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HomeHeadlineA top U.N. court opens hearings on genocide charges against Israel

A top U.N. court opens hearings on genocide charges against Israel

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The logo of the International Court of Justice, left, and that of the U.N., right, are seen on the judges bench at the International Court of Justice, or World Court, in The Hague, Netherlands, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023.

Peter Dejong/AP

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Judges at the International Court of Justice on Thursday opened two days of legal arguments in a case filed by South Africa accusing Israel of genocide in its Gaza war. Israel rejects the allegation.

Lawyers for South Africa asked judges at Thursday’s hearings to impose binding preliminary orders on Israel, including an immediate halt to Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.

ICJ President Joan E. Donoghue said that South Africa argues that Israeli actions after the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas “are genocidal in character” and that Israel “failed to prevent genocide and is committing genocide.” She said South Africa also claims Israel violates “other fundamental obligations under the (U.N.) Genocide Convention.”

Ahead of the proceedings, hundreds of pro-Israeli protesters marched close to the courthouse with banners saying “Bring them home,” referring to the hostages still held by Hamas. Among the crowds, people were holding Israeli and Dutch flags.

Outside the court, others were protesting and waving the Palestinian flag in support of South Africa’s move.

The dispute strikes at the heart of Israel’s national identity as a Jewish state created in the aftermath of the Nazi genocide in the Holocaust.

It also involves South Africa’s identity: Its governing party, the African National Congress, has long compared Israel’s policies in Gaza and the West Bank to its own history under the apartheid regime of white minority rule, which restricted most Blacks to “homelands” before ending in 1994.

Although it normally considers U.N. and international tribunals unfair and biased, Israel has sent a strong legal team to defend its military operation launched in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas.

“I think they have come because they want to be exonerated and think they can successfully resist the accusation of genocide,” said Juliette McIntyre, an expert on international law at the University of South Australia.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a video statement Wednesday night defending his country’s actions.

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“Israel has no intention of permanently occupying Gaza or displacing its civilian population,” he said. “Israel is fighting Hamas terrorists, not the Palestinian population, and we are doing so in full compliance with international law.”

He said the Israeli military is “doing its utmost to minimize civilian casualties, while Hamas is doing its utmost to maximize them by using Palestinian civilians as human shields.”

In a statement after the case was filed late last year, the Palestinian Authority’s foreign ministry urged the court to “immediately take action to protect the Palestinian people and call on Israel, the occupying power, to halt its onslaught against the Palestinian people, in order to ensure an objective legal resolution.”

Two days of preliminary hearings begin with lawyers for South Africa explaining why the country has accused Israel of “acts and omissions” that are “genocidal in character” in the Gaza war and why it is calling for the court to issue an interim order for an immediate halt to Israel’s military actions. A decision will likely take weeks.

Israel’s offensive has killed more than 23,200 Palestinians in Gaza, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza. About two-thirds of the dead are women and children, health officials say. The death toll does not distinguish between combatants and civilians.

In the Oct. 7 attack, Hamas fighters stormed through several communities in Israel and killed some 1,200 people, mainly civilians. They abducted around 250 others, nearly half of whom have been released.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken dismissed the case as ” meritless ” during a visit to Tel Aviv on Tuesday.

“It is particularly galling, given that those who are attacking Israel — Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis, as well as their supporter Iran — continue to call for the annihilation of Israel and the mass murder of Jews,” he said.

The world court, which rules on disputes between nations, has never judged a country to be responsible for genocide. The closest it came was in 2007 when it ruled that Serbia “violated the obligation to prevent genocide” in the July 1995 massacre by Bosnian Serb forces of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica.

The International Criminal Court, based a few miles (kilometers) away in The Hague, prosecutes individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

South Africa “will have a hard time getting over the threshold” of proving genocide, McIntyre said.

“It’s not simply a matter of killing enormous numbers of people,” she said in an email to The Associated Press. “There must be an intent to destroy a group of people (classified by race or religion for example) in whole or in part, in a particular place.”

In a detailed, 84-page document launching the case, South Africa argued Israel has demonstrated that intent.

The case revolves around the genocide convention that was drawn up in 1948 in the aftermath of World War II and the murder of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. Both Israel and South Africa are signatories.

In its written filing, South Africa says it wants the court “to establish Israel’s responsibility for violations of the Genocide Convention; to hold it fully accountable under international law for those violations” and to “ensure the urgent and fullest possible protection for Palestinians in Gaza who remain at grave and immediate risk of continuing and further acts of genocide.”

A team of lawyers representing South Africa will present three hours of arguments in the court’s wood-paneled Great Hall of Justice. Israel’s legal team will have three hours Friday morning to respond.

Human Rights Watch said the hearings will provide scrutiny of Israel’s actions.

“South Africa’s genocide case unlocks a legal process at the world’s highest court to credibly examine Israel’s conduct in Gaza in the hopes of curtailing further suffering,” said Balkees Jarrah, the group’s associate international justice director.

Israel is back on the International Court of Justice’s docket next month, when hearings open into a U.N. request for a non-binding advisory opinion on the legality of Israeli policies in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

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