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Israel/OPT: South Africa's genocide case offers glimmer of hope for justice

Proceedings at International Court of Justice due to open in The Hague tomorrow

South Africa’s case cites Gaza war crimes evidence gathered by Amnesty

‘War crimes and crimes against humanity are rife, and the risk of genocide is real’ - Agnès Callamard

This week’s International Court of Justice proceedings on a South Africa legal case alleging that Israel is breaching its obligations under the UN Genocide Convention could help protect Palestinian civilians, end the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza and offer a glimmer of hope for international justice, said Amnesty International today. 

South Africa’s International Court of Justice application cites evidence gathered by Amnesty documenting damning evidence of war crimes and other violations of international law by Israeli forces in their intense bombardment of Gaza, including direct attacks on civilians and civilian objects, indiscriminate and other unlawful attacks, forced displacement of civilians and the collective punishment of the civilian population. 

It also cites research by Amnesty highlighting that Israel’s system of domination and oppression of Palestinians amounts to apartheid. 

South Africa has filed an application alleging that Israel’s acts and failure to act in relation to Palestinians in Gaza in the wake of the attacks on 7 October by Hamas and other armed groups are genocidal in character. 

South Africa’s application urges the court to order “provisional measures” to protect the Palestinian people in Gaza, including by calling upon Israel to immediately halt military attacks that “constitute or give rise to violations of the Genocide Convention”, and to rescind related measures amounting to collective punishment and forced displacement. Initial hearings will take place at the court in The Hague tomorrow and Friday (11-12 January).

Amnesty has not itself made a determination that the situation in Gaza amounts to genocide, though it points to alarming warning signs given the staggering scale of death and destruction. In just three months, 23,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza and a further 10,000 are missing under the rubble, presumed dead. There has also been an appalling spike in dehumanising and racist rhetoric against Palestinians by various Israeli government and military officials. In addition, Israel’s imposition of an illegal siege in Gaza - which has cut off or severely restricted the civilian population’s access to water, food, medical assistance and fuel - is inflicting unfathomable levels of suffering and putting the survival of people in Gaza at risk.

All countries have an international legal obligation to prevent genocide under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), and also under customary law - meaning all countries must do so. On 16 November, a group of UN experts warned of a “genocide in the making” in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, particularly in Gaza.

Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, said:

“As the United States continues to use its veto power to block the UN Security Council from calling for a ceasefire, war crimes and crimes against humanity are rife, and the risk of genocide is real. 

The risk that Gaza would be transformed from the world’s biggest open-air prison to a giant graveyard has, crushingly, materialised right before our eyes.

“The ICJ’s examination of Israel’s conduct is a vital step for the protection of Palestinian lives, to restore trust and credibility in the universal application of international law, and to pave the way for justice and reparation for victims.

“Pending a final ruling of the ICJ on whether the crimes of genocide and other crimes under international law have been committed, an urgent order to implement provisional measures would be an important means to help prevent further death, destruction and civilian suffering, and provide a warning to other states that they must not contribute to grave violations and crimes against Palestinians.”

Intent to destroy a protected group 

Genocide is defined as certain acts committed with “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a protected group” such as a national, ethnical, religious and racial group. The provisional measures requested by South Africa include calls on Israel to desist from acts within Article II of the Genocide Convention, including “killing members of a protected group” and “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”. It calls on Israel to prevent forced displacement and deprivation of access to adequate food, water, humanitarian assistance and medical supplies to Palestinians. Under the convention, nobody - including the highest government officials - can claim personal immunity for alleged acts contrary to the convention.

Amnesty has repeatedly called for the investigation of violations of international law by all parties, for an immediate sustained ceasefire, for the release of all remaining civilian hostages held by armed groups in Gaza, for the release of Palestinians arbitrarily detained by Israel, and for Israel to end its illegal and inhumane siege of Gaza. Amnesty has also condemned the war crimes committed by Hamas and other armed groups on 7 October, including hostage-taking and the deliberate killing of civilians, as well as their continued indiscriminate rocket attacks. 

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