For Israel, the accusations of genocide brought against it by South Africa before the highest court of the United Nations (UN) are “totally distorted” and do not reflect the reality of the conflict in the Gaza Strip . South Africa has “unfortunately presented the [International Court of Justice, ICJ] with a completely distorted factual and legal picture,” said Tal Becker, one of Israel’s lead lawyers before the ICJ, which sits in La Hague. “His entire argument rests on a deliberately curated, decontextualized and manipulative depiction of the reality of current hostilities,” he added.

In December, South Africa urgently seized the ICJ, arguing that Israel was violating the United Nations convention on genocide, signed in 1948 following the Holocaust. Pretoria wants the judges to order Israel to “immediately” stop the military campaign carried out in Gaza after the Hamas attack on Israeli soil on October 7, 2023, which left some 1,140 dead, according to a tally by the Agency France-Presse (AFP) based on the Israeli assessment. In retaliation, Israel vowed to “annihilate” Hamas, in power in Gaza, and launched an offensive in this Palestinian territory which left at least 23,469 dead, according to the latest report from the Hamas health ministry.

Using videos and images, Mr. Becker presented before the magistrates a picture of the horrors committed, according to him, during the Hamas attack. Hamas members “tortured children in front of their parents, parents in front of their children, burned people” and were guilty of rape and mutilation, he said. The lawyer thus affirmed that Israel’s response was an act of self-defense and did not target civilians. “Israel is engaged in a war of defense against Hamas, not against the Palestinian people,” he said.

Under these circumstances, “there cannot be a more false or more malicious accusation than the accusation of genocide against Israel,” he said. “What Israel seeks by operating in Gaza is not to destroy a people but to protect a people, its own, attacked on multiple fronts,” Mr. Becker explained. Israel and the United States dismissed the case before the ICJ as baseless. “No, South Africa, it is not us who came to perpetrate a genocide, it is Hamas,” declared the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, ahead of the hearings.

“Unfounded” allegations, judges Washington

“We will continue our defensive war, the justice and morality of which are unrivaled,” he added. “In fact, it is those who violently attack Israel who continue to openly call for the annihilation of Israel and the massacre of Jews,” said US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller.

But Washington has also distanced itself from some of the Israeli criticism. Asked about Israel’s accusation that South Africa serves as the “legal arm” of Hamas, another State Department spokesman, Vedant Patel, told reporters that “this [was] not the case.” not a term that [he] would use in relation to [their] South African partners.” “But again, we continue to believe very strongly that the allegations that Israel is committing genocide are unfounded,” Mr. Patel said.

As this is an emergency procedure, the ICJ could rule within a few weeks. Its decisions are final and legally binding, but it has no power to enforce them. For example, she ordered Russia to suspend its invasion of Ukraine. On the other hand, the court will not yet rule on the merits of the case – is Israel actually committing genocide? – but only on the question of whether the fundamental rights of Gaza residents are currently under threat.

Israel has “crossed the line”, says Pretoria

South Africa can sue Israel at the ICJ since both countries signed the Genocide Convention. South African Justice Minister Ronald Lamola told magistrates on Thursday that Israel had “crossed the line” and breached convention, something even the brutality of the Hamas attack cannot justify. “Genocides are never declared in advance,” said Adila Hassim, a South African lawyer. “But this court has the benefit of the last thirteen weeks of evidence that indisputably shows a pattern of behavior and intent that supports a plausible allegation of genocidal acts,” she added.

The African National Congress (ANC), in power in South Africa, has long supported the Palestinian cause. Former South African president and hero of the anti-apartheid struggle Nelson Mandela said that South Africa’s freedom would be “incomplete” without that of the Palestinians.

International justice is also at stake in this case, another Pretoria lawyer, Blinne Ni Ghralaigh, told the ICJ on Thursday: “Some might say that the very reputation of international law, its capacity and willingness to bind and to protect all people equally, is at stake.”. But according to Israel, Pretoria’s request to the ICJ is “one of the greatest displays of hypocrisy in history.”