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South Africa to Take Israel to Top UN Court on Genocide Claim in Gaza

FILE — Smoke rises following an Israeli bombardment in the Gaza Strip, Dec. 16, 2023. South Africa has launched a case at the United Nations' top court alleging that Israel's military campaign in Gaza amounts to genocide.
FILE — Smoke rises following an Israeli bombardment in the Gaza Strip, Dec. 16, 2023. South Africa has launched a case at the United Nations' top court alleging that Israel's military campaign in Gaza amounts to genocide.

South Africa is taking the war in Gaza to a top global court, accusing Israel of genocide in a lengthy court filing that the International Court of Justice is preparing to hear next week.

Israel says the filing constitutes "blood libel," and the White House dimisses it as "meritless."

More than 22,000 Palestinians have perished since the start of Israel's offensive on Gaza, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health. U.S. officials have previously cast doubt on those figures, noting that the ministry is run by Hamas, the group that was elected to govern Gaza and whose armed wing launched the October 7 attack on Israel that killed more than 1,200 people.

Hamas, which is designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. and some of its allies, lists the killing of Jews and the elimination of the Jewish state as its main objectives.

South Africa's 84-page submission, filed last week, says that Israel's actions in its Gaza offensive "are genocidal in character, as they are committed with the requisite specific intent ... to destroy Palestinians in Gaza as a part of the broader Palestinian national, racial and ethnical group."

Israel's use of state organs and agents to do this, they say, is a violation of its obligations under the 1948 Genocide Convention.

Alarms over possible war crimes

International organizations, including United Nations agencies, have raised alarms over possible war crimes, with the U.N.'s human rights agency calling in November for "prompt, transparent and independent investigations into allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity, perpetrated in Israel and in the Occupied Palestinian Territory on 7 October 2023 and thereafter."

Israel's government has slammed the move as a "decision to play advocate for the devil" and accused South Africa of "blood libel." The accusation that Jewish people use the blood of Christians in religious rituals has been touted for centuries — notably by the genocidal Nazi regime, which oversaw the extermination of some 6 million Jews — to justify targeting Jews.

"History will judge South Africa for its criminal complicity with the bloodiest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust, and it will judge it without mercy," said Israeli government spokesman Eylon Levy.

The White House, when asked by VOA, dismissed South Africa's argument.

"We find this submission meritless, counterproductive and completely without any basis in fact whatsoever," said John Kirby, director of strategic communications for the National Security Council.

South Africa's Foreign Affairs Ministry did not respond to requests for comment, but spokesperson Clayson Monyela said on the social media platform X that this is an example of his nation's decision to "flex its diplomatic muscle in defense of humanity."

South Africa's ruling African National Congress has historically supported the Palestinian cause, with the nation's first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, saying, "We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians."

In the court application, South Africa argues that the treatment of Palestinians also bears strong resemblance to South Africa's own racially motivated apartheid regime, which ended in 1994 with Mandela's election.

"It is important," the submission reads, "to place the acts of genocide in the broader context of Israel's conduct towards Palestinians during its 75-year-long apartheid, its 56-year-long belligerent occupation of Palestinian territory and its 16-year-long blockade of Gaza, including the serious and ongoing violations of international law associated therewith, including grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and other war crimes and crimes against humanity."

The grassroots Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) says it supports South Africa's submission, which has also been endorsed by Muslim-majority nations Turkey and Malaysia.

Robert McCaw, government affairs department director for CAIR, notes that while the group has "condemned the killing of Palestinians and Israelis alike" and the actions of both Hamas and Israel's government, it believes South Africa's case "fits the definition of genocide."

"When you are systematically erasing Palestinians from Gaza, that is a genocide," he said. "And you can, you know, use whatever terms you want to dismiss this claim, but it's a genocide."

But can it stop the war? South Africa, in its submission, asks the court to immediately call upon Israel to halt attacks, but it's not clear whether such a ruling would stick.

"It can't enforce its verdicts, but members of the United Nations, which are all the world's government, they can accept its findings, and that impacts the types of policies that are put out by the U.N.," McCaw said.

"So, this can have a significant impact in how we might be able to get a cease-fire or to hold Israel accountable by other means for its ongoing genocide of Palestinians. Also, it's a very good way to legally document the crimes that are occurring."

Proceedings begin January 11 and will be streamed live on the United Nations' web-based TV site.