Accused of genocide, Israelis see reversal of reality. Palestinians see justice

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An Israeli tank is seen during an escorted tour by the Israeli military for journalists in central Gaza on Monday, Jan. 8, 2024. Israel stands accused of committing genocide in Gaza. To Israelis, the charge is a perversion of history. But for Palestinians, it creates a fleeting sense of historic justice. (Avishag Shaar-Yashuv/The New York Times)
JERUSALEM — Whatever its outcome, the accusation of genocide leveled this week against Israel at the world’s top court is an epochal intervention imbued with profound symbolism for both Israelis and Palestinians.اضافة اعلان

In the granular sense, the case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is a chance to assess three months of devastation in the Gaza Strip. Israel stands accused of committing genocide against the Palestinian people in a military campaign that has killed roughly 1 in 100 Palestinians in Gaza and displaced nearly two million others.

But the case, brought by South Africa to the court in The Hague, Netherlands, has also taken on a broader resonance: Among both Israelis and Palestinians, it is perceived as a proxy for a far older battle over the legitimacy of their respective national causes.

To many Israelis, the case is the culmination of a decades long effort to turn Israel into a pariah by holding the country — which was itself founded in the aftermath of a genocide of Jews — to a far higher level of scrutiny than other nations.

They see their invasion of Gaza as a war of defense against an enemy, Hamas, prompting the Israeli military to pursue Hamas into Gaza just as any other army would have done.

“It is a deep blow to the Zionist aspiration of normalizing the Jewish people and turning us into a nation among nations,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, an author and fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a research group in Jerusalem.

“What we are feeling today is that we are the Jew of the nations,” he said.

By contrast, many Palestinians feel a brief sense of catharsis at the thought of Israeli officials being compelled, as they were Friday, to defend their country in front of a panel of international judges.

To Palestinian eyes, only now, in a courtroom in The Hague, is Israel being treated like any other country — after being protected from scrutiny at the United Nations for so long by the US and, as Palestinians see it, by most of the world’s news media.

Aharon Barak, a former president of Israel’s Supreme Court, at his home in Tel Aviv on April 30, 2023. Barak, 87, is a Holocaust survivor who escaped the ghetto of Kovno, now Kaunas, Lithuania, by hiding in a sack

“In this one instance, Palestinians can overcome the enormous asymmetry that exists between Israelis and Palestinians, just for this fleeting moment,” said Khaled Elgindy, director of the Program on Palestine and Israeli-Palestinian Affairs at the Middle East Institute, a research group in Washington.
The accusation, laid out in South Africa’s 84-page application to the court last month, cites incendiary statements by Israeli officials that it says “constitute clear direct and public incitement to genocide, which has gone unchecked and unpunished.”

Israel’s defense team presented its defense to the court Friday, a day after South Africa’s lawyers presented theirs.

“There can hardly be a charge more false and more malevolent than the allegation against Israel of genocide,” Tal Becker, an Israeli lawyer, said in a speech that opened Israel’s response. “Israel is in a war of defense against Hamas, not against the Palestinian people,” he added.

Israel launched one of the most intense military campaigns in modern history, one that has killed more than 23,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to Gaza officials, and displaced more than 80 percent of the enclave’s surviving population, according to the U.N.

Israel’s lawyers said Friday that its military had taken significant precautions to protect civilians, giving noncombatants two weeks to leave northern Gaza before Israel invaded the area in late October.
They said it was Hamas that had endangered civilians by embedding its military wing inside residential areas, and they dismissed some of the incendiary rhetoric cited by South Africa as either taken out of context or made by people without executive power over the military campaign.

A verdict in the trial could take years to reach. For now, the court is expected to rule only on whether to order Israel to comply with provisional measures, principally the suspension of its campaign in Gaza, while it deliberates on the case. The court’s decisions are typically binding but still essentially symbolic: Its judges have few means of enforcing their rulings.

But, Elgindy said, “For Palestinians, it will be a moral victory, regardless of the legal outcome.”
Their state was founded in 1948 in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and the founders aimed to protect Jews from the same kind of violence with which Israel now stands charged. The concept of genocide was coined in reaction to the Holocaust by a lawyer of Jewish descent, Raphael Lemkin, who later promoted the creation of the international convention that Israel is now accused of breaking.

The judge whom Israel has sent to join the justices assessing the case, Aharon Barak, 87, is a Holocaust survivor who escaped the ghetto of Kovno, now Kaunas, Lithuania, by hiding in a sack.

“For most Israelis, this is the culmination of a long process of Holocaust inversion — of accusing the Jews of being the new Nazis,” Halevi said. In another juxtaposition, Germany announced late Friday that it would intervene in the case as a third party in Israel’s favor.

But if Israelis feel a historical irony to the case, Palestinians feel a historical justice, however temporary.

A stateless people, Palestinians retain a deep sense of trauma from the wars surrounding the creation of the state of Israel, when about 700,000 Palestinians — most of the Arab population in the land that was then divided into Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank — fled or were expelled from their homes, in a forced displacement known by Palestinians as the Nakba.

That trauma deepened in 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza during the Arab-Israeli war that year, capturing the territories from Jordan and Egypt.

And the Palestinians’ pain has been compounded ever since by the gradual erosion of their dream of a state. Israel has built hundreds of settlements in the West Bank and retains military control over it.

Even after withdrawing its troops from Gaza in 2005, Israel kept the territory under a debilitating blockade once Hamas seized control there in 2007, and successive Israeli governments have exacerbated the political and logistical divides between Palestinians in the two territories.

The case in The Hague does not address any of those grievances or bring Palestinians any closer to statehood. But regardless of its outcome, it suspends what Palestinians see as a lack of accountability for Israeli wrongdoing.

“Finally, Israeli officials are brought to a situation where they have to think about their actions,” said Nasser al-Kidwa, a former Palestinian envoy to the U.N.

Generally, al-Kidwa said, “They feel that they are above the law and they feel that they don’t have to answer to anything. And now suddenly, you see them trying to answer and to put the best face on their answers. And that is rare.”

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