By Raffi Berg in London & Anna Holligan at The Hague
Israel has said South Africa has distorted the truth in its case to the International Court of Justice, where it is accusing Israel of genocide.
South Africa had presented “a sweeping counter-factual description” of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Israeli lawyer Tal Becker told the ICJ.
South Africa says Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians in its war in Gaza.
It is also asking the court to order Israel to halt its military activity.
The ICJ is the United Nations’ highest court. Its rulings are theoretically legally binding on parties to the ICJ – which include Israel and South Africa – but are not enforceable.
Israel is giving its defence to the court a day after South Africa presented its case.
Outside the legal battleground of the ICJ, police have created cordons to ensure rival groups are kept far apart.
On one side, Palestinian flags are waved beneath a big screen streaming a live feed from the courtroom. Banners have been unfurled showing images of Nelson Mandela, referencing parallels drawn by South Africa’s legal team between the situation in Gaza and the former apartheid era in South Africa.
A few hundred metres away, a symbolic Sabbath table has been laid. Photographs have been attached to the back of empty chairs. These show of some of the more than 130 Israelis who are still being held hostage by Hamas.
South Africa asserts that Israel is in violation of the 1948 Genocide Convention, to which both states are signatories, and which commits parties to prevent genocide from happening.
Israel has been waging a war against Hamas, Gaza’s ruling group, since 7 October, when hundreds of Hamas gunmen invaded Israel, killing about 1,300 people and taking some 240 others back to Gaza as hostages.
The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza says more than 23,350 people – mostly women and children – have been killed by Israel in the war.
In his opening remarks on Friday, Tal Becker told the court that while the civilian suffering was “tragic”, Hamas sought “to maximise civilian harm to both Israelis and Palestinians, even as Israel seeks to minimise it”.
South Africa, he said, “has regrettably put before the court a profoundly distorted factual and legal picture, [and] the entirety of its case hinges on a deliberately curated, decontextualised and manipulative description of the reality of current hostilities”.
On Thursday, the court’s 17 judges heard advocate of the High Court of South Africa Tembeka Ngcukaitobi describe how Israel’s “genocidal intent” was evident “from the way in which [its] military attack is being conducted”.
Israel had a plan to “destroy” Gaza, he said, which “has been nurtured at the highest level of state”.
Adila Hassim, also representing South Africa, told the court that “every day there is mounting, irreparable loss of life, property, dignity and humanity for the Palestinian people”.
“Nothing will stop the suffering, except an order from this court.”
In its evidence submitted before the hearing, South Africa said Israel’s actions were “intended to bring about the destruction of a substantial part of the Palestinian national, racial and ethnical group”.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said “the hypocrisy of South Africa screams to the heavens” – criticising the country for failing to respond to atrocities in Syria and Yemen committed by “partners of Hamas”.
“Today we saw an upside-down world. Israel is accused of genocide while it is fighting against genocide,” he added.
A spokesperson for UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Mr Sunak believed South Africa’s case was “completely unjustified and wrong.”
“The UK government stands by Israel’s clear right to defend itself within the framework of international law,” he said.
What the ICJ will deliver on the genocide allegation will be only an opinion, although it is being closely watched.
A final ruling on this could take years, although the court could more rule quickly on South Africa’s request for Israel to suspend its military campaign.