United Nations Court Acknowledges Genocide Risk In Gaza

The International Court of Justice kept alive South Africa's claim that Israel is committing genocide with its U.S.-backed military offensive. Israel and the U.S. deny the charges.

The International Court of Justice on Friday issued a stunning initial ruling in South Africa’s legal challenge to Israel’s military offensive in Gaza — acknowledging that there is a plausible risk of a genocide being committed there.

The decision by the chief legal organ of the United Nations to sustain the case represents a major escalation in international pressure for a change in course by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief foreign backer, President Joe Biden.

Israel hoped to convince judges to dismiss the case, arguing they lacked jurisdiction and genocide accusations were belied by Israel’s approval of limited humanitarian aid for Gaza. The White House called South Africa’s accusation “unfounded.”

South Africa’s lawyers said the Israeli operation showed a “pattern of genocidal conduct,” citing the killings of thousands of civilians, the destruction of tens of thousands of homes, the displacement of nearly 2 million Gazans and Israel officials’ repeated threats against the Palestinian enclave.

They based their case on two primary reasons for an international intervention: that Israeli actions, including blocking aid, could cause irreparable damage to Palestinians; and that Israel is not preventing incitement to genocide.

Friday’s ruling showed the judges found at least part of South Africa’s claim of a possible or already ongoing genocide plausible. They will likely take years to reach a final ruling on the charges, given the high degree of proof required, including serious evidence of intent.

Still, their decision not to dismiss the case will keep alive the question of whether the policy represents genocide, the most serious charge a government can face and one that is particularly jarring for Israel, a Jewish state founded in the shadow of the Holocaust and deeply invested in accountability for that genocide.

“South Africa has really won and Israel is associated with genocide as a matter of law,” said Ahmed Abofoul, an international lawyer and advocacy officer for the Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq, before the court’s ruling.

Israel clearly took the South African gambit seriously. Unlike in a 2004 ICJ proceeding over Israel’s “separation wall” in the occupied West Bank, Israel participated in the hearings this month. Netanyahu met with legal advisors on Thursday and Israel declassified government documents to suggest to the judges its government internally prioritized aid for Gaza and dismissed public statements by far-right ministers.

Abofoul noted that the court’s decision has big ramifications for other states, chiefly the U.S., by activating their obligation to stop genocide from occurring under international and domestic laws.

A former senior Israeli government official told HuffPost Israel was likely to try to smear the court and continue on its current path in Gaza.

Netanyahu “will leverage [the ruling] to claim that ‘the world is a hypocrite, anti-Semitic and totally untrustworthy,’” said the former Israeli official, who requested anonymity given the sensitivity of the issue. Israel “will try to send a message of ‘business as usual’ in terms of continuing the war,” they continued, saying they felt the country was unlikely to tolerate even a “lukewarm” decision seeking only greater humanitarian aid for Gaza.

Adil Haque, a Rutgers University professor, said earlier that there’s little chance Israel will immediately abide by the court’s ruling.

“The court’s orders are legally binding, and it could punish non-compliance in a future proceeding,” Haque told HuffPost. “But if Israel stops engaging with the court then only the UN Security Council can impose sanctions (an arms embargo, trade restrictions, etc).”

If the Security Council does take up the matter, that would pose an added headache for the US, a permanent member of the body which can veto its actions and has often done so on behalf of Israel. U.S. attempts to shield Israel’s Gaza policy at the Council have drawn international scorn as most global governments rally around calls for a ceasefire in the war that began following a Hamas attack on Oct. 7, and America’s weakened influence in the international community has hurt attempts to build agreement on matters like supporting Ukraine against Russia, HuffPost has found.

The US has also tried to stymie another attempt to investigate whether international law has been broken by any parties in the Israel-Hamas war, by seeking to deter Switzerland from accepting a Palestinian request for a global conference on violations of the Geneva Conventions, widely agreed-upon standards for warfare to which Israel and the U.S. are parties, HuffPost revealed last month.

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.


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