Israel faces genocide charges. Will they stick?

 Photo composite of the International Court of Justice, lawyers representing South Africa, and Palestinian mourners.
Photo composite of the International Court of Justice, lawyers representing South Africa, and Palestinian mourners.

Something extraordinary happened on Thursday. Israel — created as a modern nation in the aftermath of the Holocaust — went on trial in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, accused of genocide in the Gaza Strip.

The court "has never judged a country to be responsible for genocide," The Associated Press reported. That could change. Israel's war against Hamas, started after the murderous Oct. 7 attacks by the Palestinian group, has reportedly killed more than 23,000 Gazans. South Africa lodged the formal accusation against Israel, and on Thursday asked for a halt to the war. "Nothing will stop the suffering except an order from this court," said South African lawyer Adila Hassim.

Reuters reported that Israel, of course, denies the allegations. "We have seen today one of the biggest shows of hypocrisy in history when South Africa became the legal arm of a terror organization, Hamas," a Foreign Ministry spokesperson. The war against Hamas came only after the attacks in which hundreds of Israelis were "massacred, executed, murdered, burned alive, raped and kidnapped." Israel, the spokesperson said, "is executing its right to self-defense."

Israeli officials, though, are nervous about the outcome of this week's hearings. "Since there is a bloc of anti-Israel judges, we should be worried," Hebrew University's Robbie Sabel told The Times of Israel. A declaration of genocide, he said, "would be a stain on our reputation."

What the commentators said

The charges against Israel "cannot be so easily dismissed," Mark Leon Goldberg argued at The New Republic. South Africa's case quotes "over a dozen senior civilian and military leaders," including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to support the notion that the mass death of Gaza civilians "is not merely an unfortunate consequence" of the war against Hamas, but is instead "part of the point." Don't expect any judgments soon, however. At the ICJ, "the wheels of justice move very, very slowly."

"Israel is not committing genocide — but Hamas is," Stanislav Pavlovschi and Arsen Ostrovsky wrote at The Hill. The crime of genocide "has nothing to do with the number of civilian casualties" and everything to do with the intent to destroy "a national, ethnic, racial or religious group." Hamas has declared its goal is the destruction of Israel. But Israel's goal is to destroy Hamas. "Israel," the pair write, "is not seeking to destroy the Palestinian people, whether in whole, in part, or in any manner."

"Genocide or not, Israel has lost the moral high ground," Avraham Shama countered, also at The Hill. After Hamas' initial attack, the "world's public opinion was supportive of Israel's right to retaliate." But the "wholesale, indiscriminate killing of Palestinians" has reversed that calculus. Israel "can no longer claim 'we are different, we are more humane.'"

What next?

Israel is hoping for vindication at ICJ, Axios reported, with a "strategic goal" of having the court "recognize that the Israeli military is operating in the Strip according to international law." But it's not clear how much difference an adverse ruling would actually make. The court, after all, already ordered Russia to cease its invasion of Ukraine — and the war is still grinding on after two years. "While ICJ orders are binding, they are hard to enforce."

But some critics say that Israel has already lost a significant battle by seeing this case go before the court. "South Africa has already won by getting the hearing, and Israel knows it," Francis Boyle, a human rights lawyer, told CBS News. An order to halt the war could — technically — be accompanied by United Nations sanctions against Israel, though it is likely the United States would veto any U.N. efforts to punish Israel. The Biden administration remains committed to Israel, and that remains true amidst the genocide charges: Secretary of State Antony Blinken this week called the allegations "meritless."