Citing the Holocaust, Israel offers rebuttal to South Africa’s genocide charges

Israeli legal counsellor Tal Becker, barrister Malcolm Shaw, and Gilad Noam wait for hearings at the International Court of Justice at the Hague, Netherlands on Jan. 12, 2024. (Michel Porro/Getty Images)

by Ron Kampeas

(JTA) — Lawyers for Israel put forth their rebuttal to South Africa’s charge that it was committing genocide in the Gaza Strip, and said the case before the International Court of Justice cheapened a term that was coined to describe the destruction of the Jewish people.

The case made by lawyers for Israel on Friday addressed both prongs of the argument South Africa made the day before, coupling Israel’s methods, which are destroying large swaths of Gaza, with statements by Israeli leaders that South Africa says establish intent to commit genocide.

But Israel also advanced an overarching argument that the court should not abuse a term, genocide, reserved only for the most extreme cases.

“Yes, there is a heart-wrenching armed conflict, but the attempt to classify it as genocide and trigger provisional measures is not just unfounded in law, it has far reaching and negative implications that extend well beyond the case before you,” Gilad Noam, Israel’s deputy attorney general, told the court.

“Ultimately entertaining the applicant’s request would not strengthen the commitment to prevent and punish genocide but weaken it,” he said. “It will turn an instrument adopted by the international community to prevent horrors of the kind that shocked the conscience of humanity during the Holocaust into a weapon in the hands of terrorist groups who have no regard for humanity or for the law.”

The statute under international law allowing for the court’s adjudication of genocide was composed in the wake of the Holocaust.

Tal Becker, a legal adviser to Israel’s Foreign Ministry, noted the term’s origins, coined by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish lawyer.

Lemkin, Becker said, “helped the world recognize that the existing legal lexicon was simply inadequate to capture the devastating evil that the Nazi Holocaust unleashed.” Now, he said, South Africa was seeking to turn the term inside out.

“The attempt to weaponize the term genocide against Israel in the present context does more than tell the court a grossly distorted story, it does more than empty the word of its unique force and special meaning, it subverts the object and purpose of the [genocide] convention itself,” he said.

Israel has argued that Hamas’ Oct. 7 invasion that launched the war — when terrorists invaded from Gaza and killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, brutalized thousands more and took more than 240 people hostage — better fits the term “genocide.” Becker noted the presence in the courtroom of families of some of the more than 100 people who remain hostages.

More than 23,000 Palestinians — 1% of the strip’s population — including thousands of children, have been killed since Israel launched counterstrikes, Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry has said. Israel has said in the past that a third of the dead are combatants.

Friday’s arguments at the court in The Hague are a preliminary stage of the case, which may take years to decide. The next step is for the 15-judge panel to determine whether to order a full or partial halt to the fighting, if it finds the risk of genocide credible. The court cannot enforce such an order, but it could provide a legal predicate for nations to boycott or isolate Israel

A factor driving Israeli outrage at the proceedings — so much so that the country has reversed a longstanding policy of ignoring United Nations-affiliated bodies — has been that a country founded in the ashes of the destruction of its people should face the charge of genocide.

“A terrorist organization carried out the worst crime against the Jewish people since the Holocaust, and now someone comes to defend it in the name of the Holocaust,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said earlier this week.

Israel’s lawyers also said the breadth and methods of Israel’s counterattacks did not deviate from the laws of war and instead show that Israel is not intent on killing Palestinians en masse.

Galit Raguan, a legal adviser at Israel’s Justice Ministry, noted the measures Israel had taken to facilitate the entry of assistance into the strip, to warn civilians of impending attacks and to facilitate their evacuation. “The charge of genocide in the face of these extensive efforts is frankly untenable,” she said.

She listed a number of actions Israel has taken, including the allowing in of food and water, and medicines and medical equipment — an accounting that she said was far from comprehensive. She said the list showed that the evidence underlying the genocide charge is”tendentious and partial” and that “the allegation of the intent to commit genocide is baseless.”

She added, “If Israel had such intent would it delay a ground maneuver for weeks, urging civilians to seek safer space and in doing so sacrificing operational advantage?”

Israel’s critics say the country has frustrated the delivery of relief to Gaza Palestinians. Israel blames international aid groups for haplessness and Hamas for stealing the food and equipment. World health agencies say Gaza is on the verge of starvation.

Malcolm Shaw, a British barrister who specializes in human rights and who is leading the Israeli team, referred to quotes by Israeli officials that South Africa said signaled genocidal intent. Shaw said the citations were ripped from context or were made by officials who are not part of the decision-making process.

He noted, for instance, South Africa’s citation of comments by Israel’s minister of heritage, Amichai Eliyahu, who said “there is no such thing as uninvolved civilians in Gaza” and who fantasized about a flattened Gaza as “beautiful” and recommended nuking the strip.

Eliyahu, Shaw noted, “is completely outside the policy and decision making of the war. In any event, his statement was immediately repudiated by members of the war cabinet and other ministers, including the prime minister.” Netanyahu suspended Eliyahu from Cabinet meetings because of his remarks.

Shaw noted that the war was run by a small coterie of officials, and said South Africa ignored multiple statements by those officials upholding the protections of civilians, including Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

“The prime minister stated time and again, ‘We must prevent a humanitarian disaster, ‘” Shaw said.

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