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Israel rejects 'grossly distorted' genocide allegations by South Africa at UN top court

South Africa said that Israel's military operations are aimed at bringing about the "destruction of Gaza's population", citing the deaths of 23,000 Palestinians in the three-month-long war. Israel has vehemently denied the accusations and accused South Africa of supporting Hamas.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee The Hague (Netherlands) Published on: January 13, 2024 13:26 IST
Israel, International Court of Justice, South Africa, genocide case
Image Source : REUTERS The International Court of Justice hearing the genocide case against Israel.

The Hague: Israel on Friday rejected South Africa's genocide allegations as false and "grossly distorted" at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the second half of the two-day hearing as its ongoing war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip approaches the 100-day mark. By far the deadliest war in the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict, nearly 24,000 Palestinians have been killed as the former pounded the Palestinian enclave with airstrikes and conducted ground operations.

Arguing it was acting to defend itself and was fighting Hamas, not the Palestinian population, Israel called on the world court to dismiss the case as groundless and reject South Africa's request for an emergency suspension of the offensive in Gaza. "This is no genocide," lawyer Malcolm Shaw said.

As two days of hearings ended on Friday, ICJ President Joan E Donoghue said the court would rule on the request for urgent measures "as soon as possible". Meanwhile, several Jewish and Palestinian protesters rallied outside the court in support of their respective countries.

Israel's defence

Israel's defence team also argued that it was doing what it could to alleviate the humanitarian suffering in Gaza, including efforts to urge Palestinians to evacuate. It has also accused South Africa of acting as a mouthpiece for Hamas, a claim rejected by the latter country. The post-apartheid South Africa sees Israel's operations in Gaza and the West Bank as akin to the subjugation of Blacks during the apartheid regime.

Israeli legal advisor Tal Becker said the country is fighting a “war it did not start and did not want" in his remarks at a packed auditorium at the ornate Palace of Peace in The Hague. “In these circumstances, there can hardly be a charge more false and more malevolent than the allegation against Israel of genocide,” he added, noting that the horrible suffering of civilians in war was not enough to level that charge.

Israel focused on the brutality of the October 7 attacks that killed 1,200 people, presenting chilling video and audio to a hushed audience. “They tortured children in front of parents and parents in front of children, burned people, including infants alive, and systematically raped and mutilated scores of women, men and children,” Becker said.

He added that 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".

In a statement from New York, Israel’s UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan called the case a “new moral low” and said that by taking it on, “the UN and its institutions have become weapons in service of terrorist organizations.”

What did South Africa allege?

In the first half of the two-day hearing, South Africa said that Israel's military operations are aimed to bring about the "destruction of Gaza's population". Israel's retaliation to the October 7 attacks by Hamas has flattened much of the Palestinian enclave and killed more than 23,000 people, causing international alarm and calls for an urgent ceasefire.

“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,” said lawyer Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, adding that several leading politicians had made dehumanizing comments about people in Gaza.

South Africa has argued that Israel's actions have violated the 1948 Genocide Convention, which was enacted after the mass murder of Jews during the infamous Holocaust, in Nazi Germany during World War II. In its written filing, South Africa says it went to the court “to establish Israel's responsibility for violations of the Genocide Convention; to hold it fully accountable under international law for those violations" and to "ensure the urgent and fullest possible protection for Palestinians in Gaza who remain at grave and immediate risk of continuing and further acts of genocide.

Israel has vehemently denied the accusations brought by South Africa in one of the biggest cases ever to come before an international court. Although Israel considers the UN and international tribunals unfair and biased, it is sending a strong legal team to the ICJ to defend its military operation launched in the aftermath of the October 7 attacks by Hamas, to show how seriously it takes the case.

"Today, again, we saw an upside down world, in which the State of Israel is accused of genocide at a time when it is fighting genocide... Israel is fighting against murderous terrorists who committed horrific crimes against humanity...A terrorist organization carried out the worst crime against the Jewish People since the Holocaust, and now someone comes to defend it in the name of the Holocaust. What brazen gall," said Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu in a statement on Thursday.

Germany offers support to Israel

The German government on Friday said it wants to intervene in the proceedings on Israel’s behalf, saying there was “no basis whatsoever” for an accusation of genocide against Israel. "Hamas terrorists brutally attacked, tortured, killed and kidnapped innocent people in Israel...Since then, Israel has been defending itself against the inhumane attack by Hamas," said German government spokesperson Steffen Hebestreit.

Under the court’s rules, if Germany files a declaration of intervention in the case, it will be able to make legal arguments on behalf of Israel. This show of support carries symbolic significance given Germany's Nazi history. Hebestreit said Germany “sees itself as particularly committed to the Convention against Genocide".

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the announcement, saying the gesture "touches all of Israel’s citizens". Even when acting in self-defence, countries are required by international law to follow the rules of war, and judges must decide if Israel has.

The White House declined to comment on how it might respond if the court determines Israel committed genocide. But National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby called the allegations "unfounded". “That’s not a word that ought to be thrown around lightly, and we certainly don’t believe that it applies here,” Kirby said.

What will happen next?

The court is expected to rule on possible emergency measures later this month but its verdict on the genocide allegations is likely to take several years. The world court has never judged a country to be responsible for genocide. Although the ICJ's decisions are final and without appeal but the court has no way to enforce them.

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. Despite being considered the UN's highest court for resolving disputes between countries, its rulings are sometimes ignored.

(with inputs from agencies)

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