Israel says it will defend itself against genocide accusations at world court filed by South Africa

Its decision to respond to the charge signals that the government is concerned about the potential damage to its reputation

Israeli soldiers
Israeli soldiers prepare shells near a mobile artillery unit, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Israel, January 2, 2024.AMIR COHEN (REUTERS)

Israel will defend itself before the United Nation’s top court against charges that it has engaged in genocide of Palestinians in Gaza, officials said Tuesday, setting the stage for what is likely to be a landmark case in international law.

South Africa launched the case Friday at the International Court of Justice at The Hague, Netherlands, saying the Israeli military campaign targeting Hamas has resulted in enough death, destruction and humanitarian crisis in Gaza to meet the threshold of genocide under international law. South Africa asked the court to order Israel to halt its attacks in Gaza.

Israel rarely cooperates in international court cases against it, dismissing the United Nations and international tribunals as unfair and biased. Its decision to respond to the charge signals that the government is concerned about the potential damage to its reputation.

The genocide charge strikes at the heart of Israel’s national identity. The country sees itself as a bulwark of security for Jews after the Holocaust killed 6 million Jews, and world support for Israel’s creation in Palestine in 1948 was deeply rooted in outrage over Nazi atrocities.

The convention against genocide was drawn up by world powers the same year in hopes of preventing similar atrocities.

Eylon Levy, an official in the Israeli prime minister’s office, accused South Africa of “giving political and legal cover” to Hamas after its Oct. 7 attack triggered Israel’s campaign.

“The state of Israel will appear before the International Court of Justice at the Hague to dispel South Africa’s absurd blood libel,” he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to press ahead with the war until Hamas is crushed and the more than 100 hostages still held by the militant group in Gaza are freed, which he has said could take several more months.

But Israel is under growing international pressure to scale back the offensive ahead of a visit to the region by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has urged Israel to do more to protect Palestinian civilians. On Monday, Israel said it was withdrawing thousands of troops from other areas in a potential shift away from the massive air and ground operations that have devastated the Hamas-ruled enclave.

Still, heavy fighting continued Tuesday in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis.

Israel’s onslaught in Gaza has been unprecedented in the century-old Mideast conflict, killing nearly 22,000 Palestinians and leveling large swaths of the tiny Mediterranean territory. Since the war began, Israel has banned entry of food, water, medicine and other supplies to Gaza’s population of 2.3 million people, except for a trickle of aid that the U.N. says falls far below the territory’s needs.

Israel’s War Cabinet was to meet later Tuesday, Netanyahu’s office said. The agenda reportedly includes a discussion on postwar arrangements for Gaza, a highly polarizing issue in Israel.

Until now, Netanyahu has not presented any plan despite repeated U.S. requests. He has rejected proposals that the Palestinian Authority, which currently administers pockets of self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, undergo reforms and then take over administration of Gaza as a precursor to Palestinian statehood.

Troops rotate out but combat continues

The army said Monday that five brigades, or several thousand troops, would leave Gaza in the coming weeks. Still, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said it would be a mistake to think that Israel is planning on halting the war.

“The feeling that we will stop soon is incorrect,” he said Tuesday. “Without a clear victory, we will not be able to live in the Middle East.”

Israel has said it’s close to achieving operational control over most of northern Gaza, where ground troops have been battling militants for over two months. But Gallant said several thousand Hamas fighters are believed to still be in the north, and residents reported clashes in several parts of Gaza City, as well as in the nearby urban Jabaliya refugee camp.

Fierce fighting has continued in other areas of the Palestinian territory, especially the south, where many of Hamas’ forces remain intact and where most of Gaza’s population has fled.

Palestinians reported heavy airstrikes and artillery shelling in the southern city of Khan Younis and farming areas to the east. The Palestinian Red Crescent said Israel bombed its headquarters in the city, killing five people. At least 14,000 displaced people are sheltering in the building, it said.

Fighting was also underway in and around the built-up Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza. The army issued evacuation orders to people living in parts of nearby Nuseirat camp. A strike Tuesday leveled a building in Nuseirat, killing at least eight people, according to officials at the nearby hospital. Associated Press footage showed people pulling several children out of the wreckage.

Genocide case

Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel resulted in the deaths of 1,200 people, and 240 others were taken hostage.

Israel responded with an air, ground and sea offensive that has killed more than 21,900 people in Gaza, two-thirds of them women and children, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-ruled territory. The count does not differentiate between civilians and combatants. The Israeli military says 173 soldiers have died since it launched its ground operation.

The campaign has driven some 85% of Gaza’s population from their homes, forcing hundreds of thousands of people into overcrowded shelters or teeming tent camps in Israeli-designated safe areas that the military has nevertheless bombed. Palestinians are left with a sense that nowhere is safe. The siege has left a quarter of Gaza residents facing starvation, according to the United Nations.

Israel says, without providing evidence, that more than 8,000 militants have been killed. It blames Hamas for the high civilian death toll, saying the militants embed within residential areas, including schools and hospitals.

In its case to the ICJ, South Africa accused Israel of “genocidal” acts that aim “to destroy Palestinians in Gaza.” It pointed to “indiscriminate use of force and forcible removal of inhabitants” as well as the Israeli siege. It argued that no attack on a state — even one “involving atrocity crimes” — can justify violations of the 1948 convention against genocide.

Israel, a signatory to the convention, angrily rejected the charge. “The Jewish people know more than any other what genocide is,” national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi told the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot.

The case is likely to take years to reach a final judgment. But the court will likely rule within weeks on Pretoria’s request for interim orders known as provisional measures, including that Israel “immediately suspend its military operations in and against Gaza” and “take all reasonable measures” to prevent genocide. The provisional measures orders are considered binding but not always followed.

Israel’s decision to defend itself means it can use the courtroom to present legal arguments justifying its actions in Gaza. But the move could also leave the country open to more international condemnation if it ultimately loses the case and is found to have breached the genocide convention.

The case comes as Israel’s Supreme Court struck down a key component of Netanyahu’s contentious judicial overhaul plan, which had deeply divided Israelis and threatened the military’s readiness before the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.

The Supreme Court ruling could help Israel at the International Court of Justice, since it and other international tribunals consider whether countries have their own independent judiciaries in deciding on whether to intervene.

It’s unclear what concrete effects an ICJ ruling against Israel would have, but it would likely isolate the country politically and economically.

“Israel can’t afford to ignore this,” said Barak Medina, a law professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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