Israel calls South Africa genocide allegations 'hypocritical' and 'profoundly distorted'

A person waves a palestinian flag while passing a pro-israel protest outside the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Credit: AP

Israel has called South Africa's accusations of genocide against Palestinians in Gaza "hypocritical" and "profoundly distorted".

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) heard its second hearing at The Hague on Friday, with Israel taking the opportunity to defend what South Africa has described as "genocide" in Gaza.

Israeli officials insist that its actions in Gaza are in legitimate defence of its people and a valid response to the Hamas October 7 attack, when militants stormed through Israeli communities, killing some 1,200 people and taking around 250 hostage.

Israel's legal advisor Tal Becker told a packed auditorium at the ornate Palace of Peace in The Hague that the country is fighting a “war it did not start and did not want.”

“In these circumstances, there can hardly be a charge more false and more malevolent than the allegation against Israel of genocide,” he added, noting that the horrible suffering of civilians in war was not enough to level that charge.

Palestinians lay bodies of people killed by Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip into a mass grave. Credit: AP

South African lawyers asked the court on Thursday to order an immediate halt to Israeli military operations in the besieged coastal territory that is home to 2.3 million Palestinians.

A decision on that request will probably take weeks, and the full case is likely to last years - and it's unclear if Israel would follow any court orders.

On Friday, Israel focused on the brutality of the October 7 attacks, presenting chilling video and audio to a hushed audience.

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

South Africa’s request for an immediate halt to the Gaza fighting, he said, amounts to an attempt to prevent Israel from defending itself against that assault.

Even when acting in self-defence, countries are required by international law to follow the rules of war, and judges must decide if Israel has.

Pro-Palestine demonstrators march across the Mandela Bridge, in Johannesburg, South Africa. Credit: AP

Israel often boycotts international tribunals and UN investigations, saying they are unfair and biased.

But this time, Israeli leaders took the rare step of sending a high-level legal team - a sign of how seriously they regard the case and likely their fear that any court order to halt operations would be a major blow to the country's international standing.

In a statement from New York, Israel’s UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan called the case a “new moral low” and said that by taking it on, “the UN and its institutions have become weapons in service of terrorist organisations.”

The nation's legal team said the charges Israel is facing should be leveled at Hamas, which seeks Israel's destruction and which the US and Western allies consider a terrorist group.

While the case examines the genocidal intent of Israel, questions have been raised over whether Hamas too could face similar claims after the October 7 attack.

But Vaughan Lowe, a British lawyer representing South Africa at the ICJ, clarified in his statement that because Hamas is not a state, it is not party to the Genocide Convention of 1948.

It could therefore not be upheld as a war crime at the ICJ.

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More than 23,000 people in Gaza have been killed during Israel's military campaign, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

That toll does not distinguish between civilians and combatants.

Nearly 85% of Gaza’s people have been driven out of their homes, a quarter of the enclave's residents face starvation, and much of northern Gaza has been reduced to rubble.

South Africa says this amounts to genocide and is part of decades of Israeli oppression of Palestinians.

Pictures of hostages kidnapped during the October 7 Hamas cross-border attack in Israel, placed on a table outside The Hague. Credit: AP

“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, adding that several leading politicians had made dehumanising comments about people in Gaza.

The Palestinian Authority’s foreign ministry welcomed the case, saying in a written statement that South Africa “delivered unequivocal evidence that Israel is deliberately and systematically violating its obligations under the Genocide Convention.”

Israel also says that it takes measures to protect civilians, such as issuing evacuation orders ahead of strikes. It blames Hamas for the high civilian death toll, saying the group uses residential areas to stage attacks and for other military purposes.

Critics of Israel say that such measures have done little to prevent the high toll and that its bombings are so powerful that they often amount to indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks.

While the two nations go back and forth a decision over provisional measures is likely to be determined within weeks, but the ruling on the case for its merits is expected to take years.

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