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Israel lashes back at ICJ genocide case

People sit inside the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the day of the trial to hear a request for emergency measures by South Africa, who asked the court to order Israel to stop its military actions in Gaza, in The Hague

People sit inside the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the day of the trial to hear a request for emergency measures by South Africa, who asked the court to order Israel to stop its military actions in Gaza and to desist from what South Africa says are genocidal acts committed against Palestinians during the war with Hamas in Gaza, in The Hague, Netherlands, January 11, 2024. REUTERS/Thilo Schmuelgen

GAZA/THE HAGUE — Israel faced down accusations at the World Court on Thursday of genocide in its war in Gaza, as the first residents returned to scenes of total devastation in the north of the enclave where Israeli forces have begun withdrawing this week.

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.

READ: Israel, S. Africa to face off at UN top court in Gaza genocide case

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 Oct. 7, 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.

The case, brought by South Africa at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague, accuses Israel of violating the 1948 genocide convention, enacted in the wake of the mass murder of Jews in the Holocaust, which mandates all countries to ensure such crimes are never repeated.

“Israel has a genocidal intent against the Palestinians in Gaza,” Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, advocate of the High Court of South Africa, told the court in the Hague. “The intent to destroy Gaza has been nurtured at the highest level of state.”

South Africa asked the court for a preliminary order to demand Israel stop fighting now, while the court hears the full merits of the case in coming months.

Israel’s foreign ministry accused South Africa of “functioning as the legal arm of the Hamas terrorist organisation” in a case built on “false and baseless claims”.

“South Africa seeks to allow Hamas to return to commit the war crimes, crimes against humanity and sexual crimes they committed repeatedly on Oct. 7,” it said in a statement.

Palestinians said they hoped the court would stop the war. In Rafah, in southern Gaza where the bodies of members of the al-Arjany family killed overnight were laid out outside a morgue, neighbour Khamis Kelab picked up the smallest of three small children bundled in shrouds and cradled the dead infant in his arms.

“To the ICJ: what is the fault of this baby? What did this girl do? What crime did she commit? Was she a terrorist? Did this baby fire rockets?” he said.

“She was inside a tent, in the freezing cold, she was hit by a strike, this baby is just a few days old, you people.”

The case reveals stark international polarisation. Several Western countries joined Washington in calling genocide accusations against Israel unjustified, not least given the ruthlessness of the Hamas attacks that precipitated the war.

“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,” said State Department spokesperson Matt Miller.

But some developing states, including heavyweight Brazil, backed South Africa, whose President Cyril Ramaphosa said his country was driven to bring the case by “the ongoing slaughter of the people of Gaza” and South Africa’s own apartheid history.

Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters: “We urge the court to reject all pressure and take a decision to criminalise the Israeli occupation and stop the aggression on Gaza.”

Mourners react next to the bodies of Palestinians killed in an Israeli strike, in Rafah

Mourners react next to the bodies of Palestinians killed in an Israeli strike, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, January 10, 2024. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

‘Gaza will be rebuilt. we will rebury our dead’

Since the New Year, Israel has announced a new phase in the war, to begin drawing down forces in the northern half of the Gaza Strip where its offensive began. Even so, fighting has only intensified in southern areas.

The relative quiet in the north has let residents begin trickling back into obliterated cities, finding a moonscape often with scant trace of where homes once stood.

Yousef Fares, a freelance journalist, filmed himself walking through a wasteland surrounded by scorched ruins that was once a part of Gaza City, home to nearly a million people. A few civilians passed by, some wobbling on bicycles over a track across the mud.

“All the houses you see are destroyed, completely or partially,” he said.

“We are now at the Tuffah old cemetery, which is over 100 years old. All those graves were exhumed, they were run over by the Israeli bulldozers and tanks. People are coming from various areas of Gaza City to search for the bodies of their sons.”

Abu Ayesh, who returned to a nearby part of Gaza City, told Reuters by phone that the destruction was “earthquake-like”.

“I tell (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu that Gaza will be rebuilt, we will build our homes and we will rebury our dead.”

Netanyahu: no intention to re-occupy Gaza

While Washington has backed Israel’s military campaign as justified by its right to self-defence, it has also called on its ally to scale the war back, do more to protect civilians, and maintain the hope of a future independent Palestinian state.

This week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited the region, meeting Israeli and Palestinian officials and leaders of neighbouring Arab States, defending Israel’s campaign to eradicate Hamas but pushing for it to work with the Palestinian Authority (PA), which recognises Israel.

Israel has been vague about its ultimate intentions but says it wants security control of Gaza indefinitely and won’t hand it to the PA, which exercises limited self rule in the Israeli occupied West Bank but was pushed out of Gaza in 2007 by Hamas.

Some far-right members of Netanyahu’s coalition government have openly called for Palestinians to leave Gaza and Israelis to settle there permanently. In a post on X, Netanyahu insisted this was not Israel’s aim.

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

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