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Israel faces genocide case in the World Court

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South Africa has accused Israel of committing and failing to prevent genocide in Gaza, which Israel has denied in the top UN court.
South Africa has brought a genocide case against Israel in the World Court.

South Africa has accused Israel of committing and failing to prevent genocide in its war in Gaza, in a case brought to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

On the first day of hearings, South Africa alleged Israel is acting with “the intent to destroy Palestinians in Gaza”. It has asked the ICJ to order Israel to “immediately suspend its military operations” in Gaza.

The Israeli Government said the case “lacks both a factual and legal basis”. It has called on the ICJ to reject the case.

Context

On 7 October, Hamas launched an attack on Israel. According to data cited by the United Nations (UN), roughly 1,200 people were killed. About 240 hostages were captured by Hamas, which controls Gaza, and about 136 hostages remain captive. Hamas has continued to fire rockets towards Israel.

Israel responded by declaring war and bombarding Gaza. According to data quoted by the UN, more than 23,000 Palestinians have been killed since 7 October. Israel’s war in Gaza has caused a humanitarian crisis. It has said it will not stop fighting until all hostages are returned and Hamas is destroyed.

What is the ICJ?

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) – also known as the World Court – is the United Nations’ highest judicial body. Its role is to settle legal disputes between states. The ICJ’s rulings are typically binding, but the enforcement of orders has proven difficult.

South Africa and Israel are both signatories to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Under the convention, genocide is defined as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.

The word “genocide” was first coined by Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, describing the killing of six million Jewish people and others by the Nazi Party during the Holocaust.

South Africa’s argument

South Africa is arguing that Israel is violating international law by ‘committing genocide and failing to prevent genocide’. Its argument states that Israel is “killing Palestinians in Gaza, causing them serious bodily and mental harm, and inflicting on them conditions of life calculated to bring about their physical destruction.”

South Africa has asked the ICJ to order Israel to “immediately suspend its military operations in and against Gaza”.

It’s also stated that “Israel’s failure to provide or ensure essential food, water, medicine, fuel, shelter and other humanitarian assistance… has pushed [Palestinian people in Gaza] to the brink of famine”.

South Africa said that while “some aid trucks [have been] permitted in… this remains wholly insufficient”.

Israel’s response

A statement from Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs says it “categorically rejects” the allegations of genocide. It said the country “is committed to international law and acts in accordance with it”.

Israel also said “the residents of the Gaza Strip are not the enemy” and claimed it “is making every effort to limit harm to the non-involved and to allow humanitarian aid to enter the Gaza Strip”.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement after South Africa’s opening arguments, saying “today we saw an upside-down world. Israel is accused of genocide while it is fighting against genocide”.

How will it be decided?

There is a panel of 17 judges to decide the case, including one judge nominated by each country.

South Africa has nominated Dikgang Moseneke, a former Deputy Chief Justice of its Constitutional Court. Israel has nominated Aharon Barak, a former President of Israel’s Supreme Court.

It could take years for the ICJ to deliver a final decision. The ICJ has only handed down one final judgment in a genocide case in 2007 – more than a decade after the genocide allegations in Bosnia were first raised.

In the meantime, South Africa has requested for the ICJ to order “provisional measures”. These can be ordered if it decides the subject of the application (in this case, the Palestinian people in Gaza) are in immediate danger.

For the World Court to order a provisional measure, South Africa needs to convince the court that its allegations are “plausible”.

Australia’s position

The Australian Government has not revealed its stance on the case. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it is “not appropriate to comment on matters before the Court”.

Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Birmingham said the Government should “rule out supporting South Africa’s unbalanced application against Israel to the ICJ”.

Greens MP Max Chandler-Mather has said “Labor must support South Africa’s case”.

Independent Senator David Pocock has urged the Government to confirm it will “comply with any [ICJ] ruling and support its enforcement”.

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