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Israel defends itself at UN's top court amid allegations of genocide by South Africa

In a show of how seriously it takes the case, Israel is sending a strong legal team to the ICJ to defend its military operation that came after the October 7 attacks. Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the attacks as "hypocrisy and lies" while accusing South Africa of supporting Hamas.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee The Hague (Netherlands) Updated on: January 12, 2024 15:58 IST
South Africa, Israel, genocide case, International court of justice
Image Source : AP The International Court of Justice began hearing the genocide case against Israel filed by South Africa.

The Hague: Israel is set to make its defence against accusations of genocide by South Africa during its war in Gaza at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on Friday, a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed the allegations as "hypocrisy and lies". The landmark trial began on Thursday, where South Africa demanded the UN's top court to order an emergency suspension of Israel's devastating military campaign.

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.

“We live at a time when words are cheap in an age of social media and identity politics. The temptation to reach for the most outrageous term to vilify and demonize has become, for many, irresistible,” Israeli legal advisor Tal Becker told the court in the Hague.

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.”

"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 Netanyahu in a statement on Thursday.

"Where was South Africa when millions of people were being murdered and uprooted from their homes in Syria and Yemen, by whom? By Hamas's partners. The world is upside down. Where were you?...This is not a country which has a cent both physically and morally to spend criticising others," he added.

What did South Africa say?

South Africa has argued that Israel's actions have violated the 1948 Genocide Convention, which was enacted after the Holocaust in Nazi Germany during World War II. It also highlighted Israel's sustained bombing campaign, which has killed more than 23,000 people and displaced almost the entire 2.3 million population of the enclave.

“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,” lawyer Tembeka Ngcukaitobi said in opening statements on Thursday.

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.

Palestinians have hailed Thursday's hearing as a watershed moment in the devastating three-month-long military campaign against the population of Gaza. A few dozen Palestinians and senior officials paid tribute to South Africa at a city square named after Nelson Mandela, who led the anti-apartheid struggle and regularly discussed the Palestinian issue before his death.

What will happen next?

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.

The war strained relations between the two countries as South Africa passed a resolution to sever diplomatic ties with Israel and close the Israeli embassy until it stops its attack on Gaza, which was voted 248-91 in favour of the move. Israel recalled its ambassador to South Africa Eliav Belotserkovsky, back “for consultations” after South Africa accused the country of committing a genocide in the Gaza Strip.

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 ruled 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.

Despite being considered the UN's highest court for resolving disputes between countries, its rulings are sometimes ignored. In March 2022 the court ordered Russia to immediately halt its military campaign in Ukraine, which fell on deaf ears.

In this case, the court will not rule at that time on the genocide allegations, as it will only rule on those in its final judgment which is likely several years off. The ICJ's decisions are final and without appeal but the court has no way to enforce them. The world court has never adjudged a country to be responsible for genocide.

(with inputs from agencies)

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