Accused of committing genocide against Palestinians, Israel staunchly defended its military operations in Gaza at the United Nations’ highest court on Friday. A day prior, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vehemently dismissed the allegations as hypocritical, decrying them as an “upside-down world” while facing charges of genocide. Israel, established in the aftermath of the Holocaust, faced the accusations brought by South Africa in one of the largest cases before an international court, drawing global attention and protesters from both sides.
South African lawyers urged the court on Thursday to immediately halt Israeli military operations in Gaza, home to 2.3 million Palestinians. While a decision on this request is expected in the coming weeks, the full case may extend over several years.
“We live at a time when words are cheap in an age of social media and identity politics. The temptation to reach for the most outrageous term to vilify and demonize has become, for many, irresistible,” expressed Israeli legal advisor Tal Becker at the Palace of Peace in The Hague.
Becker highlighted, “South Africa has regrettably put before the court a profoundly distorted, factual, and legal picture. The entirety of its case hinges on a deliberately curated, decontextualized, and manipulative description of the reality of current hostilities.”
While Israel commonly boycotts international tribunals, citing unfairness and bias, it has taken the unusual step of sending a high-level legal team to address the gravity of the accusations.
At the core of the case are Israel’s actions in Gaza, where a massive air and ground assault followed the crossing of Hamas militants into Israel on Oct. 7. The assailants killed around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducted over 250 individuals, with more than half still in captivity. According to Gaza’s Health Ministry, over 23,000 people have been killed during the military campaign, with nearly 85% of Gaza’s population displaced, a quarter facing starvation, and significant areas reduced to rubble.
South Africa contends that Israel’s actions amount to genocide and are part of decades of oppression against Palestinians. Lawyer TembekaNgcukaitobi asserted, “The scale of destruction in Gaza, the targeting of family homes and civilians, the war being a war on children — all make clear that genocidal intent is both understood and has been put into practice. The articulated intent is the destruction of Palestinian life.”
Netanyahu rejected these claims, stating, “This is an upside-down world — the state of Israel is accused of genocide while it is fighting genocide. The hypocrisy of South Africa screams to the heavens.”
Contrary to South Africa’s allegations, Israel argues that it is acting in legitimate self-defense. The court must assess whether Israel’s operations comply with international agreements governing the conduct of war, even in response to severe attacks.
While the court’s findings are binding, it remains uncertain if Israel would comply with any order to halt military operations. Non-compliance could lead to U.N. sanctions, potentially vetoed by the United States, Israel’s steadfast ally. The White House refrained from commenting on potential responses if the court determines Israel committed genocide, with National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby dismissing the allegations as “unfounded.”
The case delves into one of the world’s most intractable conflicts, prompting protests for a second consecutive day outside the court. Pro-Israeli demonstrators commemorated hostages held by Hamas, while over 100 pro-Palestinian protesters voiced their concerns.
This case strikes at the core of Israel’s national identity, founded as a Jewish state in the aftermath of the Nazi Holocaust. Israel contends it is combating a formidable enemy responsible for the deadliest attack on its territory since its establishment in 1948. The nation asserts adherence to international law and efforts to minimize harm to civilians, attributing the high death toll to Hamas militants operating in residential areas.
South Africa seeks to broaden the case beyond the Israel-Hamas war, highlighting a history of systematic oppression and violence against Palestinians over the last 76 years. Justice Minister Ronald Lamola emphasized, “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.”
Approximately two-thirds of the casualties in Gaza are women and children, according to health officials. The case, unprecedented in its scope, raises questions about the responsibilities of nations in situations resembling genocide. The world court, which adjudicates disputes between nations, has never previously held a country responsible for genocide, with the closest instance being in 2007 when it ruled that Serbia “violated the obligation to prevent genocide” during the Bosnian enclave massacre in Srebrenica.