Israel Defends Itself at the UN’s Top Court against Allegations of Genocide in Gaza

AP Photo/Patrick Post
Judges and parties stand up during a hearing at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, Friday, Jan. 12, 2024.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Accused of committing genocide against Palestinians, Israel insisted at the United Nations’ highest court Friday that its war in Gaza was a legitimate defense of its people and that it was Hamas militants who were guilty of genocide.

Israel described the allegations leveled by South Africa as hypocritical and said one of the biggest cases ever to come before an international court reflected a world turned upside down. Israeli leaders defend their air and ground offensive in Gaza as a legitimate response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, when militants stormed through Israeli communities, killing some 1,200 people and taking around 250 hostage.

Israeli 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.

On Friday afternoon, Germany said it wants to intervene in the proceedings on Israel’s behalf, saying there was “no basis whatsoever” for an accusation of genocide against Israel.

“Hamas terrorists brutally attacked, tortured, killed and kidnapped innocent people in Israel,” German government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit said in a statement. “Since then, Israel has been defending itself against the inhumane attack by Hamas.”

Under the court’s rules, if Germany files a declaration of intervention in the case, it will be able to make legal arguments on behalf of Israel.

Germany would be allowed to intervene at the merits phase of the case to address how the genocide convention, drawn up in 1948 following World War II, should be interpreted, according to international lawyer Balkees Jarrah, associate director of the international justice program at Human Rights Watch.

“That would come after the court issues its decision on South Africa’s request for urgent measures to protect the Palestinian people in Gaza,” Jarrah told The Associated Press from The Hague, where she attended the ICJ hearings.

Germany’s support for Israel carries some symbolic significance given its Nazi history.

Hebestreit said Germany “sees itself as particularly committed to the Convention against Genocide.” He added: “We firmly oppose political instrumentalization.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the announcement, saying the gesture “touches all of Israel’s citizens.”

South African lawyers asked the court 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 Oct. 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-defense, countries are required by international law to follow the rules of war, and judges must decide if Israel has.

As two days of hearings ended Friday, ICJ President Joan E. Donoghue said the court would rule on the request for urgent measures “as soon as possible.”

Israel often boycotts international tribunals and U.N. 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.

Still, Becker dismissed the accusations as crude and attention-seeking.

“We live at a time when words are cheap in an age of social media and identity politics. The temptation to reach for the most outrageous term to vilify and demonize has become, for many, irresistible,” he said.

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

Becker said the charges Israel is facing should be leveled at Hamas, which seeks Israel’s destruction and which the U.S. and Western allies consider a terrorist group.

“If there have been acts that may be characterized as genocidal, then they have been perpetrated against Israel,” Becker said.

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 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.

“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 dehumanizing 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.”

Malcolm Shaw, an international law expert on Israel’s legal team, rejected the accusation of genocidal intent and called the remarks Ngcukaitobi referenced “random quotes not in conformity with government policy.”

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.

Israel’s critics 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.

If the court issues an order to halt the fighting and Israel doesn’t comply, it could face U.N. sanctions, although those may be blocked by a veto from the United States, Israel’s staunch ally. In Washington, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby called the allegations “unfounded.” The White House declined to comment on how it might respond if the ICJ determines Israel has committed genocide.

The extraordinary case goes to the core of one of the world’s most intractable conflicts — and for the second day protesters rallied outside the court.

Pro-Israeli demonstrators set up a table near the court grounds for a Sabbath meal with empty seats, commemorating the hostages still being held by Hamas. “We want to symbolize the empty chairs, because we are missing them,” said Nathan Bouscher from Center for Information and Documentation on Israel.

Nearby, over 100 pro-Palestinian protesters waved flags and shouted protests.

The case also strikes at the heart of both Israel’s and South Africa’s national identities.

Israel was founded as a Jewish state in the wake of the Nazis’ slaughter of 6 million Jews during World War II. South Africa’s governing party, meanwhile, has long compared Israel’s policies in Gaza and the West Bank to its own history under the apartheid regime of white minority rule, which restricted most Black people to “homelands.”

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.