((JEWISH REVIEW)) — The first day of Israel’s trial for genocide opened at the International Court of Justice on Thursday, with lawyers from South Africa beginning to make their case that Israel is guilty of the crime against humanity in its war against Hamas in Gaza.
Israel has chosen to contest the claim in the courtroom in the Hague, and will make its case on Friday. Rejecting the genocide charge, Israeli officials have cited the country’s establishment in the wake of the Holocaust.
South Africa brought the case to the court, and its attorneys laid out their argument on Thursday, citing the breadth of Israel’s attacks and inferring intent from bellicose statements by Israeli leaders.
South African lawyers said in their presentation that Israel’s counterstrikes are of a level not merited by Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre, which killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, took more than 240 hostages and launched the war. More than 23,000 Palestinians have been killed in the war, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry, which does not differentiate between civilians and combatants.
“South Africa believes that the publicly available evidence of the scale of the destruction resulting from the bombardment of Gaza, and the deliberate restriction of food, water, medicines and electricity available to the population of Gaza, demonstrates that the government of Israel … is intent on destroying the Palestinians in Gaza as a group, and is doing nothing to prevent or punish the actions of others who support that aim,” South African lawyer Vaughan Lowe told the tribunal.
The arguments heard Thursday at the International Court of Justice in The Hague came on the first of two days of preliminary hearings, which will allow the court to consider whether to order a cessation of hostilities — though it has no way to enforce that ruling. Israel has rebuffed calls for a ceasefire.
Israel has said its response is proportional to the threat posed by the Oct. 7 attack. Additionally, Israel’s lawyers — led by Malcolm Shaw, a British barrister with extensive experience in defending countries facing human rights abuse allegations — are expected to argue that the Israeli leaders’ statements cited by South Africa are taken out of context or were made by officials who do not have the power to make decisions.
In a statement Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decried Israel having to defend itself against a statute established in the wake of the Holocaust.
“We are fighting terrorists, and we are fighting lies,” he said. “A terrorist organization carried out the worst crime against the Jewish People since the Holocaust, and now someone comes to defend it in the name of the Holocaust.”