South Africa says Israel’s campaign in Gaza amounts to genocide. What can the UN do about it?

The case that started Thursday will likely last for years.

South Africa's Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Ronald Lamola (center) and Palestinian assistant Minister of Multilateral Affairs Ammar Hijazi (right) address the media outside the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024.

The United Nations' top court opens hearings Thursday into South Africa's allegation that Israel's war with Hamas amounts to genocide against Palestinians, a claim that Israel strongly denies. (AP Photo/Patrick Post)

Israel is defending itself in the United Nations’ highest court Thursday against allegations that it is committing genocide with its military campaign in Gaza.

South Africa asked the International Court of Justice to order Israel to immediately stop the war, alleging it has violated the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was drawn up in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust.

The convention defines genocide as acts such as killings “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

The case will likely drag on for years.

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Here are some details on the case and its ramifications.

What is South Africa’s treatment?

South Africa’s 84-page filing says Israel’s actions “are genocidal in character because they are intended to bring about the destruction of a substantial part” of the Palestinians in Gaza.

It asks the ICJ for a series of legally binding rulings declaring that Israel is breaching “its obligations under the Genocide Convention,” and ordering Israel to cease hostilities, offer reparations, and provide for the reconstruction of all it has destroyed in Gaza.

The filing argues that genocidal acts include killing Palestinians, causing serious mental and bodily harm, and deliberately inflicting conditions meant to “bring about their physical destruction as a group.” And it says Israeli officials have expressed genocidal intent.

During opening arguments, South African lawyers said the latest war is part of decades of Israeli oppression of Palestinians.

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Many South Africans, including President Cyril Ramaphosa, compare Israel’s policies regarding Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank with South Africa’s past apartheid regime of racial segregation. Israel rejects such allegations.

What is Israel’s response?

Israel, which was founded in the aftermath of the Holocaust, has denounced the genocide claim. The Foreign Ministry said South Africa’s case lacks legal foundation and constitutes a “despicable and contemptuous exploitation” of the court.

Eylon Levy, an official in the Israeli prime minister’s office, accused South Africa of “giving political and legal cover” to the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas that left some 1,200 people in southern Israel dead and triggered Israel’s campaign.

Levy said Israel’s legal team would “dispel South Africa’s absurd blood libel.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to press ahead with the war until Hamas is crushed and the more than 100 Israeli hostages still held by the militant group in Gaza are freed. He’s said that could take several months.

How did Israel react to earlier IJC proceedings?

Israel did not attend hearings in 2004 when the ICJ discussed an advisory opinion on the legality of Israel’s barrier wall. The court issued a non-binding opinion that the wall was “contrary to international law.” Israel sent a written statement telling the court it did not consider it had jurisdiction.

Israel also refused to cooperate with an investigation after the 2008-9 Gaza war, a UN investigation into the 2014 Gaza war, and the ongoing Human Rights Council investigation into alleged abuses against Palestinians.

Israel is not a member of another Hague-based court, the International Criminal Court. Other countries that are not ICC members include major global powers the United States, China and Russia.

What happens next?

South Africa’s filing includes a request for the court to urgently issue legally binding interim orders for Israel to “immediately suspend its military operations in and against Gaza.”

Such orders, known as provisional measures, would remain while the case progresses. They’re legally binding but not always followed. In 2022, in a genocide case filed by Ukraine against Russia, the court ordered Moscow to immediately suspend its invasion, but the order was ignored.

The court is the highest judicial body of the United Nations but it does not have a police force to implement its rulings. If a nation believes another member has failed to comply with an ICJ order, it can report that to the Security Council.

The 15-member council is the U.N.’s most powerful body, charged with maintaining international peace and security. Its tools range from sanctions to authorizing military action, but all actions require support from at least nine council nations and no veto by a permanent member — the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France.

The court is holding public hearings Thursday and Friday, and lawyers representing South Africa and Israel can make arguments. A panel of 15 judges drawn from around the world plus one each nominated by Israel and South Africa could take days or weeks to issue a decision on preliminary measures.

The court will then enter a lengthy process of considering the full case.

Israel could challenge the jurisdiction and seek to have the case thrown out before lawyers start arguing. Other countries that have signed the genocide convention could also apply to make submissions.

Is the court hearing similar cases?

Two other genocide cases are on the court’s docket. The case filed by Ukraine shortly after Russia’s invasion accuses Moscow of launching the military operation based on trumped-up claims of genocide and accuses Russia of planning acts of genocide in Ukraine.

Another involves Gambia, on behalf of Muslim nations, accusing Myanmar of genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority.

In a past case brought by Bosnia, the court in 2007 ruled that Serbia “violated the obligation to prevent genocide … in respect of the genocide that occurred in Srebrenica in July 1995.” The court declined to order Serbia to pay compensation. Croatia also sued Serbia in 2015, but the world court ruled that Serbia didn’t breach the convention in that case.


The Hague calls itself the international city of peace and justice. It is home not only to the ICJ, but also the International Criminal Court. The two courts have different mandates.

The ICJ, which first sat in 1946, adjudicates cases between nations, often border disputes or disagreements over the interpretation of international treaties.

The ICC was launched in 2002 with the lofty goal of ending global impunity for atrocities. It seeks to hold individuals criminally responsible for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The ICC has an ongoing investigation into the Israel-Palestinian conflict, dating back to the last war in Gaza. So far, it has not issued any arrest warrants. Israel says the ICC has no jurisdiction because Palestinians do not belong to an independent sovereign state.

ICC prosecutor Karim Khan says an investigation into possible crimes by Hamas militants and Israeli forces is a priority. The court could charge political and military leaders.

Palestinian Foreign Affairs Minister Riyad al-Maliki has said the Palestinian Authority would not interfere with an ICC investigation into Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks. “We cannot say ‘Investigate here, don’t investigate there,’” al-Maliki said.

The ICC last year issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin accusing him of personal responsibility for abductions of children from Ukraine.

What about past U.N. cases?

Two now-defunct U.N. tribunals also held landmark genocide trials.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia convicted a series of high-ranking Bosnian Serbs, including former President Radovan Karadzic and his military chief Gen. Ratko Mladic, for their roles in the July 1995 massacre of more than 8,000 men and boys in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica.

Karadzic and Mladic were given life sentences.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda convicted a string of leaders involved in the African nation’s 1994 genocide when some 800,000 people, mainly ethnic Tutsis, were slaughtered.


Associated Press writer Josef Federman contributed from Jerusalem.

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