In a significant legal battle, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) commenced two days of hearings on Thursday, where South Africa accuses Israel of genocide in connection to its Gaza war. Israel vehemently rejects these allegations.
Lawyers representing South Africa urged the judges to issue binding preliminary orders against Israel, demanding an immediate cessation of its military campaign in Gaza. ICJ President Joan E. Donoghue outlined South Africa’s claims, stating that the country argues Israeli actions post the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas “are genocidal in character” and that Israel “failed to prevent genocide and is committing genocide.” Donoghue added that South Africa contends Israel violates “other fundamental obligations under the (U.N.) Genocide Convention.”
Pro-Israeli protesters, advocating for the release of hostages held by Hamas, gathered near the courthouse with banners reading “Bring them home.” Among the crowd, individuals waved Israeli and Dutch flags. Simultaneously, outside the court, protesters waved the Palestinian flag in support of South Africa’s stance.
The dispute strikes at the core of Israel’s national identity, being a Jewish state formed in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Additionally, it delves into South Africa’s identity, with the African National Congress comparing Israel’s policies to its own history under the apartheid regime.
Despite its usual skepticism toward U.N. and international tribunals, Israel assembled a robust legal team to defend its military operations launched after the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas. Juliette McIntyre, an international law expert, noted, “I think they have come because they want to be exonerated and think they can successfully resist the accusation of genocide.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a video statement defending his country’s actions, emphasizing that Israel has no intention of permanently occupying Gaza or displacing its civilian population. He asserted that Israel is targeting Hamas terrorists and operating in compliance with international law, accusing Hamas of using Palestinian civilians as human shields.
In response to the case filed last year, the Palestinian Authority’s foreign ministry urged the court to take immediate action to protect the Palestinian people and call on Israel to halt its onslaught. The two days of preliminary hearings began with South Africa’s lawyers explaining the accusations against Israel and why they are calling for an immediate halt to military actions.
According to the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza, Israel’s offensive has resulted in the deaths of over 23,200 Palestinians, with about two-thirds being women and children. The death toll does not distinguish between combatants and civilians. In the Oct. 7 attack, Hamas fighters killed approximately 1,200 people in several Israeli communities and abducted around 250 others.
During a visit to Tel Aviv, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken dismissed the case as “meritless,” emphasizing the ongoing threats against Israel from groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis, and Iran.
The ICJ, responsible for resolving disputes between nations, has never ruled a country responsible for genocide. The closest instance was in 2007 when it determined that Serbia “violated the obligation to prevent genocide” in the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica.
The case hinges on the 1948 genocide convention, a response to World War II and the Holocaust, with both Israel and South Africa as signatories. South Africa’s detailed 84-page document argues that Israel has demonstrated intent to commit genocide.
South Africa seeks the court’s establishment of Israel’s responsibility for violations of the Genocide Convention, holding it fully accountable under international law, and ensuring protection for Palestinians in Gaza. A team of South African lawyers presented three hours of arguments, and Israel’s legal team will respond on the following day.
Human Rights Watch views these hearings as an opportunity to scrutinize Israel’s actions. Balkees Jarrah, the group’s associate international justice director, stated, “South Africa’s genocide case unlocks a legal process at the world’s highest court to credibly examine Israel’s conduct in Gaza in the hopes of curtailing further suffering.”
Israel will face another ICJ session next month, where hearings will 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.