An Israeli Defense Forces self-propelled howitzer fires an artillery shell into Gaza

An Israeli Defense Forces self-propelled howitzer fires an artillery shell into Gaza from near the Kerem Shalom border crossing toward Rafah on May 8, 2024.

(Photo: Jamal Awad/Xinhua via Getty Images)

South Africa Urges ICJ Action as Israeli War Cabinet Expands Rafah Assault

"Despite repeated orders by the court, Israel has not changed its conduct," South Africa's urgent request states. "It has doubled down on its genocidal aims and acts, including by invading Rafah."

As Israel's War Cabinet voted Friday to expand the invasion of Rafah, South Africa filed an urgent request for the International Court of Justice to order Israel to stop its assault on Gaza's southernmost city, citing violations of the Genocide Convention and "particularly severe" risks to the 1.5 million displaced Palestinians and residents sheltering there.

"The situation brought about by the Israeli assault on Rafah, and the extreme risk it poses to humanitarian supplies and basic services into Gaza, to the survival of the Palestinian medical system, and to the very survival of Palestinians in Gaza as a group, is not only an escalation of the prevailing situation, but gives rise to new facts that are causing irreparable harm to the rights of the Palestinian people in Gaza," South Africa's request states.

"This amounts to a change in the situation in Gaza since the court's order of March 28, 2024," the filing continues, referring to the ICJ's directive for Israel to stop blocking desperately needed humanitarian from entering the embattled enclave.

The March 28 directive also reiterated the court's earlier preliminary ruling that found Israel is "plausibly" committing genocide in Gaza and ordered the Israeli government to "take all measures within its power" to uphold its obligations under Article II of the Genocide Convention.

The treaty—to which Israel is a party—defines the crime of genocide in part as "killing members of a group" and "deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part," which South Africa's request says Israeli forces are doing in Rafah.

The new filing argues three main points:

  • Rafah is now effectively the last refuge in Gaza for 1.5 million Palestinians from Rafah and those displaced by Israeli action, and the last viable center in Gaza for habitation, public administration, and the provision of basic public services, including medical care;
  • By seizing control of the Rafah and Kerem Shalom (Karem Abu Salem) crossings, Israel is now in direct, total control of all entry and exit to Gaza, has cut it off from all humanitarian and medical supplies, goods, and fuel on which the survival of the population of Gaza depends, and is preventing medical evacuations; and
  • The remaining population and medical facilities are at extreme risk, given the recent evidence of evacuation zones being treated as extermination zones, the mass destruction and mass graves at Gaza's other hospitals, and the use by Israel of artificial intelligence (AI) to identify "kill lists."

"The incursion followed a two-week intensification of Israel's military bombardment of Rafah, to which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had previously been ordered by Israel to evacuate for their safety," the South African filing states. "An estimated 100,000 Palestinians in eastern Rafah, many of them already displaced nine times over, were given less than 15 hours to evacuate. Many were simply unable to flee. None have anywhere safe to go."

The document cites media reports of "the extreme brutality and indiscriminate nature of Israel's attack on areas of Rafah both within and outside the evacuation zone."

"Videos posted on social media by Israeli soldiers record them firing directly on areas where tents are pitched by displaced Palestinians," the filing states. "Many, including large numbers of Palestinian children, have been killed or injured already. There is recently published testimony from Israeli soldiers who have served in Gaza that Israeli soldiers treat evacuation zones as 'zones of extermination' in which all remaining Palestinians are considered to be legitimate targets. Israel also relies extensively on AI to select its targets and 'kill lists.'"

"Despite repeated orders by the court, Israel has not changed its conduct," the filing states. "It has doubled down on its genocidal aims and acts, including by invading Rafah. Members of the Israeli Ministerial Committee on National Security Affairs (Security Cabinet) and the War Cabinet have continued their genocidal rhetoric."

South Africa lodged its genocide complaint against Israel in December. Since then, more than 30 nations and regional blocs, and hundreds of advocacy groups have joined. The ICJ last month set October 28 as the deadline for South Africa's comprehensive submission in the case. Israel has until July 28, 2025 to respond.

A final ruling from the tribunal is not expected for years. Israel says the case is "baseless" and has accused South Africa of "functioning as the legal arm of Hamas," which led the attacks in which more than 1,100 Israelis and others were killed—at least some by so-called "friendly fire"—last October 7.

Since then, Israeli forces have killed nearly 35,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, while wounding more than 78,000 others. Over 11,000 Palestinians are also missing and presumed dead and buried beneath the rubble of the hundreds of thousands of bombed-out homes and other buildings. Around 90% of Gaza's 2.3 million people have also been forcibly displaced, and Israel's "complete siege" of the strip has caused massive starvation and has led to the deaths of dozens of children from malnutrition and dehydration.

Friday's filing came on the same day that a group of United Nations experts demanded that U.S. President Joe Biden—Israel's most important international backer—follow through on his "red line" threat to halt arms shipments to Israel in the event its forces invade Rafah. On Thursday, Biden was accused of retreating from his red line by stating he would only cut Israel off if it launches a "major" assault on the city.

Common Dreamsreported Tuesday that Biden is delaying shipments of two types of bombs to Israel in order to send a message that the president is angry and frustrated over what he called Israel's "indiscriminate bombing" of Gazan civilians. However, the U.S. continues to supply billions of dollars of weaponry to Israel and also provides diplomatic cover in the form of U.N. vetoes and other moves.

On Friday, for example, the U.S. was one of only nine nations to vote against a U.N. General Assembly resolution urging the Security Council to grant Palestine full membership in the world body. The vote was 143-9, with 25 abstentions.

Also on Friday, human rights defenders from around the world gathered in Johannesburg, South Africa for the inaugural Global Anti-Apartheid Conference on Palestine.

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