South Africa accuses Israel of genocide: Everything we know about the landmark court case

Global Security Editor Rohit Kachroo travelled to The Hague to speak to a British-Palestinian doctor who has been working in Gaza during the Israeli bombardment

Words by Leila Sansour, ITV News Producer

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) will hold the first hearing on Thursday at The Hague to look into South Africa's submission accusing Israel of genocide in Gaza.

Over two days both countries will make representations, before a panel of judges rules on a majority verdict.

Here, ITV News examines the details and speaks to leading experts to discuss the claims, procedure and implications.

Why has South Africa brought forward the case?

As one of 153 signatories to the Genocide Convention, South Africa is entitled to file such a case with the ICJ.

The convention, which was ratified on December 9, 1948, represented the international community's commitment to "never again" repeat the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany during the Second World War.

Last December, South Africa's Ambassador to the United Nations (UN) told an Emergency Special Session of its General Assembly that the "events of the past six weeks in Gaza have illustrated that Israel is acting contrary to its obligations in terms of the Genocide Convention".

He added: "Owing to South Africa's painful past experience of a system of apartheid, this impresses on us, as Member States to take action in accordance with international law."

What are the allegations?

South Africa has produced a comprehensive legal document that consists of 84 pages.

The document accuses Israel of committing acts that are "genocidal in character because they are intended to bring about the destruction of a substantial part of the Palestinian national, racial and ethnical group".

"The acts in question include killing Palestinians in Gaza, causing them serious bodily and mental harm, and inflicting on them conditions of life calculated to bring about their physical destruction," the paper continues.

Israel, the document argues, has also failed to "prevent or punish the direct and public incitement to genocide by senior Israeli officials and others".

The document also stresses that the genocide is happening in the context of 75 years of military occupation and Apartheid imposed by Israel on the Palestinians.

At this stage, it is important to mention that South Africa is only seeking a provisional ruling, which is akin to a restraining order issued in situations of emergency with the aim of preventing the crime of genocide if the court is persuaded of the potential risk of such crimes occurring.

What will happen at court?

The case at the ICJ will be heard by a panel of 15 regular judges, as well as an additional two appointed by each of the opposing sides.

The South African team will present their case on Thursday, January 11, and Israel will present its defence the following day. The ruling will be concluded by a simple majority vote.

Pro-Palestine demonstrators march across the Mandela Bridge, in Johannesburg, South Africa. Credit: AP

What is unprecedented about this case?

The case represents the first time that Israel has been tried by an international court. All previous rulings against it were advisory rather than binding, such as in the case of the Israeli wall which was built in The Occupied Palestinian territories and deemed illegal by the ICJ, in 2004.

The role of the United States, which could be viewed as complicit under Article 3 of the convention, is yet another unchartered territory, with unpredictable legal and diplomatic implications.

How has Israel responded?

Lior Haiat, the spokesperson for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, released a statement in December, stressing that "Israel rejects with disgust the blood libel spread by South Africa in its application to the International Court of Justice".

"South Africa's claim lacks both a factual and a legal basis, and constitutes a despicable and contemptuous exploitation of the Court," the statement added.

Israel has called on the ICJ and the international community to "completely reject South Africa's baseless claims".

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that "the genocide charge is meritless" and "distracts the world" from efforts to improve the situation for Israelis and Palestinians.

Speaking to MPs on Wednesday, UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron said: "I don't think that is helpful, I don't agree with it, I don't think it's right."

A Palestinian child looks at the graves of people killed by Israeli aerial strikes in the Gaza Strip. Credit: AP

How long will the case take?

The decision over provisional measures is likely to be determined within weeks, but the ruling on the case for its merits is expected to take years.

What if the court grants provisional measures?

If the provisional ruling is successful, Israel will be ordered to suspend its military operations in Gaza.

Israel will be under obligation to prevent the displacement of Gaza residents from their homes, and will be deemed responsible for allowing adequate access to food, water, humanitarian assistance and medical supplies.

It will also be ordered to avoid the destruction of any evidence, such as military orders - which are pertinent to the allegations - and cannot prevent access to fact finding international missions - something which it has so far denied.

The ruling will come into force immediately, with all official UN bodies expected to comply.

Among other measures, this will entail the cessation of arms sales to Israel by signatories to the convention.

A variety of legal repercussions will also be triggered domestically in each of those countries respectively.

What happens if Israel refuses to comply?

If Israel refuses to comply, South Africa, or any other member state, can still take the ruling to the UN Security Council (UNSC).

Legally speaking, it is not possible for any of the UNSC states to veto the decision of the ICJ because these decisions create legally binding obligations.

But the USA could, potentially, impede the introduction of measures to enforce the decision by the UNSC. If this happens, South Africa will be able to take the ruling to the UN's general assembly.

In the case of genocide prevention, actions by the general assembly will carry a distinctive weight which, even in the absence of backing from the UNSC, will still bring into being a raft of sanctions against the Israeli state.

The US, some argue, could find itself isolated, facing an unprecedented diplomatic crisis.

France has already expressed it is ready to fully comply with the court's ruling.

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Will the hearings be televised?

Yes. It will be possible to watch the hearings live on UN Web TV. The link for the broadcast can be found here.

What have experts said?

ITV News has spoken to some of the leading authorities on this issue to get their views.

Professor William Schabas, an elected President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, was one of the world's first experts to sound the alarm, citing "serious risk of genocide" as early as late October 2023.

"The evidence today is even more compelling," he told ITV News. "To me it is increasingly clear that Israel is not aiming to defeat Hamas, but rather to uproot or erase the population of Gaza."

Daniel Machover, a leading British-Israeli lawyer and international justice expert, told ITV News: "At this stage and at the merits stage proving the Intention to Commit Genocide is usually the biggest challenge for any claimant state, but, in the case of the Israeli assault on Gaza, there simply is no shortage of statements of intent and/or incitement by some of the most high-ranking Israeli politicians and military.

"Nine whole pages [e.g. 10%] of South Africa's extensive application is dedicated to list only some of those statements and more have followed since then."

Professor Francis Boyle, who won the first case ever under the genocide convention at the ICJ for the republic of Bosnia Herzegovina against Yugoslavia, said he is confident South Africa will win an order against Israel to cease and desist from committing all acts of genocide against the Palestinians.

He told ITV News: "When I submitted my case, I had to work on it on my own. South Africa has an impressive team of experts who have managed to put together the most comprehensive and impeccable application."

Dr Anis Kassim, a leading Palestinian lawyer who won the advisory ruling at the ICJ against Israel's wall in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, also told ITV News he is confident the ruling will go ahead.

He said: "There will be political wrangling behind the scenes, but I trust the judges at the ICJ. I believe they are of a calibre that will withstand any such pressure."