APTOPIX Israel Palestinians

Palestinians mourn their relatives, including kids killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, Thursday outside a morgue in Rafah, southern Gaza. Fatima Shbair/Associated Press

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — A continent away from the war in Gaza, South Africa accused Israel of committing genocide against the Palestinians there and pleaded with the United Nations’ top court on Thursday to order an immediate halt to the country’s military operation. Israel has vehemently denied the allegations.

South African lawyers said during the opening arguments that the latest Gaza war is part of a decadeslong oppression of the Palestinians by Israel.

The two-day hearing is the public side of a landmark case, one of the most significant to be heard in an international court, and which goes to the heart of one of the world’s most intractable conflicts.

South Africa is seeking binding preliminary orders to compel Israel to stop its military campaign in Gaza, in which more than 23,000 people have died, according to the health ministry which is run by Hamas.

“Genocides are never declared in advance, but this court has the benefit of the past 13 weeks of evidence that shows incontrovertibly a pattern of conduct and related intention that justifies as a plausible claim of genocidal acts,” South African lawyer Adila Hassim told the judges and audience in the packed, ornate room of the Peace Palace in The Hague.

“Nothing will stop the suffering except an order from this court,” she said.


Israel, however, says it is battling a fierce enemy in the Gaza Strip that carried out the deadliest attack on its territory, killing more than 1,200 people, since its creation in 1948. Israel says it is following international law and does its utmost to avoid harm to civilians. It blames Hamas for the high toll, saying its enemy embeds in residential areas.

Israel Palestinians World Court Genocide Defense

Judges preside over the opening of the hearings Thursday at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands. Patrick Post/Associated Press

South Africa turns a deaf ear to such arguments, insisting Israel committed genocide by design.

“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,” said lawyer Tembeka Ngcukaitobi.

“What state would admit to a genocidal intent? Yet the distinctive feature of this case has not been the silence as such, but the reiteration and repetition of genocidal speech throughout every sphere of the state in Israel,” he said.

Ahead of the proceedings, hundreds of pro-Israeli protesters marched close to the courthouse with banners saying “Bring them home,” referring to the hostages held by Hamas since it attacked Israel on Oct. 7.

One of the Israeli protesters outside the court was Michael Nevy, 42, whose brother was kidnapped by Hamas. “People are talking about what Israel is doing, but Hamas is committing crimes against humanity every day,” he said.


At a separate demonstration nearby, pro-Palestinian protesters waved flags saying: “End Israeli Apartheid Free Palestine” and chanting “Netanyahu criminal” and “Ceasefire now!”

APTOPIX Israel Palestinians

Palestinians look at a damaged residential building after an Israeli strike Wednesday in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip. Fatima Shbair/Associated Press

The dispute strikes at the heart of Israel’s national identity as a Jewish state created in the aftermath of the Nazi genocide in the Holocaust, during which 6 million Jews were murdered.

It 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 history under the apartheid regime of white minority rule, which restricted most Blacks to “homelands” before ending in 1994.

In a sign of how seriously Israel is taking the accusation, it has sent a strong legal team to defend its military operation launched in the aftermath of the Hamas attacks. Israel often boycotts international tribunals or U.N. investigations, saying they are unfair and biased.

A decision on the request for so-called “provisional measures” will likely take weeks. The case is likely to last years.

While Israel has vehemently denied the allegations, it is unclear whether it will heed any order from the court to halt operations. If it doesn’t, it could face U.N. sanctions, although those may be blocked by a U.S. veto.


Israel’s lawyers will address the court on Friday.

South Africa immediately sought to broaden the case beyond the narrow confines of the ongoing 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. South Africa argued that Israel’s actions in Gaza have been an inevitable part of its history since it declared independence.

Israel Palestinians

Palestinians line up for food Tuesday during the ongoing Israeli air and ground offensive on the Gaza Strip in Rafah. Hatem Ali/Associated Press

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a video statement Wednesday night defending his country’s actions and insisted they had nothing to do with genocide.

“Israel has no intention of permanently occupying Gaza or displacing its civilian population,” he said. “Israel is fighting Hamas terrorists, not the Palestinian population, and we are doing so in full compliance with international law.”

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


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

Finding food, water, medicine, and working bathrooms has become a daily struggle for Palestinians in Gaza. Last week, the U.N. humanitarian chief called Gaza “uninhabitable” and said, “People are facing the highest levels of food insecurity ever recorded (and) famine is around the corner.”

Israel itself has always focused attention on the Oct. 7 attacks, when Hamas fighters stormed through several communities in Israel and killed some 1,200 people, mainly civilians. They abducted around 250 others, nearly half of whom have been released.

Israel Palestinians

Palestinians mourn their relatives killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, outside a morgue in Rafah, southern Gaza on Wednesday. Fatima Shbair/Associated Press

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.

The International Criminal Court, based a few miles away in The Hague, prosecutes individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

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

Israel is back on the International Court of Justice’s docket next month when hearings open into a U.N. request for a non-binding advisory opinion on the legality of Israeli policies in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

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