January 11, 2024 - 5:39 pm
Updated January 11, 2024 - 6:10 pm
THE HAGUE, Netherlands — In a case that strikes at the heart of Israel’s national identity, South Africa formally accused the country of committing genocide against Palestinians and pleaded Thursday with the United Nations’ top court to order an immediate halt to Israeli military operations in Gaza.
Israel, which was founded in the aftermath of the Holocaust, has vehemently denied the allegations.
As a sign of how seriously they regard the case, Israeli leaders have taken the rare step of engaging with the court to defend their international reputation. Israel often boycotts international tribunals or U.N. investigations, saying they are unfair and biased.
During opening statements at the International Court of Justice, South African lawyers said the latest Gaza war is part of decades of Israeli oppression of Palestinians.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blasted the case and vowed to continue fighting Hamas, the terrorist group whose fighters stormed through Israeli communities on Oct. 7 and killed some 1,200 people, mainly civilians.
“This is an upside-down world — the state of Israel is accused of genocide while it is fighting genocide,” he said in video statement. “The hypocrisy of South Africa screams to the heavens.”
Israel launched its air and ground assault on Gaza soon after the deadly Hamas terrorist attack.
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 U.S. veto.
The White House declined to comment on how it might respond if the court determines Israel committed genocide. But National Security Council spokesman 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.
Israel says it is battling a fierce enemy that carried out the deadliest attack on its territory since its creation in 1948. Israeli leaders insist they are following international law and doing their utmost to avoid harm to civilians. The country blames Hamas terrorists for the high death toll, saying Hamas operates in residential areas.
In a post on X after the hearing, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Haiat called South Africa’s presentation “one of the greatest shows of hypocrisy” and referred to the legal team as “Hamas’ representatives in court.” He said South African lawyers distorted the reality in Gaza through a series of “baseless and false claims.”
The Oct. 7 terrorist attackers also abducted around 250 people, nearly half of whom have been released. Ahead of the proceedings, hundreds of pro-Israeli protesters marched close to the courthouse with banners saying “Bring them home,” referring to the hostages still being held by Hamas terrorists.
One of the Israeli protesters was Michael Nevy, 42, whose brother was kidnapped by Hamas terrorists. “People are talking about what Israel is doing, but Hamas is committing crime against humanity every day,” he said.
The two-day hearing continues Friday, when Israel, which has sent a strong legal team to make its defense, is scheduled to address the court.
Casert reported from Brussels. Associated Press journalists Gerald Imray in Cape Town, South Africa; Tia Goldenberg in Tel Aviv, Israel; Aleksandar Furtula in The Hague; and Aamer Madhani in Washington contributed to this report.