UN Court begins Israel genocide hearing amid dismissals by Washington

South Africa's Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Ronald Lamola, center, and Palestinian Assistant Minister of Multilateral Affairs Ammar Hijazi, right, speak outside the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, Jan. 11, 2024. [AP Photo]

The United Nations' top court began hearings Thursday on South Africa's case against Israel for genocide — a case that Israel and its top ally, the U.S., flatly refute — raising the stakes for U.S. relations with nations that disagree.

South Africa's legal team on Thursday launched their argument before a panel of judges that Israel's actions amount to a "pattern of genocide." They are seeking an emergency suspension of the Israeli campaign that started after the Palestinian militant group Hamas launched a stunning October 7 attack on Israeli civilians that killed about 1,200 people and took 240 hostages.

Israel will present its arguments Friday. Judges could take years to rule.

"Our government has approached the International Court of Justice to prevent the unfolding genocide in Gaza," said South African Justice Minister Ronald Lamola, speaking outside the court. "We have also asked for provisional measures, which include an immediate suspension of Israel's military operations in and against Gaza. The commitment to justice and bring an end to the humanitarian atrocities in Palestine resonate deeply with the collective consciousness of the global community."

South Africa argues that Israel has violated the 1948 Genocide Convention and compared the situation to one closer to home.

"The scale of these actions is reminiscent of the Rwandan genocide 30 years ago," Lamola said.

Israel has dismissed the accusations as baseless.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said late Wednesday that Israeli forces are doing all they can to minimize civilian casualties, and he accused Hamas militants of using civilians as human shields.

"Israel is fighting Hamas terrorists, not the Palestinian population, and we are doing so in full compliance with international law," Netanyahu said.

Officially, Israel's top ally is standing firm.

"We have said repeatedly that we believe these allegations, this case, is unfounded and that there's no basis for accusations of genocide against Israel," said John Kirby, National Security Council spokesperson. "That's not a word that I want to be thrown around lightly."

But there is no consensus in Washington, with some politicians and labor leaders supporting South Africa's call for a cease-fire and accusing Israeli forces of being overzealous.

The Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry says Israel's counteroffensive has killed more than 23,300 Palestinians, with vast swaths of Gaza left in rubble and 85% of its population of 2.3 million displaced.

Josh Paul, a former director in the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Political and Military Affairs, resigned in protest in October and recently filed a document with the court in support of South Africa.

"I'm not arguing that there should be a special standard for Israel, a higher one or a lower one. I'm simply arguing that there is a global standard, and we need to hold all of our partners to it," he told VOA. "And we need to hold ourselves to it. And in the case of Israel, there are laws that are simply being set aside, overlooked, interpreted differently, or acted upon differently, and that does not seem to be in accordance with the U.S. approach to the international rule of law."

South Africa has long supported the Palestinian cause, with former President Nelson Mandela famously saying, "our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians."

But analysts say this is about much more than just Israel's conduct. With a growing list of countries and entities supporting Pretoria's view over Washington's, this could have major diplomatic fallout — especially if the U.N.-backed court renders a judgment against Israel.

"It also brings into question the countries that are continuing to support Israel and provide weapons to Israel and provide intelligence to Israel, and doing all these other things," said Michael Walsh, a senior fellow in the Africa Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. "So that has huge implications for U.S. relations with other countries around the world, not just in the short term, but also in the long term. And it also undermines the U.S. leadership on human rights in the world moving forward, if there's any grounds that are found."