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'Israel must be stopped': South Africa urges UN World Court to order ceasefire in Gaza

The case by South Africa comes amid international alarm over Israel's military operation in the southern city of Rafah, where over a million Palestinians have taken refuge. Earlier this year, the ICJ ordered Israel to ensure its troops commit no genocidal acts against Palestinians in Gaza.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee The Hague (Netherlands) Published on: May 17, 2024 11:09 IST
International Court of Justice
Image Source : REUTERS The International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court.

The Hague: South Africa urged the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN's top court on Thursday to order a ceasefire in Israel's offensive in Gaza to shield Palestinians taking refuge in the southern city of Rafah. It stressed that attacks on Rafah "must be stopped" to ensure the survival of Palestinians as it demanded the "immediate, total and unconditional" withdrawal of Israeli troops.

It was the third time the ICJ held hearings on the conflict in Gaza since South Africa filed proceedings in December at the court, based in The Hague in the Netherlands, accusing Israel of genocide. Israel, which has denounced South Africa's claim that it is violating the 1949 Genocide Convention as baseless, will respond in court on Friday. Israel's operation in Rafah, which it had promised for weeks, caused international alarm and flared tensions with its closest ally, the United States.

The court has already found that there is a “real and imminent risk” to the Palestinian people in Gaza by Israel's military operations. “This may well be the last chance for the court to act,” said Irish lawyer Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh, who is part of South Africa's legal team. Last week, South Africa asked for additional emergency measures to protect Rafah, where more than a million Palestinians have been sheltering.

What has South Africa demanded?

South Africa has asked the court to order Israel to allow unimpeded access to Gaza for UN officials, organisations providing humanitarian aid, journalists and investigators. This came as Israel's military campaign in the Gaza Strip has killed more than 35,000 people, destroyed civilian infrastructure and starved the population, triggering a severe humanitarian crisis.

"From the onset Israel's intent was always to destroy Palestinian life and to wipe them off the face of the earth. Rafah is the final stand," Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, one of the legal team, said. Another lawyer, Adila Hassim, said, "Israel must be stopped. South Africa is before you again today to respectfully ask the court to invoke its powers ... to order a remedy that will stop Israel."

At the hearing on genocide allegations by South Africa earlier this year, the ICJ had ordered Israel to ensure its troops commit no genocidal acts against Palestinians in Gaza, allow in more humanitarian aid and preserve any evidence of violations. The ICJ's rulings and orders are binding and without appeal. While the court has no way to enforce them, an order against a country could hurt its international reputation and set legal precedent.

Despite Israel saying it has stepped up humanitarian efforts, South Africa attorney Max du Plessis said Israel's declared humanitarian zones - areas it ordered Gazans into to avoid military operations - were a "cruel distortion" because people were often too starved to flee, while those strong enough were attacked by Israeli forces. "There is nothing humanitarian about these humanitarian zones," he said.

Israel rebukes South Africa's allegations

Israel's foreign ministry on Thursday accused South Africa of making "biased and false claims" that rely on "unreliable Hamas sources" in response to the case brought before the World Court. "Israel acts in accordance with international law and its humanitarian obligations. While implementing measures to minimize harm to civilians and civilian facilities," read a statement.

The ministry called on the International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court, "to reject South Africa's appeal and to bring the abuse of the Court to an end." It also claimed that "the terrorists of Hamas are using South Africa" in their attempt to exploit the ICJ. 

The war began when Hamas-led militants led an unprecedented attack on southern Israel, killing over 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals, including 33 children and taking over 250 people hostage. Of those, 133 are believed to remain in captivity in Gaza, according to Israeli tallies.

South Africa's opposition to the Gaza war

The ruling African National Congress party has long compared Israel's policies in Gaza and the West Bank to its own history under the apartheid regime of white minority rule, which restricted most Blacks to “homelands” before ending in 1994. The party forged a close relationship with Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and has long defended the Palestinian cause.

Last year, South Africa accused Israel of committing genocide of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and requested an emergency suspension of the devastating campaign. Israel strongly denied the genocide allegations and said that South Africa's application lacks a factual and legal basis and constitutes a "despicable and contemptuous exploitation of the Court".

(with inputs from agencies)

ALSO READ | Israel calls UN 'terrorist entity' after identifying militants on UNRWA site near Rafah as tensions escalate

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