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Israel Accused of “Genocide” at the International Court of Justice

(January 2024)

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is a criminal court that prosecutes individuals. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is a civil court that hears disputes between countries. 

South Africa accused Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) of actions that are “genocidal in character, as they are committed with the requisite specific intent… to destroy Palestinians in Gaza as a part of the broader Palestinian national, racial and ethnical group.”

As a signatory to the Genocide Convention adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, Israel is subject to the jurisdiction of the ICJ.

Both parties to a case may nominate a judge to join the deliberations. South Africa sent a representative, as did Israel, which announced that retired Supreme Court President Aharon Barak would be its appointee to the 15-judge panel. The president of the court is Judge Joan Donoghue from the United States. Other judges are from France, Germany, Australia, India, Slovakia, Jamaica, Japan, Brazil, Russia, China, Morocco, Somalia, Lebanon, and Uganda. Decisions are made by a simple majority of the presiding judges.

The choice of Barak was ironic since the government of Benjamin Netanyahu had spent the previous year attacking his legal decisions as a Supreme Court judge to justify reforming the judiciary. While most Israeli political leaders praised the choice some members of the government were critical.

State Department spokesman Matt Miller said:

Allegations that Israel is committing genocide are unfounded. In fact, it is those who are violently attacking Israel who continue to openly call for the annihilation of Israel and the mass murder of Jews… Genocide is one of the most heinous acts any entity or individual can commit, and such allegations should only be made with the greatest of care. Israel has the right to defend itself against Hamas’ terrorist acts — acts that Hamas has vowed to repeat again and again until Israel is completely destroyed. Israel is operating in an exceptionally challenging environment in Gaza, an urban battlespace where Hamas intentionally embeds itself with and hides behind civilians.

Irwin Cotler, former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, said the proceedings were “inverting reality and effectively undermining international justice and the rules-based international order” and a “cynical weaponization of international law.” He acknowledged the “humanitarian tragedy” in Gaza but clarified that “Israel’s actions in Gaza are impossible to reconcile with the intention to commit genocide — a necessary element of the crime. Israel consistently seeks to minimize harm to civilians ­using measures including leaflets, messages and phone calls to urge civilians to evacuate targeted areas, creating humanitarian zones and corridors, and facilitating humanitarian aid.”

In his opening statement to the tribunal, Tal Becker concluded: 

To maintain the integrity of the Genocide Convention, to maintain its promise, and the Court’s own role as its guardian, it is respectfully submitted that this Application and Request should be dismissed for what they are – a libel designed to deny Israel the right to defend itself according to the law from the unprecedented terrorist onslaught it continues to face and to free the 136 hostages Hamas still holds. 

On January 26, 2024, the Court issued a decision.

First, it found that it had jurisdiction because South Africa and Israel are parties to the Genocide Convention (Hamas as a non-state actor is not). Second, it ruled that the Palestinian people were a distinct group within the meaning of the Genocide Convention and entitled to protection. Third, it said some of Israel’s actions could fall within the terms of the Genocide Convention and that it must “take all measures within its power” to prevent genocide against the Palestinians, including avoiding the killing or injuring of civilians and preventing conditions that would lead to such harm. Israel was also instructed to prevent “the expulsion and forced displacement” of Gazans and deprivation of their access to food, water, medical supplies, and other humanitarian assistance. It further ordered that the state prevent and punish incitement to genocide. Israel was asked to report within one month on its compliance with the Court’s order.

The Court did not find that Israel had violated or was violating the Genocide Convention, and Israel argued it was already taking the steps outlined by the Court.

To rule against Israel, the South African case was supposed to prove that Israel had the intent to commit suicide. It partly relied on statements by Israeli officials, some taken out of context and others made by people who had no authority to determine policy regarding the prosecution of the war.

Nevertheless, the Court found some of South Africa’s claims “plausible” and, therefore, will continue to probe Israel’s actions. Such investigations have typically taken years to conclude. In the meantime, the decision is likely to damage Israel’s image and provide ammunition for its enemies to further demonize it.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the ruling. calling it a “vile attempt to deny Israel this fundamental right [of self-defense]” and “blatant discrimination against the Jewish state.” He said the charge of genocide against Israel was “not only false, it’s outrageous,” and that “decent people everywhere should reject it.”

Nicholas Rostow noted, “There are no direct enforcement provisions for ICJ decisions, although lack of compliance could lead the parties to turn to the UN Security Council. In this specific case, however, the U.S. would almost certainly veto any resolution against Israel.”

On February 16, 2024, the ICJ rejected South Africa’s request for urgent measures to safeguard Rafah from the expected Israeli offensive.

On May 24, 2024, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Israel to cease any military operations against Hamas in Rafah “which may inflict on the Palestinian group in Gaza conditions of life that could bring about its physical destruction, in whole or in part.” However, the order did not demand a full IDF withdrawal from Gaza or restrict its military actions elsewhere in the strip. This came after South Africa’s request to the court in May to consider updating its provisional measures regarding the ongoing humanitarian situation in Gaza and the pending IDF operation in Rafah.

The ICJ demanded that Israel immediately halt any action in Rafah that could pose a serious threat to the Palestinian population. Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, and South Africa welcomed the order, while Israel strongly objected. Israel’s National Security Council and Ministry of Foreign Affairs jointly stated that Israel did not and will not conduct actions in Rafah that “could bring about the physical destruction, in whole or in part,” of the Palestinian civilian population. They added that Israel will keep the Rafah crossing open for humanitarian aid from Egypt and prevent terror groups from controlling the passage.

On June 5, 2024, Israeli ad hoc judge Aharon Barak resigned from his position at the ICJ, attributing his decision to personal and family reasons.

On June 6, 2024, Spain submitted an application to participate in South Africa’s lawsuit against Israel at the ICJ. The Spanish government claimed that the decision was made in response to the ongoing military operation in Gaza. Spain expressed its aspiration for peace to be restored in Gaza and the Middle East, claiming that collective support for the court is crucial for this to happen. Spain joined Mexico, Colombia, Nicaragua, Libya, and the Palestinian Authority, who are already awaiting the court’s approval of their requests to join the case.

Sources: Lazar Berman, Michael Horovitz, and Jeremy Sharon, “Israel tasks ex-Supreme Court chief Aharon Barak to serve at Hague genocide hearings,” Times of Israel, (January 7, 2024).
“This Week’s International Court of Justice Hearings,” Press Statement, U.S. Department of State, (January 10, 2024).
Irwin Cotler, “Irwin Cotler: South Africa is inverting reality by accusing Israel of genocide,” National Post, (January 10, 2024).
Jeremy Sharon, “ICJ tells Israel to ‘prevent genocide’ in Gaza, rejects ordering immediate ceasefire,” Times of Israel, (January 26, 2024).
Nicholas Rostow, “Legal Briefing: Israel and the ICJ,” inSIGHT, (January 26, 2024).
“ICJ Rejects South African Requestor Urgent Measures to Safeguard Rafah From Israeli Offensive,” AP, (February 16, 2024).
Tovah Lazaroff, Rina Bassist, “ICJ orders Israel to halt any Rafah op. that destroys Palestinian people,” Jerusalem Post, (May 24, 2024).
“Joint Statement by the Head of the National Security Council and the Spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” Israel Foreign Ministry, (May 24, 2024).
“Aharon Barak steps down from role as ad hoc judge at ICJ for personal reasons,” Times of Israel, (June 5, 2024).
“Spain applies to join South Africa’s genocide case against Israel at top UN court,” Times of Israel, (June 6, 2024).