The ongoing Palestinian-Israeli war in the Gaza Strip is acquiring new forms of internationalisation of the conflict. It is no secret that the disproportionate actions of the Israel Defence Forces in destroying civilians and destroying infrastructure in Gaza are aimed not only at eliminating Hamas as a militant and political force, but also at forcing Palestinians as much as possible into so-called “voluntary resettlement” from the enclave and restoring Tel Aviv’s full control over the seaside territory.
Israel’s actions are widely resented by the overwhelming number of countries in the Middle East. Turkish President Recep Erdoğan was one of the first to publicly declare the need to appeal to the UN International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague to recognise Israel’s war crimes and classify them as “genocide”. Ankara has instructed its law enforcement and intelligence agencies to collect data and document evidence of the massacre of Palestinians and Israeli war crimes in the Gaza Strip for submission to the ICC through the relevant international institutions and legal procedures.
However, Ankara was the first to make such a statement, and the Istanbul Prosecutor’s Office and the Turkish Ministry of Justice have begun to work towards filing a claim with the ICC, taking into account the permissible legal mechanisms. Nevertheless, Ankara was the first to make such a statement, and the Istanbul Prosecutor’s Office and the Turkish Ministry of Justice began to work towards filing an appropriate action with the ICC, taking into account permissible legal mechanisms.
In response to such statements and Ankara’s actions, the Israeli authorities began to accuse Turkey of committing genocide against Armenians and Kurds. The fact that Tel Aviv began to make such statements for opportunistic purposes in terms of localising the initiatives of the Turkish side leaves no doubt. The state-forming nation of Israel, which itself in its history experienced all the horrors of the tragedy of the Holocaust during the Second World War, did not dare in the recent past to force its own authorities to recognise such crimes in the fate of other peoples (including the same genocide of Armenians or Kurds).
However, the principled position of the President of Turkey, taking into account the peculiarities of the expanding negative reaction of a considerable part of the international community to the tragedy of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip from the violence of Israel.
In particular, on 29 December 2023, the South African authorities initiated legal proceedings against Israel, officially known as the “South Africa v. Israel” lawsuit. Pretoria accuses Tel Aviv of committing genocide against Arabs in the Gaza Strip, calls Israel’s policy towards Palestinians a 75-year apartheid, a 56-year military occupation and a 16-year blockade of Gaza. In its appeal to the International Court of Justice, South Africa asks for interim protective measures.
It should be noted that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu changed the head of the Foreign Ministry just after the named lawsuit of South Africa at the ICC. In particular, he made the so-called reshuffle in the government, appointing former Minister of Energy and Infrastructure Yisrael Katz as Minister of Foreign Affairs instead of Eli Cohen, and Cohen as head of the Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure. Earlier, I. Katz stated that Israel is fighting radical Islam in the Gaza Strip as part of the conflict with Hamas, and compared this situation to a new world war.
Does this mean that Eli Cohen’s replacement was due to his ineffective work at the head of the foreign policy department, which allowed the transformation of Turkish leader Recep Erdogan’s threat into an appeal by South Africa to the ICC against Israel for genocide? We will leave the answer to this question to the voters of Israel, who in these days of January are going on mass marches in Tel Aviv, Haifa and other parts of the country demanding the resignation of Israeli Prime Minister B. Netanyahu.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry accused Pretoria of aiding and abetting Hamas, calling South Africa “the legal arm of Hamas.” At the same time, Tel Aviv warned Pretoria that a decision against Israel “could have significant potential consequences not only in the legal world, but also practical bilateral, multilateral, economic, security implications.” In other words, Israel is threatening South Africa with negative consequences in terms of severing relations, exerting economic pressure bilaterally and with allied Western countries, and promising security problems for the South African state.
Meanwhile, since the outbreak of the military conflict with Hamas on 7 October 2023, some Israeli officials (e.g. Defence Minister Yoav Galant, Minister of Jerusalem and Heritage Affairs Amihai Eliyahu, Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter, Knesset deputies from the ruling Likud party) have made very harsh statements against the Palestinians in their public speeches and called for their brutal annihilation (including the use of a nuclear bomb). Israeli Holocaust historian Omer Bartov has warned his country’s authorities not to make such harsh and emotional statements, which could later be “interpreted as evidence of genocidal intentions”.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry has urgently instructed its embassies to put pressure on politicians and diplomats in host countries to oppose South Africa’s lawsuit before the ICC accusing the Jewish state of committing genocide against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Tel Aviv is doing everything necessary for the UN international court to reject Pretoria’s request for an injunction, to refrain from qualifying Israel’s actions in the Gaza Strip as genocide, and to recognise the IDF’s military actions in Gaza as lawful under the international right of self-defence.
Israeli embassies have been instructed to obtain high-level statements from host countries that Israel is working with international actors to increase humanitarian aid to Gaza, to minimise damage to civilians, to act in self-defence against the Hamas terrorist attack of 7 October, and that it is Hamas that is committing genocide.
Of course, before 11 January, i.e. before the date of the first ICC hearing on South Africa’s lawsuit against Israel, Washington expressed its categorical support for Tel Aviv and disagreement with Pretoria’s position. The United States believes that Israel is not committing genocide of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, but has the right to self-defence against the terrorist actions of Hamas. At the same time, the United States calls on the Israeli authorities to minimise the damage to civilians in Gaza and to facilitate increased humanitarian aid to the Palestinians.
Meanwhile, the United States admitted that it had not made an official assessment of whether Israel had violated international humanitarian law in its conduct of hostilities in the Gaza Strip. However, US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Washington considered Pretoria’s statement “unhelpful, counterproductive and completely without any factual basis.” US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called the accusations of genocide against Israel “baseless.” In other words, the US is warning of likely repercussions in bilateral relations with South Africa.
Guatemala deplored South Africa’s filing of a lawsuit against Israel. German Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck criticised the ICC and said that Israel has a full right to defend itself against Hamas, while former senior justice of the Supreme Court of Canada Rosalie Silberman Abella called the ICC proceedings “an abuse of the principles of international law”.
Such reactions by the U.S. and its allies were entirely expected. In this regard, the position of Viktor Orban’s government was relatively unexpected. In particular, on 9 January this year, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, in a conversation with his Israeli counterpart Yisrael Katz, condemned South Africa’s lawsuit against Israel at the ICC and called absurd and “nonsense” the accusation of genocide against the country that itself suffered from an attack by Hamas terrorists. “Hungary’s position,” P. Szijjarto stressed, “is unchanged: we support Israel’s right to self-defence”.
The unexpectedness of Budapest’s approach to this issue, which saw no violations by Israel “under the obligations of the 1948 Genocide Convention” in the situation with the Gaza Strip, is determined by the fact that, apparently, for the first time, the government of Viktor Orbán allowed itself to publicly diverge from the opinion of Turkish President Recep Erdoğan. Of course, Hungary and Turkey, although allies, are different countries (respectively, with different interests and views on topical issues on the international agenda). Hungary, where the positions of the Jewish diaspora are sufficiently strong and where economic and security dependence on the West remains high, cannot afford outright anti-Israeli demarches. Apparently, Israeli diplomats have done a good job here in light of the localisation of negative decisions of the UN international court in The Hague.
The first hearing of South Africa’s lawsuit against Israel at the ICC took place on 11-12 January. A number of countries (22 states in particular) and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation supported South Africa’s lawsuit against Israel, accusing it of committing genocide against the Palestinians. The court is still listening to the positions of the parties; time will tell how long its sessions will take and how they will end.
Naturally, Israel, like any other state, has the right to self-defence and existence. Accordingly, the fighting in the Gaza Strip was provoked by Hamas’ attack on Israel on 7 October 2023 (massive terrorist attacks, massacres of Israelis and the taking of over 200 hostages). But it is also fair to accuse Israel of: launching disproportionate strikes on the Gaza Strip; massively destroying the Palestinian enclave’s civilian population and infrastructure; and forcing Arabs into so-called “voluntary resettlement,” which is actually ethnic deportation.
The idea of full occupation of the Gaza Strip by Israel is an attempt to avoid once again resolving the Palestinian question. The situation requires an objective legal verdict by international judicial institutions and a responsible attitude on the part of the international community towards a political settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict with the recognition of a Palestinian State.
Alexander SVARANTS – PhD of Political Science, Professor, especially for the online magazine «New Eastern Outlook».