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Israel has rejected South Africa’s allegations at the International Court of Justice that it is carrying out a genocide against the Palestinians during the war in Gaza as “profoundly distorted”.

South Africa brought the case under the 1948 Genocide Convention, arguing that Israel is committing genocide by killing Palestinians in Gaza, causing them serious physical and mental harm and inflicting on them “conditions of life calculated to bring about their physical destruction”.

In its presentation to the court on Thursday, South Africa said Israel’s assault had killed 1 per cent of Gaza’s population and injured one in four Gazans, and argued that Israel had a “genocidal intent” that was “evident from the way in which [its] military attack is being conducted”.

However, on the second day of proceedings in The Hague, Israel’s legal team insisted that the country was abiding by international law and argued that South Africa’s case relied on “a deliberately curated, decontextualised and manipulative description of the reality of current hostilities”.

“The attempt to weaponise the term genocide against Israel in the present context does more than tell the court a grossly distorted story and it does more than empty the word of its unique force and special meaning,” Tal Becker, the legal adviser for Israel’s foreign ministry, said on Friday.

“It subverts the object and purpose of the convention itself with ramifications for all states seeking to defend themselves against those who demonstrate total disdain for life and for the law.”

Israel’s war against Hamas has killed more than 23,000 people, according to Palestinian officials © AFP/Getty Images

The legal team also underscored the brutality of Hamas’s attack on October 7, when its militants started the war by storming into Israel from the Palestinian territory, killing 1,200 people and taking a further 240 hostage, according to Israeli officials.

“They tortured children in front of parents and parents in front of children, burnt people, including infants alive, and systematically raped and mutilated scores of women, men and children,” said Becker.

Israel’s retaliatory offensive in Gaza has killed more than 23,000 people, according to Palestinian officials, as well as displacing 1.9mn of the enclave’s 2.3mn inhabitants and rendering large swaths of the territory uninhabitable.

In its arguments to the court on Thursday, South Africa cited numerous statements by Israeli officials that it said “evidence an unfolding and continuing genocide”. These included comments by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu referencing the biblical story of the total destruction of Amalek by the Israelites, and a suggestion by the heritage minister that a nuclear strike on Gaza was an option.

But Israel’s legal team argued that Israel was fighting a war of self-defence in the wake of Hamas’s attack while seeking to minimise civilian casualties, despite the fact that Hamas had embedded itself in civilian areas, and was allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza.

It also rejected the suggestion that the comments made by Netanyahu and other senior officials proved that Israel had genocidal intent, arguing that they were not a reflection of official government policy, and that some of the figures cited by South Africa had no say in war policy.

“Some of the comments to which South Africa refers are clearly rhetorical, made in the immediate aftermath of an event which severely traumatised Israel, but which cannot be seen as demanding genocide,” said Malcolm Shaw, another member of Israel’s legal team.

“They express anguish and the necessity to restore control over Israel’s own territory and . . . safety to its citizens.”

As part of its submission, South Africa requested that the court impose a variety of emergency measures on Israel, including that it “immediately suspend its military operations in and against Gaza”; refrain from “direct and public incitement to commit genocide”; and “take all reasonable measures” to prevent genocide.

Israel’s legal team called on the court to reject the request, arguing that the measures would make it impossible for Israel to defend itself against Hamas and rescue the roughly 130 hostages still thought to be in Gaza.

“[South Africa] by its request seeks to thwart Israel’s inherent right to defend itself, to let Hamas not just get away with its murder literally, but render Israel defenceless as Hamas continues to commit it,” said Becker.

The court is expected to decide on whether or not to impose the emergency measures in the coming weeks. A final decision on the case is likely to take years.

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