Israel picks Holocaust survivor judge for genocide case, surprising some | ET REALITY


As Israel prepares this week to face accusations at the International Court of Justice that it has committed genocide in the Gaza war, it has appointed one of the country’s most prominent jurists as an ad hoc judge to sit on the court in its name.

The election of Aharon Barak, a retired chief justice of Israel’s Supreme Court who fled Nazi-occupied Lithuania as a child, was immediately praised by many Israelis after its announcement on Sunday, and met with surprise and even criticism from some. of others.

While Barak, 87, is an internationally respected legal authority, he has also been at the center of a deeply polarizing domestic legal furor over the past year. He was outspoken in his opposition to the right-wing government’s judicial reform plan, which aims to limit the powers of the court. Barak, who had long been a symbol of judicial overreach for those who wanted to control the court, encouraged nationwide protests against the plan.

Simcha Rothman, a right-wing Israeli lawmaker and a driving force behind judicial reform efforts, curtly responded to the appointment in a social media post with the words: “My resounding silence.”

The International Court of Justice in The Hague, the highest legal body of the United Nations, hears disputes between states. To hear the Gaza case, which was brought by South Africa, its regular panel of 15 judges will be expanded to 17, with an additional judge appointed by each side.

Both South Africa and Israel signed the 1948 Genocide Convention, and South Africa accuses Israel of violating that agreement. South Africa accused Israel last month of trying to “destroy Palestinians in Gaza” as it hits the enclave in retaliation for the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attacks on Israel.

The Israeli government has rejected South Africa’s accusations as a “blood libel” that has no factual or legal basis, and has described the case as a “despicable and contemptuous exploitation” of the court.

The first hearings are scheduled for Thursday and Friday. As an emergency measure, South Africa calls for an immediate end to the Israeli offensive. But final court rulings could take years.

Barak’s appointment to hear a genocide case has particular resonance because he is a Holocaust survivor. Born in 1936 in Lithuania, as a child he was smuggled in a sack from the ghetto of his Nazi-occupied hometown of Kovno, now called Kaunas. He emigrated with his parents to Palestine in 1947, the year before the founding of Israel.

After serving as Israel’s attorney general and negotiator at the Camp David peace talks with Egypt in 1978, Barak was appointed to Israel’s Supreme Court and served as president until his retirement in 2006.

According to analysts, many of his legal decisions, particularly those related to terrorism and security, were considered innovative and crucial to the international prestige accorded to Israel’s top court. One example was a ruling he led as chief justice in 1999 that banned most uses of torture by security services to obtain information from suspected terrorists.

Amichai Cohen, a law professor and director of a program on national security and law at the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent research group, said Barak’s appointment was notable for two reasons.

“First of all, the appointment shows that Israel is taking the process seriously and doing everything possible to succeed and not fail,” he said.

“The second point is the man, of course,” Professor Cohen added.

The vilification of Barak by right-wing supporters of the government’s judicial reform plan only strengthens his status and credibility as a judge who will rule objectively, based on the law, Professor Cohen said.

“This shows that he is an independent figure who is not an emissary of the Israeli government,” he said.

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