ICJ hears South Africa’s genocide case against Israel over Gaza war

Israel faces accusations that it is subjecting Palestinians in Gaza to genocidal acts, as the International Court of Justice (ICJ) commenced a hearing on South Africa’s genocide case against it on Thursday.

Amid Israel’s ongoing three-month war in Gaza, more than 23,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, have been killed, lawyers told the top United Nations court. Most of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million has been displaced, and an Israeli blockade severely limiting food, fuel and medicine has caused a humanitarian “catastrophe”, according to the UN.

South Africa’s case in The Hague argues that Israel violated the 1948 genocide convention, established in the aftermath of the Holocaust, which mandates that all countries prevent the recurrence of such crimes. It filed an 84-page document with the court detailing acts it says amount to genocide in Gaza.

Adila Hassim, a lawyer representing South Africa, told the ICJ that Israel had breached Article II of the Genocide Convention, which included the “mass killing” of Palestinians in Gaza.

“Israel deployed 6,000 bombs per week … No one is spared. Not even newborns. UN chiefs have described it as a graveyard for children,” she said.

“Nothing will stop the suffering, except an order from this court,” she added. South Africa has demanded that the ICJ order Israel to suspend its military campaign.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators hold Palestinian flags as they protest near the International Court of Justice (ICJ
A pro-Palestinian demonstrator holds a placard during a protest near the International Court of Justice [Thilo Schmuelgen/Reuters]

Also called the World Court, the ICJ is the highest UN legal body that can adjudicate issues between member states.

Alanna O’Malley, a professor of UN and international history, told Al Jazeera that South Africa’s case was a “historic” one.

“We see from the invocation of the various articles of the Genocide Convention by the South African legal team the ways in which they are going to structurally present this case,” she said outside the court in The Hague, calling it “extremely compelling”.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said his nation was pursuing the case of what it called “the ongoing slaughter of the people of Gaza”.

Israel will respond to the allegations made by South Africa on Friday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that hypocrisy and lies had been presented to the UN’s top court, adding that South Africa’s accusation against Israel of genocide in Gaza could only happen in a world turned upside-down.

“We are fighting terrorists, we are fighting lies,” Netanyahu said. “Today we saw an upside-down world. Israel is accused of genocide while it is fighting against genocide.”

“Israel is fighting murderous terrorists who carried out crimes against humanity: They slaughtered, they raped, they burned, they dismembered, they beheaded – children, women, elderly, young men and women,” he said. “The hypocrisy of South Africa screams to the heavens.”

‘Genocidal intent’

Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, another lawyer for South Africa, tackled the issue of Israel’s “genocidal intent” against the Palestinians in Gaza, usually the most difficult thing to prove in a case of this kind.

“Israel’s political leaders, military commanders and persons holding official positions have systematically and in explicit terms declared their genocidal intent,” he said.

“These statements are then repeated by soldiers on the ground in Gaza as they engage in the destruction of Palestinians and the physical infrastructure of Gaza.”

Ngcukaitobi brought to the court’s attention Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s comments on October 28, 2023, urging ground troops preparing to enter Gaza to “remember what Amalek has done to you“.

“This refers to the Biblical command by God to Saul for the retaliatory destruction of an entire group of people,” the lawyer said.

“The evidence of genocidal intent is not only chilling, it is also overwhelming and incontrovertible,” he added.

Israel has rejected the accusations of genocide as baseless, with President Isaac Herzog calling the case “preposterous” and saying it constitutes a “blood libel”.

On Thursday, Israel’s foreign ministry spokesman, Lior Haiat, called the case “hypocrisy” and accused South Africa of being the “legal arm” of Hamas.

‘Stop genocide’

Gaza resident Aya Daloul said she hoped for a favourable decision and for the ICJ to help “stop the Israeli genocide against the Palestinians”.

“The war must come to an end. We need to go back home and live in freedom and peace,” she told Al Jazeera.

Outside the ICJ, a large number of demonstrators gathered to express solidarity with Palestinians and call for an end to Israel’s war, with people holding Palestinian flags and chanting occasionally: “Stop, stop genocide”, “We are all Palestinians” and “Boycott Israel”.

“I’m here because we just can’t assist this genocide every day on social media and not do anything,” said Kim Wouters, a demonstrator who travelled from Brussels.

Meanwhile, South Africans are feeling “a lot of pride” over the legal action taken by their country, said Al Jazeera’s Fahmida Miller, reporting from Pretoria.

“What is happening in Gaza resonates very deeply with many South Africans because of their own history of apartheid, subjugation, oppression, institutionalised racism and the challenges South Africans have had to overcome,” she said.

White House national security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Thursday that the United States sees no basis for South Africa’s allegation of genocide against Israel over civilian deaths in Gaza.

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