Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site
  • Home
  • Vol 34 No 1
  • How justified is South Africa's allegation of Israeli genocide?

How justified is South Africa's allegation of Israeli genocide?



The South African case against Israel at the International Court of Justice raises many significant questions, and it touches on significant sensibilities given the Jewish experience of the Holocaust and the continuing destructiveness of the war in Gaza. Commenced on December 29, 2023, the case is officially called an ‘Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in the Gaza Strip’.

Has Israel a legitimate case of self-defence? On October 7 did Hamas, which controls Gaza, attack Israel, and murder, rape, torture and mutilate hundreds of civilians? Is Hamas pledged to the total destruction of Israel? Has it continued to fire rockets into Israel? More widely, is Israel facing a genuine threat – Hamas, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthi in Yemen, Assad in Syria, Iran? Have tens of thousands of Israeli citizens been evacuated from their homes along the border with Gaza and Lebanon? Is there a history of Israel’s neighbours invading Israel over the last 75 years? Indeed, some Arab states are technically still at war with Israel.

If Israel is genuinely threatened, does this justify Israel’s destruction of much of Gaza, and the thousands of civilian casualties? There are genuine concerns around the proportionality of its military response, and undoubtedly there have been unjustified strikes. But has this been deliberate? Has Hamas deliberately embedded itself in civilian infrastructure using human shields in contravention to international law? At the International Court of Justice, Israel produced evidence of Hamas using hospitals, schools, mosques and homes, as bases for their war against Israel. Are there hundreds of kilometres of tunnels under Gaza’s cities? Hamas has deliberately made Gaza and its population a battlefield (and tragically, I suspect, with the support of Gaza’s people). The Hamas-controlled Gaza Health department provides the details of casualties, yet improbably in its figures there are no Hamas soldiers who have been killed.

Israel is a genuine democracy. There are public protests against the war. And 20 per cent of is its population is Israeli Arab, with Israeli-Arab members of Parliament, judges etc. There are minorities represented in the Israeli Army, including Bedouin Arabs, Druze, Kurds. By contrast, over the last 75 years, ancient Jewish communities in the Middle East have been largely decimated (almost 900,000, with most finding refuge in Israel). On the other hand, the illegal expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank, harassment of Palestinians by Israeli settlers, and the growing intolerance of the right in Israeli politics have contributed to the origins of the conflict.

Hamas undoubtedly commands majority support in Gaza, but it does not hold elections and does not allow significant dissent. Gays can be killed. Critics have been executed. While women have better rights than in some other Middle East countries, their rights have been gradually restricted. Hamas is pledged to the military destruction of Israel, and it is unapologetically committed to terrorist attacks on Israel’s civilian population. In the present debate about a two-State solution both Israel and Hamas reject he possibility. It is difficult to see any possibility of progress at this time, until Hamas and its external supporters recognise Israel’s existence.

UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) has questions to answer according to the Israeli case at the Court. Why has it not condemned the use of its hospitals and schools as Hamas bases? Are numbers of its employees members of Hamas’ military wing? In the 300 schools it runs, have there been systemic propagation of antisemitism in the teaching and curriculum? Has very significant amounts of foreign aid over the last couple of decades been misdirected to Hamas’ military preparations? Indeed, the head of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, Philippe Lazzarini, has just commissioned an independent review into the agency's operations in Gaza.


'Ultimately, the plight of the Palestinian people must be addressed by the international community. And everyone has an absolute responsibility to ensure that antisemitism is not tolerated, irrespective of their views on Israel.'


Is South Africa a good actor in this? Hamas has offices in South Africa and has strong connections with South Africa. The South African case at the Court ascribes almost no responsibility to Hamas for the bloodshed in Gaza. It is clearly partisan, and it does seem to be weaponizing a genocide charge against Israel as part of the international campaign by Hamas’ allies. It seems that the ANC is guided by old loyalties to those who stood with it during the struggle against apartheid (as it supported Hussein in Iraq, and it comes close to supporting Russia against Ukraine). And in an embarrassing indication of antisemitism in its society, the captain of its U19 Cricket team has been removed from the forthcoming World Cup because he is Jewish.

Let’s be clear – one can oppose Israel’s war in Gaza without being antisemitic. Many people in good faith are appalled by the destructiveness of war. There are Israelis and Jews outside of Israel who oppose the conflict. But let us also acknowledge that, in many of the demonstrations around the world, the language (‘gas the Jews’), the tropes (‘from the river to the sea’) and violent actions against Jews in universities and on the streets, antisemitism is real and repulsive. In some of the United States’ great universities, outbreaks of antisemitism on the left have grabbed national attention, leading to Congressional investigations and the resignations of some university presidents.

In both European and Arab cultures, there are deep-seated antisemitic veins that need to be challenged, and there needs to be vigilance in resisting its resurgence under the cover of supporting Palestine. And one has to ask why Israel is such a focus of attention, when, in terms of casualties and displacement, there are equally tragic conflicts, or more so, in neighbouring Yemen, Syria, Sudan, let alone in places like Myanmar and Congo? 

At the same time, we should reject any suggestions that Gaza’s population should be pushed into being refugees. I don’t see any easy solutions to the tragedy that has unfolded in Israel and Gaza. I don’t think Israel can continue its war in Gaza without consideration of the civilian casualties, even though I believe that Hamas is responsible for the conflict, and that Israel is justified under international law. And ultimately, the plight of the Palestinian people must be addressed by the international community. And everyone has an absolute responsibility to ensure that antisemitism is not tolerated, irrespective of their views on Israel.





Fr Chris Middleton SJ is the rector of Xavier College in Melbourne.

Main image: Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in the Gaza Strip (South Africa v. Israel) Public hearings on the request for the indication of provisional measures submitted by South Africa, 11 January 2024 (International Court of Justice)

Topic tags: Chris Middleton, Israel, South Africa, Gaza, Genocide, ICJ, Court



submit a comment

Existing comments

The international community should be brought before the Court of Conscience for the crime of indifference and laxity in dodging its responsibilities towards the State of Israel and the Palestinian people. The difficult and time-consuming work of finding a way forward for this region should be prioritised. Antisemitism was rife throughout Europe before the Holocaust. Surely the international community can see the importance of solving this crisis in the Middle East in decisive ways.

Pam | 24 January 2024  

I am not sure that international intervention, of any kind, will solve the Israel/Palestine problem. In fact, it makes the situation worse. There are still people in both communities, such as Ami Ayalon, former Head of Shin Beit and Commander of the Israeli Navy and Sari Nusseibeh, a distinguished Palestinian intellectual, who were proposing a two state solution from 2003. Sadly, due to the action in Gaza and the activity of extremist settlers on the West Bank, this is becoming more difficult to achieve. Both rabid Antisemitism and Islamophobia ignore the fact that many Israelis and Palestinians (including the important Palestinian Christian community) just want peace. Ultimately peace will only be achieved when there is peace in the hearts of men and women. This seems a long way away at the moment.

Edward Fido | 25 January 2024  

"Who then can be saved? What is impossible for man is possible for God." But, seeing that nobody has done the courtesy to God of calling upon him for help in an official, institutional way, not even the Vatican, why should he go out of his way to do anything for a hardened, stiff-necked world? There is a difference between so-called peacemaking attempts and opinions which are really us expecting God to do our work rather than our doing God's work.

For convenience of analysis, the world is divided into categories, apparently the most relevant in this situation being between illiberal authoritarianism and liberal democracy. But only apparently. What is needed is a division between Judeo-Christian democracies and ... everybody else.

The Christian missionary endeavour is even more important now than ever because until the world recognises the existence of one, specific deity, the untidy shambles and thickets of facts as described in this article will be the irresolvable norm.

s martin | 25 January 2024  

This article is deeply problematic and despite the eminence of its author, shows a lack of deep knowledge and insight.
Just one point: Nelson Mandela made a commitment to Yasser Arafat to support the Palestinians in response to their support of the liberation struggle of the ANC.
The author impugns the whole population of Gaza based on their opinion.
Too much to unpick here. This article is not helpful.

Cecile Yazbek | 26 January 2024  
Show Responses

I agree. There is a lot to unpick but ultimately a bunch of rhetorical questions and opinions offered without any reference to actual evidence. It reads as a biased and one sided analysis of the conflict with some throw away comments to feign balance.

Andrew Johnston | 26 January 2024  

Both Chris Middleton and Cecile Yazbek are correct: the current situation in Gaza, with all its ramifications, is a very difficult one to get your head around. I know something of the current situation in the Middle East and something of modern warfare and the weaponry used in it and I am terrified where this might lead. What really scares me is the possible linkup between what is happening there and what is happening in the Ukraine. This may already be happening.

Edward Fido | 29 January 2024  

Similar Articles

Accusing Israel of genocide in Gaza

  • Binoy Kampmark
  • 25 January 2024

Proving genocide is an onerous task, notably on the issue of intent. The acts alleged must be specifically intended to destroy the group members in question. The UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect considers this element ‘the most difficult element to determine.’


Is Prabowo Subianto qualified to be Indonesia's next president?

  • Pat Walsh
  • 17 January 2024

Over 200,000,000 Indonesians are currently weighing up who to elect from three candidates as their next president. Australia has nothing to gain from a Prabowo presidency and a lot to lose.