Israeli officials have said that the country will defend itself in next week’s hearing at the International Court of Justice, days after South Africa called for proceedings based on its accusation that Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza.
The move is rare considering Israel often denounces the United Nations’ top court as biased against it and rarely cooperates in international cases involving Israel. It appears to be a signal that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is concerned that the charges could taint its reputation among other nations.
On Friday, South Africa launched the case at the International Court of Justice in The Hague alleging that Israel’s military campaign in the Gaza Strip is “genocidal in character” because the mass death, destruction, displacement and starvation of Palestinians without regard to the lives of women, children, journalists and humanitarian workers meets the qualifications of genocide under international law.
South Africa can bring the case under the Genocide Convention because both it and Israel are signatories. The case itself could take years. However, South Africa has also asked the court to issue an interim order for Israel to immediately cease military operations it alleges are meant “to destroy Palestinians in Gaza.”
At a Tuesday news conference, Netanyahu spokesperson Eylon Levy promised that Israel would contest South Africa’s accusation, calling the claim of genocide antisemitic and “blood libel.”
The idea of blood libel, also brought up Friday by Israeli Foreign Affairs spokesperson Lior Haiat, is an antisemitic trope that falsely claims Jews ritually sacrifice Christian children. It is unrelated to the government of Israel being criticized for killing Palestinian civilians.
Hamas is “hell-bent on the genocide of the Jews and sacrificing its own civilians for that cause,” Levy added. Israel “emphatically condemns South Africa’s decision to play advocate for the devil and to make itself criminally complicit with the perpetrators of the Oct. 7 massacre.”
Hamas, a Palestinian militant group, launched an attack on Oct. 7 that led to the deaths of an estimated 1,200 Israelis and the kidnappings of about 240 people. Since then, Israeli forces have killed at least 22,100 Palestinians in Gaza, about 9,100 of whom are children, according to a report Tuesday from the Gaza Media Office. At least 57,000 Gazans have been wounded and at least 7,000 are missing.
The collapse of the Palestinian territory’s health system has prevented the Gaza Health Ministry from being able to provide regular casualty updates since Nov. 10, according to Al Jazeera.
Israel has also killed at least 324 Palestinians and injured more than 3,800 in the occupied West Bank, where Hamas is not stationed, according to the territory’s Palestinian Ministry of Health.
South Africa’s ruling African National Congress became aligned with the Palestine Liberation Organization under Nelson Mandela’s leadership. Mandela was a vocal supporter of the PLO and its leader Yasser Arafat, saying in 1990 that South Africa identified with Palestinians “because, just like ourselves, they are fighting for the right of self-determination.”
Many present-day South Africans see their fight against colonialism and apartheid in Palestinians’ struggles, with President Cyril Ramaphosa repeatedly condemning Israel’s increased violence against Palestinians since Oct. 7.
“Genocide is a violation, the proof of which in court requires two elements,” Eliav Lieblich, an international law professor at Tel Aviv University, told Haaretz. “First, you have to show intention of annihilation, and second ― certain actions in the field that promote this intention.”
“According to South Africa, the intention is proven by statements of senior Israeli figures and a public atmosphere of erasing or flattening Gaza, and the widespread harm to civilians and the hunger in Gaza show the factual element of the deed.”
According to Haaretz, a senior legal expert familiar with the matter recently warned Israeli military leaders, including Chief of Staff Herzl Halevi, that there is a real risk of the International Court of Justice issuing an injunction demanding a cease-fire – stressing that Israel is bound by the court’s rulings, even if it considers the ICJ to be unfair.
The ICJ is incredibly influential in shaping international law and public perception. This means the court’s recognition of South Africa’s genocide accusation could shape the public perception that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza and lead to diplomatic chaos.
Israeli officials told Axios and Haaretz that Netanyahu wants controversial U.S. lawyer Alan Dershowitz to represent Israel at the hearing. Dershowitz, a vocal supporter of Israel, declined to comment, according to Axios.
Dershowitz is known for representing high-profile figures including former President Donald Trump in his Senate impeachment trial, convicted Hollywood predator Harvey Weinstein and accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, who died in jail before his trial.
The International Court of Justice focuses on judicial disputes between countries, whereas The Hague’s International Criminal Court conducts proceedings against individuals. Israel does not recognize the jurisdiction of the ICC, which is already conducting probes into allegations of war crimes by both Israelis and members of Hamas, including the current violence.