SOUTH Africa has launched a case at the United Nations’ top court accusing Israel of genocide against Palestinians in Gaza and asking the court to order Israel to halt its attacks.

South Africa’s submission to the International Court of Justice alleges that “acts and omissions by Israel … are genocidal in character” as they are committed with the intent “to destroy Palestinians in Gaza as a part of the broader Palestinian national, racial and ethnical group”.

It also asks the Hague-based court to issue an interim order for Israel to immediately suspend its military operations in Gaza.

A hearing into that request is likely in the coming days or weeks. The case, if it goes ahead, will take years. It is the first such challenge made at the court over the current war and Israel swiftly rejected the filing “with disgust”.

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South Africa can bring the case under the Genocide Convention because both it and Israel are signatories to the convention.

The Israeli government “rejected with disgust” the South African genocide accusations, calling it a “blood libel”.

A Foreign Ministry statement said the case lacks a legal foundation and constitutes a “vile exploitation and cheapening” of the court.

Israel also accused South Africa of co-operating with Hamas, the militant group whose October 7 cross-border attack in southern Israel triggered the ongoing war in Gaza.

The statement also said Israel is committed to, and operates according to, international law and focuses its military actions solely against Hamas, adding that the residents of Gaza are not an enemy.

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It asserted that it takes steps to minimise harm to civilians and to allow humanitarian aid to enter the territory.

Whether the case will succeed in halting the war remains to be seen. While the court’s orders are legally binding, they are not always followed.

In March 2022, the court ordered Russia to halt hostilities in Ukraine, a binding legal ruling that Moscow flouted as it pressed ahead with its devastating attacks on Ukrainian towns and cities.

South Africa has been a fierce critic of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.

Many, including President Cyril Ramaphosa, have compared Israel’s policies in Gaza and the West Bank with South Africa’s past apartheid regime of racial segregation.

Ramaphosa has accused Israel of war crimes and acts “tantamount to genocide”.

South Africa’s foreign ministry said in a statement that the country is “gravely concerned with the plight of civilians caught in the present Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip due to the indiscriminate use of force and forcible removal of inhabitants”.

The ministry added that there are “ongoing reports of international crimes, such as crimes against humanity and war crimes, being committed as well as reports that acts meeting the threshold of genocide or related crimes as defined in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, have been and may still be committed in the context of the ongoing massacres in Gaza”.

The ICC prosecutes individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, while the International Court of Justice settles disputes between nations.

Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch, said South Africa’s case “provides an important opportunity for the International Court of Justice to scrutinise Israel’s actions in Gaza using the Genocide Convention of 1948″.

She said South Africa is looking to the United Nations’ highest judicial body “to provide clear, definitive answers on the question of whether Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinian people”.

Jarrah stressed that the ICJ case “is not a criminal case against individual alleged perpetrators, and it does not involve the International Criminal Court (ICC), a separate body. But the ICJ case should also propel greater international support for impartial justice at the ICC and other credible venues”.