On Dec. 28, South Africa filed a claim against Israel with the International Court of Justice, a United Nations body in which states can sue one another for violations of international law. The 84-page filing alleges that Israel’s actions in Gaza since Hamas’ attack on Oct. 7 amount not simply to disproportionate force but to genocide against the Palestinian population. Last week, as the war in Gaza neared its 100th day, a South African legal team made their case before judges in The Hague, asking for a determination of genocide and, while that was pending, a temporary order restraining Israel’s ability to continue its onslaught in Gaza.
In response, Israel has called the allegations a “blood libel,” invoked its right of self-defense, implied that the concept of genocide doesn’t apply in armed conflicts and claimed that, if anything, they themselves are the victim in the current conflict. Germany has intervened in the case on Israel’s behalf, while U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stated that the allegations are “meritless” and that the case “distracts the world” from efforts to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza.
The case is indeed a distraction, but not for the reasons that Israel and the U.S. claim. For one thing, Israel’s claims of self-defense and the applicability of the laws of war have no bearing on the matter. Genocide can occur in armed conflicts and even in situations where both sides are engaging in it. And even if the self-defense argument is applicable at all here, which is contested by legal scholars, it does not justify engaging in genocidal acts.