In 1948, the newly-formed United Nations marked the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The Genocide Convention was a response to WWII’s Holocaust, when six million European Jews were murdered by Nazi Germany. Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer of Jewish descent, coined the term “genocide” during the war, as he developed legal arguments for prosecuting war criminals, leading to the Nuremberg Trials.
1948 was also the year Israel was founded. While many celebrated Israel as a safe refuge for the world’s Jews after the Holocaust, Palestinians call that period the ‘Nakba,’ Arabic for ‘catastrophe.’ Over 750,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes and villages, their property confiscated, and 15,000 were killed.
1948 was also when the white minority in South Africa imposed apartheid on the Black majority, creating an oppressive system of segregation that lasted close to half a century.
In the intervening 75 years, despite the Genocide Convention, genocides have still occurred – and too few perpetrators of genocide have faced prosecution. Last week, the eyes of the world were on the Hague, as South Africa brought a case accusing Israel of genocide in Gaza to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
The ICJ, also referred to as the “World Court,” convened on January 11th, first hearing South Africa’s case, followed the next day by Israel’s defense. South African lawyer Adila Hassim opened, saying,
“For the past 96 days, Israel has subjected Gaza to what has been described as one of the heaviest conventional bombing campaigns in the history of modern warfare. Palestinians in Gaza are being killed by Israeli weaponry and bombs from air, land and sea. They are also at immediate risk of death by starvation, dehydration and disease as a result of the ongoing siege by Israel, the destruction of Palestinian towns, the insufficient aid being allowed through to the Palestinian population, and the impossibility of distributing this limited aid while bombs fall. This conduct renders essentials to life unobtainable.”
Another of South Africa’s legal team, Irish lawyer Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh, said,
“On average, 247 Palestinians are being killed and are at risk of being killed each day, many of them literally blown to pieces. They include 48 mothers each day. Two every hour. And over 117 children each day, leading Unicef to call Israel’s actions a war on children. Entire multigenerational families would be obliterated. And yet, more Palestinian children would become WCNSF. Wounded Child, No Surviving Family, the terrible new acronym born out of Israel’s genocidal assault on the Palestinian population in Gaza.”
Israel said its attack on Gaza was in self-defense, directed at Hamas’ military infrastructure, following its October 7th attack on Israel, in which over 1,000 people were killed and over 200 taken hostage.
Renowned Jewish Israeli journalist Gideon Levy said on the Democracy Now! news hour, “Does this give us Israelis the right to do anything we want after the 7th forever, without any limits, no legal limits, no moral limits? We can just go and kill and destroy as much as we wish? That’s the main question right now.”
Levy serves on the editorial board of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. He recently wrote a column headlined, “If It Isn’t a Genocide in Gaza, Then What Is It?” In it, he writes, “Let us assume that Israel’s position at The Hague is right and just and Israel committed no genocide or anything close to it. So what is this? What do you call the mass killing, which continues even as these lines are being written, without discrimination, without restraint, on a scale that is difficult to imagine?”
Any measures ordered by the ICJ would have to be adopted by the United Nations Security Council, where the United States, Israel’s staunchest ally and weapons provider, regularly wields its veto to protect Israel.
The United States is quick to accuse others of genocide, from Serbia in the 1990s, to Burma in the last decade for its atrocities against its Rohingya minority, to the mass imprisonment of Uyghurs in China, to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The United States even acknowledged Turkey’s 1915 genocide against Armenians, albeit in 2021, more than 100 years late.
Yet, President Biden, in a statement marking the 100th day anniversary of Hamas’ attack on Israel, failed to even mention the more than 24,000 Palestinians killed by Israel in Gaza, 70% of whom were women and children. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Davos, Switzerland said the situation is “gutwrenching” and asked, “but what can be done?”
If President Biden demanded an end to the bombardment of Gaza, it would stop. Now is the time to heed the global calls for a ceasefire in Gaza.
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