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JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – South Africa has lodged an urgent appeal to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to force Israel to “immediately suspend” its military operations in Gaza. Israel has dismissed the case as “atrocious” and “preposterous”.
“No armed attack on a state territory no matter how serious… can provide justification for or defend breaches of the convention,” said Pretoria’s Justice Minister Ronald Lamola.
“Israel’s response to the October 7 attack has crossed this line and given rise to the breaches of the convention,” he added, setting out South Africa’s case at the ICJ.
The war in Gaza erupted when Hamas launched its unprecedented October 7 attack, which resulted in about 1,140 people killed in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.
Israel has responded with a relentless military campaign that has killed at least 23,357 people, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry.
South Africa argues Israel is breaking its commitments under the UN Genocide Convention, a treaty signed in 1948 as the world cried “never again” after the Holocaust.
As a fellow signatory to the treaty, South Africa can take Israel to the ICJ, which rules on disputes between countries and is often described as the “World Court”.
The ruling African National Congress (ANC) has long been a firm supporter of the Palestinian cause, often linking it to its own struggle against the white-minority government, which had cooperative relations with Israel.
South Africa has acknowledged the “particular weight of responsibility” of accusing Israel of genocide and “unequivocally” condemned the Hamas attacks that touched off the war in Gaza.
Israel will present its own arguments on Friday but President Isaac Herzog has already hinted at his country’s likely defence.
“There’s nothing more atrocious and preposterous than this claim,” said Herzog.
“We will be in the International Court of Justice and we will present proudly our case of using self defence… under international humanitarian law,” he said.
He said the Israeli army was “doing its utmost under extremely complicated circumstances on the ground to make sure that there will be no unintended consequences and no civilian casualties.”
The United States is backing its ally Israel, with the State Department describing the charges as “unfounded.”
“In fact, it is those who are violently attacking Israel who continue to openly call for the annihilation of Israel and the mass murder of Jews,” said State Department spokesman Matthew Miller.
As it is an urgent procedure, the ICJ could rule in a matter of weeks.
Its rulings are final and cannot be appealed. However, countries do not always follow the court’s verdicts—the ICJ has ordered Russia to stop its invasion of Ukraine for example.
But a court ruling against Israel will certainly increase political pressure on the country, with many speculating it could serve as a pretext for sanctions.
Cecily Rose, assistant professor of public international law at Leiden University, said the court does not have to rule on the fundamentals of the case at this stage—that issue will likely take years.
“Instead, the court would only be evaluating whether there is a risk of irreparable prejudice to rights held under the Genocide Convention, in particular the right of the Palestinians in Gaza to be protected from acts that threaten their existence as a group,” Rose told AFP.