Judges at the International Court of Justice on Thursday opened two days of legal arguments in a case filed by South Africa accusing Israel of genocide in its Gaza war. Israel rejects the allegation.
Lawyers for South Africa asked judges at Thursday’s hearings to impose binding preliminary orders on Israel, including an immediate halt to Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.
ICJ President Joan E. Donoghue said that South Africa argues that Israeli actions after the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas “are genocidal in character” and that Israel ”failed to prevent genocide and is committing genocide.” She said South Africa also claims Israel violates “other fundamental obligations under the (U.N.) Genocide Convention.”
Ahead of the proceedings, hundreds of pro-Israeli protesters marched close to the courthouse with banners saying “Bring them home,” referring to the hostages still held by Hamas. Among the crowds, people were holding Israeli and Dutch flags.
Outside the court, others were protesting and waving the Palestinian flag in support of South Africa’s move.
The dispute strikes at the heart of Israel’s national identity as a Jewish state created in the aftermath of the Nazi genocide in the Holocaust.
It also involves South Africa’s identity: Its governing party, the African National Congress, has long compared Israel’s policies in Gaza and the West Bank to its own history under the apartheid regime of white minority rule, which restricted most Blacks to “homelands” before ending in 1994.
Although it normally considers U.N. and international tribunals unfair and biased, Israel has sent a strong legal team to defend its military operation launched in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas.
South Africa immediately sought to broaden the case beyond the narrow confines of the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.
“The violence and the destruction in Palestine and Israel did not begin on Oct. 7, 2023. The Palestinians have experienced systematic oppression and violence for the last 76 years,” said South African Justice Minister Ronald Lamola.
Vusimuzi Madonsela, the co-leader of South Africa’s delegation said that “at the outset, South Africa acknowledges that the genocidal acts and omissions by the state of Israel inevitably form part of a continuum of illegal acts perpetrated against the people of Palestinian people. since 1948,” when Israel declared its independence.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a video statement Wednesday night defending his country’s actions and insisted they had nothing to do with genocide.
“Israel has no intention of permanently occupying Gaza or displacing its civilian population,” he said. “Israel is fighting Hamas terrorists, not the Palestinian population, and we are doing so in full compliance with international law.”
He said the Israeli military is “doing its utmost to minimize civilian casualties, while Hamas is doing its utmost to maximize them by using Palestinian civilians as human shields.”
In the opening session in The Hague, South Africa called for the court to issue an interim order for an immediate halt to Israel’s military actions. A decision will likely take weeks.
Israel’s offensive has killed more than 23,200 Palestinians in Gaza, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza. About two-thirds of the dead are women and children, health officials say. The death toll does not distinguish between combatants and civilians.
“Mothers, fathers, children, siblings, grandparents, aunts, cousins are often all killed together. This killing is nothing short of destruction of Palestinian life. It is inflicted deliberately. No one is spared. Not even newborn babies,” said South African lawyer Adila Hassim.
“Nothing will stop the suffering except an order from this court. Without an indication of provisional measures, the atrocities will continue with the Israeli Defense Force indicating that it intends pursuing this course of action for at least a year,” she said.
Finding food, water, medicine and working bathrooms has become a daily struggle for Palestinians living in Gaza. Last week, the U.N. humanitarian chief called Gaza “uninhabitable” and said, “People are facing the highest levels of food insecurity ever recorded (and) famine is around the corner.” Israel itself has always focused attention on the Oct. 7 attacks themselves, when Hamas fighters stormed through several communities in Israel and killed some 1,200 people, mainly civilians. They abducted around 250 others, nearly half of whom have been released.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken dismissed the case as “ meritless ” during a visit to Tel Aviv on Tuesday.
“It is particularly galling, given that those who are attacking Israel — Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis, as well as their supporter Iran — continue to call for the annihilation of Israel and the mass murder of Jews,” he said.
The World Court, which rules on disputes between nations, has never judged a country to be responsible for genocide. The closest it came was in 2007 when it ruled that Serbia “violated the obligation to prevent genocide” in the July 1995 massacre by Bosnian Serb forces of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica.
The International Criminal Court, based a few miles (kilometers) away in The Hague, prosecutes individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
The case revolves around the genocide convention that was drawn up in 1948 in the aftermath of World War II and the murder of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. Both Israel and South Africa are signatories.
Israel is back on the International Court of Justice’s docket next month when hearings open into a U.N. request for a non-binding advisory opinion on the legality of Israeli policies in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.