South Africa urges ICJ to order Gaza ceasefire, halt Israel’s Rafah assault

As Israel escalates assault on the crowded southern city of Rafah, lawyers tell court, ‘If Rafah falls, so too does Gaza.’

South African and Israeli delegations sit in front of the judges at the ICJ at a hearing in which South Africa requests new emergency measures against Israel due to its attacks on Rafah [Yves Herman/Reuters]Published On 16 May 202416 May 2024

South Africa has urged the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to order Israel to halt its assault on Rafah as part of its case accusing Israel of genocide against the Palestinians.

South Africa, which filed its case in January over Israel’s war on Gaza, is seeking additional emergency measures over its offensive on Rafah, a city in the southern Gaza Strip where more than one million displaced Palestinians had sought shelter from Israeli attacks on other parts of the enclave.

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It told the court in The Hague on Thursday that the Palestinian people are facing “ongoing annihilation” and the assault on Rafah was “part of the endgame in which Gaza is utterly destroyed”.

Israel is pressing on with its attacks in Rafah despite “explicit warnings” that they could carry “genocidal” consequences, South African lawyer Tembeka Ngcukaitobi said.

Israel, which has rejected South Africa’s claim that it is violating the 1949 Genocide Convention as baseless, will respond on Friday.

Minutes before the court hearings opened, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said the widely criticised operation in Rafah “will continue as additional forces will enter” the area.

Rafah is a tiny, overcrowded city where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have taken shelter in tents and are facing the rapid spread of diseases and a severe lack of food and clean water. The only hospital in the area has shut down, leaving only a small facility that has been overwhelmed.

Judges at the ICJ have previously issued provisional measures, ordering Israel to take actions to limit humanitarian suffering in Gaza.

Among those provisions was for Israel to ensure basic food supplies arrive without delay to the Palestinians in Gaza, all of whom are suffering from severe hunger – some have even faced famine – as a result of Israel’s total siege.

This month, the Israeli army seized and shut down the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, a vital entry point for humanitarian aid. Aid agencies have warned that the closure significantly hindered their operations.

Because it is Gaza’s primary hub for humanitarian assistance, “if Rafah falls, so too does Gaza,” South Africa said in a written submission to the court.

“The thwarting of humanitarian aid cannot be seen as anything but the deliberate snuffing-out of Palestinian lives. Starvation to the point of famine,” lawyer Adila Hassim said.

‘Wiping Gaza from the map’

South Africa also asked the ICJ, the top court of the United Nations, to order Israel to cease its military operations in the Gaza Strip and to immediately withdraw from all of the territory.

It asked the ICJ to order Israel to allow unimpeded access to Gaza for UN officials, aid groups, journalists and investigators. It added that Israel has so far ignored and violated earlier court orders.

It also asked the court to ensure Israel reports back on its measures taken to adhere to the orders.

“The key point today is that Israel’s declared aim of wiping Gaza from the map is about to be realised,” South Africa’s legal representative Vaughan Lowe said to the judges.

“Further, evidence of appalling crimes and atrocities is literally being destroyed and bulldozed, in effect wiping the slate clean for those who’ve committed these crimes and making a mockery of justice,” he said.

Another attorney for South Africa, Max du Plessis, said Israel’s declared safe zones were a “cruel distortion” because people were often too starved to flee. Those strong enough to leave to shelters were sometimes attacked by Israeli forces, he said.

“There is nothing humanitarian about these humanitarian zones,” he said. “Israel’s genocide of Palestinians continues through military attacks and man-made starvation.”

About half a million Palestinians have been displaced in recent days as a result of Israel’s ground and aerial campaign in the north and south of the Strip, according to UN figures.

Israel’s assault has killed at least 35,000 people in Gaza, according to Palestinian health authorities.

The hearings on Thursday and Friday will focus only on issuing emergency measures. It will likely take years before the court rules on the merits of the genocide case.

The ICJ’s rulings and orders are binding and without appeal. While the court has no way to enforce them, an order against a country could hurt its international reputation and set legal precedents.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies