South African Justice Minister Ronald Lamola speaks at a press conference outside the ICJ.

South African Justice Minister Ronald Lamola speaks at a press conference outside the International Court of Justice in The Hague on January 11, 2024.

(Photo: Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu via Getty Images)

South Africa's Genocide Presentation Against Israel Called 'Overwhelming and Devastating'

"Whatever the outcome, we are witnessing an amazing moment of rule of international law history," said Amnesty International secretary general Agnès Callamard.

Human rights defenders and legal experts on Thursday lauded what many called South Africa's "compelling" opening presentation at the International Court of Justice in The Hague in a case accusing Israel of genocide against Palestinians in the embattled Gaza Strip.

In a bid to obtain an ICJ emergency order for the suspension of Israel's relentless 97-day assault on Gaza, South African jurists including Justice Minister Ronald Lamola argued that Israel is violating four articles of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, commonly called the Genocide Convention. The landmark 1948 treaty—enacted, ironically, the same year as the modern state of Israel was born, largely through the ethnic cleansing of Palestine's Arabs—defines genocide as acts intended "to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group."

South African lawyers detailed Israel's conduct in the war, including the killing and wounding of more than 80,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, forcibly displacing over 85% of the besieged enclave's 2.3 million people, and inflicting conditions leading to widespread starvation and disease. They also cited at length statements by Israeli officials calling for the destruction and even nuclear annihilation of Gaza in their presentations, which eschewed graphic imagery in favor of arguing "clear legal rights."

"In its opening argument thus far, South Africa has made a compelling case showing how the genocidal statements by [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and other senior officials were interpreted as official orders by Israeli forces in their attacks against Gaza," U.S. investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill said on social media.

"Beyond the citations of the vast civilian deaths and injuries caused by Israel in Gaza, [South Africa's] lawyers argued effectively that Israel's 'evacuation' orders were in and of themselves genocidal, demanding the immediate flight of a million people, including patients in hospitals," Scahill continued.

"What becomes crystal clear listening to the openly genocidal words of Netanyahu and other Israeli officials is that they know exactly what they are saying," he added. "And they are comfortable saying these things publicly because they know the U.S. will shield them from accountability."

Left-wing author and activist and former South African parliamentarian Andrew Feinstein said that "South Africa's presentation to the ICJ thus far has been exceptional, overwhelming, and devastating," opining that "the only way the ICJ doesn't impose interim measures is if the judges are open to pressure from 'the West.'"

"South Africa's lawyers have done the nonracial, post-apartheid country proud," he added.

Legal scholar Nimer Sultany, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, called South Africa's presentation "compellingly argued and powerfully presented."

"Given the court's case law, and given the lower threshold required for issuing provisional measures, it will be very surprising if the court does not issue provisional measures against Israel," Sultany asserted.

"This also should prompt reflection amongst all those governments and media outlets who supported [Israel's war,] because they have been supporting a genocide," he added.

Sultany and numerous other observers said the most powerful presentation of the day was made by Irish lawyer and case adviser Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh, who delivered South Africa's closing statement.

Israel—some of whose officials have condemned South Africa's case as a meritless "blood libel"—is scheduled to present its defense on Friday. Israeli jurists are expected to focus heavily on the atrocities committed by Hamas-led attackers who killed more than 1,100 Israelis and took around 240 others hostage on October 7. They will likely argue that the country has a right to defend itself, and that it is seeking to eliminate Hamas, not the Palestinian people.

While an emergency order from the World Court would not be enforceable, it would represent a major international embarrassment for Israel, which is increasingly isolated on the world stage. A growing number of nations including Brazil, Pakistan, Turkey, Malaysia, Venezuela, Colombia, Saudi Arabia, Bolivia, Jordan, and Bangladesh are supporting South Africa's case, as are the Arab League, more than 1,250 international human rights and civil society group, and progressive U.S. Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Cori Bush (D-Mo.).

"Whatever the outcome, we are witnessing an amazing moment of rule of international law history," said Amnesty International secretary general Agnès Callamard.

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