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U.N.'s highest court is hearing accusations against Israel of genocide in Gaza


We're following a court proceeding today at The Hague in the Netherlands. That city is home to the International Court of Justice, part of the United Nations.


And that's where South Africa brought a case against Israel, alleging genocide against Palestinians. The filing asked the court to order a stop to the war in Gaza as a provisional measure while it decides the case.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Rob Schmitz is covering the case, joins us now from Berlin. Let's start with what South Africa is alleging in this case. What evidence does it present for Israel committing genocide?

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Yeah, South Africa filed an 84-page application to the court, and it writes that Israel has engaged in and failed to prevent or to punish acts and measures which are genocidal, constituting flagrant violations of Israel's obligations under numerous articles of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. And that would include, according to South Africa, killing Palestinians in Gaza, including a large proportion of women and children, which it estimates to account for around 70% of the more than 23,000 fatalities, according to the Gaza health ministry. Israel's military response followed the Hamas attack on October 7, which killed 1,200, according to Israel.

South Africa also accuses Israel of causing the forced evacuation and displacement of around 85% of Palestinians in Gaza, as well as causing the wide-scale destruction of homes, villages and refugee camps in Gaza, preventing a significant proportion of the Palestinian people from returning to their homes.

MARTÍNEZ: When it comes to a charge of genocide, Rob, what's the burden of proof?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, from legal experts I'm speaking to, it's going to be difficult to prove. And that's because the legal definition of genocide depends on proving intent. I spoke with Gleider Hernandez, a professor of international law at Leuven University in Belgium who is also the president of the European Society of International Law. Here's what he said.

GLEIDER HERNANDEZ: Genocide is not a crime that just exists by virtue of an act. There is specific intent that must be proven. You must prove the desire to exterminate a group by reason of one of the characteristics - race, religion, nationality. Israel's strongest defense is likely to be to suggest that the evidence does not establish intention on the part of Israel or its organs to commit genocide.

SCHMITZ: And Hernandez says that even if some of Israel's acts against Gaza might be prohibited under international laws that deal with armed conflict, they may not constitute genocide because Israel will likely say they're taken in self-defense, and international law does allow a state to defend itself.

MARTÍNEZ: What's Israel saying about this?

SCHMITZ: Yesterday, in a press conference with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Israel's president, Isaac Herzog, said this.


PRESIDENT ISAAC HERZOG: There's nothing more atrocious and preposterous than this claim. Actually, our enemies, the Hamas, in their charter call for the destruction and annihilation of the state of Israel, the only nation-state of the Jewish people.

SCHMITZ: And Herzog also pointed out that the convention against genocide was enacted by the international community after the Holocaust, modern history's defining act of genocide, which was committed against the Jewish people.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So what happens today, and what happens after?

SCHMITZ: So the court will hear South Africa's case today and then Israel's case tomorrow. A ruling may not come for years. What may happen within weeks or months, though, is that the court could issue a provisional ruling similar to an emergency injunction. So, for example, the court might direct Israel to refrain from its attacks on Gaza, anything that would aggravate this dispute.

But another legal scholar I spoke to told me that enforcing this is really difficult, and Israel could very well ignore it. States typically only comply with the court's provisional rulings in around half of all cases.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz joining us from Berlin. Rob, thanks.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.