At ICJ Hearing, South Africa Says Palestinians Endure ‘More Extreme Form of Apartheid’

At a hearing before the U.N.’s highest court, South Africa on Tuesday called Israel’s policies toward Palestinians an “extreme form of apartheid” and argued that its occupation of territory sought for an eventual Palestinian state was “fundamentally illegal.”

The hearing at the International Court of Justice in The Hague is one of two matters being heard about Israel, part of a concerted effort to leverage the authority of the court and the global reach of the U.N. to stop the war in Gaza and examine the legality of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians.

Starting this week and lasting six days, the court is hearing arguments on Israel’s conduct, following a request by the United Nations General Assembly more than a year ago. In the other matter, a case, which began in January, South Africa accuses Israel of committing genocide in its ongoing war against Hamas in Gaza.

Israel has strongly rejected those accusations.

The latest proceedings, which began on Monday, focus on the legality of Israel’s “occupation, settlement and annexation” of Palestinian-majority territories, including the West Bank and East Jerusalem. South Africa and many other countries that have asked to address the court argue that Israel’s decades-long occupation violates the Palestinians’ right to self-determination and that its security apparatus, including a giant wall, amounts to racial segregation.

More than 50 countries and three regional blocs are scheduled to argue before the 15-judge bench over the next week, a level of participation never before seen at the court.

The hearings on Israel’s policies have gained urgency amid the bloodshed of the war in Gaza. They come less than a month after the court ordered Israel to restrain its attacks in the Hamas-controlled territory in the genocide case.

The court is expected to answer the questions on the legality of Israel’s conduct with an advisory opinion that will be nonbinding.

Palestinians “continue to be subjected to discriminating land zoning and planning policies, to punitive house demolitions and violent incursions into their villages, towns and cities,” South Africa’s ambassador to the Netherlands, Vusi Madonsela, said in an address to the court on Tuesday.

Israel has long rejected accusations that it operates an apartheid system, calling such allegations a slur and pointing to a history of being singled out for condemnation by U.N. bodies and tribunals.

Also on Tuesday, the 22-nation Arab Group of the U.N. submitted a resolution to the Security Council calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza. The United States vetoed the resolution for the third time.

Israel said it would not participate in this week’s hearings in The Hague, saying the premise before the court was unwarranted and biased. Last year, Israel delivered a letter to the court in which it argued that the focus of the proceedings failed to “recognize Israel’s right and duty to protect its citizens,” to recognize Israel’s security or to take into account years of agreements with the Palestinians to negotiate “the permanent status of the territory, security arrangements, settlements and borders.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said in a statement on Monday that the case is “part of the Palestinian attempt to dictate the results of the political agreement without negotiations.”

The war in Gaza, which the Gazan Health Ministry said has killed more than 26,000 people and which was started by last year’s Hamas-led terrorist attack on southern Israel that killed 1,200, is foremost in the public’s mind, but it is not the war most relevant to the present hearings.

Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt in a 1967 war with its Arab neighbors. Israel ended its occupation of Gaza in 2005. It considers parts of the occupied West Bank to be disputed territory, and has built settlements there, which much of the world considers illegal. After the 1967 war, Israel formally annexed East Jerusalem and considers the unified city its capital.

South Africa and other speakers have argued that the proliferation of Jewish settlements, many of which are full-fledged towns, suggests that the occupation is not temporary, but permanent.

Support for the Palestinians has long been a popular rallying cry in South Africa and its governing party, the African National Congress, has often compared Israel’s policies to those of apartheid-era South Africa.

In his arguments on Tuesday, Mr. Madonsela, the South African diplomat, recalled his country’s history of racial segregation and invoked one of apartheid’s most famous critics, the Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Citing the separate court systems, land zoning rules, roads and housing rights for Palestinians, he said Israel had put in place a “two-tier system of laws, rules and services” that benefit Jewish settlers while “denying Palestinians rights.”

Mr. Madonsela quoted a 2010 statement from Archbishop Tutu, in which the Nobel laureate said Israel maintains a system for the “two populations in the West Bank, which provides preferential services, development and benefits for Jewish settlers while imposing harsh conditions on Palestinians. This, in my book, is apartheid. It is untenable.”

South Africans see “an even more extreme form of the apartheid that was institutionalized against Black people in my country,” Mr. Madonsela said. He said that South Africa had a special obligation to call out apartheid practices wherever they occur. He also called on Israel to dismantle the separation wall between Israel and the West Bank, which the court had ordered be removed in 2004 and still stands.

The United States is scheduled to make arguments on Wednesday.

The judges are expected to take roughly five months to issue their advisory opinion.