Israel’s trial on genocide charges before a UN court should be a wake-up call for Jerusalem

by Trudy Rubin

The charge of “genocide” leveled at Israel before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, should be a wake-up call for Jerusalem, but not for the reasons you might think.

South Africa has accused Israel before the United Nations’ highest court of taking actions against Palestinian civilians in Gaza that are “genocidal in character” and “calculated to bring about their physical destruction.” The reference is to the humanitarian catastrophe in the Gaza Strip caused by Israeli bombs in retaliation for Hamas’ mass murder of 1,200 Jews, mostly civilians, on Oct. 7.

As the world can see on cable and social media, 80% of Gaza’s 2.2 million people are now refugees living in squalor. Israel is permitting insufficient humanitarian aid into Gaza to cope with horrific shortages of food, water, health care, and shelter. Two-thirds of the strip’s housing has been pulverized, and 23,000 Palestinians have been killed — two-thirds of them women and children.

Yet the immediate issue is not whether the court ultimately rules for or against Israel. The case is likely to drag on for years, while South Africa must prove there was deliberate Israeli intent to destroy the Palestinian population in Gaza (rather than, say, indifference to civilian collateral damage from bomb strikes on Hamas tunnels).

Rather, the International Court of Justice case shines a spotlight on Israel’s failure to recognize the immediate consequences of the kind of warfare it is conducting. There is increasing dismay among Israel’s closest allies, along with its Arab partners, at Jerusalem’s refusal to alleviate the widespread suffering in Gaza — even under heavy U.S. pressure to do so.

The moral and strategic blindness of the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pushing Israel toward global isolation while allowing Hamas to ensnare it in an endless Gaza trap.

How so? The Israeli military strategy so far has apparently been to destroy Gazan infrastructure with abandon in order to unveil entrances to Hamas underground tunnels with fewer military casualties than would be required to send soldiers door to door. Yes, Israeli warnings were sometimes given, and civilians urged to move south, but with no electricity, a complex and unreliable Israeli warning system, and constant shifts in bombing, nowhere in Gaza has been safe for internal refugees.

Moreover, the rules of Israeli engagement are so relaxed that Israel Defense Forces soldiers shot dead three escaped Israeli hostages who had taken off their shirts (to show they had no explosive vests) and were waving a white flag. In other words, no Gazan civilian is safe.

But despite the massive civilian casualties, Israel has still been unable to locate and destroy much of Hamas’ tunnel structure or find its top leaders. IDF generals say that will take months to do. However, Israel does not want to keep the bulk of its military based in Gaza indefinitely, but rather to pull back and regularly reenter to keep after Hamas.

Yet 1.8 million Gazans have been displaced, with most having no homes, schools, businesses, or hospitals to return to. The strip and its infrastructure have been physically destroyed; the aboveground Hamas government ended. No one knows who will run the place or distribute humanitarian aid once the heavy bombing stops, let alone rebuild, and Israel doesn’t want to.

Nor will the Arab Gulf States or the “international community” finance reconstruction or help run the Gaza Strip in lieu of Hamas officials — as Jerusalem is requesting — if Israeli-Hamas fighting continues. Saudi leaders have told U.S. officials they will only do so if Israel makes clear it will support Palestinian statehood side by side with Israel, something Netanyahu has said he will never do.

So, if you pay attention to what Israeli cabinet ministers are saying — and what Netanyahu is telling U.S. officials — the unannounced Israeli strategy seems to be to depopulate Gaza.

Far-right Israeli cabinet ministers (who have bolstered South Africa’s long-term case with calls to “flatten Gaza” or drop a nuke on Gaza or cut off food and water) are urging that Gazans be “voluntarily” resettled in other countries.

Israeli media has reported that Netanyahu is pressuring Egypt to take in hundreds of thousands of Gazans and has even asked the Democratic Republic of the Congo to take some. The radical nationalist Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich told Israeli Army Radio, “If there are 100,000 or 200,000 Arabs in Gaza and not two million Arabs, the entire discussion on the day after will be totally different.”

That is a pipe dream. Egypt has made clear that any Israeli attempt to force Palestinians to cross into its Sinai Desert would jeopardize its peace treaty with Israel. The last thing Cairo wants, with its broken economy, is to take responsibility for a million impoverished and bitter Palestinians in tent camps, who will agitate for war with Israel. Egypt is already hosting hundreds of thousands of Sudanese and Libyan refugees.

Moreover, Smotrich and other key Israeli ministers want to resettle Gaza with Israelis and to effectively annex that territory along with the West Bank, from which they also seek to push out Palestinians by making their lives untenable.

This is called “ethnic cleansing.” It is a war crime, and the White House has warned Netanyahu not to try.

“Israelis can’t understand how they could be accused of genocide,” reads a headline in Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Indeed, the term genocide was devised by a Polish Jewish lawyer in 1944 to describe the systematic, deliberate Nazi slaughter of six million Jews during World War II. The U.N. General Assembly adopted the Genocide Convention in 1948 to prevent such a horror from happening again.

I get it. The country is still reeling from the rape, mutilation, and murder of more than 1,000 civilians by Hamas, which calls for the annihilation of the state of Israel and its Jews. The Netanyahu government says Gazan civilians are suffering because Hamas embeds among and underneath them.

That’s true. But it doesn’t change the reality that Israel’s revenge on Gaza makes it responsible for a humanitarian disaster of immense proportions. It may not fit the definition of genocide, but it could get there if conditions deteriorate into an epidemic — or if Gazans are driven into the Egyptian desert.

The ongoing tragedy bolsters the continued strength of Hamas.

The White House and Arab states are trying to persuade Netanyahu to consider alternative strategies to rebuild the strip, including a political vision for the Palestinians’ future. The Hague proceedings should (but probably will not) focus his mind.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Email: [email protected].