TEL AVIV, Israel — Israel will defend itself before the United Nation’s top court against charges that it has engaged in genocide of Palestinians in Gaza, officials said Tuesday, a rare engagement with the world body, which Israel often denounces as biased against it.
South Africa launched the case Friday at the International Court of Justice at The Hague, Netherlands, saying the magnitude of death, destruction and humanitarian crisis in Gaza from the Israeli military campaign against Hamas meets the threshold of genocide under international law. South Africa asked the court to order Israel to halt its attacks in Gaza.
Israel dismisses international cases against it as unfair and biased and rarely cooperates. Its decision to respond to the charge signals that the government is concerned about the potential damage to its reputation.
Eylon Levy, an official in the Israeli prime minister’s office, on Tuesday accused South Africa of “giving political and legal cover” to the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas that triggered Israel’s campaign.
“The state of Israel will appear before the International Court of Justice at the Hague to dispel South Africa’s absurd blood libel,” he said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to press ahead with the war until Hamas is crushed and the more than 100 hostages still held by the militant group in Gaza are freed, which he has said could take several more months.
But Israel is under growing international pressure to scale back the offensive ahead of a visit to the region by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has urged Israel to do more to protect Palestinian civilians. On Monday, Israel said it was withdrawing thousands of troops from other areas in a potential shift away from the massive air and ground operations that have devastated the Hamas-ruled enclave.
Still, heavy fighting continued Tuesday in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis.
Israel’s onslaught in Gaza has been unprecedented in the century-old Mideast conflict, killing nearly 22,000 Palestinians and leveling large swaths of the tiny Mediterranean territory. Since the war began, Israel has banned entry of food, water, medicine and other supplies to its population of 2.3 million people, except for a trickle of aid that the U.N. says falls far below its needs.
Israel’s War Cabinet was to meet later Tuesday, Netanyahu’s office said. The agenda reportedly includes a discussion on postwar arrangements for Gaza, a highly polarizing issue in Israel.
Until now, Netanyahu has not presented any plan despite repeated U.S. requests. He has rejected proposals that the Palestinian Authority, which currently administers pockets of self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, undergo reforms and then take over administration of Gaza as a precursor to Palestinian statehood.
TROOPS ROTATE OUT BUT COMBAT CONTINUES
The army said Monday that five brigades, or several thousand troops, would leave Gaza in the coming weeks. Some will head to bases for further training or rest, while many older reservists will go home. The war has taken a toll on the economy by preventing reservists from going to their jobs, running their businesses or returning to university studies.
The military has not said publicly whether the withdrawal reflects a new phase of the war. But the move is in line with the plans that Israeli leaders have outlined for a low-intensity campaign that focuses on remaining Hamas strongholds and could last for much of the year.
Israel has said it’s close to achieving operational control over most of northern Gaza, reducing the need for forces there. Yet fierce fighting has continued in other areas of the Palestinian territory, especially the south, where many of Hamas’ forces remain intact and where most of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have fled.
Meanwhile, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced late Monday that residents from seven Israeli communities close to Gaza can return to their homes soon, one of the most concrete signs that the army feels confident it has minimized the threat of rocket launches from parts of Gaza.
Palestinians reported heavy airstrikes and artillery shelling overnight and into Tuesday in the southern city of Khan Younis and farming areas to the east, near the border with Israel. Fighting was also underway in and around the built-up Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza.
The army also issued evacuation orders to people living in parts of the camp of Nuseirat, near Bureij. The orders were delivered by phone and in leaflets dropped over the camp.
Even in Gaza City, which has been largely depopulated and where Israeli ground troops have been battling militants for over two months, residents said there were clashes in different neighborhoods, as well as in the nearby urban Jabaliya refugee camp.
The militant group’s Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel resulted in the deaths of 1,200 people, and 240 others were taken hostage.
Israel responded with an air, ground and sea offensive that has killed more than 21,900 people in Gaza, two-thirds of them women and children, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-ruled territory. The count does not differentiate between civilians and combatants in its count. The Israeli military says 173 soldiers have died since it launched its ground operation.
Israel says, without providing evidence, that more than 8,000 militants have been killed. It blames Hamas for the high civilian death toll, saying the militants embed within residential areas, including schools and hospitals.
The war has displaced some 85% of Gaza’s population, forcing hundreds of thousands of people into overcrowded shelters or teeming tent camps in Israeli-designated safe areas that the military has nevertheless bombed. Palestinians are left with a sense that nowhere is safe.
In its case to the ICJ, South Africa accused Israel at the ICJ of “genocidal” acts that aim “to destroy Palestinians in Gaza.” It pointed to “indiscriminate use of force and forcible removal of inhabitants” as well as the Israeli siege. It argued that no attack on a state — even one ”involving atrocity crimes” — can justify violations of the 1948 convention against genocide.
Israel, a signatory to the convention, angrily rejected the charge. “The Jewish people know more than any other what genocide is,” national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi told the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot.
South Africa asked the court last week to issue an interim order for Israel to immediately suspend its military operations in Gaza. The case, if it goes ahead, will take years, but an interim order could be issued within weeks.
The case came as Israel’s Supreme Court struck down a key component of Netanyahu’s contentious judicial overhaul plan, which had deeply divided Israelis and threatened the military’s readiness before the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.
The Supreme Court ruling could help Israel at the International Court of Justice, since it and other international tribunals consider whether countries have their own independent judiciaries in deciding on whether to intervene.
It’s unclear what concrete effects an ICJ ruling against Israel would have, but it would likely isolate the country politically and economically. “Israel can’t afford to ignore this,” said Barak Medina, a law professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The judicial overhaul itself, meanwhile, appears to have been defeated. Netanyahu and his allies seem unlikely to revive the divisive initiative during wartime. Elections are widely expected once the fighting winds down, and widespread anger in Israel over intelligence and security failures linked to the Hamas attack could mean a poor showing for those in power now.
Netanyahu’s coalition could propose a watered-down version, but it would have to be passed by parliament, a process that would reopen deep divisions within Israeli society and generate even more anger at the prime minister, already blamed by many for the failure to prevent the Oct. 7 attack.