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When members of the legal team representing South Africa in its case against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) arrived home this week, they were mobbed like rockstars by a crowd gathered at an airport in Johannesburg, waving South African and Palestinian flags.
Many expressed collective pride at how the case was presented. One of the activists greeting the lawyers lauded them for “having the courage to take Israel to the ICJ when no one else had that courage.”
In a case brought before the court in The Hague in December, the team argued that Israel had violated its obligations under the 1948 Genocide Convention in its war with Hamas in Gaza – a charge Israel has strongly denied.
Hailed as heroes in the pursuit of justice, the multi-racial team of lawyers symbolized South Africa’s “Rainbow Nation” ethos that celebrates its diversity, and has allowed the country to flex its diplomatic muscle as a moral arbiter on global issues, three decades post-apartheid.
“The significance of the fact that the country bringing the case is South Africa – an icon of the ravages of colonialism, settlement and apartheid – cannot be lost on anyone,” wrote Nesrine Malik, a Sudanese journalist and author, in The Guardian newspaper. “It symbolizes a vast racial injustice, too raw and recent to be dismissed as ancient history.”
Israel saw the racial symbolism quite differently, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accusing South Africa of “hypocrisy” that “screams to the high heavens.” Hamas had carried out “the worst crime against the Jewish people since the Holocaust,” he said in a televised speech, but “now someone comes to defend it in the name of the Holocaust.”
Israel launched its war against Hamas after the group’s brutal attack on the country left roughly 1,200 people dead and 250 taken hostage. The subsequent Israeli assault on Gaza has so far killed more than 24,000 people, according to the Hamas-run health ministry there.
South Africa’s genocide case has put the spotlight on a deeper fault line in global geopolitics. Beyond the courtroom drama, experts say divisions over the war in Gaza symbolize a widening gap between Israel and its traditional Western allies, notably the United States and Europe, and a group of nations known as the Global South — countries located primarily in the southern hemisphere, often characterized by lower income levels and developing economies.
Reactions from the Global North to the ICJ case have been mixed. While some nations have maintained a cautious diplomatic stance, others, particularly Israel’s staunchest allies in the West, have criticized South Africa’s move.
The US has stood by Israel through the war by continuing to ship arms to it, opposing a ceasefire, and vetoing many UN Security Council resolutions that aimed to bring a halt to the fighting. The Biden administration has rubbished the claim that Israel is committing genocide as “meritless,” while the UK has refused to back South Africa.
“The Israel-Gaza war and its subsequent events like this case are highlighting growing fissures between the once dominant West and its key allies like Israel and emerging powers gathered around BRICS states like South Africa,” Remi Adekoya, a political lecturer at the University of York in England, told CNN.
The decision by South Africa to initiate legal proceedings against Israel at the ICJ marked a departure from the usual diplomatic channels taken in such disputes, as the angry voices against Israel’s campaign in Gaza grow louder.
As a nation whose history is rooted in overcoming apartheid, South Africa’s move carries symbolic weight that has resonated with other nations in the developing world, many of whom have faced the burden of oppression and colonialism from Western powers.
Nelson Mandela, the face of the anti-apartheid movement, was a staunch supporter of the Palestine Liberation Organization and its leader Yasser Arafat, saying in 1990: “We align ourselves with the PLO because, akin to our struggle, they advocate for the right of self-determination.”
Hugh Lovatt, a senior policy fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said that while South Africa’s case is a continuation of its long-standing pro-Palestinian sympathies, the countries that have rallied behind it show deeper frustrations by the Global South.
There is “a clear geopolitical context in which many countries from the Global South have been increasingly critical over what they see as a lack of Western pressure on Israel to prevent such a large-scale loss of life in Gaza and its double standards when it comes to international law,” Lovatt told CNN.
Much of the non-Western world opposes the war in Gaza; China has joined the 22-member Arab League in calling for a ceasefire, while several Latin American nations have expelled Israeli diplomats in protest, and several Asian and African countries have joined Muslim and Arab nations in backing South Africa’s case against Israel at the ICJ.
For many in the developing world, the ICJ case has become a focal point for questioning the moral authority of the West and what is seen as the hypocrisy of the world’s most powerful nations and their unwillingness to hold Israel to account.
One of the reasons for this is that Israel has long been a “Western-facing country by virtue of its history and predominant heritage,” said Lovatt.
Israel sided with the West against Soviet-backed Arab regimes during the