite specific intent... to destroy Palestinians in Gaza as part of the broader Palestinian national, racial and ethnical group”.

– Furthermore, South Africa has asked the court to “protect against further, severe and irreparable harm to the rights of the Palestinian people”.

“South Africa requests that the Court indicate provisional measures to protect and preserve those rights as well as its own rights under the Convention, and to prevent any aggravation or extension of the dispute, pending the determination of the merits of the issues raised by the Application,” said the filing.

– South Africa says that by killing Palestinians in Gaza, causing them serious mental and bodily harm and by creating conditions on life “calculated to bring about their physical destruction”, Israel is committing genocide against them.

– While Israel rejects allegations of violating international law and dismisses claims of genocide, deeming them “outrageous and false”, South Africa in its application said: “Israel has engaged and continues to engage in acts and omissions against the Palestinian people in Gaza as have been asserted to be genocidal and, by its attitude and conduct, has refuted any suggestion that its actions in Gaza are constrained by its obligations under the Genocide Convention”.

– The filing says Israel also failed to curb incitement to genocide by its own officials in violation of the convention. "The acts are all attributable to Israel, which has failed to prevent genocide and is committing genocide in manifest violation of the Genocide Convention."

It is worth noting that the ICJ's rulings are final and without appeal, but it has no way of enforcing them. A ruling against Israel could set a legal precedent.

What are the provincial measures that South Africa is requesting?

According to the filing, there are several provincial measures that South Africa is requesting:

– Immediate Suspension of Military Operations:

The State of Israel must immediately suspend its military operations in and against Gaza.

– Control Over Armed Units

Israel should ensure that military or irregular armed units, organisations, and persons under its control take no steps in furtherance of the military operations in Gaza.

– Prevention of Genocide

Both South Africa and Israel, in line with their obligations under the Genocide Convention, must take reasonable measures to prevent genocide against the Palestinian people.

– Prohibition of Genocidal Acts

Israel is obligated to desist from acts within the scope of the Genocide Convention, including killing, causing bodily or mental harm, inflicting conditions of life for physical destruction, and imposing measures to prevent births within the Palestinian group.

– Desistance and Preventive Measures:

Israel must desist from and prevent actions, including expulsion, forced displacement, deprivation of access to essentials, and destruction of Palestinian life in Gaza.

– Prohibition of Genocidal Acts by Military and Armed Units

Israel must ensure that its military and any units or individuals influenced by it refrain from genocidal acts, including incitement, and take steps towards punishment for any engagement in such acts.

– Preservation of Evidence

Israel is required to take effective measures to prevent the destruction of evidence related to genocide allegations and ensure access to Gaza for fact-finding missions and international bodies.

– Reporting Obligation

Israel must submit a report to the Court on the measures taken to comply with the order within one week, and regularly thereafter until a final decision is rendered.

– Avoidance of Aggravation

Israel is directed to refrain from any action that may aggravate or extend the dispute before the Court, ensuring a conducive environment for resolution.

What was Israel’s response?

Israel rejected the charge, with Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Lior Haiat writing on X, formerly Twitter: "Israel rejects with disgust the blood libel spread by South Africa and its application" to the ICJ.

Israel has called the claim baseless and accused South Africa of "absurd blood libel".

Israel said it will be in court to present its case next week.

What is the ICJ?

The ICJ, also called the World Court, is the highest United Nations legal body, to deal with disputes between states.

The ICJ, which was established in 1945, is a 15-judge panel that deals with border disputes. Cases brought by states often accuse others of breaking United Nations (UN) treaty obligations.

Both South Africa and Israel are signatories to the 1948 Genocide Convention which gives the ICJ the jurisdiction to rule on disputes over the treaty.

All states that signed the Genocide Convention are obliged not only not to commit genocide, but also to prevent and punish it. The treaty defines genocide as "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group".

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