UN’s top court hears genocide case against Israel over Gaza war

The UN’s top court has opened hearings in a case in which South Africa is demanding an emergency suspension of Israel's military campaign in Gaza, where it says Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians.

In its application to the court, South Africa described Israel’s actions in Gaza since the Hamas attack of 7 October as “genocidal in character because they are intended to bring about the destruction of a substantial part of the Palestinian national, racial and ethnical group”.

It added: “The acts in question include killing Palestinians in Gaza, causing them serious bodily and mental harm, and inflicting on them conditions of life calculated to bring about their physical destruction.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a video statement ahead of the hearing, defending his country's actions in its war against Hamas, whose attack inside Israel killed 1,200 people and saw another 240 taken hostage. According to health officials in Hamas-run Gaza, over the past three months, more than 23,000 Palestinians have been killed, with a majority of the casualties being women and children.

“Israel has no intention of permanently occupying Gaza or displacing its civilian population," Mr Netanyahu 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." Although it normally considers U.N. and international tribunals unfair and biased, Israel has sent a strong legal team to defend its military operation.

On Thursday, the ICJ will not determine if Israel is committing genocide in Gaza but instead will evaluate the strength of South Africa’s case on the emergency measures. These measures would “protect against further, severe and irreparable harm” to Palestinians and “‘to ensure Israel’s compliance with its obligations under the Genocide Convention not to engage in genocide, and to prevent and to punish genocide”, the 84-page application against Israel stated.

South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to apartheid. He recalled South Africa’s diplomats from Israel and said that the world had “sat helplessly and watched as intensifying airstrikes on Gaza and the West Bank have destroyed schools, health facilities, ambulances and civilian infrastructure and supposedly safe roads travelling to the south of Gaza”.

Earlier, a statement from South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) stated that “South Africa is gravely concerned with the plight of civilians caught in the present Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip due to the indiscriminate use of force and forcible removal of inhabitants”, adding that the country has “repeatedly stated that it condemns all violence and attacks against all civilians, including Israelis”.

US 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.

Israel has continuously dismissed growing international appeals for a ceasefire, asserting that the war will persist until the Hamas militant group in Gaza is eliminated.

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.

“There is no end in sight to the mass human suffering, devastation and destruction we are witnessing on an hourly basis in Gaza. The risk that Gaza would be transformed from the world’s biggest open-air prison to a giant graveyard has, crushingly, materialized right before our eyes,” Agnes Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International said in a statement.

“As the United States continues to use its veto power to block the UN Security Council from calling for a ceasefire, war crimes and crimes against humanity are rife, and the risk of genocide is real. States have a positive obligation to prevent and punish genocide and other atrocity crimes.”

It continued: “The ICJ’s examination of Israel’s conduct is a vital step for the protection of Palestinian lives, to restore trust and credibility in the universal application of international law, and to pave the way for justice and reparation for victims.”

South Africa "will have a hard time getting over the threshold" of proving genocide, Juliette McIntyre, an expert on international law at the University of South Australia said. "It's not simply a matter of killing enormous numbers of people," she told the Associated Press. "There must be an intent to destroy a group of people [classified by race or religion for example] in whole or in part, in a particular place."