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South Africa v Israel and Palestine’s history

A brief explanation of how Israel occupied Palestine amidst South Africa’s case in the International Court of Justice.

“You cannot continue to victimise someone else just because you yourself were a victim once—there has to be a limit.”  - Edward Said

On the 29th of December 2023, South Africa brought a case against Israel in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for violating the 1948 Genocide Convention, that encapsulates international humanitarian law regarding armed conflict laws, with its military campaign in the Palestinian city of Gaza.

As we wait on the ICJ’s ruling on whether they find Israel guilty of genocide, on 26th January, they addressed emergency measures requested by South Africa, ordering Israel to take steps to prevent genocide, but stopping short of a ceasefire. 

Undeniably, Israel has proven their relentlessness in punishing the whole of the Palestinian population in the Gaza Strip. Only hours after this ruling, Israel has increased their military offensive in residential areas, refugee camps and hospitals in Khan Younis, a city in southern Gaza. Additionally, following the recent ICJ order, Israeli authorities have produced allegations that UNRWA staff were involved in the Hamas attack of October 7th which has prompted major contributing countries, the US, UK, Canada and others to cut funding. In fact, Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu expressed to UN Delegates that the UNRWA’s mission needed to be “terminated.” 

The UNRWA is the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and is the largest humanitarian organisation functioning in Palestine for refugees, providing them with aid and have done so since 1949. Over 2 million people in Gaza and further in the Middle Eastern region depend on the organisation for shelter, food and healthcare. These allegations have not been confirmed. 

What has been clear over the past few months is that death tolls continue to rise, and innocent civilians have suffered immensely. Since October 7th the Palestinian death toll has crossed 36,000 and is rapidly increasing, the Israeli death toll standing at 1,400 (as of March 1st, 2024). What has also been evident is the unmitigated disproportionality of these figures. This forms the basis of South Africa’s case. The campaign of Israel which involves air strikes, chemical weapons, military snipers, the targeting of hospitals, refugee camps and schools, cutting off water, electricity, fuel and humanitarian aid, is all claimed to be in self-defence of Hamas. 

With new escalations in the conflict flooding the media daily, it becomes more bewildering to grasp an understanding of what led to this situation. What we are witnessing today is more than what happened on October 7th.

What are South Africa’s charges against Israel?

South Africa has accused Israel of committing genocidal acts against the Palestinian people in Gaza, this is outlined in paragraph 4 of South Africa’s application:

“— Israel, since 7 October 2023 in particular, has failed to prevent genocide and has failed to prosecute the direct and public incitement to genocide. More gravely still, Israel has engaged in, is engaging in and risks further engaging in genocidal acts against the Palestinian people in Gaza. Those acts include killing them, causing them serious mental and bodily harm and deliberately inflicting on them conditions of life calculated to bring about their physical destruction as a group.”

Despite the ICJ addressing the emergency measures requested by South Africa, the main judgement about whether they find Israel guilty of genocide can take several years of deliberation. 

The establishment of Israel on Palestinian land

From 1799 onwards, the gradual seizure of Palestinian land began and can be traced back to colonialism. Napoleon offered Palestine to the Jewish people following the French invasion of the Ottoman empire, specifically the city of Acre, which is now modern-day Israeli territory.  

After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire following the end of the First World War, Britain embarked on this former French plan through former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, who was then Foreign Secretary. This was done through the mandate policy of the League of Nations, which essentially was the plan for the transition of countries ruled by the Ottomans, into independent states. 

This resulted in the ‘Balfour Declaration,’ through which he promised a “national home for the Jewish people,” in Palestine, through a letter to Lionel Walter Rothschild, a British banker, politician and Zionist. Gradually then, Britain aided in the increase of the Jewish population in Palestine. Between 1922 and 1935, the Jewish population rose from nine percent to nearly 27 percent of the total population.

This was largely facilitated by Zionism, another word now circulated in the media and something prominent world figures like Joe Biden have attached to their own identity. Zionism is a belief that dates to roughly 1885 and holds to the Jewish right to their ancestral homeland. The danger with this ideology is that some hold to it so strongly that it begins to manifest itself through intrinsic racism, whereby individuals dehumanise Palestinians because they believe they stand in the way of the land promised to them. Britain’s facilitation of the spread of Zionist settlements is where the displacement of Palestinians began. The Palestinians resisted and were soon brought into conflict with British forced and Zionist militia. Importantly, Zionism as a political ideology is separate from the Jewish religion.

“A small group of Zionist leaders and military commanders met regularly...for a whole year planning the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. They didn't decide about it in a day.”

Ilan Pappe, Israeli historian

The large displacement of Jews after the Holocaust led to a UN ratification in 1947 which divided British Palestine into Palestine and Israel, a state for Palestinians and a state for the Jewish people. However, despite most of the Jewish population only arriving in Palestine a few years before and controlling around 5.5 per cent of Palestinian land, they were given 55 per cent of land. The Palestinians rejected this, but the Zionists accepted it, with the plans to expand their new borders even further. The movement gained legitimacy with the end of the British mandate.

Then came the Israeli war with Egypt, Jordan and Syria in 1948-9, or commonly referred to as the Nakba, نكبة meaning catastrophe in Arabic. ‘During this Zionist forces had taken more than 78 percent of historic Palestine, ethnically cleansed and destroyed about 530 villages and cities, and killed about 15,000 Palestinians in a series of mass atrocities, including more than 70 massacres.’ Israel secured victory over Arab armies, transcended their UN ratified borders and proclaimed the state of Israel. Also in 1948, the UN appointed a United Nations Mediator for Palestine, Swedish Diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte, who was assassinated by Zionist forces. He sympathised with the Palestinians and attempted to bring peace and end their ethnic cleansing at the hands of Zionists. At this stage in history it shows the recent ICJ case is not the first time Israel has been involved in such conduct.

The 1967 Naksa, نكسة or setback in Arabic refers to the Six Day War and began with Arab states showing unity against Israel. This was an incredibly significant event in which Israel occupied all remaining Palestinian territories, including the city of Jerusalem, holy to both Jews and Muslims, and is still Israeli land today. Egyptian and Syrian land was also taken. This event resulted in an additional 300,000 Palestinians being displaced from their homes, those left in Israel being subject to military control. 

Palestinians fleeing Gaza city in 2023, described as the 2023 Nakba - (Photo credit: Motaz Azaiza)

Since 1967, there have been countless hostilties between Palestinians and Israelis, other significant events include the Yom Kippur War, The First Lebanon War, The First Intifada, The Second Intifada, The Hamas takeover of Gaza and the Second Lebanon War and other wars in Gaza, the gradual occupation of Palestinian land mobilising these tensions, leading us to the events we are witnessing today. 

South Africa bringing this case to the ICJ is highly significant. It finally recognises, on an international scale, the brutality and the years of forced displacement Palestinians have undergone which emanates from their identity. In the shadows of a western backed Jewish state, paired with modern Islamophobia, the struggle of Palestinians has often been ignored and their lives deemed to hold less value. This is beyond the realm of left or right-wing politics.

The ambit of morality upheld by current world leaders has been revealed. They hold the power to intervene in the slaughter of innocent civilians, the majority of which are children, caught in a political ideology which shows no mercy. Its apparent that this morality only mobilises itself in situations where their support is reciprocated in a form of political benefit. The fact is simple, Palestine cannot offer the west what Israel can economically. The choices of politicians in this crisis will not be forgotten and with the upcoming US Presidential elections, this may be attested sooner rather than later, where it is tentative if Americans will let Joe Biden survive his disastrous support for Netanyahu.


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