UN court hears South Africa genocide case against Israel

John Dugard, who heads South Africa’s legal team at the International Court of Justice, has previously accused the Israeli army of war crimes in the 2000s.

In a document of over 80 pages – which makes for very grim reading – an exhaustive legal case compiled by South Africa is elaborated against Israel’s vicious behaviour.
Sara Gironi Carnevale
In a document of over 80 pages – which makes for very grim reading – an exhaustive legal case compiled by South Africa is elaborated against Israel’s vicious behaviour.

UN court hears South Africa genocide case against Israel

Something is changing in the world’s perception of events in Gaza.

In the course of the past three months, in response to Hamas attacks on 7 October, Israel has pummelled Gaza by land, sea and air, killing more than 22,000 Palestinians — the majority were women and children.

To put that figure into perspective, during the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, which lasted for about thirty years, just over 3,000 people were killed, only half of whom were civilians.

Western countries have mostly supported Israel’s right to defend itself, with the Americans in particular reluctant to condemn Israel's military campaign. France has probably been the most critical of Israel’s response. Real outrage, however, has been confined to the streets, with often massive pro-Palestinian demonstrations.

In pictures: Protesters across the global south unite for a free Palestine

Now, the plight of the civilian population has become so dire, and the implacability of the right-wing Israeli government is so obvious that the word ‘genocide’ is being heard beyond street level. It has begun to enter the diplomatic vocabulary. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has gone further than accusing Israel of war crimes by explicitly comparing Netanyahu to Hitler.

But a more subtle instance this week was King Abdullah of Jordan’s visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda. The choice of location was eloquent in itself.

The monarch began by describing the “unspeakable crimes” committed during that African conflict, then went on to condemn Israel’s “indiscriminate aggression” in Gaza, saying it had already created an entire generation of orphans and that such violence could never guarantee Israel’s security.

This week’s application to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) by South Africa marks a further significant shift in language. For the first time, a sovereign country has charged the Israeli state with ‘genocidal intent’. In a document of over 80 pages – which makes for very grim reading – an exhaustive legal case is elaborated against Israel’s behaviour.

In response, Israel has dismissed the charge that it is intentionally killing thousands of Palestinian civilians as a ‘blood libel’. Its president, Isaac Herzog, had already rejected the document as ‘preposterous’ before it was presented at the Hague.

In a document of over 80 pages – which makes for very grim reading – an exhaustive legal case compiled by South Africa is elaborated against Israel's behaviour.

Handwritten messages on bombs

He is described therein as having personally written messages on bombs before they were dropped on the besieged Gazan population. He is also quoted as having said, on 12 October:

'It's an entire nation out there that is responsible... and we will fight until we break their backbone.'

For the purposes of the charge, such comments might be seen as self-incriminating.

In the apartheid era, a cosy relationship prevailed between Israel and South Africa. This was despite the fact that many Afrikaner leaders at that time had a history of deep antisemitism.

John Vorster, the then prime minister, was feted on a visit to Jerusalem in 1976, despite having been interned during the second world war for Nazi sympathies and membership of a fascist militia that burned Jewish-owned properties.

Since the release of Nelson Mandela, however, this relationship has deteriorated. The ANC traditionally sees the Palestinian struggle as equivalent to their own against apartheid.

Mandela famously said, "We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians."

In 2019, South Africa downgraded its embassy in Tel Aviv to the status of a liaison office after the Israeli military killed more than 220 Palestinian protesters inside Gaza, mostly unarmed civilians, during months of protests. The ANC called the Israeli government and military "an outcast and blight on humanity."

Relations will not be improved by this latest move nor by the choice of John Dugard to head South Africa's legal team at the ICJ. Dugard served as the UN special rapporteur for human rights in occupied Palestine during the 2000s.

His reports accused the Israeli army of war crimes. He also described how the state of Israel had collaborated in "settler terror" and constructed a system of Jewish domination amounting to apartheid.

John Dugard who heads South Africa's legal team at the ICJ has previously accused the Israeli army of war crimes in the 2000s. He said Israel had collaborated in "settler terror" and constructed a system of Jewish domination amounting to apartheid.

South African legal adviser John Dugard at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, Netherlands, January 11, 2024.

Greatest crime imaginable

Genocide is considered the greatest crime imaginable. It is defined as the deliberate targeting of an ethnic group and is the label given to some of the darkest episodes in human history. It is so dark there is insufficient light even to look at them.

It was Theodor Adorno who said that no poetry could exist after Auschwitz. In the hellscape of Gaza today, the poets are not just lost for words; in Refaat Alareer's case, at least, they are silenced forever.

For a state partly conceived as a sanctuary from the horrors symbolised by Auschwitz, the implications of South Africa's charge present a paradox, or maybe an irony of history, almost too bitter to countenance, that a state born out of genocidal persecution in Europe could possibly be accused of committing a genocide of its own.

And yet, despite the obvious difficulty of determining what is taking place in any war zone, the behaviour of the Israeli forces since 7 October has followed a clear pattern. Their bombardment of Gaza has been relentless.

From the outset, Gaza has been besieged, its fuel supplies cut off, its food and even water supplies limited. The Palestinians living in the area have been driven from one sector to another, supposedly to reach safety, then bombed anyway in what has been a grotesque exercise in whack-a-mole.

Given that the 'moles' remain mostly unharmed down in their tunnels, this has often looked like wanton cruelty.

But South Africa's stark report goes beyond the casualty figures to describe what amounts to a clash of two cultures. First, the culture of the Palestinians is under attack along with the Gazan population. The second is the culture of the settlers, which had been growing in importance in Israel before October but which has achieved hegemony since the Hamas attacks.

It is hard to decide which of these themes is the most depressing. Taking the assault on Palestinian culture first, many journalists, teachers, artists, novelists and poets are known to have been killed.

Domicide charge

The South African 'application' to the ICJ also documents examples of what is frequently referred to as 'domicide' – that is, the deliberate destruction of around 60% of Gaza's housing stock.

AFPTV video footage shows Palestinians checking the destruction in the aftermath of an Israeli strike on the Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, on November 1, 2023.

This razing of the Strip's built environment has not just affected the hospitals, as widely reported. It has obliterated the public library and university buildings.

The South African 'application' to the ICJ also documents examples of what is frequently referred to as 'domicide' – that is, the deliberate destruction of around 60% of Gaza's housing stock.

Ancient monuments – including the Great Omari Mosque, said to date back to the time of the Philistines, and St Porphyrius Greek Orthodox Church, the third oldest church in the world – now lie in ruins. A 14th-century bathhouse in Gaza's old Zaytoun quarter suffered the same fate, according to Nada Bashir (CNN).


Many of Gaza's cultural treasures and historic landmarks have been destroyed as Israel's war against Hamas rages on. CNN's Nada Bashir reports. #CNN #News #Israel #Gaza

original sound - CNN

With the destruction of Gaza's Central Archive, historical documents and national records have been lost. The Rashad Al-Shawa Cultural Centre — a cultural hub once home to a theatre, library and events space — has also been reduced to rubble.

In all, more than a hundred heritage sites have been damaged or destroyed. In a chilling reminder of the Nazis' reprisal attack in Lidice, a graveyard has been bulldozed. While the Nazi regime preserved the old Jewish quarter of Prague as a 'museum of an extinct race', the present impulse is not to memorialise anything. It is to erase it.

This destruction has come as a result of relentless bombardment by Israel, with the use of AI on the one hand, capable of generating up to a hundred targets a day, and on the other, a variety of 'dumb' bombs whose targeting and damage are often indiscriminate.

Read more: A look at Israel's AI-generated 'mass assassination factory' in Gaza

The effect on Palestinian culture is not always as conspicuous as the death of a renowned poet. The South African testimony describes how a beloved pastry chef, Masoud Muhammad al-Qatati, known as Father of the Poor, was killed in an airstrike on his house on 3 November.

Al-Qatati had a reputation for giving away the popular Palestinian treat 'knafeh' to impoverished customers. The motto of his shop was 'Let the poor eat'.

While the damage to the cultural identity of Palestinians is profound, the war has had a detrimental effect on Israeli culture, too.

However, the impact of the settler mentality on the Israeli population has been more insidious. Its malign influence predates the Hamas attack and was even, arguably, one of its causes. A large portion of the IDF was busy in the West Bank, protecting the settlers, when the incursion took place.

Anti-Zionist Jews

Beyond Israel, unsurprisingly, settler attitudes have had a weaker influence over the many Jews living in the diaspora. In London, some Jewish protesters joined the anti-war demonstrations. In the States, as long ago as October, like-minded Jews marched on the Capitol demanding a ceasefire. Hundreds were arrested.

It is also clear that a great many others have chosen to distance themselves from Israel's actions. One such individual, a doctor and professor of international health at Johns Hopkins University, has written about being ostracised after coming to the aid of the Gazans.

No one questioned the purity of Paul Spiegel's motives when he carried out humanitarian work in places like Afghanistan and Ukraine, but since working in Gaza, he has been accused of betraying his Jewish heritage:

'...my work is motivated by core Jewish values, particularly tikkum olam or repairing the world; pikuach nefesh or saving a life; and chesed or loving kindness' (Guardian, 9 January 2024)

Since the assault on Gaza began, such values have been in as short supply there as food and electricity.

According to Gideon Levy, an Israeli journalist supportive of Palestinian rights, this can be attributed to conditioning from an early age: "There's a whole machinery of brainwashing in Israel which really accompanies each of us from early childhood, and I'm a product of this machinery as much as anyone else."

"(We are taught) a few narratives that it's very hard to break. That we Israelis are the ultimate and only victims. That the Palestinians are born to kill, and their hatred is irrational. That the Palestinians are not human beings like us... So you get a society without any moral doubts, without any question marks, with hardly any public debate. To raise your voice against all this is very hard." 

That was written over a decade ago. A recent article by Etan Nechin reinforces Levy's argument. He maintains that the settlers believe they were blamed for the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and that the Israeli public felt no sympathy for them over the subsequent unilateral withdrawal and evacuation from Gaza.

The settlers determined, says Nechin, 'that it was no longer enough to simply capture another hill and expand their physical settlements; to ensure the movement's future, they needed to "settle in the hearts" of the Israeli people. By embracing the mainstream media, they could narrate their story and integrate the settlement ideology into the Israeli ethos. Luckily, they found a willing partner in Netanyahu.'

After losing an election to Ehud Barak in 1999, Netanyahu resolved to acquire his own media outlet. He ended up with two: the free newspaper, Israel Hayom, and Channel 14, founded in 2014. A plethora of new hard-right outlets followed.

There's a whole machinery of brainwashing in Israel which really accompanies each of us from early childhood. We are taught the Palestinians are not human beings like us.

Gideon Levy, an Israeli Haaretz journalist

Israeli TV and social media

Channel 14 has a counter that logs the number of buildings demolished in Gaza and the number of 'terrorists' killed. The definition of terrorist is extended to all Gaza's inhabitants. On a late-night panel show one Likud representative blamed the Hamas attack on the 'crimes of Oslo' and the 'leftist cancer.'

The programme's host said he was 'for war crimes.' It is not difficult to see how this kind of language might inspire the cruel humour of IDF soldiers on TikTok. It can also give license to the intemperate language of politicians.


An Israeli soldier mocks the Palestinian family whose home was destroyed in Gaza, and was seen knocking on the door of the demolished house, sarcastically questioning, "Why isn't anyone opening the door?" A UN-led aid consortium estimates that more than 234,000 homes have been damaged across Gaza and 46,000 destroyed, amounting to about 60 per cent of the housing stock in the territory, which is home to some 2.3 million Palestinians. These were figures from the start of the month. viral israel mocking gaza palestine housing

original sound - Islam Channel - Islam Channel

In 1943, Joseph Goebbels delivered a speech advocating total war at the Sportpalast. The speech is still frightening today, not least because at one moment the great Nazi propogandist almost makes a gaffe and catches himself just in time.

He is describing how the Jews have been successfully exterminated but then stops halfway through and changes the word to Ausschaltung (i.e. exclusion).

The word he didn't dare utter was the one Heinrich Himmler had used on 18 December 1941, when he recorded the outcome of his discussion with Hitler on the Final Solution, writing "als Partisanen auszurotten" ("exterminate them as partisans").

As we and the ICJ can now read, the brazen genocidal posturing of the Israeli leadership makes Goebbels look oddly reticent. Rather than hesitate over their words, they have made no attempt to disguise the retributive nature of the bombing campaign.

On the contrary, they have striven to outdo each other in blood-curdling rhetoric. Still, when it comes to outright truculence in the genocidal vein, the prize must surely go to Benjamin Netanyahu.

On the 28th of October, he set the template with his speech drawing on the Book of Samuel in 'our Holy Bible.' Netanyahu is not devout. That he doesn't even eat kosher food is well-attested. This did not prevent him from invoking the words of the Almighty.

'Remember,' God admonishes the Israelites, 'what Amalek has done to you.' God then urges His people to avenge themselves against the Amalekites by killing every last one of them:

'Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses.'

Since their prime minister first invoked this precedent, IDF soldiers have taken up the refrain and vowed to 'wipe off the seed of Amalek.'

Such a policy of total war implies what is known as salting the earth. It was a technique employed by the Roman Empire in its eventual victory over Carthage.

Salt prevented the growing of crops and thus ensured that the Carthaginians had to make a choice between starvation or abandoning their city. As Giora Eiland (a Reservist Major General) put it, Gazans would also be presented with a choice: 'to stay and to starve, or to leave.'

From the moment the Israelis decided to block Gaza's contact with the outside world, its inhabitants were threatened with just such a fate. After the bombardment, their land is to be rendered barren, not with salt this time, but with saltwater. Israel's declared intention (yet to be fully carried out) is to flood the tunnels where the Hamas fighters are hidden.

The extract from the Book of Samuel was undoubtedly a stroke of evil genius on Netanyahu's part. With meticulous attention to detail, the South African application goes on to document similar outbursts from lesser mortals.

Since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu first invoked this Biblical precedent, IDF soldiers have taken up the refrain and vowed to 'wipe off the seed of Amalek.'

Fighting against 'human animals'

We have already seen how ready the president, Isaac Herzog, was to condemn the entire population of Gaza. By 9 October, the Minister of Defence, Yoav Gallant, was telling the public they were 'fighting human animals' and 'we will eliminate everything.'

The Minister for National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, declared on the 10th of November 'they're all terrorists,' while his fellow settler, Bezalel Smotrich, called for Gaza to be taken down.

Amichai Eliyahu, Minister for Heritage, noted with pleasure that everything had been blown up and flattened. He added that there was 'no such thing as an uninvolved civilian in Gaza.' Avi Dichter (Agriculture) said 'we are now actually rolling out the Gaza Nakba.'

On 9 October, Major General Ghassan Alken told Palestinians in Gaza, 'You wanted hell. You will get hell.' Their home would become a place where no human being could exist, he said, and he also saw no distinction between Hamas combatants and Palestinian civilians.

On 11 October, a 95-year-old veteran of the massacre at Deir Yassin was brought over to rally the troops. 'Finish them off,' he told them. 'Erase them, their families, mothers and children.' Various soldiers are quoted as saying 'May their village burn! May Gaza be erased!' and 'We know our motto: there are no uninvolved civilians.'

A local official called for Gaza to be 'desolate and destroyed' like the Auschwitz Museum, thus 'demonstrating the madness of the people who lived there.'

On 7 October, Giora Eiland, adviser to the Minister of Defence, told the press, 'When the entire world says we have gone insane and this is a humanitarian disaster, we will say it's not an end, it's a means.'

Architects expressed their glee at getting rid of the old buildings and being able to start from scratch. An inhabitant of the area behind the security fence shared her delight at the idea of being able to see the Mediterranean, now that the view would no longer be obscured by Gaza's skyline.

Mr Smotrich, succumbing to a lyrical mood – and forgetting that the entire Strip would be rendered fallow – rhapsodised over how the desert would be made to bloom, again. How cute of him to recall such an idealistic phrase.

International law has a Latin term for the kind of thing Smotrich and his gang have been so keen to advertise. It is known as dolus specialis or specific intent. As the Oxford Dictionary elucidates, this refers to (1) a harm resulting from an act specifically intended to cause that harm, or (2) the specific intent to cause a specific kind of harm.

It remains to be seen whether the court in the Hague will agree with South Africa and determine that the road to this particular Hell was paved with bad intentions.

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