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Protestors wave Palestinian flags during a demonstration outside the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, on Jan. 11.Patrick Post/The Associated Press

Israeli soldiers who destroy entire neighbourhoods in Gaza have clearly understood the genocidal intent of three months of incitement by top Israeli politicians and military officials, South African lawyers have told the International Court of Justice.

The South African legal team, including lawyers from Britain and Ireland, argued on Thursday that the World Court must urgently impose an interim order against Israel to prevent the risk of further “irreparable harm” to the Palestinian population in Gaza.

The ICJ will hear Israel’s response on Friday. The court could issue an emergency order against Israel within days, requiring it to halt or reduce its military operations in Gaza and lift its blockade of the territory, legal experts say.

“Genocides are never declared in advance, but this court has the benefit of the past 13 weeks of evidence that shows incontrovertibly a pattern of conduct and related intention that justifies a plausible claim of genocidal acts,” South African lawyer Adila Hassim told the court in a three-hour hearing at the Peace Palace in The Hague.

“There is no indication that Israel accepts responsibility for rebuilding what it has destroyed,” she said. “Instead, the destruction is celebrated by the Israeli army. Soldiers film themselves joyfully detonating entire apartment blocks and town squares, erecting the Israeli flag over the wreckage.”

The World Court is the top United Nations judicial body, but it has no enforcement mechanism for its rulings, except for the UN Security Council, where veto power is held by the United States, a close ally of Israel.

Countries such as Russia and Myanmar have simply ignored the court’s rulings against them in recent years, but an ICJ emergency order would still have an impact on global public opinion and could sway some countries to reduce their support for Israel, analysts say.

Liberal MPs at odds over genocide case against Israel as Ottawa prepares to declare official position

South Africa filed an 84-page legal brief at the court on Dec. 29, seeking an immediate hearing on its request for “provisional measures” – an interim emergency order for urgent situations. It argues that Israel’s bombing campaign and siege of Gaza are breaches of the Genocide Convention, which requires its 153 member countries – including Israel and South Africa – to take actions to prevent genocide.

The merits of the full case are likely to involve years of legal arguments, but the court’s decision on an emergency order does not require it to settle the question of whether genocide has occurred. Instead it merely needs to decide that there is a plausible risk that genocidal acts are occurring.

Hundreds of people gathered outside the court in The Hague to voice support for the Israeli or Palestinian side. The hearings were broadcast live on major television channels in South Africa.

Israel is expected to argue on Friday that it has a right to self-defence against Hamas, the Gaza-based militant group that killed about 1,200 people in southern Israel in a massive assault on Oct. 7 and seized about 240 hostages, by Israel’s count. Canada is among the countries that consider Hamas to be a terrorist group.

But a member of the South African legal team, British lawyer Vaughan Lowe, argued that Israel cannot use the Hamas attack as justification for genocidal acts. No matter how “monstrous” an attack it was, “genocide is never a permitted response,” he told the court.

South Africa is arguing that the Israeli breaches of the Genocide Convention consist of more than just the bombing campaign that has killed more than 23,000 people in Gaza and left a further 7,000 people missing, according to records kept by Palestinian health officials. The siege of Gaza, preventing food and other essential supplies from reaching the Palestinian territory, is causing the “slow death” of Palestinian civilians from disease and starvation, its lawyers said.

One of the biggest elements in the case is the question of whether Israel had genocidal intent for its actions in Gaza. To bolster this argument, South African lawyers presented videos of speeches by Israeli leaders and the responses by Israeli soldiers. They noted that Israeli politicians have used terms such as “human animals” and declared that an “entire nation” was responsible for the Hamas atrocities.

In a video shown to the court, Israeli soldiers in Gaza waved guns and danced as they sang words such as “there are no uninvolved civilians” and “wipe off the seed of Amalek” – a reference to a Biblical passage, cited repeatedly by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that calls for the killing of Israel’s enemies, including women, infants and sheep.

“What state would admit to a genocidal intent?” asked South African lawyer Tembeka Ngcukaitobi during the hearing. “Yet the distinctive feature of this case has not been the silence, as such, but the reiteration and repetition of genocidal speech throughout every sphere of state in Israel. … Genocidal utterances are not out in the fringes; they are embodied in state policy. The intent to destroy is plainly understood by soldiers on the ground.”

South Africa’s legal effort to declare Israel’s actions ‘genocidal in character’ poses dilemma for Canada

After the court hearing, Mr. Netanyahu issued a verbal attack on South Africa, accusing it of representing Hamas. “South Africa’s hypocrisy screams to the high heavens,” he said in Hebrew, in remarks translated by his office. “Where was South Africa when millions of people were being murdered and uprooted from their homes in Syria and Yemen, by whom? By Hamas’s partners. The world is upside down.”

South African Justice Minister Ronald Lamola denied that his government was helping Hamas. “South Africa has delivered a case on behalf of the people of South Africa and the people of Palestine,” he told journalists.

A group of 33 UN human-rights experts from around the world called on all states to accept the ICJ’s decision in the case. “We commend South Africa for bringing this case to the ICJ at a time when the rights of Palestinians in Gaza are being violated with impunity,” they said in a statement on Thursday.

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