Claiming genocidal intent: a discourse analysis of South Africa’s ICJ case against Israel

19 minutes to read
Tom Van Hout

On 29 December 2023, South Africa petitioned the International Court of Justice (ICJ) requesting “provisional measures” against Israel for alleged Genocide Convention violations. If granted, such measures would force Israel to immediately suspend its military operations in the Gaza Strip. According to the ICJ case brought by the South African government, Israel’s actions against Palestinians in Gaza following the 7 October Hamas attacks demonstrate a “pattern of genocidal conduct”, including assault on healthcare infrastructure in Gaza, the infliction of mental and bodily harm, forced displacement, mass killing of civilians, and the imposition of measures designed to prevent births.

This co-authored research article is the outcome of an unplanned data sprint held during the 2024 LOT Winter School module on 'Weapons of Mass Disruption’ (Tilburg University, Jan. 15-19). A data sprint is a collaborative exercise built around shared sets of empirical data, research questions and analytical approaches. The module engaged with the weaponization of language and brought together research master and PhD students with diverse research backgrounds and interests. The analysis we present here examines the social production of meaning in a controversial legal document. Our goal was to unpack how South Africa uses language to claim genocidal intent rather than opine on the legality of the case, its reception or outcome.  


During the public hearing on 11 January 2024 at The Hague’s Peace Palace, South Africa’s final speaker Vaughan Lowe argued that 

“South Africa believes that the publicly available evidence [...] demonstrates that the government of Israel, not Jewish people or Israeli citizens, [...] is intent on destroying the Palestinians in Gaza as a group, and is doing nothing to prevent or punish the actions of others who support that aim.”

In its defense, Israel argued that it has the right to defend itself in response to the 7 October Hamas attacks and that any measure to halt military operations imposed by the ICJ would render Israel defenseless. Moreover, Israel claims that South Africa’s lawsuit delegitimizes Israel’s existence, erases Israeli casualties, and weaponizes the term genocide against Israel. While a final ruling on whether Israel breached the Genocide Convention is likely to take years, South Africa’s case against Israel constitutes a critical discourse moment (Chilton, 1987) pur sang: a social event that elicits commentary, critique, and public awareness.

Politically, the case recognizes the miserable fate of the Palestinian people in Gaza, whose lives have been defined by oppression, occupation, and colonialism.  It also tests the limits of human rights and lays bare fault lines between the Global South and the Global  North. Legally, the case accuses Israel not just of war crimes, but of genocide. This accusation is contentious, notoriously difficult to prove and hinges on proving dolus specialis: the specific intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group (Goldsmith, 2010). The mental element of special intent is paired with physical acts in the definition of genocide. According to the 1948 Genocide Convention, a minimum of one of the following acts constitutes a genocide:

a) the killing of members of a national, ethnical, racial or religious group; 
b) causing them serious bodily or mental harm;
c) imposing living conditions intended to destroy the group;
d) preventing births/limiting reproduction; or 
e) forcibly transferring children out of the group. 

UN member states should take measures under their capacity to prevent and punish a (potential) genocide. The convention has universal applicability, which means that these measures also apply to states that have not agreed to the convention. The contentious nature of the accusation of genocidal intent lies in the fact that the ICJ’s jurisdiction only applies to UN member states, which Palestine is not (it was granted observer status in 2012). Discursively, the legal case throws into relief how South Africa’s legal team puts language to work “in what is likely to become one of the textbook cases of attempted genocide” (Mearsheimer 2024). In this article, we analyze how South Africa’s application for provisional measures recontextualizes inflammatory Israeli political rhetoric as indicative of government policy. South Africa’s intertextual labor highlights the pervasive nature of Israeli genocidal rhetoric, its scale and corresponding execution and weaponization of religion and the Holocaust. Our analysis is not based on the legality of the case, but on the discourse strategies used by South Africa’s legal team to prove genocidal intent, as it involves:

  • Showing the pervasiveness and consistency of the genocidal intent;
  • Showing the ways intent is expressed linguistically;
  • Showing that discourse legitimizes/is followed by actions.

A note on collective victimhood

Historically, Israel has justified its actions against Palestine and Gaza specifically (Hadar, 2019, p. 15-16) in terms of fear and collective victimhood. Israel has defined itself “a lonely nation surrounded by an anti-semitic world” (Liebman & DonYihya, 1983, p. 142, cited in Hadar, 2019), referring to victimhood by using the concept of isolation and depicting the rest of the world as an oppressing and possibly dangerous threat. After the Holocaust, the sense of fear bolstered the need for an efficient and specialized Israeli military force, which was thus founded (Israel Defense Forces, IDF) and helped to convey a sense of national identity (Hadar, 2019). 

South Africa’s legal team attempts to maintain a neutral, detached tone, while still guiding the reader’s gaze to what it considers most important.

Crucially, the sense of collective victimhood also plays a role in Palestinian identity construction: “Whereas a sense of collective victimhood is experienced by at least one side of a conflict if not by both sides, in intractable intergroup conflicts, collective victimhood constitutes a part of the narrative, the collective memory and ethos of the conflict shared among members of a given society” (Bar Tal et al., 2009, p. 230, cited in Hadar 2019, p. 15).

While Israel’s historical role of victim during the Holocaust is undeniable, the permanency of this role could rapidly shift if Israel’s actions start to be perceived as those of a perpetrator, rather than a victim (cf. Alexander Gale on Modern Diplomacy, 2023). The document South Africa has presented could shift the narrative, conferring the perpetrator role to a country that has repeatedly framed itself as helpless.

South Africa’s strategy 

We focus on section D (pp. 59-67) in South Africa’s request for provisional relief, which aims to showcase Israel’s expressions of genocidal intent against Palestinians in Gaza. This portion of the document reproduces quotes and reported speech by Israeli officials, representatives (political, administrative, military), and media. These quotes intend to show that, via the ways actors and acts are presented and discourse is organized around the conflict, Israel is promoting and supporting the acts that constitute genocide according to the Genocide Convention. South Africa attempts to establish genocidal intent by presenting clear, public, and relentless messaging from Israeli representatives seemingly aimed at uniting the Israeli population, along with a more global audience, to support and encourage the attack on Palestine.

South Africa tries to let the quotes speak for themselves but by doing so, they inevitably position the speakers socially (Wortham & Locher 1996). When introducing reported speech, South Africa uses neutral, metapragmatic expressions, such as “to say,” “to indicate,” or “to reiterate.” South Africa’s legal team attempts to maintain a neutral, detached tone, while still guiding the reader’s gaze to what it considers most important. To do so, it italicizes either parts of direct quotations, or some of the quotes themselves, to emphasize what it sees as expressions of genocidal intent. An example can be found on pages 62-63: “Giora Eiland has repeatedly been given a media platform to call for Gaza to be made uninhabitable, declaring “the State of Israel has no choice but to make Gaza a place that is temporarily, or permanently, impossible to live in.” South Africa uses this presentational strategy all throughout section D. 

To prove dolus specialis, the legal team provides evidence to argue that

  1. the messaging is systematic and pervasive at every level of government;
  2. the language of the quotes does indeed represent genocidal intent; and
  3. that the messages are not merely words, but have been (and continue to be) acted upon.

1. Pervasiveness of the message

The organization of the quotes throughout Section D of the document is determined not by content, but rather by the social status of the speakers who uttered them. Through this ordering, South Africa makes the point that this rhetoric is pervasive, “unchecked and unpunished” (p. 65) at every level of power in Israel and appears, therefore, to represent the genocidal will of the Israeli government. Here, the claim is made that genocidal intent is consistent and widespread.

In paragraph 105 of the ICJ application, the legal team presents a stream of anti-Palestinian rhetoric sourced from tweets and news interviews of members of the Israeli Knesset (unicameral Parliament). These quotes are presented sequentially, illustrating South Africa’s point that these comments are not made by rogue individuals or extremists, but serve to represent the government’s genocidal intent. For instance, references to civilians in Gaza: e.g., “there are no uninvolved”, “there are no innocents”, and “the killers of the women and children should not be separated from the citizens of Gaza”. Throughout Section D, the legal team continues to highlight this messaging, ostensibly because it is crucial in making their case that Israel’s actions constitute genocide - they must establish that Israel is not acting against a terrorist group in self-defense, but intentionally planning and carrying out the killing of innocent civilians. 

The inclusion of data from Israeli media serves the purpose of highlighting the pervasive propaganda encouraged by the state, propaganda that appears to rely weaponized language and tactics that employ simplicity, emotionally charged catchphrases and easily recognizable symbols to effectively convey messages (Pascale, 2019). 

2. Language as an expression of genocidal intent 

A common strategy during a genocide is the manipulation of the perception around the involved groups. In order to push the boundaries of which acts are acceptable and allowed, it is necessary to justify these acts. The weaponization of language (Pascale, 2019) is a vital tool used for this purpose: the instrumentalization of the roles of oppressor and oppressed, as well as agency, for positive self-presentation and negative presentation of the Other (Van Dijk, 2006). Only some of the quotes recontextualized by South Africa are explicit admissions of violent acts. The point of the quotes is not (only) to provide evidence of genocidal conduct, but mostly to illustrate the ways Israel frames social actors and events to: gain a moral high ground and bolster its positions; present its conduct as self-defense, rather than genocidal conduct; and depict Palestinians as deserving of the actions carried out by Israel.

Legitimization through crisis

The data provided in the case exemplifies strategies that Israel uses to legitimize their military actions. One strategy is the pre-legitimization of actions through crisis (Krzyżanowski & Krzyżanowska, 2022). Through Section D of the case, we see various examples of Israel employing self-defense as justification for their actions in Gaza. On the one hand, declarations of defense show a response to the attacks by Hamas on 7 October, as evidenced by a television broadcast (p. 59) and tweets from Israeli leaders (p. 62) on that day. The attacks from Hamas therefore constitute an “undisputed crisis” (Krzyżanowski & Krzyżanowska, 2022, p. 807) which needs to be handled, pre-legitimizing Israel’s actions of self-defense. On the other hand, various references to self-defense by Israeli leaders are connected not to the events of 7 October, but rather to a long history of struggle with Palestinians. Proclamations to “wipe off the seed of Amalek” (p. 65) suggest that the “vengeance” (p. 65) Israel seeks is an objective that has been historically established. There appears to be a conflation of an “undisputed” contemporary crisis that necessitates actions of self-defense with a long history of animosity that also incites military action. Furthermore, statements expressing intent to erase Gaza (p. 65) show how Israel can be seen as using a crisis to legitimize actions taken to achieve a politically motivated “imaginary” (Krzyżanowski & Krzyżanowska, 2022, p. 806)—a future in which Gaza has been removed of Palestinians.

The imagined future

The report highlights how the Israeli media positively discuss a future where Palestinians are removed from Gaza, for instance in the quote “the army will cleanse the area. Then we will start building new areas, for us, above all, for our security" (p. 67). This use of language justifies and promotes removing the people of Gaza. By associating them with dirt, Manichean dichotomies are enforced, creating distance and opposition (Wodak, 2015). This hypothetical future, which requires action to forcefully remove the previous population, is discussed to motivate the public.

Religious legitimization

Another strategy is appealing to authority, or a power position to support their actions (Van Dijk, 2006; Wodak, 2015). The evidence provided in this case points in particular to religious authority. The phrase “wipe off the seed of Amalek” (p. 65) is cited from a video taken by Israeli soldiers. The statement “you must remember what Amalek has done to you, says our Holy Bible. And we do remember.” (p. 60) by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu builds a direct mapping between Amalek and the people of Palestine. These statements and many others are examples of deontic legitimization, in which the speaker challenges cognitive righteousness by introducing moral righteousness, grounding the justification of their actions in “moral feelings or institutions no one will challenge” (Chilton, 2004, p. 117). Specifically, Israel uses the strategy of an appeal to the authority of tradition and religion (Van Leeuwen, 2008), in which it seeks to diminish the questionability of their actions by grounding their motivation in a religious story (the biblical story of the destruction of Amalek by the Israelites) that is culturally and traditionally impactful. This strategy functions in two ways.

Firstly, Israel is conveying the message that their actions against Palestine are not open to debate because their conflict with the people of Palestine goes back to biblical times; a conflict justified by the Bible itself as told in the story of Amalek. Thereby, the cognitive evaluation process of Palestine as a party in the conflict is hindered by reidentifying it as an existential threat.

Secondly, Israel seeks negative Other-presentation (Chilton, 2004) by not only attacking the moral character of the people of Palestine but also reducing the Palestinian identity to being “the seed of Amalek'' from an ethnic and national identity.

In this way, people of Palestine are dehumanized and their individual identities are emptied, stripped down to descendants of a Biblical archenemy. These references to Amalek are crucial for South Africa’s strategy in proving genocidal intent ias established by the Genocide Convention. South Africa makes the case that these reference points clearly relate to Israel’s genocidal intent—and again, that this messaging is pervasive, repeated by the Prime Minister, other officials, and Israeli army soldiers alike.

Language is accompanied by action

The reported media statements include strong, straightforward wishes for action against Gaza to be “erased”, “flatten[ed]”, and “turned to dust”, which can be considered public incitement. The Israeli media also uses historical events, such as the World War II bombings in Dresden and Hiroshima (pp. 66-67), to exemplify the extreme violence that Israeli public figures argue is warranted against Palestinians. Such levels of violence would result in the demise of the entire group, which would then display genocidal intent. 

Another crucial quote comes from the Israeli Minister of Defence Yoav Gallant: 

"[Israel is] imposing a complete siege on Gaza. No electricity, no food, no water, no fuel. Everything is closed. We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly" (p. 60-61). 

By describing the siege, the Minister states that Israel is actively engaging in some of the acts included in the Convention, namely "causing serious bodily or mental harm" and "imposing living conditions intended to destroy the group."

The legal team also intends to show how discourse extends beyond the realm of words and is followed by direct action, and how it is employed to mobilize Israeli soldiers “on the ground” (p. 65). For instance, the legal team presents quotes from a video of Israeli soldiers “dancing, chanting and singing” a series of messages, including their “motto”: “There are no uninvolved civilians” (p. 65). Right after that, they present a series of statistics on the number of casualties, which reiterates the extent of the devastation in Gaza. This way they intend to establish a cause-effect relationship between discourse and action. 

3. An in-depth look at rhetorical strategies used by Israel

Taking a closer look at the Israeli discourse presented by South Africa, we can identify three main strategies used: agency, dehumanization, and positive self-representation. In the sections below, we illustrate those strategies by incorporating the actual quotes from the document, and by explaining how these quotes are representative of these three strategies.

The first quotes presented in paragraph 101 exhibit statements by Prime Minister Netanyahu.

[Israeli soldiers] “understand the scope of the mission” [and stand ready] “to defeat the bloodthirsty monsters who have risen against [Israel] to destroy us” (Prime Minister of Israel, p. 59-60).

"we’re facing monsters, monsters who murdered children in front of their parents... This is a battle not only of Israel against these barbarians, it’s a battle of civilization against barbarism” (Prime Minister of Israel, p. 60).

Here, we see examples of attributions of agency and responsibility. The use of military jargon in the quotes above, such as “mission” and “defeating,” evokes a sense of moral responsibility. This is further emphasized by the explicit mention of the Palestinian will to ‘destroy’ Israel and how they “murdered children.” According to Zilincik’s (2022) research on the role of emotions in military strategy, one of the strategies used is the link “between emotional manipulation and the pursuit of victory” (p. 12). Zilincik (2022) also highlights that the issues that people care about during war are mostly determined by emotional stimuli. The combination of military talk and the reference to destruction (i.e. threat) serves as proof of vindication.

Netanyahu’s reported speech also incorporates positive self-representation. Palestinians are not named as their ethnonational group, rather they are Othered. Brons (2015) argues that Othering is a process that “sets up a superior self/in-group in contrast to an inferior other/out-group, but this superiority/inferiority is nearly always left implicit” (p. 70). In this case, this is done through two different strategies: dehumanization (Montagut & Moragas-Fernández, 2020; Steuter & Wills, 2009) and vilification, and abstraction. Reducing the Palestinian identity to ‘monsters’ creates distance between the two groups where moral hierarchical structures are explicit. This is further reinforced by the second strategy used, abstraction. Both Israel and Palestine become abstract concepts of civilization, and barbarism, respectively. Such a comparison moralizes colonial discourse (Zhang, 2023). 

"[Israel is] imposing a complete siege on Gaza. No electricity, no food, no water, no fuel. Everything is closed. We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly" (Israeli Minister of Defense, pp. 60-61). 

“Hamas became ISIS and the citizens of Gaza are celebrating instead of being horrified. Human animals are dealt with accordingly. Israel has imposed a total blockade on Gaza, no electricity, no water, just damage. You wanted hell, you will get hell.” (Israeli Army Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, p. 62).

The Minister of Defense and Israeli Army Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories refer to Palestinians using the oxymoronic expression “human animals.” The “animal” part of the oxymoron dehumanizes them. The “human” part, however, keeps the frame of the event as that of a war with credible enemies, in order to keep pushing Israel's self-defense justifying argument. This strategic indeterminacy constructs a specific image of Palestinians, conferring them with a non-human nature and simultaneously with the human agency necessary to be perceived as enemies. The Minister additionally describes Israel's operation as a mere consequence of the ferality of Palestinians ("we are acting accordingly", p. 61), ferality implied via the use of the word "animals", thus denying Israel’s responsibility. This is a pivotal step for the victimization of Israel and vilification of Palestine.

Further examples of dehumanization can be seen in the following quotes from Israeli media:

“I tell you, in Gaza without exception, they are all terrorists, sons of dogs. They must be exterminated, all of them killed. We will flatten Gaza, turn them to dust, and the army will cleanse the area. Then we will start building new areas, for us, above all, for our security.” (Danny Neumann, a former Israeli Knesset member, p. 67).

[turned into a] “slaughterhouse” (David Mizrahy Verthaim, p. 66).

Israel attempts to shift the blame and deny responsibility for its conduct in the following quote by its president. When asked about the bombardment of Gaza and the humanitarian situation of civilians, Herzog replied: 

"It's an entire nation out there that is responsible. It's not true this rhetoric about civilians not aware, not involved. It's absolutely not true [...] and we will fight until we break their backbone." (President of Israel, p. 60). 

The genocidal intent to kill all members of a group is implicit in this declaration. As the entirety of Palestinian people is presented as guilty, they are framed as all being deserving of the bombardments and their consequences. Herzog states they are “aware and involved”, but omits of/in what. He only evokes a third actor onto the scene: Hamas. A dog-whistled generalization from Hamas to Palestinian people is in action. 

Curiously, here the president uses the term “nation” to refer to Palestinian people. While, on the one hand, this contrasts with Israel’s positions on the political status of Palestine, on the other hand, it is again an abstraction strategy. The use of a collective noun such as “nation” is efficient in communicating a sense of shared and common responsibility, as the notion of “nation” generally implies a shared identity. The guilt of some, in a nation, is extended and becomes the guilt of all: this is why the punishment must be for all as well.

What is furthermore shown quite effectively in the quotes in paragraph 101 is the backgrounding that Israel uses to give themselves a passive role and show themselves as driven into a corner. Take, for example, the quote from the Israeli Minister of Heritage:

“The north of the Gaza Strip, more beautiful than ever. Everything is blown up and flattened, simply a pleasure for the eyes” (p. 61).

Passive sentences, like the second part of the quote, are easy to find. The sentence above lacks an actor: who blew up the north of the Gaza Strip? This seems like a deliberate move on the part of the Israeli Minister. More sentences like this can be found, such as those spoken by the Israeli Minister of National Security, Israeli Minister of Energy and Infrastructure, and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and Member of the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee (in this order): 

“[W]hen we say that Hamas should be destroyed, it also means those who celebrate, those who support, and those who hand out candy — they’re all terrorists, and they should also be destroyed” (p. 61). 

“All the civilian population in Gaza is ordered to leave immediately” (p. 61).

“Those who are unable will be replaced” (p. 62). 

Passive sentences are commonly used to describe actions taken or to be taken by Israel, without explicitly stating their connection to the actions. This helps to distance Israel from the actions and downplay their involvement. Moreover, using passive sentences also removes any mention of Palestinians and civilians from the narrative. Instead of saying "everyone is blown up", the sentence is constructed to say "everything is blown up". The quote under point 9, when combined with the quote from the Minister of Heritage: 

“There is no such thing as uninvolved civilians” (p. 61-62). 

Shows the consistent twisting of the narrative to lump civilians together with the Hamas fighters. Again the quote includes an oxymoron; that is, civilians, by definition, are those who are uninvolved as a side in a conflict. This works to justify the acts of Israel and dehumanize the civilians, as they are no longer attacking civilians in this narrative, only terrorists. 

“We need to deal a blow that hasn’t been seen in 50 years and take down Gaza” (Israeli Minister of Finance, p. 61).

"Gaza" is often used as a replacement for "civilians in Gaza", as seen in quotes 9 and 14, which further works to minimize Israel's actions. Moreover, Modal verbs such as in the quote under point 10 and 14, are also seen quite often across quotes. These verbs, "should" and "need", imply that Israel has no other options besides deal[ing] a blow and destroying, and that these actions are the only "right" choices available to them. By taking on the role of a victim and claiming that these actions are necessary, Israel is positioning itself on a moral high ground, but at the same time, reducing its own perceived agency.

The document that South Africa has presented sets this narrative that has been presented by Israel off against the actions taken by them. For example, about the Israeli Minister of Heritage they state: 

He also posited a nuclear attack on the Gaza Strip.” (pp. 61-62). 

“Who are the ‘poor’ women of Gaza? They are all the mothers, sisters or wives of Hamas murderers” (Israeli Army Reservist Major General, Giora Eiland, p. 64).

“[...]work[ing] together with all the bodies in the IDF when the goal is clear — to destroy everything that has been touched by the hand of Hamas” (Head of the Israeli army’s Air Operations Group, p. 64).

Again we find examples of dehumanization (“human animals”), together with objectification: Palestinians are reduced to family relations (“mothers, sisters, wives”), and they are being included in the collection of objects that are destroyed, without being specifically mentioned as human casualties (“to destroy everything”).

Concluding comments

During the hearings, South African lawyer Adila Hassim told the ICJ judges that “genocides are never declared in advance, but this court has the benefit of the past 13 weeks of evidence that shows incontrovertibly a pattern of conduct and related intention that justifies as a plausible claim of genocidal acts.” The evidence that South Africa presents recognizes the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. It is up to the ICJ judges to determine whether temporary measures are in order. A final ruling on genocidal intent by the ICJ is likely to take years. For now, the debate continues, as does the war. 


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