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Fetterman says South Africa should focus on its own continent as it brings case of genocide against Israel

Pennsylvania senator says it is ‘appalling’ that South Africa brought the case given its history

Richard Hall
Thursday 11 January 2024 20:24 GMT
Genocide charges ‘meritless’ but Israel must take tough decisions for peace, Blinken says

John Fetterman criticised South Africa for bringing a case of genocide against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for its war on Gaza and its treatment of the Palestinians.

The Pennsylvania senator suggested that South Africa “ought to sit this one out” at an event hosted by the Orthodox Union at Capitol Hill on Wednesday.  He added that it was “appalling” that South Africa had brought the case, which began at The Hague on Thursday, “given the history there.”

In response to a request for clarification of those comments, Mr Fetterman said in a statement given to The Independent: “The entirety of my point was this: South Africa should instead focus on the spiraling humanitarian crises on its own continent—like Sudan where more than 7 million people have been displaced with widespread atrocities.”

It is unclear precisely which part of South Africa’s history Mr Fetterman was referring to in his original comments, but the country existed under a system of apartheid, or the rule of a white minority over the country’s Black population, from 1948 until the early 1990s. The case against Israel was brought by South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, which successfully fought against and ended apartheid rule. The party, once led by Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid activist and first post-apartheid president of South Africa, has long compared the policies of Israel with the conditions of apartheid Black South Africans endured.

Ronald Lamola, South Africa’s justice minister and head of its delegation at The Hague, told the New York Times that his country’s history was precisely the reason why it had brought the case.

“We do believe that it is important for a state like South Africa that has experienced apartheid discrimination to stand firm with the people of Palestine,” he said.

Several human rights organisations have also made the comparison between apartheid South Africa and the situation in the occupied Palestinian Territories. In recent years, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Israeli rights group B’Tselem have all accused Israel of committing the crime of apartheid against Palestinians.

More than 23,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israel’s bombardment and invasion of Gaza — most of them women and children — which was launched in response to a massacre by Hamas that killed around 1,200 people in Israel on 7 October, 2023.

South Africa filed an 84-page document to the court in December arguing that Israel’s actions  “are genocidal in character because they are intended to bring about the destruction of a substantial part” of the Palestinians in Gaza.

The filing notes that Israel cut off access to food, water, medicine, fuel, shelter and other humanitarian assistance and that its bombing campaign has displaced some 1.9 Palestinians. It also documents statements from Israeli leaders, cabinet ministers and military figures that it claims amount to calls for genocide.

At the opening day of proceedings on Thursday, South African lawyer Tembeka Ngcukaitobi argued that Israel had demonstrated “genocidal intent.”

"The scale of destruction in Gaza, the targeting of family homes and civilians, the war being a war on children, all make clear that genocidal intent is both understood and has been put into practice. The articulated intent is the destruction of Palestinian life," he said.

"What state would admit to a genocidal intent? Yet the distinctive feature of this case has not been the silence as such, but the reiteration and repetition of genocidal speech throughout every sphere of the state in Israel," he added.

Israel has fiercely rejected the charge of genocide and apartheid. Israeli President Isaac Herzog described the comparisons between apartheid South Africa and Israel as a “blood libel.” Government spokesperson Eylon Levy accused South Africa of giving “political and legal cover to the Hamas rapist regime."

Mr Fetterman has emerged as a staunch advocate for Israel in the wake of the Hamas attack.

He has rejected calls for a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, has draped himself in an Israeli flag at a pro-Israel march in Washington DC, and waved an Israeli flag at demonstrators who were arrested outside the Capitol while calling for a ceasefire.

“Now is not the time to talk about a ceasefire. We must support Israel in efforts to eliminate the Hamas terrorists who slaughtered innocent men, women, and children,” he wrote on X on 18 October, a position he has maintained.

“Hamas does not want peace, they want to destroy Israel. We can talk about a ceasefire after Hamas is neutralized,” he added.

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