US: Allegations Israel is committing genocide are unfounded

The Hague hearing held as South Africa accuses Israel of ‘genocide’ in war with Hamas

Pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian groups hold rival solidarity rallies outside International Court of Justice; US, Germany both say no basis to charges that Israel denies

  • Judges preside over the opening of the hearings at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, January 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Patrick Post)
    Judges preside over the opening of the hearings at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, January 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Patrick Post)
  • Ambassador of the Republic of South Africa to the Netherlands Vusimuzi Madonsela, right, and Minister of Justice and Correctional Services of South Africa Ronald Lamola, center, during the opening of the hearings at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, Jan. 11, 2024.  (AP Photo/Patrick Post)
    Ambassador of the Republic of South Africa to the Netherlands Vusimuzi Madonsela, right, and Minister of Justice and Correctional Services of South Africa Ronald Lamola, center, during the opening of the hearings at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, Jan. 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Patrick Post)
  • British jurist Malcolm Shaw, right, and legal adviser to the Israel Foreign Ministry's Tal Becker, left, look on during the opening of the hearings at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, January 11, 2024.  (AP Photo/Patrick Post)
    British jurist Malcolm Shaw, right, and legal adviser to the Israel Foreign Ministry's Tal Becker, left, look on during the opening of the hearings at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, January 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Patrick Post)
  • Soldiers operating in the Gaza Strip in an undated photo released January 11, 2024 (Israel Defense Forces)
    Soldiers operating in the Gaza Strip in an undated photo released January 11, 2024 (Israel Defense Forces)

THE HAGUE — Seventeen black-robed judges filed into the Palace of Peace at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague, Netherlands, on Thursday as the court opened hearings initiated by South Africa against Israel on charges of “genocide” against Palestinians during the ongoing war in Gaza.

The bench comprises 15 permanent judges and the two ad hoc judges from Israel and South Africa — former Israeli Supreme Court president Aharon Barak and South Africa’s former deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke, who were sworn in by ICJ President Judge Joan Donoghue.

Donoghue then read out the allegations made by South Africa in its application against Israel under the Genocide Convention, with a court official noting South Africa is initially asking the International Court of Justice to order an immediate suspension of Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip as the first step in a case that is likely to take years to resolve.

The hearing is expected to take two days.

Read more: ‘We should be worried’: Israel faces peril at The Hague in Gaza ‘genocide’ case

Ahead of the proceeding, hundreds of pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian demonstrators gathered in The Hague on a freezing cold morning in dueling solidarity rallies amid a heavy police presence.

The pro-Israel marchers, who included activists from Christian Zionist organizations as well as members of local Jewish communities, were set to proceed in a march from a central point in The Hague toward the ICJ, where they planned to demonstrate in front of an exhibition highlighting the plight of Israeli hostages held by the Hamas terror group in Gaza.

Raul Berghaus, an activist from Amsterdam, said Israel is not committing genocide and said that if any party has committed such a crime in the current conflict, it is Palestinian terror group Hamas.

Raul Berghaus at a pro-Israel march to The Hague on January 11, 2024. (Jeremy Sharon/Times of Israel)

“Israel has the right to defend itself and I think, unfortunately, the only way to do that is to do what it is doing,” said Berghaus. “Israel is the only country which warns civilians to leave because we have to do our job.”

Dozens of pro-Palestinian protesters also gathered outside the court, with many waving Palestinian flags as they called for a ceasefire. Others held up signs saying “Stop the Genocide” and “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be Free.”

The war was sparked by the October 7 Hamas terror onslaught in which some 1,200 people were killed, most of them civilians slain in their homes and at a music festival, and over 240 were kidnapped to Gaza and held hostage amid scenes of cruel abuse, in what is widely regarded as the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust.

People prepare to install a banner outside the International Court of Justice prior to a hearing in The Hague, Netherlands, January 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Patrick Post)

Israel responded to the assault with a massive number of airstrikes and a ground offensive aimed at destroying Hamas, the terror group that has ruled Gaza since 2007, and freeing the captives, 132 of whom are believed to still be in the Strip.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza says over 23,000 people have been killed in the fighting, though these figures cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires. The IDF says it has killed over 8,500 operatives in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

Amid the fighting, South Africa lodged an urgent appeal to the ICJ to force Israel to “immediately suspend” its military operations in Gaza. Israel has vociferously denied the charges and President Isaac Herzog on Wednesday dismissed the genocide claims as “atrocious” and “preposterous.”

Ahead of the hearing, Israel won the backing of two key allies, the US and Germany.

“Allegations that Israel is committing genocide are unfounded. In fact, it is those who are violently attacking Israel who continue to openly call for the annihilation of Israel and the mass murder of Jews,” US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said in a Wednesday statement.

“Genocide is one of the most heinous acts any entity or individual can commit, and such allegations should only be made with the greatest of care,” he added.

“Israel has the right to defend itself against Hamas’s terrorist acts — acts that Hamas has vowed to repeat again and again until Israel is completely destroyed. Israel is operating in an exceptionally challenging environment in Gaza, an urban battlespace where Hamas intentionally embeds itself with and hides behind civilians,” he continued.

Soldiers operating in the Gaza Strip in an undated photo released January 11, 2024 (Israel Defense Forces)

While reiterating his condemnation of Hamas’s October 7 terror onslaught, Miller said the US still expects that Israel “comply with international humanitarian law in its operations against Hamas.”

He also highlighted the feeling in Washington that the IDF has not done enough thus far to protect civilians, calling on Israel to “look for more ways to prevent civilian harm and to investigate credible allegations of violations of international humanitarian law when they arise.”

Miller also appeared to reference US displeasure with calls from Israeli lawmakers for collective punishment and for mass displacement of Palestinians, which helped build South Africa’s case against Israel. “We continue to condemn dehumanizing rhetoric on all sides,” the State Department spokesman said.

Speaking in Beirut on Wednesday, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock also rejected assertations Israel was committing genocide.

“It is very important to me to emphasize that you always have to keep in mind what this is specifically about. Firstly: The fact is that on October 7, the terrorist organization Hamas attacked Israel in the most brutal way, murdered people, raped women and took them hostage in a barbaric way,” she said.

“Israel is acting on its right to self-defense against the terrorist organization Hamas, but not against the civilian population as a target of their self-defense, which they have made clear,” she said, adding that Germany would submit its position to the court.

Although Israel normally dismisses UN and international tribunals as unfair and biased, it has sent a strong legal team to defend its military operation.

British jurist Malcolm Shaw, right, legal adviser to Israel’s Foreign Ministry Tal Becker, left, look on during the opening of the hearings at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Patrick Post)

“I think they have come because they want to be exonerated and think they can successfully resist the accusation of genocide,” said Juliette McIntyre, an expert on international law at the University of South Australia.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a video statement Wednesday night defending his country’s actions.

“Israel has no intention of permanently occupying Gaza or displacing its civilian population,” he said. “Israel is fighting Hamas terrorists, not the Palestinian population, and we are doing so in full compliance with international law.”

He said the Israeli military is “doing its utmost to minimize civilian casualties, while Hamas is doing its utmost to maximize them by using Palestinian civilians as human shields.”

In a statement after the case was filed late last year, the Palestinian Authority’s foreign ministry urged the court to “immediately take action to protect the Palestinian people and call on Israel, the occupying power, to halt its onslaught against the Palestinian people, in order to ensure an objective legal resolution.”

Two days of preliminary hearings began with lawyers for South Africa explaining why the country has accused Israel of “acts and omissions” that are “genocidal in character” in the Gaza war and why it is calling for the court to issue an interim order for an immediate halt to Israel’s military actions.

A decision on whether to issue such an interim order will likely take weeks.

Ambassador of the Republic of South Africa to the Netherlands Vusimuzi Madonsela, right, and Minister of Justice and Correctional Services of South Africa Ronald Lamola, center, during the opening of the hearings at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Patrick Post)

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.

The International Criminal Court, based a few miles (kilometers) away in the same Dutch city, is a different court that prosecutes individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

South Africa “will have a hard time getting over the threshold” of proving genocide, McIntyre said.

“It’s not simply a matter of killing enormous numbers of people,” she said in an email to The Associated Press. “There must be an intent to destroy a group of people (classified by race or religion for example) in whole or in part, in a particular place.”

In a detailed, 84-page document launching the case, South Africa argued Israel has demonstrated that intent.

The case revolves around the genocide convention that was drawn up in 1948 in the aftermath of World War II and the murder of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. Both Israel and South Africa are signatories.

In its written filing, South Africa said it wants the court “to establish Israel’s responsibility for violations of the Genocide Convention; to hold it fully accountable under international law for those violations” and to “ensure the urgent and fullest possible protection for Palestinians in Gaza who remain at grave and immediate risk of continuing and further acts of genocide.”

A team of lawyers representing South Africa was presenting three hours of arguments in the court’s wood-paneled Great Hall of Justice. Israel’s legal team was set to have three hours Friday morning to respond.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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