Israel genocide case: ICJ hears Rafah attack is 'endgame' in Gaza

South Africa asks judges to order a total Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in latest court hearings

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Israel’s attack on Rafah is part of an “endgame” in which Gaza is “utterly destroyed” as a place fit for human life, the UN’s highest court was told on Thursday.

South Africa asked the International Court of Justice to order a total Israeli withdrawal from Gaza amid what it called a “new and horrific phase” of the war.

In a two-hour pleading in The Hague, it said previous rulings by the 17-judge bench telling Israel to prevent genocide “have not succeeded” in protecting Palestinians.

“Israel must be stopped,” said South African lawyer Adila Hassim, who became visibly emotional as she told the court of the suffering of Palestinian children.

Israel, which denies South Africa's allegation of genocide, will take the floor in reply on Friday.

On another day of legal arguments over the war in the Middle East:

· South Africa said the destruction of Rafah, the “last refuge” in Gaza's south, would mean there is “no more Palestinian life in Gaza to speak of”

· The court heard Israel had sealed off aid routes and bombarded Rafah in “unprecedented violence” even by the standards of the past seven months

· One lawyer compared Israel's “spectacular destruction” of Rafah to the genocide of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995

· Israel's use of evacuation orders and talk of designated humanitarian zones was described to judges as “purely performative” because many people cannot flee

· Judges were urged to intervene to defend the court's authority and the rule of law after earlier rulings failed to quell the violence

· South Africa said many people especially in the West had “appeared unwilling to accept” that “people who look like us” could commit genocide

Full withdrawal

Lawyers for South Africa had initially sought an Israeli withdrawal only from Rafah, the southern tip of Gaza where many Palestinians are sheltering.

However, they widened the request to all of Gaza on Thursday because only a full retreat will “protect what is left of Palestinian life” in the strip, Ms Hassim said.

British barrister Vaughan Lowe, representing South Africa, said the attack on Rafah was part of a wider goal of “wiping Gaza from the map”.

“It has become increasingly clear that Israel’s actions in Rafah are part of the endgame in which Gaza is utterly destroyed as an area capable of human habitation,” he said.

“It was Rafah that brought South Africa to the court, but it is all Palestinians … who need the protection from genocide that the court can order.”

Judges declined a previous South African request in January to order a withdrawal by Israel, which argued this would deny it the right to self-defence.

The court has instead told Israel to do everything in its power to prevent genocide and to increase the flow of humanitarian aid.

However, the court was told Israel's talk of setting up humanitarian zones and evacuating civilians is “purely performative”.

South African barrister Max du Plessis said many of those sheltering in Rafah are “so starved that they can barely walk” and therefore unable to move elsewhere.

The ICJ was told Israel's closure of border crossings had served to “seal Gaza hermetically from the outside world” and deny life-saving aid.

Humanitarian need

Israel's failure to allow sufficient food and aid into Gaza has “plunged Gaza into unprecedented levels of humanitarian need even as compared with the catastrophic levels of the previous seven months”, Mr du Plessis said.

In addition, Israel has “deliberately attacked the very shelters to which it directed Palestinians to flee”, he told the court.

Attacking Rafah after “deliberately herding” Palestinians there through attacks on the rest of Gaza “leaves only one inference … and that is of genocidal intent”, he said.

He compared Israel's attack on Rafah to the mass killing of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995, for which Serb commanders were found guilty of genocide by the International Criminal Court.

Borrowing from a UN court's ruling on Srebrenica, he said destroying in full view of the world was “intended by Israel to serve as a potent example to all Palestinians of their vulnerability and their defencelessness”.

The ICJ is not considering at this stage whether Israel has committed genocide, a verdict that could take years.

Instead it is hearing a request by South Africa for an interim order to stop the genocide case being overtaken by events.

With Palestine lacking full UN status, South Africa is acting on its behalf under a precedent that all states have an interest in preventing genocide.

South Africa “is here because the Palestinian people are facing genocide in Gaza and your previous orders have not succeeded in protecting them against that”, Mr Lowe said.

Lawyers also called on the court to act in the name of the rule of law and “reassert its authority”.

“This may well be the last chance for the court to act,” said Blinne Ni Ghralaigh, an Irish lawyer representing South Africa.

Israel has previously described South Africa's genocide case as one-sided and blamed Hamas human-shielding tactics for the scale of the humanitarian crisis.

It says its offensive is a response to the Hamas violence on October 7 in which militants killed and kidnapped Israelis in a surprise attack.

In a second case filed by Nicaragua, the court last month refused a request to stop Germany providing arms to Israel.

The ICJ is separate from the International Criminal Court, which is believed to be considering arrest warrants for Israeli officials.

Updated: May 17, 2024, 11:12 AM