Germany Rebuffs Claim Its Arms Sales to Israel Abet Genocide in Gaza

Germany on Tuesday defended itself against accusations that its arms sales to Israel were abetting genocide in Gaza, arguing at the International Court of Justice that most of the equipment it has supplied since Oct. 7 was nonlethal and that it has also been one of the largest donors of humanitarian aid to the Palestinians.

The case at the U.N. court in The Hague pits Germany, whose support for Israel is considered an inviolable part of the country’s atonement for the Holocaust, against Nicaragua, which brought the allegations to the court and is a longstanding supporter of the Palestinian cause.

Debate over Israel’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip has been muted in Germany, whose leadership calls support for Israel a “Staatsräson,” a national reason for existence, and where people have historically been reluctant to question that support publicly. But the mounting death toll and humanitarian crisis in Gaza have led some German officials to ask whether that unwavering backing has gone too far.

Lawyers for Germany said Tuesday that the allegations brought by Nicaragua had “no basis in fact or law” and rested on an assessment of military conduct by Israel, which is not a party to the case. Tania von Uslar-Gleichen, an official at Germany’s Foreign Ministry and lead counsel in the case, told the 15-judge bench that Nicaragua had “rushed this case to court on the basis of the flimsiest evidence.”

On Monday, Nicaragua argued that Germany was facilitating the commission of genocide against Palestinians in Gaza by providing Israel with military and financial aid, and it asked for emergency measures ordering the German government to halt its support. The court is expected to decide within weeks whether to order emergency measures.

Some German news media said it was absurd that Germany should have to answer to accusations from Nicaragua, whose authoritarian president, Daniel Ortega, has jailed critics or forced them into exile, and has been accused in a United Nations report of crimes against humanity.

“Ortega, of all people, now appears to want to campaign internationally for the observance of human rights,” an opinion article in the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said.

Germany is Israel’s second-largest arms supplier after the United States. In 2023, Berlin approved military equipment to Israel valued at 326.5 million euros, or about $353.7 million, according to figures published by the economics ministry. That is roughly 10 times the sum approved the previous year.

The case in The Hague coincides with growing concern in Berlin that unconditional support for Israel has damaged Germany’s other important international relationships, especially as outrage at the civilian death toll in the war has grown around the world.

Stefan Talmon, a professor of international law at the University of Bonn, said the case has provided a rare opportunity for some Germans to discuss their discomfort with the Israeli offensive, which Gazan health authorities say has killed more than 33,000 Palestinians.

The case “put the plight of the Palestinians more in the sight of ordinary Germans,” he said.

Sudha David-Whilp, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, said, “There is always this concern over how not to slide into antisemitism, but there shouldn’t be this atmosphere where we can’t have this debate at all.”

Germany and its allies, she said, “see a need to defend other democracies like Israel but at the same time want to make sure their values are respected.”

Analysts say that the German government is slowly toughening its stance toward Israel in any case, not because of the court case, but largely because of growing criticism of Israel’s conduct of the war from its main ally, the United States.

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock recently said that Germany would send a delegation to Israel as a reminder of the duty to abide by international humanitarian law even in war.

For a country whose leaders have long maintained that the country’s past crimes give it a special duty to protect against genocides, it has been particularly jarring to be taken to court and accused of complicity in a genocide.

The proceedings in The Hague, which concluded Tuesday, were the third time this year that the U.N. court — usually a low-profile venue for disputes between nations — became a forum for nations to put pressure on Israel and support Palestinians.

The court heard arguments by South Africa in February that Israel was committing genocide in Gaza and ordered the Israeli government to take steps to prevent such atrocities. The court has not ruled on whether genocide was in fact taking place, an allegation that Israel has strongly denied, but it instructed Israel to take steps to prevent it.

In a separate case, the court heard arguments on the legality of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, based on a request made more than a year earlier by the U.N. General Assembly.

Legal experts have questioned whether the international court has jurisdiction in the case brought by Nicaragua. Lawyers for Germany argued on Tuesday that it does not, and should throw the case out.

They also said that Germany has tried to balance the interests of both Israel and the Palestinians, and presented figures showing that Berlin was among the largest individual donors to the U.N. and other agencies that provide humanitarian aid to Gaza.

“Germany has always been a strong supporter of the rights of the Palestinian people,” Ms. von Uslar-Gleichen said. “This is, alongside Israel’s security, the second principle that has guided Germany’s response to the Middle East conflict in general, and to its current escalation in particular.”

Christian Tams, a lawyer for Germany, denied Nicaragua’s claims that Berlin had increased weapons supplies to Israel since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack. He argued that since then, Germany had approved four export licenses for military equipment, with three of the licenses for training and testing matériel not suitable for combat. The fourth license was for 3,000 portable antitank weapons.

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