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South Africa urges UN’s top court to order cease-fire in Gaza to shield citizens in Rafah

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May 16, 2024

South Africa urged the United Nations’ top court on Thursday to order a cease-fire in Gaza during hearings over emergency measures to halt Israel’s military operation in the enclave’s southern city of Rafah.

It was the third time the International Court of Justice held hearings on the conflict in Gaza since South Africa filed proceedings in December at the court, based in The Hague in the Netherlands, accusing Israel of genocide.

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The country’s ambassador to the Netherlands, Vusimuzi Madonsela, urged the panel of 15 international judges to order Israel to “totally and unconditionally withdraw” from the Gaza Strip.

The court has already found that there is a “real and imminent risk” to the Palestinian people in Gaza by Israel’s military operations. “This may well be the last chance for the court to act,” said Irish lawyer Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh, who is part of South Africa’s legal team.

Judges at the court have broad powers to order a cease-fire and other measures, although the court does not have its own enforcement apparatus. A 2022 order by the court demanding that Russia halt its full-scale invasion of Ukraine has so far gone unheeded.

During hearings earlier this year, Israel strongly denied committing genocide in Gaza, saying it does all it can to spare civilians and is only targeting Hamas militants. The country says Rafah is the last stronghold of the militant group.

The latest request focuses on the incursion into Rafah.

South Africa argues that the military operation has far surpassed justified self-defense. “Israel’s actions in Rafah are part of the end game. This is the last step in the destruction of Gaza,” lawyer Vaughan Lowe said.

According to the latest request, the previous preliminary orders by The Hague-based court were not sufficient to address “a brutal military attack on the sole remaining refuge for the people of Gaza.” Israel will be allowed to answer the accusations on Friday.

In January, judges ordered Israel to do all it can to prevent death, destruction and any acts of genocide in Gaza, but the panel stopped short of ordering an end to the military offensive that has laid waste to the Palestinian enclave. In a second order in March, the court said Israel must take measures to improve the humanitarian situation.

South Africa has to date submitted four requests for the international court to investigate Israel. It was granted a hearing three times.

Most of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million people have been displaced since fighting began.

The war began with a Hamas attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7 in which Palestinian militants killed around 1,200 people and took about 250 hostages. Gaza’s Health Ministry says over 35,000 Palestinians have been killed in the war, without distinguishing between civilians and combatants in its count.

South Africa initiated proceedings in December 2023 and sees the legal campaign as rooted in issues central to its identity. Its governing party, the African National Congress, has long compared Israel’s policies in Gaza and the occupied West Bank to its own history under the apartheid regime of white minority rule, which restricted most Blacks to “homelands.” Apartheid ended in 1994.

On Sunday, Egypt announced it plans to join the case. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Israeli military actions “constitute a flagrant violation of international law, humanitarian law, and the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 regarding the protection of civilians during wartime.”

Several countries have also indicated they plan to intervene, but so far only Libya, Nicaragua and Colombia have filed formal requests to do so.

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