A legal battle will open in the highest UN court over an accusation of Israeli genocide in Gaza

THE HAGUE, Netherlands –

A legal battle over whether Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza amounts to genocide opens Thursday at the United Nations’ top court with preliminary hearings on South Africa’s call for judges to order an immediate suspension of Gaza’s military actions. Israel. Israel categorically denies the accusation of genocide.

The case, which will likely take years to resolve, touches at the heart of Israel’s national identity as a Jewish state created after the Nazi genocide in the Holocaust.

Israel typically considers UN and international courts to be unfair and biased. But it is sending a strong legal team to the International Court of Justice to defend its military operation launched after the October 7 attacks by Hamas.

“I think they have come because they want to be exonerated and believe they can successfully resist the charge of genocide,” said Juliette McIntyre, an international law expert at the University of South Australia.

Two days of preliminary hearings at the International Court of Justice begin with South African lawyers explaining to judges why the country (a long-time supporter of the Palestinian cause) has accused Israel of “acts and omissions” that are of a “character genocidal.” in the Gaza war and has called for an immediate end to Israel’s military actions.

Thursday’s opening hearing focuses on South Africa’s request for the court to impose binding interim orders, including for Israel to halt its military campaign. A decision is likely to take weeks.

Israel’s offensive has killed more than 23,200 Palestinians in Gaza, according to the Ministry of Health in Hamas-ruled Gaza. About two-thirds of the dead are women and children, health officials say. The death toll does not distinguish between combatants and civilians.

In the October 7 attack, in which Hamas overwhelmed Israel’s defenses and leveled several communities, the militants killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians. They kidnapped about 250 more people, of whom almost half have been released.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the case “baseless” 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.

The World Court, which resolves disputes between nations, has never found a country 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.

South Africa “will have a hard time getting over the threshold” of proving genocide, McIntyre said.

“It’s not just about killing huge numbers of people,” he added in an email to The Associated Press. “There must be an intention to destroy a group of people (classified by race or religion, for example) in whole or in part, in a particular place.”

In a detailed 84-page document laying out the case late last year, South Africa alleges that Israel has demonstrated that intention.

Israel responded by insisting that it operates in accordance with international law and focuses its military actions solely against Hamas, adding that Gaza residents are not an enemy. It stated that it takes measures to minimize harm to civilians and allow humanitarian aid to enter the territory.

A statement from the Israeli Foreign Ministry called the South Africa case a “despicable and contemptuous exploitation” of the court.

The ICJ case revolves around the genocide convention that was drafted in 1948 in the wake of World War II and the murder of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. Both Israel and South Africa are signatories.

In its written submission, South Africa says it went to the court “to establish Israel’s responsibility for violations of the Genocide Convention; to hold it fully responsible under international law for those violations” and to “ensure the most urgent and complete protection possible for the Palestinians in Gaza, who remain at serious and immediate risk of suffering new and continued acts of genocide.

A team of lawyers representing South Africa will present three hours of arguments in the wood-paneled Great Hall of Justice at the World Court. Israel’s legal team will have three hours on Friday morning to refute the allegations.

Among the South African delegation will be former British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose leadership of the center-left Labor Party was tainted by accusations of anti-Semitism. He is a long-time supporter of the Palestinian cause and a fierce critic of Israel.

Human Rights Watch said the hearings will allow for scrutiny at a U.N. court of Israel’s actions.

“The South African genocide case opens a legal process at the world’s highest court to credibly examine Israel’s conduct in Gaza in hopes of reducing further suffering,” said Balkees Jarrah, the group’s associate director of international justice.

The UN court, based in the ornate Peace Palace in a leafy suburb of The Hague, deals with disputes between nations. The International Criminal Court, based a few miles away in the same Dutch city, prosecutes people for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

Israel will be back on the ICJ’s agenda next month, when hearings begin on a UN request for a non-binding advisory opinion on the legality of Israeli policies in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem.

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