February 26th, 2024

The top UN court opens session in a case accusing Israel of genocide in Gaza

By Mike Corder, The Associated Press on January 26, 2024.

FILE - View of the Peace Palace which houses World Court in The Hague, Netherlands, on Sept. 19, 2023. Israel is sending top legal minds, including a Holocaust survivor, to The Hague this week to counter allegations that it is committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) – The United Nations’ top court opened a session Friday in a case filed by South Africa accusing Israel of committing genocide in Gaza.

The president of the International Court of Justice will read out a preliminary ruling in the case. That could take about an hour.

South Africa has asked the court to order Israel to immediately halt its military offensive in Gaza.

Israel rejects the genocide accusation and has asked the court to throw out the case.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) – The United Nations’ top court is set to rule Friday on a call for Israel to halt its military offensive in Gaza, when it issues a preliminary decision in a case accusing Israel of committing genocide in the tiny coastal enclave.

Joan E. Donoghue, president of the International Court of Justice, will read out the highly anticipated decision made by a panel of 17 judges in a case that goes to the core of one of the world’s most intractable conflicts.

Friday’s ruling, however, is only an interim one; it could take years for the full case brought by South Africa to be considered. Israel rejects the accusation and has asked the court to throw the charges out.

While the case winds its way through the court, South Africa has asked the judges “as a matter of extreme urgency” to impose so-called provisional measures to protect Palestinians in Gaza.

Top of the South African list is a request for the court to order Israel to “immediately suspend its military operations in and against Gaza.” It is also asking for Israel to take “reasonable measures” to prevent genocide and allow access for desperately needed aid.

In a statement Thursday, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh said he hoped the decision would “include immediate action to stop the aggression and genocide against our people in the Gaza Strip … and a rapid flow of relief aid to save the hungry, wounded and sick from the threat of slow death that threatens them.”

Israeli government spokesperson Eylon Levy said Thursday that Israel expects the court to toss out the “spurious and specious charges.”

Israel often boycotts international tribunals and U.N. investigations, saying they are unfair and biased. But this time, it took the rare step of sending a high-level legal team – a sign of how seriously it regards the case and likely the fear that any court order to halt operations would be a major blow to the country’s international standing.

An Israeli official said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu huddled with top legal, diplomatic and security officials on Thursday in anticipation of the ruling. He said Israel is confident in its case but discussed “all scenarios.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing confidential meetings.

Israel launched its massive air and ground assault on Gaza after Hamas militants stormed through Israeli communities on Oct. 7 killing some 1,200 people, mainly civilians, and abducting another 250.

The offensive has decimated vast swaths of the territory and driven nearly 85% of its 2.3 million people from their homes.

More than 26,000 Palestinians have been killed, the Health Ministry in the Hamas-run enclave said on Friday. The ministry does not differentiate between combatants and civilians in its death toll, but has said about two-thirds of those killed were women and children.

The Israeli military claims at least 9,000 of those killed in the nearly four-month conflict are Hamas militants.

U.N. officials have expressed fears that even more people could die from disease, with at least one-quarter of the population facing starvation.

Marieke de Hoon, an associate professor of international law at the University of Amsterdam, said she thinks the court is unlikely to throw the case out Friday since the legal bar South Africa has to clear at this early stage is lower than the one that would be applied for ruling on the merits of the accusation.

“The standard … is not, has there been genocide? But a lower standard,” she said. “Is it plausible that there could have been a risk of genocide that would invoke Israel’s responsibility to prevent genocide?”

But De Hoon also does not expect the world court to order an end to Israel’s military operation.

“I think that they will shy away from actually calling for a full cease-fire, because I think they will find that beyond their abilities right now,” she said in a telephone interview.

Provisional measures by the world court are legally binding, but it is not clear if Israel would comply with any order.

Top Hamas official Osama Hamdan, meanwhile, said his group would abide by a cease-fire if ordered and would be ready to release the hostages it is holding if Israel releases Palestinian prisoners.

How the U.S., Israel’s top ally, responds to any order will be key, since it wields veto power at the U.N. Security Council and thus could block measures there aimed at forcing Israel’s compliance.

The U.S. has said Israel has the right to defend itself, but also spoken about the need for the country to protect civilians in Gaza and allow more aid in.

The genocide case strikes at the national identity of Israel, which was founded as a Jewish state after the Nazi slaughter of 6 million Jews during World War II.

South Africa’s own identity is key to it bringing the case. Its governing party, the African National Congress, has long compared Israel’s policies in Gaza and the West Bank to its own history under the apartheid regime of white minority rule, which restricted most Black people to “homelands” before ending in 1994.

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Associated Press writers Josef Federman in Jerusalem and Gerald Imray in Cape Town, South Africa, contributed to this report.

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Follow AP’s war coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war

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