South Africa accused Israel of genocide on Friday in the International Court of Justice and asked the U.N. court to order a halt to fighting in the embattled Gaza Strip, saying that Israel was trying to “destroy Palestinians in Gaza.”
Israel’s Foreign Ministry dismissed the claim as “lacking a factual and a legal basis” and described the filing as a “despicable and contemptuous exploitation of the Court.” Israel has often said it is at war with Hamas, not the civilians of Gaza.
South Africa has been one of the most vocal critics of Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza. In early November, it recalled all of its diplomats from Israel over that country’s treatment of Palestinian civilians in Gaza.
Allegations of war crimes by both Israel and by Palestinian militant groups in territories occupied by Israel in 1967 are already under investigation at the International Criminal Court, which is independent of the U.N. But the impact of that investigation is unclear because Israel is not a member nation of the I.C.C. and does not recognize its jurisdiction.
Israel is, however, a signatory of the Genocide Convention, along with South Africa, which paved the way for the case at the International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court.
South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to apartheid, the racist system of segregation that governed South Africans for nearly 50 years before it ended in 1994.
In recalling South Africa’s diplomats from Israel, Mr. Ramaphosa, a former anti-apartheid activist, said the world had “sat helplessly and watched as intensifying airstrikes on Gaza and the West Bank have destroyed schools, health facilities, ambulances and civilian infrastructure and supposedly safe roads traveling to the south of Gaza.”
More than 20,000 Palestinians have died in Gaza since the war began on Oct. 7, according to Gazan health authorities. A Hamas-led attack on Israel that day left an estimated 1,200 people dead, Israeli officials say.
In its statement on Friday, the Israeli government said it has tried to limit the impact of the war on civilians, and accused South Africa of cooperating with Hamas, “a terrorist organization that is calling for the destruction of the state of Israel.”
The World Court, based in The Hague, is tasked with settling legal disputes between member nations.