International Court of Justice begins hearing case alleging genocide by Israel in Gaza

Hague court opens two days of hearings in a case brought by South Africa

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has begun hearing a landmark legal action brought by South Africa which accuses Israel of breaching the UN genocide convention in its conduct of the war against Hamas and demands the suspension of its military campaign.

The 1948 genocide convention was drawn up after the second World War to ensure that the atrocities committed against the Jewish people during the Nazi Holocaust could never recur.

The case was filed last month by South Africa and alleges that “acts and omissions by Israel are genocidal in character” with the specific intention to “destroy Palestinians in Gaza as part of the broader Palestinian national, racial and ethnic group.”

Three months of Israeli bombardment has laid much of the coastal enclave to waste, killing more than 23,000 people and driving nearly the entire population of 2.3 million Palestinians from their homes. An Israeli blockade has sharply restricted supplies of food, fuel and medicine, creating what the United Nations describes as a humanitarian catastrophe.


Israel says its only means to defend itself is by eradicating Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza, whose fighters stormed through Israeli communities on October 7th, killing 1,200 people and capturing 240 hostages. Israel blames Hamas for all subsequent harm to Palestinian civilians for operating among them, which the fighters deny.

Israel’s prime minister Binyamin Nethanyahu has rejected South Africa’s allegations as false, while a government statement has described them as “a blood libel” and angrily accused Pretoria of “playing devil’s advocate for terrorists”.

The case has also been described by the US, Israel’s most powerful ally, as “meritless”.

However, South Africa is supported by the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Countries, the 22-member Arab League, Turkey, Jordan and Malaysia and a long list of advocacy groups around the world.

That same divide was evident outside the court in The Hague where Dutch police struggled to prevent hundreds of protesters who had earlier taken part in separate highly charged pro-Israel and pro-Palestine marches from reaching each other.

The ICJ – the UN’s highest court ­ – could take years to adjudicate on the substantive question of genocide, a crime that is notoriously difficult to prove.

Israel accused of genocide at the International Court of Justice

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However, in its 84-page filing, Pretoria urged the court to order “provisional measures” as a matter of urgency – specifically, to order an immediate suspension of Israel’s air and ground offensive.

ICJ president, judge Joan E Donoghue said the hearings would be spread over two days, with South Africa to make its case on Thursday and Israel to respond on Friday.

South Africa’s case was opened by justice minister Ronald Lamola, who stressed that his country had utterly condemned the atrocities committed by Hamas on October 7th and the taking of hostages.

“That said, no armed action, even one as egregious as that, can justify a breach of the genocide convention.”

South African senior counsel Adila Hassim said Israel’s actions showed “a systematic pattern of conduct from which genocide – as set out in Article II of the convention – can be inferred.”

She argued that Israel’s actions, particularly its relentless bombardment, were calculated go break up families, to cause catastrophic hunger, dehydration and disease and to impede the delivery of humanitarian supplies.

She said healthcare had been “obliterated” and aid workers killed.

“Nothing will stop the suffering except an order from this court”, Ms Hassim told the 17 judges , whose rulings are legally binding but not enforceable.

Another lawyer on the South African team, Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, said the “intent to destroy Gaza has been nurtured at the very highest level of the state” in Israel.

He added: “There is one sentence for everyone in Gaza: death.”

Israel’s response on Friday is expected to underline its right to self defence under Article 51 of the UN charter. – Additional reporting: Reuters

Peter Cluskey

Peter Cluskey

Peter Cluskey is a journalist and broadcaster based in The Hague, where he covers Dutch news and politics plus the work of organisations such as the International Criminal Court