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Israel defends itself at the U.N.'s top court against allegations of genocide

British jurist Malcolm Shaw, right, legal adviser to Israel's Foreign Ministry Tal Becker, left, look on during the opening of the hearings at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024.
Patrick Post
/
AP
British jurist Malcolm Shaw, right, legal adviser to Israel's Foreign Ministry Tal Becker, left, look on during the opening of the hearings at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Accused of committing genocide against Palestinians, Israel defended its war in Gaza at the United Nations' highest court Friday, a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blasted the allegations as hypocrisy that "screams to the heavens."

Israel, which was founded in the aftermath of the Holocaust, has vehemently denied the accusations brought by South Africa in one of the biggest cases ever to come before an international court, one that has drawn international attention and protesters from both sides to the courthouse.

South African lawyers asked the court Thursday to order an immediate halt to Israeli military operations in the besieged coastal territory that is home to 2.3 million Palestinians. A decision on that request will probably take weeks, though the full case is likely to last years.

"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 a packed auditorium at the ornate Palace of Peace 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."

Israel often boycotts international tribunals and U.N. investigations, saying they are unfair and biased. But, in a sign of how seriously they regard the case, Israeli leaders have taken the rare step of sending a high-level legal team.

At the heart of the case are Israel's actions in Gaza, where it launched a massive air and ground assault after Hamas militants crossed into Israel on Oct. 7, storming through communities and killing some 1,200 people, mainly civilians. The assailants also abducted around 250 people, over half of whom are still held captive.

More than 23,000 people in Gaza have been killed during the military campaign, according to the the Health Ministry in the territory, which is run by Hamas. Nearly 85% of Gaza's people have been driven their homes, a quarter of the territory's residents face starvation, and much of northern Gaza has been reduced to rubble.

South Africa says this amounts to genocide and is part of decades of Israeli oppression of Palestinians.

"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 Thursday.

The case's "distinctive feature" was "the reiteration and repetition of genocidal speech throughout every sphere of the state in Israel," he said.

Netanyahu dismissed those arguments.

"This is an upside-down world — the state of Israel is accused of genocide while it is fighting genocide," the prime minister said Thursday in a video statement. "The hypocrisy of South Africa screams to the heavens."

Instead Israel says it is acting in legitimate self-defense. International agreements still bind countries to the rules of war, even when responding to an attack, no matter how serious, and the court must decide if Israel's operations have indeed remained within those strictures.

Although the court's findings are considered binding, it was unclear whether Israel would heed any order to halt the fighting. If it doesn't, it could face U.N. sanctions, although those may be blocked by a veto from the United States, Israel's staunch ally.

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."

The extraordinary case goes to the core of one of the world's most intractable conflicts — and for the second day protesters rallied outside the court. Pro-Israeli demonstrators set up a table near the court grounds for a Sabbath meal with empty seats commemorating the hostages still being held by Hamas. Nearby, over 100 pro-Palestinian protesters waved flags and shouted protests.

The case strikes at the heart of Israel's national identity, which is rooted in the country's creation as a Jewish state after the Nazi slaughter of 6 million Jews during World War II.

Israel says it is battling a fierce enemy that carried out the deadliest attack on its territory since the country was founded in 1948. Its leaders insist they are following international law and doing their utmost to avoid harm to civilians. Israel blames Hamas for the high death toll, saying the militants operate in residential areas.

The case also evokes issues central to South Africa's own identity: Its governing party, the African National Congress, has long compared Israel's policies in Gaza and the West Bank to its own history under the apartheid regime of white minority rule, which restricted most Black people to "homelands" before ending in 1994.

South Africa sought to broaden the case beyond the Israel-Hamas war.

"The violence and the destruction in Palestine and Israel did not begin on Oct. 7, 2023. The Palestinians have experienced systematic oppression and violence for the last 76 years," said South African Justice Minister Ronald Lamola.

"Mothers, fathers, children, siblings, grandparents, aunts, cousins are often all killed together. This killing is nothing short of destruction of Palestinian life. It is inflicted deliberately. No one is spared. Not even newborn babies," said South African lawyer Hassim.

About two-thirds of the dead in Gaza are women and children, according to health officials there. The death toll does not distinguish between combatants and civilians.

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.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press