Jan 5, 2024 - World

Inside Israel's plan to quash South Africa's Gaza genocide case

Palestinians walk past the rubble of buildings destroyed following Israeli bombardment on Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip

Palestinians walk past the rubble of buildings destroyed following Israeli bombardment on Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. Photo: Said Khatib/AFP via Getty Images

The Israeli Foreign Ministry is instructing its embassies to press diplomats and politicians in their host countries to issue statements against South Africa's case at the International Court of Justice that accuses Israel of committing genocide in Gaza, according to a copy of an urgent cable obtained by Axios.

Why it matters: The cable, sent by the Israeli Foreign Ministry on Thursday, illustrates Israel's diplomatic action plan ahead of next week's ICJ hearing: to create international pressure on the court to not issue an injunction that orders Israel to suspend its military campaign in Gaza.

Catch up quick: South Africa filed the case last week. In its 84-page brief, it argues Israel's military campaign in Gaza breaches its obligations under the 1948 Genocide Convention, which defines genocide as "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group."

  • South Africa alleges Israel's actions in Gaza "are genocidal in character because they are intended to bring about the destruction of a substantial part" of the Palestinian population in the enclave.
  • Israel immediately rejected the case as "baseless," but — unlike in previous cases at international tribunals — it decided to appear in front of the court because it's a signatory to the Genocide Convention. Israel will be represented at the ICJ by the British barrister Malcolm Shaw.
  • Pretoria has asked the court to file urgent provisional measures, including ordering Israel to suspend its military campaign in Gaza, while the case proceeds.

Behind the scenes: The Israeli Foreign Ministry cable states that Israel's "strategic goal" is for the court to reject the request for an injunction, refrain from determining that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza, and recognize that the Israeli military is operating in the Strip according to international law.

  • "A ruling by the court could have significant potential implications that are not only in the legal world but have practical bilateral, multilateral, economic, security ramifications," reads the cable, a copy of which was obtained by Axios from three different Israeli officials.
  • The Israeli Foreign Ministry declined to comment.
  • "We ask for an immediate and unequivocal public statement along the following lines: To publicly and clearly state that YOUR COUNTRY rejects the outragest, absurd and baseless allegations made against Israel," the cable also says.

The cable argues that under the 1948 convention, genocide is defined as creating conditions that don't allow the survival of the population together with the intent to annihilate it.

  • Therefore, stressing Israel's efforts to increase humanitarian aid to the population in Gaza and to decrease the number of civilians who are killed "is critical," the cable reads.
  • In the cable, the Israeli embassies were instructed to ask diplomats and politicians at the highest level "to publicly acknowledge that Israel is working [together with international actors] to increase the humanitarian aid to Gaza, as well as to minimize damage to civilians, while acting in self defense after the horrible October 7th attack by a genocidal terrorist organization."

The Israeli ambassadors were also instructed to urgently work on obtaining such statements before the hearing, which begins on Jan. 11.

  • They were told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will send letters to dozens of world leaders along the same lines.

The big picture: The Biden administration has already rejected South Africa's appeal.

  • "We find this submission meritless, counterproductive, and completely without any basis in fact whatsoever," the White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said on Wednesday.
  • But countries that support Palestinians, including Turkey and Jordan, have backed the case.

Between the lines: While ICJ orders are binding, they are hard to enforce. Russia rebuffed the court's order to halt its invasion of Ukraine.

Zoom in: Israel began its relentless military campaign in Gaza following the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack that killed more than 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials. About 240 people were also abducted and taken to Gaza.

  • Since then, more than 22,600 Palestinians have been killed, according to the Ministry of Health in Hamas-run Gaza. Limited humanitarian aid has been allowed in Gaza, but the UN and other aid groups have said it's only a small fraction of what is needed.
  • They've also warned that without more assistance, Palestinians will begin to also die from dehydration, malnutrition and diseases.

Go deeper: Gaza's entire population facing crisis levels of hunger, risk of famine, report finds

Go deeper