Sunday, July 14, 2024

South Africa calls on ICJ to order Israel to end Rafah offensive

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South Africa has asked the international court of justice (ICJ) to urgently order Israel to end its assault on Rafah, halt its military campaign across Gaza, and allow international investigators and journalists into the territory.

In a court hearing, lawyers for South Africa expanded a written request for judges to issue an emergency order to stop the offensive into Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city.

They argued that seven months into the war, which has killed more than 35,000 people and reduced much of Gaza to rubble, the scale of suffering was now so intense that a total ceasefire was needed to get food, medicine and other aid to its desperate population.

Prof Vaughan Lowe KC told the court that a destructive campaign in Rafah, the last corner of Gaza that has not faced a ground invasion by Israeli forces, would destroy “the foundation of Palestinian life” in the territory.

“If the court does not act now the possibility of rebuilding a viable Palestinian society in Gaza will be destroyed, at least for the lifetime of those who survive the current horrors of Gaza.”

South Africa also demanded access for reporters and war crimes investigators to Gaza, to collect and preserve evidence of potential war crimes.

“The details are not always easy to verify because Israel continues to bar independent investigators and journalists from entering Gaza, and over 100 journalists who were in Gaza have been killed since Israeli attacks began,” Lowe said. “Israel cannot block investigations by independent investigators and then say the court cannot proceed because there is insufficient evidence against it.”

Israel’s foreign ministry said in response that South Africa was “presenting biased and false claims” which “rely on unreliable Hamas sources” and called on the court to reject the appeal.

“Israel acts in accordance with international law and its humanitarian obligations, while implementing measures to minimise harm to civilians and civilian facilities,” the ministry said late on Thursday.

Thursday’s hearing came after South Africa applied for new provisional orders to prevent “irreparable harm”, while the court hears its main case accusing Israel of genocide in Gaza. Judges are expected to take years to reach a decision in that case.

In January the court found in an interim judgment that there was a risk of violation of the rights of the Palestinian people to protection from genocide.

It ordered Israel to “take all measures within its power” to desist from killing Palestinians in contravention of the genocide convention, to prevent and punish the incitement of genocide, and to facilitate provision of “urgent basic services”.

In March a panel of judges at the court, in new provisional measures, ordered Israel to allow unimpeded access of food aid into Gaza, in a unanimous decision which warned that “famine is setting in”.

On Thursday South Africa’s representatives repeatedly referred to those rulings, which it said Israel had failed to comply with, and argued that the international community’s failure to enforce the rulings had given Israel a sense that it could act with impunity.

Palestinians leaving an unsafe area in Rafah on Wednesday. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

The lawyers explained how the attack on Rafah had cut off the two main entry points for humanitarian aid, shut down the crippled remains of the medical system, and forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee north into parts of Gaza that were now bombed-out wastelands with little shelter or services.

The lawyer Adila Hassim said: “In these circumstances the thwarting of humanitarian aid cannot be seen as anything but the deliberate snuffing out of Palestinian life. Starvation to the point of famine, obstructing aid in the face of famine, and killing of at least 200 aid workers.

“For the court’s previous orders to be effective, for the provision of humanitarian aid urgently and at scale, Israel has to be ordered to stop its military offensive.”

Israel, which has attacked South Africa’s claim that it has violated the 1948 genocide convention, calling that baseless, will present its response in a hearing on Friday morning.

It says the campaign in Gaza is a war of self-defence, after cross-border attacks by Hamas on 7 October last year killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians. About 250 others were taken hostage.

In previous arguments Israel said it respected international humanitarian law, argued that the use by Hamas of civilians as human shields has contributed to the high death toll, and said it had stepped up humanitarian aid as the ICJ ordered.

Israel’s government, which has vowed to “destroy” Hamas, says the incursion into Rafah is needed because fighters are sheltering among the civilians who fled there on Israeli orders.

However, the ground operation has been opposed even by Israel’s closest ally, with the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, saying earlier this week that Washington had not seen a “credible plan” to protect civilians.

Blinken also warned that the present course of the Israeli military campaign threatened to create an insurgency or violent chaos in Gaza.

Tanks sent into the Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza on Thursday were attacked with anti-tank rockets and mortars, underlining the challenges faced by Israel despite its advantages in weaponry and control of all land and sea borders.

The fighting was so intense that five Israeli soldiers were killed in a friendly-fire incident.

The fighting and deaths in Jabaliya came months after the Israeli military claimed in late December that it was already nearing “full operational control” of the north. Israeli forces have set up a line of checkpoints that in effect cuts Gaza City and surrounding areas off from the south.

Israeli forces bombed Rafah heavily on Thursday without advancing on the ground. About 600,000 people have fled to other parts of Gaza, most of them already displaced several times since Israel launched its war.

The UN aid chief, Martin Griffiths, warned that food stocks were running out after the attack on Rafah effectively cut off imports of aid through the two southern crossings that were the main entry points. Griffiths said the humanitarian operation was “completely stuck”, Reuters reported.

The UN, Israel and the US all agreed weeks ago that aid would need to reach prewar levels of 500 lorries a day to even start addressing the scale of need. UN figures showed that over the past 10 days, only six lorries had been able to cross.

The US has anchored a temporary floating pier to a beach in north Gaza, and the UN is finalising plans to distribute aid shipped in this way, but it is less efficient and far more expensive than delivering it with vehicles via border crossings controlled by Israel.

The deputy UN spokesperson, Farhan Haq, said: “To stave off the horrors of famine, we must use the fastest and most obvious route to reach the people of Gaza and for that, we need access by land now.”

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