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Russell Pollitt, S.J.January 18, 2024
A woman walks through rows of white-wrapped bodies, touching one, as Palestinians mourn their relatives killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, outside a morgue in Rafah, southern Gaza, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)Palestinians mourn their relatives killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, outside a morgue in Rafah, southern Gaza, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

South Africa’s government, led by the African National Congress, opened a case against the state of Israel at the International Court of Justice in the Hague, the Netherlands late last week. During hearings on Jan. 11 and 12, South Africa alleged that Israel, in its war on Hamas in Gaza, has committed acts of genocide against the people of Palestine in violation of Israel’s obligations under the 1948 Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The convention defines genocide as acts such as killings “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

The 84-page application made by South Africa details what its representatives at the Hague say are atrocities committed by the Israel Defence Forces against the civilians of Gaza. According to Gaza’s Health Ministry, more than 23,000 people have been killed and more than 50,000 wounded in Gaza over more than three months of conflict.

Watching the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza has been like holding up a mirror, reflecting South Africa’s painful struggle for justice and freedom.

For many in South Africa, there is a symbolic significance in the decision to pursue the genocide charge. In 2024, South Africa celebrates 30 years of democracy, yet vast injustices still permeate South African society because of its traumatic history. The war in Gaza has been a reminder of the violence and inequity that still haunts this country on the southern tip of the African continent.

South Africa itself suffered for decades under a brutal colonial rule and the apartheid system of structural discrimination and oppression. Watching the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza has been like holding up a mirror, reflecting South Africa’s painful struggle for justice and freedom.

The 2024 elections in South Africa may also have been a factor in the government’s decision to take a genocide case to the I.C.J., as the A.N.C. appears set to lose its majority in parliament this year for the first time since 1994. Local political observers believe the genocide case may be part of a domestic political strategy to assure the support of Muslim voters who support the cause of Palestinian statehood, but that cause is also supported broadly by many other South African voters.

Although South Africa’s application to the I.C.J. has been celebrated in the country and abroad, political parties and religious leaders in South Africa are divided about the campaign.

The country’s official opposition to the A.N.C., the Democratic Alliance, said that it would wait to see the outcome of the Hague hearings before commenting on the case, but another opposition party, the Patriotic Alliance, dismissed the government’s case against Israel as a “joke.”

According to the alliance, the A.N.C.-led government was taking sides in the conflict and had “never been clear on condemning Hamas” for acts of terror perpetrated by its militants on Oct. 7, when a brutal attack in southern Israel initiated this latest round of violence in the Holy Land. The African Christian Democratic Party also said that the government was taking sides and “can no longer play a role as an honest peace-broker” because of the decision to bring charges at the I.C.J.

The 2024 elections may also have been a factor in the government’s decision to take a genocide case to the I.C.J., as the African National Congress appears set to lose its majority in parliament for the first time since 1994.

The application at the Hague met steep opposition from South Africa’s chief rabbi, Warren Goldstein. He called the content of South Africa’s report “defamatory lies against the Jewish state,” and claimed it is ultimately about supporting the “annihilation” of the Jewish people.

The rabbi also told the Jerusalem Post that the “I.C.J. has no moral authority” to judge Israel and called the hearings “a theater of the absurd, where a democracy such as Israel can be brought before the ICJ to face charges related to its national security imperative to fight off Jihadist terror—terror that is financed and supported by countries such as Iran with the declared intent of waging war against the West and destroying the values that free democracies are built upon.”

Rabbi Goldstein did not only attack the South African government. He also posted a video attacking Pope Francis, saying that the pope should “repent for sins against Israel” and accused the pope of “colluding with the forces of evil who seek to annihilate the Jewish people.” He said Israel was fighting a just war.

In an open letter addressed to the chief rabbi, the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference said the “public attack on the Pope is regrettable” and denounced the rabbi’s comments on Pope Francis as “character assassination.”

The bishops pointed out that when the “atrocious attack, murder and abduction of innocent Israeli citizens by Hamas occurred on 7th October, Pope Francis clearly and unambiguously condemned it.”

They reminded the rabbi that the pope himself had “personally received some members of families of abducted Israelis by Hamas,” adding, “Pope Francis is no antisemite, and neither is the Catholic Church antisemitic.” The bishops said that the conference remains “open to the possibility of personal engagement” with Rabbi Goldstein.

South Africa’s bishops challenged Rabbi Goldstein’s assertion that “the Israeli Army has done more in this war and previous wars to minimize civilian casualties than any other war in recorded history.”

South Africa’s bishops challenged Rabbi Goldstein’s assertion that “the Israeli Army has done more in this war and previous wars to minimize civilian casualties than any other war in recorded history.” They said that this assertion was “difficult to believe” because of consistent reports “about the Israeli Army bombing schools, hospitals, refugee camps, homes, mosques and churches and not allowing humanitarian aid to come into Gaza. These acts make it clear that the war the Israeli government is waging cannot, in any way, be described as meeting the criteria of a just war.”

The letter ended by inviting the rabbi to take time to listen to “what your friends are saying.” The bishops said that the “Holocaust and the Hamas attack of 7 October 2023 were barbaric and should be prevented from happening again. However, these events should not be used to silence and paralyze friends from being critical of the Israeli Army's inhumane and unlawful acts in this present war.”

South Africa has a long and complicated history with the Middle East. The current ruling party, the A.N.C., considered Israel an early ally against the apartheid regime, and from 1940 through 1960, the A.N.C. expressed support for the State of Israel. But the relationship soured in the 1970s and 1980s.

The A.N.C., at the height of its struggle against apartheid, objected to Israel's support and collaboration with white minority rule. Israel had offered to sell nuclear warheads to the apartheid regime. This, together with the perception that Palestinians suffer an apartheid-like oppression and occupation of their country, has shaped South Africa's perception of Israel.

Since 1994, when South Africa became a democratic state, the country’s foreign policy has consistently supported Palestine. During his presidency, the nation’s founding father, Nelson Mandela, drew parallels between the struggle of black South Africans against white rule with Palestinians struggling against Israel's occupation beginning in 1948. The Nationalist Party, architects of the apartheid system, came to power in South Africa in 1948.

Mandela often said that South Africa's freedom was incomplete without the freedom of Palestinians, a sentiment that is regularly repeated in the country now. It is not just Mr. Mandela’s words that reverberate, however. His sense of justice, lack of bitterness after what he personally suffered under the apartheid regime and his ability to lead South Africa away from civil war and destruction through a tense yet peaceful transition to democracy made him a global icon of political reconciliation. He left South Africa with a constitution deeply rooted in a foundational esteem for human rights. Given its history, South Africa, through its application to the I.C.J., also seems to be challenging the West’s claim to moral superiority and an apparent Western hypocrisy over the inviolability of human rights.

South Africa’s foreign minister, Naledi Pandor, recently summarized the country’s position—and much of the public sentiment—in an echo of Mandela’s words: “As oppressed South Africans, we experienced first-hand the effects of racial inequality, discrimination and denial and we cannot stand by while another generation of Palestinians are left behind.”

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