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South Africa to bring landmark case against Israel at International Court of Justice

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

South Africa will bring a landmark case accusing Israel of genocide to the International Court of Justice on Thursday. Israel dismisses the case, saying claims of genocide in Gaza are baseless, and the country will argue its side on Friday. As Kate Bartlett explains, South Africa's apartheid history is driving its support for the Palestinian cause.

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KATE BARTLETT: For many South Africans, the pro-Palestinian protests are more than just politics. It's personal. Democratic South Africa's support for Palestinian liberation is long-standing.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Chanting in non-English language).

BARTLETT: When South Africa's first post-apartheid president, Nelson Mandela, made a state visit to Gaza and the occupied West Bank in 1999, he was greeted as a hero. He once said that South Africa's own struggle would not be complete without that of the Palestinians. In a TV interview with U.S. broadcaster ABC shortly after his release from prison in 1990, Mandela, a good friend of Yasser Arafat, the late leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, or PLO, explained why.

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PRESIDENT NELSON MANDELA: We identify with the PLO because just like ourselves, they are fighting for the right of self-determination.

(APPLAUSE)

BARTLETT: The Palestinians supported South Africa's governing African National Congress, the ANC, when it was itself a banned movement waging an armed struggle against the apartheid regime. Israel sold arms to the apartheid government. The ANC has not forgotten this.

MIA SWART: South Africa feels that it's acting on behalf of the Global South, on behalf of people occupied and suppressed.

BARTLETT: Mia Swart is a visiting law professor at South Africa's University of the Witwatersrand.

SWART: Because of its apartheid past, South Africa is also feeling a solidarity with the Palestinian people because we know that the conditions in the occupied Palestinian territories have been described as apartheid. And for all these reasons, South Africa feels a special affinity.

BARTLETT: After Palestinian militant group Hamas attacked Israel on October 7 and Israel responded with a bombardment of the Gaza Strip, South African parliamentarians, dressed in Palestinian scarves, voted to suspend diplomatic ties with Israel. And President Cyril Ramaphosa did not shy away from using the word genocide.

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PRESIDENT CYRIL RAMAPHOSA: The collective punishment of Palestinian civilians through the unlawful use of force by Israel is a war crime. The deliberate denial of medicine, fuel, food and water to the residents of Gaza is tantamount to genocide.

BARTLETT: In December, the government announced it had filed a case with the U.N.-backed court in The Hague, saying Israel had violated the U.N.'s Genocide Convention, of which they are both a signatory. South Africa's filing to the court read in part, the acts and omissions by Israel complained of by South Africa are genocidal in character because they are intended to bring about the destruction of a substantial part of the Palestinian national, racial and ethnic group.

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BARTLETT: Israel has been carrying out almost daily bombings in Gaza since the start of the war in response to the October 7 Hamas attacks, in which over 1,200 Israelis were killed. The death toll in Gaza has now surpassed 23,000 people, according to health officials there. While legal experts say a ruling that Israel is committing genocide might take years, the ICJ has a mechanism for urgent cases and could order an interim measure to call for a cease-fire, a measure that's binding but that Israel could still ignore.

THAMSANQA MALUSI: The recourse that South Africa might have if Israel does not obey by the orders of the ICJ would be to approach the Security Council.

BARTLETT: Thamsanqa Malusi is a lawyer who worked for South Africa's Constitutional Court.

MALUSI: The issues there is that the permanent member states of the Security Council have veto powers over any resolutions of the Security Council. And in the past, the U.S. has vetoed virtually all resolutions that relate to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

BARTLETT: If the ICJ does issue an interim measure against Israel, whether they heed the ruling or not, it will still be a huge embarrassment for the country. And it will also show South Africa's clout on the world stage.

For NPR News, I'm Kate Bartlett in Johannesburg.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC TUCKER SONG, "FWM (FEAT. FRE$H)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kate Bartlett