After three months besieging and bombarding the Gaza Strip in its war against Hamas, Israel faced a charge of genocide at the International Court of Justice on Thursday, as South Africa argued that Israel “means to create conditions of death” in Gaza, and demanded the court order an emergency suspension of the military campaign.
Presenting their case to a packed courtroom in The Hague, South African lawyers offered as evidence the words of Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who said in October that Israel would impose a complete siege on the territory because it was fighting “human animals.”
Israel categorically denies the genocide accusation, and is set to present its defense on Friday, the second part of the two-day hearing in the United Nations’ top judicial body. The hearings will be the first time that Israel has chosen to defend itself in person in such a setting, a sign of the high stakes of the moment, with Israel’s international reputation falling around much of the world over its campaign’s toll in Gaza.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel described the proceedings on Thursday as “an upside-down world,” in which his country faced such charges.
“Israel is accused of genocide at a time when it is fighting against genocide,” he said, referring to the war in Gaza, which began after Hamas and other armed groups carried out attacks on Oct. 7 that killed about 1,200 people and led to about 240 being taken hostage, according to Israeli officials.
Genocide is among the most serious crimes of which a country can be accused, and the allegation carries particular significance in Israel, founded after the slaughter of Jews in the Holocaust. While the South African government maintains that it is pursuing its case to stop a genocide, analysts say it is also motivated by longstanding domestic support for the Palestinian cause dating to the presidency of Nelson Mandela, a fervent supporter of Palestinian rights.
To constitute genocide, there must be a proven intent on the part of perpetrators to physically destroy — in whole or in part — a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, according to the U.N. genocide convention, to which Israel is a signatory. Intent is often the most difficult element to prove in such cases, however.
Decisions by the court are binding, but the court has few means of enforcement.
Israel’s closest ally, the United States, has staunchly defended the country’s campaign against Hamas, and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken this week called South Africa’s accusation “meritless” and “counterproductive.”
But American and European officials have in recent weeks added pressure on Israel to scale back the scope of its military operations, and many nations in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America have sharply criticized Israel for the devastating toll of its campaign on Gazan civilians.
More than 23,000 Palestinians have been killed over the past three months in Gaza, a majority of them women and children, according to health officials in Gaza. The vast majority of the enclave’s 2.2 million residents have been forced from their homes since the war began, increasing the danger of disease and hunger, according to international organizations.
South Africa, which filed the case last month, argued that Israeli leaders and lawmakers had communicated in their statements the intent to commit genocide. Showing a video of Israeli troops dancing and singing that “there are no uninvolved citizens,” a South African lawyer said that Israeli soldiers had understood “the inciting words” of their prime minister.
“There is an extraordinary feature in this case,” the lawyer, Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, told the court, “that Israel’s political leaders, military commanders and persons holding official positions, have systematically and, in explicit terms, declared their genocidal intent.”
He argued that Israel’s “genocidal intent” was “rooted in the belief that, in fact, the enemy is not just the military wing of Hamas or, indeed, Hamas generally, but is embedded in the fabric of Palestinian life in Gaza.”
Although the court proceedings on the genocide allegations could take years, the court could rule on possible emergency measures in the coming weeks. As part of its request for an emergency provision to end the military campaign, South Africa asked the court to rescind evacuation orders and allow people in Gaza to receive food, water, shelter and clothing.
Israeli officials have argued that Hamas should face charges of genocide and other crimes, and that many of Israel’s critics have insufficiently condemned the group. A spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Lior Haiat, called Thursday’s proceedings “one of the greatest shows of hypocrisy in history,” adding that Hamas “calls in its convention for the destruction of the state of Israel and the murder of Jews.”
Mr. Haiat also said the genocide case brought by South Africa overlooked the atrocities committed by Hamas in its Oct. 7 terrorist attacks in southern Israel.
South Africa’s justice minister, Ronald Lamola, condemned the atrocities committed by Hamas on Oct. 7 but said the scale of Israel’s military response in Gaza was not justified. He told the court that the Israeli offensive had created conditions for Gazans that were designed “to bring about their physical destruction.”
Mr. Ngcukaitobi, the South African lawyer, said the statements of Israeli officials like Mr. Gallant — who, after the Hamas attack, said that Israel would let “no electricity, no food, no water, no fuel” into Gaza — were tantamount to a directive to physically destroy Gazans and “communicated state policy.”
“This admits of no ambiguity,” Mr. Ngcukaitobi said. “It means to create conditions of death of the Palestinian people in Gaza, to die a slow death due to starvation and dehydration or to die quickly because of a bomb attack or sniper, but to die, nevertheless.”
Israeli leaders have said that South Africa’s allegations pervert the meaning of genocide and the purpose of the 1948 genocide convention. They point to millions of messages, sent by various means, telling Gaza’s civilians to evacuate to safer areas ahead of bombings, and say they are constantly working to increase the amount of aid entering Gaza.
Hamas welcomed South Africa’s decision to bring the case, saying in a statement on Thursday that it looked forward to “a decision that does justice to victims” and calls on Israel to “stop the aggression.”
The court proceedings were also celebrated by Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where hundreds gathered in city squares, Palestinian news outlets showed. The foreign ministry of the Palestinian Authority, which partly oversees the territory, thanked South Africa in a statement and called the proceedings “a historic event in the process of the joint Palestinian and South African struggle in the face of injustice and genocide.”
But in Gaza, many feared that the case would have little to no effect on their reality. “It’s all nonsense — it’s been over 90 days and we’re just hearing words,” said Abdul Qader Al-Atrash, a 32-year-old resident of Gaza.
“Nothing will change,” he said. “The only thing on our minds right now is how will we get water for our family, where will we charge our phones and if we will have anything to eat tomorrow.”
Reporting was contributed by Isabel Kershner, John Eligon, Ameera Harouda, Abu Bakr Bashir, Anushka Patil and Rawan Sheikh Ahmad.