In a surprising turn of events, South Africa has filed a case at The Hague, accusing Israel of genocide and war crimes in Gaza. The motives behind South Africa's involvement in the Israel-Palestine conflict are intricate and multifaceted. While one might question why a seemingly unrelated country is pursuing such a case, legally, it's important to note that one doesn't need to be a direct party to a conflict to initiate proceedings in the International Court of Justice. Israel, however, claims that South Africa is not acting independently but rather as a pawn for Iran, providing cover for Hamas. There are even suggestions of the presence of a Hamas headquarters in South Africa, though the veracity of such claims remains uncertain.
Delving into the historical aspect reveals South Africa's strong opposition to Israel, potentially rooted in its own apartheid history. The apartheid era saw a close military alliance between Israel and South Africa, extending to collaboration in the development of nuclear weapons. Despite some Afrikaner leaders displaying deep antisemitism during World War II, South African Jews, who had fled persecution in Europe, were paradoxically categorised as "white" and enjoyed the highest level of civil rights.
Interestingly, a significant number of South African Jews opposed the apartheid regime, either influenced by their own experiences or those of their parents during Eastern European pogroms or the Holocaust. While prominent South African Jews actively fought against apartheid, the official Jewish body, the Council of Deputies, collaborated with the regime, even honoring figures like Percy Yutar, the prosecutor who sent Nelson Mandela to prison.
Today, official Jewish institutions in South Africa are at odds with their country's decision to take Israel to court. Andrew Feinstein, a Jewish former member of parliament, highlights the complexity, stating in his interview for The Guardian:
The chief rabbi and the Jewish Board of Deputies have never criticised anything Israel has done for as long as I can remember. It’s worth reminding oneself that the organised Jewish community in South Africa found it extraordinarily difficult to criticise apartheid until the mid-1980s. So we’re not talking about people speaking from a position of moral integrity here.
The enduring impact of historical connections between Israel and apartheid-era South Africa continues to shape perceptions and influence current diplomatic relations. Since the African National Congress (ANC) assumed power in 1994 following the end of apartheid, there has been a distinct characterisation of Israel's treatment of the Palestinian population as apartheid. This narrative draws parallels with South Africa's own historical struggle against apartheid. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has explicitly affirmed his government's commitment to supporting the Palestinian cause, emphasizing a connection between their plight and the experience of apartheid.
This particular stance adopted by the ANC puts the substantial Jewish community in South Africa, estimated between 56,000 to 60,000 individuals, in a challenging position. The historical alliance between Israel and apartheid-era South Africa during the oppressive years of white rule adds complexity to the dynamics of the relationship. The Jewish community finds itself navigating a delicate balance between historical ties and the ANC's firm support for the Palestinian cause, creating internal tensions and divisions.
Recent months have witnessed a concerning surge in antisemitic incidents in South Africa, with 180 reported cases, notably 110 occurring after October 7. These incidents range from graffiti and online insults to direct physical attacks. In response to this alarming trend, Jewish institutions in South Africa have taken proactive measures to enhance security and protect the community. The rise in antisemitic incidents further underscores the challenges faced by the Jewish community as South Africa pursues legal action against Israel.
In summary, South Africa's legal action against Israel is a nuanced interplay of law, ideology, and history. The deep-seated historical alliance between Israel and apartheid-era South Africa, marked by military collaboration and nuclear development, shapes the current diplomatic rift. As the International Court of Justice (ICJ) addresses allegations of genocide and war crimes, the choice of John Dugard, a vocal critic of Israel, adds complexity to the situation. Internal divisions within South Africa's Jewish community, reflected in historical struggles to criticise apartheid, contribute to the intricate geopolitical landscape. Diplomatic actions, including downgrading the embassy in Tel Aviv and recalling diplomats during the Gaza assault, signify a prolonged deterioration in relations. The ANC's longstanding support for the Palestinian cause, drawing parallels with South Africa's apartheid history, adds depth to the ideological foundations of the legal case.
A recent surge in antisemitic incidents in South Africa underscores the urgency of the situation. Jewish institutions heightening security measures reveal real-world implications of geopolitical tensions surrounding the ICJ case. In essence, South Africa's legal move unfolds within a complex historical narrative, revealing the multifaceted nature of international legal disputes. The enduring impact of historical connections, combined with contemporary ideological stances and internal challenges, creates a dynamic tableau extending beyond the courtroom at The Hague.
Note: The information in this article is based on the a Middle East expert Alexandra Appelberg's insights.
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