So, according to Greg Mills and Ray Hartley (“Israel, Hamas and South Africa – the Biggest Failure of All”, Daily Maverick, 19 October 2023), if a country has domestic challenges like crime that it still needs to address, it should remain silent on geopolitical developments. If we are to follow that logic, no country (big or small) in the world would ever qualify to play any role in regional or global affairs.
In the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine there are many aspects that are shocking, heart-breaking, indefensible and in violation of the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law.
But Mills and Hartley choose to be startled most by the fact that “South Africa stands ready to share its experience in mediation and conflict resolution as it has done on the continent and around the world”.
South Africa’s moral authority on conflict resolution and willingness to share its experience and make itself available to mediate between the two sides is so distasteful to the authors that they prioritise it as more concerning than the mass slaughter of innocent civilians.
History will judge harshly those who ignore the gravity of what is happening. For how long should we stand by and watch the bombing of schools, hospitals, apartment buildings and essential infrastructure, denying an entire civilian population adequate water, electricity and fuel that is needed most urgently to run hospital generators and ambulances?
What is happening to civilians – a third of them estimated to be children – are egregious war crimes and arguably some of the worst violations of international humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions since World War 2. But what is more concerning to Mills and Hartley than those war crimes is South Africa’s willingness to assist in bringing the conflict to an end in any way possible. What type of humanity is that?
It is our collective responsibility as the international community to hold Israel, as the occupying power, accountable for its violations of the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law.
What should be startling to the authors is that the international community appears to have given one country a blank cheque to do whatever it wants in Gaza. A blank cheque to commit war crimes under the mantra that “Israel has a right to defend itself”.
The right to self-defence needs to be interrogated. Israel is an occupying power and the people of Palestine are occupied people. Under the laws of occupation, Israel has a duty to provide security for the people whose land they have temporarily occupied. Instead, they have not only breached this obligation but committed more crimes through the increased occupation of more Palestinian land, and the killing of Palestinians either by the Israeli security forces or through the state-sponsored violence of settler groups.
Instead of calling out these violations of international law and holding the government of Israel accountable, leaders of countries who profess to promote and respect international law support the Israeli government’s illegal declaration of war against the people of Palestine. An occupying power and army cannot declare war on people whose land they have occupied through an armed conflict which has not yet ended.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Middle East Crisis News Hub
The current siege of Gaza is in breach of international humanitarian law and the attacks on civilians are war crimes. Statements by some of the leaders of the current government of Israel since the latest conflagration began could be interpreted as intent to commit the crime of genocide.
Under the Geneva Conventions and the substantive crimes under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, intention is enough to indict the leaders calling for the destruction, in whole or in part, of a recognised group or community. Those who support these actions materially, including through the supply of weapons, can be charged with aiding and abetting genocide and war crimes.
What happened to Israeli civilians in Kfar Aza and at the music festival are also unspeakable war crimes that need to be investigated.
But the devastating reality is that every day now is a Kfar Aza in Gaza, with civilians and children being buried under rubble in unrelenting bombardment of civilian homes, hospitals and schools with total disregard for the right to life of civilians in armed conflict.
The Israeli government has gone to great lengths to dehumanise Palestinians in the eyes of the world, with Defence Minister Yoav Gallant declaring that “Palestinians are human animals”.
Read more in Daily Maverick: South Africa’s offer to mediate in Israel must not be ignored — remember Northern Ireland
This is the type of dehumanisation of a people that we have fought so hard against since World War 2. Once a group is dehumanised and depicted as less than human beings, it becomes easier and more acceptable in the eyes of the perpetrators and their supporters to commit gross violations of their rights and erase them altogether. This is something that all of us need to fight against.
It is our collective responsibility as the international community to hold Israel, as the occupying power, accountable for its violations of the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law. Article 14 of the conventions categorically states:
“Starvation of civilians as a method of combat is prohibited. It is therefore prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless for that purpose objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works.”
According to the Fourth Geneva Convention,
“Civilians in areas of armed conflict and occupied territories are protected by the 159 articles of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Civilians are to be protected from murder, torture, or brutality, and from discrimination on the basis of race, nationality, religion or political opinion.”
The only way forward for a sustainable solution to the cycle of violence in the Middle East is to end the occupation of Palestinian land and to negotiate the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.
Until such a state is realised, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to have sustainable peace and security for Israel, or for the wider region. DM
Alvin Botes is Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation.