Germany tells ICJ it is 'doing everything it can' to stop Gaza suffering

Germany's lawyers say arms sales to Israel and funding cuts to UNRWA do not breach international law

Lawyers for Germany told the International Court of Justice that its arms sales to Israel are limited and do not include artillery shells pounding Gaza. EPA
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Israel's ally Germany took the stand in The Hague on Tuesday to defend its stance on the war in Gaza, saying it is doing “everything it can” to stop human suffering.

Answering claims it is complicit in genocide, Germany told the International Court of Justice its wartime arms sales to Israel are “very limited” and do not include artillery shells pounding Gaza.

It said a legal bid by Nicaragua to curb German support rests on accusations that “fall apart the minute we look closely” – and should be thrown out because alleged genocide by Israel is unproven.

“It is plainly wrong to suggest that Germany has in any way turned its back on Palestine,” lawyer Christian Tams told the bench of 16 judges led by Lebanon's Nawaf Salam.

Lawyers for Nicaragua are asking the court to halt German military support for Israel and force Berlin to reinstate funding for aid agency UNRWA.

Nicaragua took the floor in The Hague on Monday to say Germany was breaching legal duties by “facilitating Israeli abuses” and contributing to a “campaign of destruction”.

The ICJ is separately considering whether Israel's response to an October 7 attack by Hamas amounts to genocide, in a case brought by South Africa.

Germany sees Nicaragua's case as a rushed and one-sided act of “strategic litigation” that “will not bring us closer” to ending the crisis in Gaza.

In two hours of arguments aimed at “setting the record straight”, Germany said:

  • Israel has been sold only one shipment of combat-ready weapons since October, with most arms transfers involving “subordinate” military gear such as helmets, binoculars and radar
  • Nicaragua's case omits Germany's “tireless humanitarian diplomacy” to get more aid to Gaza that meets its obligations to be vigilant to prevent genocide
  • Although funds are paused for UN agency UNRWA, not “a single euro” already pledged has been halted or withdrawn, and aid via other routes has increased
  • In meetings with senior officials, Germany is “persistently urging Israel to apply restraint” in a situation it agrees is “tragic” and “unbearable”
  • The case against Germany is inadmissible because it is “entirely dependent” on claims first being proved against Israel
  • Risks to Palestinians identified as “plausible” by the court are not “attributable to Germany”, relating for example to border crossings out of Berlin's control.

Legal adviser Tania von Uslar-Gleichen said Germany's policies rested on both a responsibility to Israel arising from the Holocaust and on support for the Palestinians.

She said Nicaragua's case denied Israel's right to exist by suggesting Hamas's October 7 attack took place in occupied territory.

“Germany is doing its utmost to live up to its responsibility vis-a-vis both the Israeli and Palestinian people,” she told the court in the Netherlands.

Arms sales

Germany devoted much of its defence to contesting its portrayal by Nicaragua and others as a major arms supplier to Israel's war effort.

Revealing new details of Germany's exports, Mr Tams said only four licences granted since October 7 involved the sale of “war weapons” to Israel.

One was a consignment of 3,000 anti-tank weapons, he said, while the other three were for ammunition and propellants to be used in tests and “unsuitable for use in combat”.

Israeli requests for tank ammunition and a submarine are still under review, while only helmets and sanitary material have been provided directly from German military stocks, the court was told.

No artillery shells or munitions have been provided and Germany's “very limited supply of war weaponry” is subject to “painstaking assessment” of legal risks, judges heard.

Mr Tams said 98 per cent of German sales since October 7 were for “other military equipment”, for example binocular lenses and infrared equipment.

The most recent licence was a part of a radar system that “could not plausibly be used to commit war crimes”, he said.

Humanitarian efforts

Germany recognises Gaza's plight and “has determinedly done everything it can to make sure that this suffering ceases”, lawyer Paolo Palchetti said.

The court heard it was “useless to focus” on UNRWA, which has faced suspensions in funding since some staff were linked by Israel to Hamas violence, when it is “not the only possible” way to get aid to Gaza.

Nicaragua's case says “nothing about five months of tireless humanitarian diplomacy” in which Germany has supported other aid providers such as the Red Cross, Mr Tams said.

In any case, Germany's funding pause for UNRWA has “had no direct effects” because no new payments were pending, he said.

Moreover, Germany has “continuously used all reasonable means at its disposal” to lobby the Israeli leadership to improve the situation, said another legal representative, Anne Peters.

These efforts mean that Germany has “duly fulfilled any conceivable obligation to prevent the occurrence of genocide”, she said.

“We cannot see how any duty to prevent could demand more of Germany.”

Nicaragua brings Germany before the International Court of Justice – in pictures

Case dismissed?

As well as contesting Nicaragua's facts, Germany spent some time arguing for the case to be dismissed on legal grounds.

As expected, it invoked a 60-year-old precedent that the ICJ cannot take a case if the dispute is really with an “indispensable third party”, which in this case would be Israel.

Barrister Samuel Wordsworth said the “essential keystone” of Nicaragua's claim was that Israel is acting unlawfully and Germany is partly responsible.

“In order to determine that there has been such a breach [by Germany], the court must first determine that Israel has committed genocide,” he said.

A second technical objection by Germany is that Nicaragua filed a case after just one emailed diplomatic note, casting doubt on whether a real “dispute” exists for the ICJ to rule upon.

Finally, Germany said responsibility for the Palestinian rights deemed to be at risk is at least partly out of its hands.

Aid blockages at the Gaza border are “not attributable to Germany, which has never had any control over the territory”, Mr Palchetti said.

Updated: April 09, 2024, 12:38 PM