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South Africa Sets a Precedent for the Palestinian Cause

The international community must hold Israel accountable

As we enter 2024, Israel’s indiscriminate bombing of Gaza persists and global calls demanding justice for Palestinians remain as loud as ever. Since the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, Israel has launched an ongoing intensive military assault on Gaza, the West Bank, and surrounding nations such as Lebanon and Syria. Most world leaders have “expressed concerns” about the ongoing Israeli bombardment of Gaza, which has killed over 22,000 Palestinians at the time of writing, and called for an immediate ceasefire. However, South Africa has become the first country to take legal action against Israel. On December 29, South Africa filed a genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). According to the ICJ, South Africa has accused Israel of violating its obligations to the Genocide Convention and attests that Israel’s actions are genocidal with intent to ethnically cleanse Palestinians in Gaza. As of recently, Palestinians are fleeing to the southernmost parts of Gaza to escape Israel’s incursions into the central Gaza strip. 

The 1948 Genocide Convention was drafted in response to the Holocaust and criminalized the entire or partial destruction of a people. Article II defines genocide as actions committed with the “intent to destroy, either in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.” South Africa contends that Israel has violated the obligations made at the Convention, ratified by 153 states, and submitted an application to the ICJ to open a case against Israel. South Africa has requested for the court to commit to implementing provisional or short-term efforts to bring Israel’s military campaign in Gaza to a halt and to protect the human rights of Palestinians. Since then, the Palestinian Foreign Ministry has endorsed South Africa’s suit and echoed that the ICJ must “call on Israel, the occupying power, to halt its onslaught.” Malaysia has also recently expressed its support for South Africa’s case. South Africa’s suit at the ICJ requires the UN to make a ruling concerning Israel’s accountability in the plight of the Palestinian people. Given that both South Africa and Israel are members of the UN and honour-bound by the court, this is a significant development for the futures of Palestinians in Gaza. South African government lawyers will plead their case on January 11 and 12.

Israel, however, has responded to South Africa’s suit with outrage. According to Eylon Levy, an Israeli government spokesman, Israel plans to fight the case “to dispel South Africa’s absurd blood libel.” Instead, Israel blames Hamas for using Palestinians as “human shields’’ and contends that Israel is doing all it can to limit harm to innocent civilians. However, over 22,000 Palestinians, the majority of whom are civilians and more than 40 percent of whom are children, have been killed in Israeli airstrikes. Israel’s claim that it is preventing civilian harm sharply conflicts with its claim that the war will not cease until Hamas is destroyed.

South Africa’s decision to file a case of genocide against Israel is not exactly a surprise. South African leaders like Nelson Mandela and Cyril Ramaphosa have drawn parallels between the Palestinian struggle and the struggles faced by South Africa’s Black population in the apartheid era. The nation has a decades-long history of supporting the Palestinian struggle for statehood in the face of Israeli occupation. Nelson Mandela had a warm relationship with Yasser Arafat, Palestinian political leader and former chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. In conversations with the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Mandela stressed that in order to ensure peace in the Middle East, Israel must withdraw from Arab territories. In recent years, South Africa has continued to express solidarity with the Palestinian people. In November 2023, lawmakers voted to close down the Israeli embassy in Pretoria and recall all South African diplomats from Tel Aviv. 

However, while South Africa continues to protest Israel’s indiscriminate bombing in Palestine, countries like the US continue to support Israel’s war effort. In December 2023, the Biden administration bypassed Congress for a second time that month to sell “emergency” weapons to Israel. It is deeply concerning to witness the US government’s dismissal of civilian suffering in Palestine and its military support fuelling the indiscriminate killing of Palestinians. 

As students, we must remain resilient in our activism to call out McGill, our own university, to end its investments in Israeli war crimes. We can recall the historic activism conducted by students in the 1980s, which led to McGill becoming the first Canadian university to divest from South African apartheid. Student activism has proven effective in enacting significant change, and despite our university’s efforts to stifle student support for Palestine, we must continue to hold McGill accountable for its complicity in genocide. 

South Africa’s decision to initiate a legal battle against Israel’s genocide in Gaza is an important and unprecedented development. We call upon all countries to fight for an end to civilian suffering in Palestine. We also encourage students to continue pressuring their governments and institutions to take action to stop the genocide through protesting, boycotting, writing to elected representatives, signing petitions, and generally staying informed on developments. For local updates, follow Montreal for Palestine, the Palestinian Struggle Mission, Independent Jewish Voices, and the Palestine Youth Movement on social media. Finally, the Daily’s editorial board calls for an immediate ceasefire as a first step toward the liberation of Palestine.