South Africa has accused Israel of committing genocide against the Palestinians in Gaza at the UN’s highest court, a charge that Israel has vehemently denied as “a grossly distorted story” and “libelous”.
The case was filed by South Africa at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in December and heard by the judges on Thursday. South Africa demanded that the court order Israel to stop its military operation in Gaza, which it claimed was intended to “bring about the destruction of the population” of Gaza.
Israel, however, dismissed the allegations of genocide as unfounded and said that South Africa was acting as a mouthpiece for Hamas, which seeks Israel’s destruction and is widely designated as a terrorist group in the West.
Israel’s legal adviser for its Foreign Ministry, Tal Becker, told the court on Friday that Israel’s military actions in Gaza were acts of self-defence against Hamas and “other terrorist organisations”. He said that South Africa’s interpretation of events was “grossly distorted” and that: “If there were acts of genocide, they have been perpetrated against Israel.”
He also argued that by asking the court to order the halt of the Gaza military operation, “the applicant seeks to thwart Israel’s inherent right to defend itself… and render Israel defenceless.”
Israel’s war in Gaza began after a cross-border attack by Hamas militants on October 7, in which Israeli officials said 1,200 people were killed, mainly civilians, and 240 taken hostage back to Gaza.
The case has drawn protests from both sides of the conflict. Palestinian supporters with flags marched through the Hague and planned to watch the proceedings on a giant screen in front of the Peace Palace. Israeli supporters were holding a gathering of family members of hostages taken by Hamas.
The ICJ’s rulings are binding and final, but the court has no means of enforcing them.
The 1948 Genocide Convention, adopted after the Nazi Holocaust that killed millions of Jews, defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.
The Israeli offensive in Gaza has displaced almost all of the 2.3 million people living there at least once, creating a humanitarian crisis.
South Africa, which emerged from apartheid in 1994, has been a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause, a bond that was forged when the Palestine Liberation Organisation led by Yasser Arafat backed the African National Congress’ fight against white-minority rule.
The court is expected to decide on possible emergency measures later this month, but the genocide allegations will take much longer to resolve.