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South Africa tells UN court Israel genocide hit 'new and horrific stage'

Israel army says two Thai hostages held in Gaza are dead

By AFP

May 17, 2024 08:49 AM


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South Africa accused Israel Thursday at the top UN court of stepping up what it called a "genocide" in Gaza, urging judges to order a halt to the Israeli assault on Rafah.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) heard a litany of allegations against Israel from lawyers representing Pretoria, including mass graves, torture, and deliberate withholding of humanitarian aid.

Israel will respond on Friday. It has previously stressed its "unwavering" commitment to international law and described South Africa's case as "wholly unfounded" and "morally repugnant".

"South Africa had hoped, when we last appeared before this court, to halt this genocidal process to preserve Palestine and its people," said top lawyer Vusimuzi Madonsela.

"Instead, Israel's genocide has continued apace and has just reached a new and horrific stage," added Madonsela.

South Africa kicked off two days of hearings in The Hague by imploring judges to order a ceasefire throughout Gaza.

In January, the ICJ ordered Israel to do everything to prevent genocidal acts and enable humanitarian aid to Gaza.

But the court stopped short of ordering a ceasefire and South Africa's argument is that the situation now -- notably the operation in the crowded city of Rafah -- requires fresh ICJ action.

The Rafah campaign is "the last step in the destruction of Gaza and its Palestinian people", argued Vaughan Lowe, a lawyer for South Africa.

"It was Rafah that brought South Africa to the court. But it is all Palestinians as a national, ethnical and racial group who need the protection from genocide that the court can order," he added.

The United States, Israel's top ally, has strongly opposed the South African case.

Asked about the latest accusations, US State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters, "We have been pretty clear about the fact that we do not believe that what is happening in Gaza is genocide and we continue to believe that those claims are unwarranted and false."

"South Africa's claims are both morally and factually distorted and constitute an abuse of the Genocide Convention and the ICJ," said Israel foreign ministry spokesman Oren Marmorstein.

- Rafah operation 'to continue' -

The orders of the ICJ, which rules in disputes between states, are legally binding but it has little means to enforce them.

It has ordered Russia to halt its invasion of Ukraine, to no avail.

South Africa wants the ICJ to issue three emergency orders while it rules on the wider accusation that Israel is breaking the 1948 UN Genocide Convention.

It wants the court to order Israel to "immediately withdraw and cease its military offensive" in Rafah.

Second, Israel should take "all effective measures" to allow "unimpeded access" to Gaza for humanitarian aid workers, journalists and investigators.

Lastly, Pretoria asked the court to ensure Israel reports back on its measures taken.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the Rafah offensive in defiance of international warnings that more than a million civilians sheltering there could be caught in the crossfire.

Just minutes before the court hearings opened, Israel's Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said the operation in Rafah "will continue as additional forces will enter" the area.

- 'Permanent ceasefire' -

The United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said Wednesday that 600,000 people have fled Rafah since military operations intensified.

"As the primary humanitarian hub for humanitarian assistance in Gaza, if Rafah falls, so too does Gaza," said South Africa in a submission to the court.

"The thwarting of humanitarian aid cannot be seen as anything but the deliberate snuffing out of Palestinian lives. Starvation to the point of famine," said lawyer Adila Hassim, her voice choking with emotion.

Israel's military operations in Gaza were launched in retaliation for Hamas's unprecedented October 7 attack which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official Israeli figures.

Militants also seized about 250 hostages, 128 of whom Israel estimates remain in Gaza, including 36 the military says are dead.

Israel's military has conducted a relentless bombardment from the air and a ground offensive inside Gaza that has killed at least 35,233 people, mostly civilians, according to Gaza's Hamas-run health ministry.

Israel reaction at UN top court

Israel will on Friday hit back in the United Nations' top court at allegations from South Africa that it has escalated a campaign of "genocide" with its military operation in Rafah.

Pretoria has urged the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to order a stop to the Israeli assault on Rafah, which Israel says is key to eliminating Hamas militants.

Israel has previously stressed its "unwavering" commitment to international law and described South Africa's case as "wholly unfounded" and "morally repugnant".

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the Rafah offensive in defiance of US warnings that more than a million civilians sheltering there could be caught in the crossfire.

Netanyahu argued Wednesday that "we have to do what we have to do" and insisted that mass evacuations there had averted a much-feared "humanitarian catastrophe".

Israel's Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said Thursday that the operation in Rafah "will continue as additional forces will enter" the area.

On Thursday, judges heard a litany of allegations against Israel from lawyers representing Pretoria, including mass graves, torture and deliberate withholding of humanitarian aid.

"South Africa had hoped, when we last appeared before this court, to halt this genocidal process to preserve Palestine and its people," said top lawyer Vusimuzi Madonsela.

"Instead, Israel's genocide has continued apace and has just reached a new and horrific stage," added Madonsela.

- 'Protection from genocide' -

In a ruling that made headlines around the world, the ICJ in January ordered Israel to do everything in its power to prevent genocidal acts and enable humanitarian aid to Gaza.

But the court stopped short of ordering a ceasefire and South Africa's argument is that the situation on the ground -- notably the operation in the crowded city of Rafah -- requires fresh ICJ action.

The Rafah campaign is "the last step in the destruction of Gaza and its Palestinian people", argued Vaughan Lowe, a lawyer for South Africa.

"It was Rafah that brought South Africa to the court. But it is all Palestinians as a national, ethnical and racial group who need the protection from genocide that the court can order," he added.

The orders of the ICJ, which rules in disputes between states, are legally binding but it has little means to enforce them.

It has ordered Russia to halt its invasion of Ukraine, to no avail.

South Africa wants the ICJ to issue three emergency orders -- "provisional measures" in court jargon -- while it rules on the wider accusation that Israel is breaking the 1948 UN Genocide Convention.

It wants the court to order Israel to "immediately" cease all military operations in Gaza, including in Rafah, enable humanitarian access and report back on its progress on achieving these orders.

Thai hostages held in Gaza are dead

The Israeli army said Thursday that two Thai hostages earlier believed to be alive in Gaza were killed in the October 7 attack and their bodies are being held in the Palestinian territory.

"We informed the families of two kidnapped Thai citizens, who worked in agriculture in the plantations near Kibbutz Beeri, that they were murdered in the terrorist attack on October 7 and their bodies are being held by Hamas," said army spokesman Daniel Hagari.

The Israeli army and the Hostages and Missing Families Forum named the two men as Sonthaya Oakkharasr and Sudthisak Rinthalak.

There are now six Thai hostages being held in Gaza, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.

"As we mourn the tragic murder of two Thai hostages, it is imperative for the international community to acknowledge that the hostage crisis extends beyond being solely an Israeli issue," the Hostages and Missing Families Forum said in a statement, urging a united response.

Thailand has about 30,000 citizens in Israel, most of whom work in the agricultural sector.

Hamas's October 7 attack on southern Israel resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Israel's military retaliation has killed at least 35,272 people, also mostly civilians, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

US aid pier anchors to Gaza beach

US troops on Thursday anchored a long-awaited temporary pier aimed at ramping up emergency aid to a beach in the war-ravaged Gaza Strip, the US military and Israel said.

The US Central Command said the pier was "successfully affixed to the beach in Gaza" with around 500 tonnes of aid expected to enter the Palestinian territory in the coming days.

"It's a pretty substantial amount, and it's spread out over multiple ships right now," Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, deputy CENTCOM commander, told reporters in Washington.

Israel's military also said in a statement that the connection was "successfully completed".

But Farhan Haq, a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said negotiations remained ongoing on distribution of the aid -- particularly on the safety of workers.

"We are finalising our operational plans to make sure that we're ready to handle it once the floating dock is properly functioning, while ensuring the safety of our staff," he said.

The Gaza war has been devastating for aid workers. The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, which Israel accuses of bias, has alone lost 188 Gaza staff, according to UN figures.

Asked about the concerns, State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said the United States was working with the United Nations on practicalities but added: "From our point of view, we believe that this is ready to go and for aid to start flowing as soon as possible."

US President Joe Biden announced the emergency pier in March to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, where the United Nations has warned of famine with virtually the entire population of 2.4 million displaced by the Israeli military action in response to the October 7 Hamas attack.

Built at a cost of at least $320 million, the project is extraordinary in that such massive humanitarian efforts by the United States are usually in response to actions by hostile countries, not a US ally.

The humanitarian assistance is being screened in Cyprus and loaded by truck. Once on land, it will "move quickly", being offloaded from the coast into Gaza within hours, Cooper said, adding that "thousands of tonnes of aid are in the pipeline".

He said that around 1,000 US soldiers and sailors were involved in the operation but that they would not take part in delivery, which will be led by the UN.

- 'Land routes most effective' -

The war began after Hamas's October 7 attack on southern Israel, which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Israel's military retaliation has killed at least 35,272 people, also mostly civilians, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

The UN has argued that opening up land crossing points and allowing more trucks convoys into Gaza is the only way to stem the spiralling humanitarian crisis.

But the primary crossing into Gaza, on the territory's border with Egypt, has been closed for days.

Israeli troops took over the Palestinian side of the crossing last week as the military threatened a wider assault on the southern city, defying warnings from the United States and others over the fate of some 1.4 million civilians who had been sheltering there.

"Of course we're thankful to the US for all the work they've done in creating the floating dock. However, getting aid to people in need into and across Gaza cannot and should not depend on a floating dock far from where needs are most acute," Haq said.

- More required -

Cyprus, the Mediterranean island nation that is the departure point for aid on the planned maritime corridor, said US ship James A. Loux left Wednesday, carrying relief supplies and technical equipment.

Government spokesman Konstantinos Letymbiotis said that "new departures are expected, transporting humanitarian aid including food items, medical supplies, hygiene and temporary shelter".

Britain, meanwhile, said its initial contribution of nearly 100 tonnes of "shelter coverage kits" figured in the first shipment.

The pier will begin with facilitating the delivery of around 90 truckloads of international aid into Gaza each day, before volumes are scaled up to 150 truckloads daily, a British statement said.


AFP


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