For far too long the people of Palestine have been denied the right to exist as human beings, and to enjoy the freedoms we fought so hard for in South Africa. These rights do not belong to some and not to others. We have expressed our outrage at the war crimes in Palestine, particularly the targeting of civilians, many of whom are innocent children, the destruction of civilian infrastructure, UN schools, and almost half of the hospitals in Gaza.
Even during the darkest days of apartheid, we were not subjected to the targeted bombing of hospitals, schools or residential buildings. Apartheid South Africa had its horrors over many decades, but the scenes we are witnessing in Gaza are another level of cruelty.
Ordinary people around the world, including Jewish people who have made it clear that these crimes will not be committed in their name, have taken to the streets in hundreds of thousands to express solidarity with the people of Palestine.
Several governments have pledged unconditional support for Israel, even providing financial and material support including arms, thereby potentially aiding and abetting the crimes being perpetrated.
By not holding Israel accountable for its persistent breaches of international law, they embolden Israel to continue acting with impunity and undermining a just international legal order.
The latest breaches of international norms by the government of Israel and the wilful killing of civilians, including children, warrant the immediate imposition of an arms embargo on Israel. To ensure that there is indeed a de-escalation, this should include a similar embargo on the Palestinian armed groups.
A just and lasting peace will not be achieved through the use of force by the occupying power, nor through armed resistance by the Palestinians. A just and lasting peace does, however, require the United Nations and the international community to ensure that the impunity that Israel and its leaders have been operating under for decades comes to an end.
The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has opened an investigation into the situation in Palestine. We call on the prosecutor to speed up the investigation and explore breaches of three of the four crimes under ICC jurisdiction: war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
We expect that warrants of arrest should be executed for those most responsible as per the ICC principles of command and superior responsibility. These include Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and some of his cabinet members. Failure to do so will exacerbate the growing cynicism that international law is applied selectively for political purposes.
The devastation of the current conflict is well-documented and horrendous. Given the gravity of the situation, South Africa has repeatedly called for an immediate, comprehensive ceasefire, allowing for the full opening of all humanitarian corridors to grant urgently needed aid and basic services to the civilian population of Gaza. On October 27, South Africa was among the more than two-thirds of UN General Assembly members that called for an immediate ceasefire. This call has been ignored.
The actions that we are witnessing daily by Israel are a violation of international law, including the UN Charter and the Geneva Convention and its protocols. In its attacks on civilians and taking of civilian hostages, Hamas has also violated international law, and we have called for the hostages to be released.
International humanitarian law includes the obligation not to target civilian populations, and the responsibility to protect civilians in armed conflict. Under the Geneva Convention, hospitals must be protected. Article 12 clearly states: “Medical units shall be respected and protected at all times and shall not be the object of attack.”
Article 14 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.”
In total disregard for the Geneva Convention, Israeli bombardments have continued and intensified across the Gaza Strip over the past five weeks. For international law to be credible, it should be applied uniformly and not selectively. Sadly, the crime of genocide looms large in Gaza.
The root causes of this war go back to Israel’s systematic oppression of the Palestinians over the past 75 years, the illegal occupation of their land, and the ever-expanding web of illegal settlements deep into Palestinian territory.
International human rights organisations, at least 17 of which are Israeli, and which include Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and B’Tselem, have characterised the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian land as equivalent to the crime of apartheid. They condemn Israel’s blockade of Gaza for the past 17 years as having created the world’s largest open-air prison, with 2.4-million Palestinians unable to enter or exit freely, and the provision of water, electricity and goods is at the discretion of the occupiers.
The extreme nature of the crisis in Gaza must not obscure the fact that the West Bank and East Jerusalem are in turmoil. Since the 1993 Oslo Accords, the number of illegal Israeli settlers occupying Palestinian land has increased from 250,000 to more than 700,000 today. The desecration of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, with the mob attacks on worshippers and residents of East Jerusalem peaking this year, has compounded the situation.
The totality of the oppression experienced by Palestinians whether in Gaza or the West Bank is what UN secretary-general Antònio Guterres was referring to when he recently said that “the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum”.
Israel is an occupying power, as confirmed by the International Court of Justice and the United Nations. As such, Israel can use tools to maintain the rule of law. An occupying state cannot exercise control over the territory it occupies and simultaneously militarily attack that territory on the basis that it is “foreign” and poses an exogenous national security threat.
According to international law, those living under occupation have the right to resist. Armed struggle against a colonial occupation force is endorsed under international law. Wars of national liberation have been embraced through the adoption of additional protocol I to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 as a protected and essential right of occupied people everywhere.
The ultimate solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies in the establishment of two states within the internationally agreed parameters. We continue to support this approach but are also aware that many Palestinians and Israelis are of the view that a just and lasting solution may include approaches that facilitate Palestinians and Israelis living together peacefully under arrangements where all their human rights are guaranteed and protected.
A peace process initiated by the UN must commence urgently. Our common humanity dictates that all human lives matter and the time for the international community to act is now.
This article was originally published in the Sunday Times on November 12, 2023. It is a summary of H.E. Dr. Naledi Pandor’s, South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, statement on the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict, National Assembly, 07 November 2023.