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The judges enter the courtroom during a hearing at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the situation in Rafah. Alamy Stock Photo
genocide case

'Israel must be stopped': South Africa urges UN court to order military withdrawal from Gaza

During hearings earlier this year, Israel strongly denied committing genocide in Gaza.

HEARINGS HAVE BEGUN at the International Court of Justice in the Hague this afternoon as South Africa urges the court to issue further emergency orders against Israel in the case where it is accused of breaching the Genocide Convention. 

The South African lawyers are speaking today with the Israeli team due to respond tomorrow. 

South Africa has to convince the court that there has been a significant change in the circumstances in Gaza since March, when it issued additional orders known as provisional measures.

The key request from the South African legal team is for the court to order Israel to halt its military activity in Gaza and to withdraw its forces entirely, especially in light of the imminent full-scale assault on the southern city of Rafah, where about 1.5 million Palestinians have sought refuge. 

In her remarks, Adila Hassan of the South African legal team said this is ”the only order that will protect Palestinian life in Gaza”. 

As well as asking the court to order Israel to withdraw from Rafah and Gaza in general, it is also asking the court to order Israel to take measures to ensure unimpeded access for UN officials, humanitarian organisations and journalists, and to report back within one week on how it is meeting these demands.

“The court is not powerless and it must do something to assert the authority of international law,” said Max du Plessis of the South African team. 

During hearings earlier this year, Israel strongly denied committing genocide in Gaza and said it does all it can to spare civilians and is only targeting Hamas militants while acting in “self defence”. It accused Hamas of using civilians as “human shields”.

In January, judges ordered Israel to do all it can to prevent death, destruction and any acts of genocide in Gaza but the panel stopped short of ordering an end to the military offensive that has laid waste to the Palestinian enclave.

“South Africa had hoped, when we last appeared before this court, to halt this genocidal process, to preserve Palestine and its people,” said the country’s ambassador to the Netherlands Vusimuzi Madonsela.

“Instead, Israel’s genocide has continued apace and has just reached a new and horrific stage,” he added.

South Africa has today accused Israel of “mocking” the court’s earlier provisional measures. 

“Israel has defied every single provisional measure ordered by this court,” said Hassan. 

Hassan struggled to get through her description of the situation for children in Gaza, tearing up while saying that some 14,000 children have been killed.

“Make no mistake, these conditions are a direct result of Israel’s assault on the besieged enclave, with full knowledge of the destructive consequences,” she said.

She said the shutting off of food and aid entering Gaza is a “deliberate snuffing out of Palestinian lives”.

“Israel will no doubt once again deny and cast aspersions on the information provided by South Africa. It will do so while continuing to systematically attack all other sources of information,” said Hassan. 

She pointed to comments made yesterday by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu which denied there is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza as evidence of this.

She described the risks to the people of Gaza as “imminent” and “irreparable”.

“Israel must be stopped,” she said.

Tembeka Ngcukaitobi of the South African team has laid out examples of further comments made by Israeli officials described as incitements to genocide, something that the court already ordered Israel to prevent and punish. 

The examples included comments from politicians, military leaders and soldiers. 

A video was played in court that showed Israeli soldiers chanting “Let’s go and destroy Rafah!”.

Irish lawyer Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh said that South Africa beseeches the court to order a halt to Israeli military operation in Rafah and the rest of Gaza.

She said these orders must be “explicit and specific” and that the change in circumstances “demand it”. 

“The court has the power to do it and our shared humanity compels it,” she said.

She said that since March, conditions have worsened significantly. She pointed to the destruction of more hospitals and the discoveries of mass graves in Gaza. 

“This is, in effect, the end game for Gaza,” she said of the planned invasion and ongoing bombardment of Rafah. 

Gaza’s Health Ministry says over 35,000 Palestinians have been killed in the war.

South Africa initiated proceedings in December 2023 and sees the legal campaign as rooted in issues central to its identity.

Its governing party, the African National Congress, has long compared Israel’s policies in Gaza and the occupied West Bank to its own history under the apartheid regime of white minority rule, which restricted most blacks to “homelands”. Apartheid ended in 1994.

On Sunday, Egypt announced it plans to join the case. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Israeli military actions “constitute a flagrant violation of international law, humanitarian law, and the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 regarding the protection of civilians during wartime”.

Several countries, including Ireland, have also indicated they plan to intervene but so far only Libya, Nicaragua and Colombia have filed formal requests to do so.

With reporting from Press Association.

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