February 21, 2024

South Africa on Thursday made its case that Israel is acting with “genocidal intent” in Gaza, citing as evidence the words of Israeli officials including Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who said Israel would impose a complete siege on the territory because it was fighting “human animals.”

On the first day of a two-day hearing at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, South African representatives said the statements of Israeli officials like Mr. Gallant communicated the intent to commit genocide. Israel categorically denies the genocide accusation and will present its defense on Friday.

To constitute genocide, there must be a proven intent on the part of perpetrators to physically destroy 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.

As the hearing concluded, South Africa, which brought the case against Israel, asked the court to issue an emergency provision calling on Israel to immediately suspend all military operations in Gaza, including rescinding evacuation orders and allowing people there to receive food, water, shelter and clothing.

Decisions by the court, the United Nations’ top judicial body, are binding, but there are few means of enforcement. A final ruling could take years to arrive.

The genocide accusation carries particular significance in Israel, which was founded in the wake of the near-wholesale destruction of European Jewry during World War II, and became a haven for Jews expelled from Arab lands. A spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Lior Haiat, called Thursday’s proceedings “one of the greatest shows of hypocrisy in history,” and repeated Israel’s argument that it is Hamas that should face charges of genocide.

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, also denounced the case. “Today, again, we saw an upside down world, in which the State of Israel is accused of genocide at a time when it is fighting genocide,” he said in a statement.

Mr. Haiat called Hamas “a racist and antisemitic terrorist organization that calls in its convention for the destruction of the state of Israel and the murder of Jews.” And he said the genocide case brought by South Africa — whose post-apartheid government has long supported the Palestinian cause — overlooked the atrocities committed by Hamas in its Oct. 7 terrorist attacks in southern Israel.

South Africa “completely ignored the fact that Hamas terrorists infiltrated Israel, murdered, executed, massacred, raped and abducted Israeli citizens, simply because they were Israelis, in an attempt to carry out genocide,” he said.

The hearings at the court are the first time that Israel has chosen to defend itself in person in such a setting, attesting to the gravity of the indictment and the high stakes for the country’s international reputation and standing.

Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks killed about 1,200 people and led to about 240 being taken hostage, according to Israeli officials. Israel has responded with airstrikes and a ground invasion that have killed more than 23,000 Palestinians, many of them women and children, according to health officials in Gaza, whose count does not distinguish between combatants and civilians. Most of Gaza’s 2.2 million residents have been displaced since the fighting began, increasing the danger of disease and hunger, according to international organizations.

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.”

Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, another South African attorney making arguments in the case, said the statements of Israeli officials like Mr. Gallant — who said after the Hamas attack 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.