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What to Expect from the South Africa v Israel at the International Court of Justice

This is an excerpt from a piece I wrote for The New Republic.  Click over to read the full essay.

The Peace Palace is an august turn-of-the century building nestled in a woodsy neighborhood in The Hague. Its construction was largely funded by Andrew Carnegie, and its purpose reflected the idealism of the pre-war era. The palace would feature a vast library of books about world peace and international relations and house a court of arbitration where nations could peacefully settle their conflicts.

Today, it is also the seat of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), a principal organ of the United Nations that adjudicates legal disputes between UN member states. The ICJ – sometimes referred to as the World Court – is made up of 15 judges from around the world who are elected in votes at the UN General Assembly and Security Council. Sometimes the cases before the ICJ are relatively low stakes territorial disputes between otherwise friendly neighbors. Belize and Honduras, for example, are in court over competing claims to some uninhabited Caribbean cays. Other times, the ICJ is asked to weigh in on some of the heaviest issues of international law –  including, as of this week, whether Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians.

On December 29, South Africa lodged a complaint against Israel, alleging that Israel’s conduct in Gaza is in violation of the Genocide Convention. Israel was quick to dismiss the allegation as antisemitic. A government spokesperson called the charges “South Africa’s absurd blood libel.” The White House piled on, saying, “We find this submission meritless, counter-productive and completely without any basis in fact whatsoever,” spokesperson John Kirby said in a press conference.

But South Africa’s application to initiate proceedings against Israel cannot be so easily dismissed. In 84 pages, South Africa presents a detailed case intended to establish that Israel acted with genocidal intent – a high legal threshold required to prove the crime of genocide under international law. Citing reports from the United Nations, NGOs, media (including from Israel), and perhaps most significantly the utterances of senior Israeli officials, the brief purports to show evidence of clear Israeli violations of the Genocide Convention. Over a dozen senior civilian and military leaders are quoted, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Their words are cited as evidence that the death and displacement of Palestinians is not merely an unfortunate consequence of Israel’s military campaign against Hamas, but part of the point. This is from page 62 of the brief:

On 28 October 2023, as Israeli forces prepared their land invasion of Gaza, the Prime Minister invoked the Biblical story of the total destruction of Amalek by the Israelites, stating: “You must remember what Amalek has done to you, says our Holy Bible. And we do remember.” The Prime Minister referred again to Amalek in the letter sent on 3 November 2023 to Israeli soldiers and officers. The relevant biblical passage reads as follows: “Now go, attack Amalek, and proscribe all that belongs to him. Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses.”

Despite the dismissive attitude by the White House and the initial reaction from Israeli officials, Israel now seems to be taking this seriously. The Netanyahu government could have opted to boycott the proceedings, and there were even rumors that Israel would hire the clownish Alan Dershowitz to represent it before the ICJ. Instead, a highly respected British lawyer and academic named Malcom Shaw will defend Israel at the court this week, in a proceeding that will being Thursday.

So what can we expect from South Africa v. Israel? Not much – at least for a while.

The ICJ has a recent history of hearing genocide complaints. In 2019, the small west African nation The Gambia took Myanmar to court for its alleged genocide of the Rohingya minority group. In 2022, Ukraine accused Russia of genocide. In both cases the court moved relatively quickly to issue an emergency ruling, effectively ordering the killing to stop. Needless to say, these rulings were disregarded, which reveals an important feature of the ICJ: while its rulings are legally binding, it has no real enforcement mechanism and sometimes governments simply ignore the court’s decisions.

A second key feature of the ICJ is that the wheels of justice move very, very slowly. While the ICJ may be swift to issue an emergency ruling–what the ICJ calls “provisional measures”—it will likely be many years before this case is settled one way or another.  In The Gambia v Myanmar, it took the ICJ four years to decide if it even had jurisdiction to hear the case in the first place. It has still not issued a final ruling.

While it is fair to assume that South Africa v. Israel will have rather limited near-term impact on the course of events in Israel and Palestine, the same cannot be said about a second legal proceeding that is developing across town in The Hague at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Whereas the ICJ is the court where states go to sue each other, the ICC is a court that prosecutes individuals for war crimes and crimes against humanity. And here, we can expect swifter and potentially more meaningful action.

Read the rest at The New Republic