South Africa accuses Israel of stepping up Gaza genocide: "New and horrific stage"

The Hague, Netherlands - South Africa accused Israel Thursday at the top UN court of stepping up what it called a genocide in Gaza, urging judges to order a halt to the Israeli assault on Rafah.

South Africa's legal team (first row) is seen after presenting its arguments to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as part of South Africa's case against Israel over its Rafah offensive.
South Africa's legal team (first row) is seen after presenting its arguments to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as part of South Africa's case against Israel over its Rafah offensive.  © Nick Gammon / AFP

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) heard a litany of allegations against Israel from lawyers representing Pretoria, including mass graves, torture, and deliberate withholding of humanitarian aid.

Israel will respond on Friday. It has previously stressed its "unwavering" commitment to international law and described South Africa's case as "wholly unfounded" and "morally repugnant."

"South Africa had hoped, when we last appeared before this court, to halt this genocidal process to preserve Palestine and its people," said top lawyer Vusimuzi Madonsela.

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"Instead, Israel's genocide has continued apace and has just reached a new and horrific stage," added Madonsela.

South Africa kicked off two days of hearings in The Hague by imploring judges to order a ceasefire throughout Gaza.

In January, the ICJ ordered Israel to do everything to prevent genocidal acts and enable humanitarian aid to Gaza.

But the court stopped short of ordering a ceasefire and South Africa's argument is that the situation now – notably the operation in the crowded city of Rafah – requires fresh ICJ action.

Rafah invasion heightens genocide concerns in Gaza

(From l. to r.) Israel's deputy Attorney General for International Law, Gilad Noam, Principal Deputy Legal Adviser of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Israel, Tamar Kaplan Tourgman, and Legal Adviser at the Israeli Embassy to the Netherlands, Avgail Frisch Ben Avraham, wait to hear the arguments of South Africa's legal team.
(From l. to r.) Israel's deputy Attorney General for International Law, Gilad Noam, Principal Deputy Legal Adviser of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Israel, Tamar Kaplan Tourgman, and Legal Adviser at the Israeli Embassy to the Netherlands, Avgail Frisch Ben Avraham, wait to hear the arguments of South Africa's legal team.  © Nick Gammon / AFP

The Rafah campaign is "the last step in the destruction of Gaza and its Palestinian people," argued Vaughan Lowe, a lawyer for South Africa.

"It was Rafah that brought South Africa to the court. But it is all Palestinians as a national, ethnical and racial group who need the protection from genocide that the court can order," he added.

The US, Israel's top ally, has strongly opposed the South African case.

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Asked about the latest accusations, US State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters, "We have been pretty clear about the fact that we do not believe that what is happening in Gaza is genocide, and we continue to believe that those claims are unwarranted and false."

"South Africa's claims are both morally and factually distorted and constitute an abuse of the Genocide Convention and the ICJ," said Israel's foreign ministry spokesman, Oren Marmorstein.

The orders of the ICJ, which rules in disputes between states, are legally binding, but it has little means to enforce them.

It has ordered Russia to halt its invasion of Ukraine, to no avail.

South Africa wants the ICJ to issue three emergency orders while it rules on the wider accusation that Israel is breaking the 1948 UN Genocide Convention.

Israel says Rafah offensive will continue with additional forces

Boys watch smoke billowing during Israeli strikes east of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip.
Boys watch smoke billowing during Israeli strikes east of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip.  © AFP

It wants the court to order Israel to "immediately withdraw and cease its military offensive" in Rafah.

Second, Israel should take "all effective measures" to allow "unimpeded access" to Gaza for humanitarian aid workers, journalists, and investigators.

Lastly, Pretoria asked the court to ensure Israel reports back on the measures taken.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the Rafah offensive in defiance of international warnings that more than a million civilians sheltering there could be caught in the crossfire.

Just minutes before the court hearings opened, Israel's Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said the operation in Rafah "will continue as additional forces will enter" the area.

The United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said Wednesday that 600,000 people have fled Rafah since military operations intensified.

"As the primary humanitarian hub for humanitarian assistance in Gaza, if Rafah falls, so too does Gaza," said South Africa in a submission to the court.

"The thwarting of humanitarian aid cannot be seen as anything but the deliberate snuffing out of Palestinian lives. Starvation to the point of famine," said lawyer Adila Hassim, her voice choking with emotion.

Israel's relentless bombardment from the air and a ground offensive inside Gaza has killed at least 35,233 people, mostly civilians.

Cover photo: Nick Gammon / AFP

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