This week, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) held a hearing for South Africa’s formal request for provisional measures against Israel over its military assault on Gaza. The South African legal team argued that Israel is committing acts of genocide and therefore should be ordered to stop its military activities in the strip.
The crime of genocide has two elements – intention and execution – both of which have to be proven when accusations are made. In Israel’s case, the apparent devastation of Gaza makes for a powerful argument that it is indeed carrying out genocide.
The mass killing of more than 23,000 Palestinians, almost half of whom are children and youth, with thousands more missing; the forced displacement of almost two million Palestinians who make up 90 percent of Gaza’s population; Israel’s imposition of “total siege” that now threatens to kill through hunger and infectious diseases hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the coming months; the laying of waste to Gaza through indiscriminate mass bombardments and the razing of whole residential neighbourhoods; the targeting of hospitals, doctors and other healthcare professionals; the damage and destruction of cultural, educational and religious sites, including hundreds of schools, universities, mosques, churches and libraries – all this is the visible execution of genocide, and the South African legal team laid it out clearly during the hearing.
Intention is usually harder to prove when accusations of genocide are made; the petitioner has to be able to prove “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such,” in the language of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. But in Israel’s case, intention too has been laid bare by an ample amount of evidence – as the South African legal team pointed out.
In arguing the case, they were able to draw on a new and comprehensive database, compiled by Law for Palestine, which meticulously documents and collates 500 statements that embody the Israeli state’s intention to commit genocide and incitement to genocide since October 7, 2023. The statements by people with command authority – state leaders, war cabinet ministers and senior army officers – and by other politicians, army officers, journalists and public figures reveal the widespread commitment in Israel to the genocidal destruction of Gaza.
Perpetrators of genocide rarely express their intentions in direct and explicit ways, so courts are left to infer such intent through an analysis of state actions or leaked memoranda. In the case of Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza, however, as the Law for Palestine database shows, people with command authority have been making genocidal statements repeatedly over the past three months.
They have dehumanised Palestinians in their rhetoric, and painted the population in Gaza, as a whole, as Israel’s enemy. Bolstered by the hubris of settler colonial power and the knowledge that it has killed, maimed, destroyed, expelled, humiliated, imprisoned and dispossessed with more than seven decades of impunity and by the continued material and moral support of the United States, Israelis are explicit and unashamed about their genocidal intent because they have imagined and prosecuted a war against people who they see as colonised “savages”.
Whether the ICJ fulfils its duty and rules in favour of the South African request remains to be seen. In any case, Israel’s explicit language of genocide and its unprecedented assault on Gaza should mark the end of its impunity in the international legal system and usher in a new stage in the struggle to stop the violence, save the Palestinians of Gaza, and end Israeli settler colonialism.
Associate Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Stockton University