As over 600,000 people have fled Rafah since Israel’s invasion of the city, South Africa has accused Israel of “genocide” urging the International Court of Justice to order a halt to the Israel-Gaza War.

South Africa accused Israel Thursday at the top UN court of stepping up what it called a “genocide” in Gaza, urging judges to order a halt to the Israeli assault on Rafah.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) heard a litany of allegations against Israel from lawyers representing Pretoria, including mass graves, torture and deliberate withholding of humanitarian aid.

Israel, which labels South Africa’s case as “wholly unfounded” and “morally repugnant,” is set to respond on Friday.

South Africa was kicking off two days of hearings at the Peace Palace in The Hague, home of the ICJ, imploring judges to order a ceasefire throughout Gaza.

In a ruling that made headlines around the world, the ICJ in January ordered Israel to do everything in its power to prevent genocidal acts and enable humanitarian aid to Gaza.

But the court stopped short of ordering a ceasefire, and South Africa’s argument is that the situation on the ground – notably the operation in the crowded city of Rafah – requires fresh ICJ action.

The Rafah campaign is “the last step in the destruction of Gaza and its Palestinian people,” argued Vaughan Lowe, a lawyer for South Africa.

Rafah operation ‘to continue’

The orders of the ICJ, which rules in disputes between states, are legally binding, but it has little means to enforce them.

South Africa wants the ICJ to issue three emergency orders – “provisional measures” in court jargon – while it rules on the wider accusation that Israel is breaking the 1948 UN Genocide Convention.

First, it wants the court to order Israel to “immediately withdraw and cease its military offensive” in Rafah.

Second, Israel should take “all effective measures” to allow “unimpeded access” to Gaza for humanitarian aid workers, as well as journalists and investigators.

Lastly, Pretoria asked the court to ensure Israel reports back on the measures taken to adhere to the orders.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the Rafah offensive in defiance of United States warnings that more than a million civilians sheltering there could be caught in the crossfire.

Netanyahu argued Wednesday that “we have to do what we have to do” and insisted that mass evacuations there had averted a much-feared “humanitarian catastrophe.”

Just minutes before the court hearings opened, Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said the operation in Rafah “will continue as additional forces will enter” the area.

“As the primary humanitarian hub for humanitarian assistance in Gaza, if Rafah falls, so too does Gaza,” said South Africa in a written submission to the court.

“The thwarting of humanitarian aid cannot be seen as anything but the deliberate snuffing out of Palestinian lives. Starvation to the point of famine,” said lawyer Adila Hassim, her voice choking with emotion.

Pretoria stressed that the only way for the existing court orders to be implemented is a “permanent ceasefire in Gaza.”

Richard Carter with AFP