GAZA/THE HAGUE, Jan 11 (Reuters) – Israel prepared to defend itself on Thursday at the top U.N. court against accusations of genocide in Gaza, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the first time publicly rebuffed calls by some right-wing ministers to permanently occupy the enclave.
As Israel’s war against Hamas militants rages in Gaza, the International Court of Justice in the Hague was set to hold two days of hearings in a case brought by South Africa in December claiming the war violates the 1948 Genocide Convention.
“The State of Israel will appear before the International Court of Justice to dispel South Africa’s absurd blood libel, as Pretoria gives political and legal cover to the Hamas rapist regime,” said Israeli government spokesperson Eylon Levy.
The hearings will deal exclusively with South Africa’s request for an emergency order that Israel suspend military action in Gaza while the court, also known as the World Court, hears the merits of the case – a process that could take years.
Colombia and Brazil expressed their support of South Africa late on Wednesday.
Israel launched its offensive after Hamas fighters carried out an Oct. 7 cross-border rampage in which Israel says 1,200 people were killed and 240 abducted.
Since then, Israeli forces have laid waste to much of Gaza, and nearly all its 2.3 million people have been driven from their homes at least once, causing a humanitarian catastrophe. More than 23,000 Palestinians have been killed.
The United States rejected South Africa’s genocide claims, while urging Israel to do more to protect Palestinian civilians.
“Allegations that Israel is committing genocide are unfounded,” State Department spokesperson Matt Miller said in a statement.
“In fact, it is those who are violently attacking Israel who continue to openly call for the annihilation of Israel and the mass murder of Jews.”
Miller defended Israel’s “right to defend itself against Hamas’ terrorist acts”, while adding that Israel must “comply with international humanitarian law” and “look for more ways to prevent civilian harm and to investigate credible allegations of violations of international humanitarian law when they arise.”
On the eve of the hearings, Netanyahu opposed calls from right-wing members of his government, including Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, for Palestinians to leave Gaza voluntarily, making way for Israelis to settle there.
While the stance has been Israel’s official policy, Netanyahu’s previous comments on permanent occupation of Gaza were inconsistent and at times opaque.
“I want to make a few points absolutely clear: Israel has no intention of permanently occupying Gaza or displacing its civilian population,” Netanyahu said on social media platform X.
Potentially timing his comments ahead of the court hearings, he added: “Israel is fighting Hamas terrorists, not the Palestinian population, and we are doing so in full compliance with international law.”
FIGHTING IN GAZA CONTINUES
Jordan and Egypt warned on Wednesday against any Israeli re-occupation of the Gaza Strip and appealed for uprooted residents to be allowed to return home.
In Gaza, Israeli strikes intensified despite Israel’s pledge to pull out some troops and shift to a more targeted campaign.
Israel’s chief military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari told a briefing the military was focusing its operations on Khan Younis and the refugee camps in the centre of the Strip.
In the latest sign of the three-month-old war spreading, U.S. and British warships in the Red Sea fended off the biggest attack yet from Yemen’s Houthi movement, which says it is acting to support Gaza.
Washington and London said they shot down 21 drones and missiles aimed at shipping lanes. No one was hurt.
The U.N. Security Council approved a resolution demanding that the Houthis immediately cease the shipping attacks.
The World Health Organization cancelled a planned medical aid mission to Gaza due to security concerns, the sixth such cancellation in two weeks.
The Palestinian Red Crescent said four of its staffers were killed by an Israeli strike near Deir al-Balah, in the central Gaza Strip, while Palestinian health officials said four children were killed in an Israeli air strike on a house in Rafah.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, on his fourth trip to the region during the war, met Palestinian leaders in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
The State Department said Blinken expressed support for a Palestinian state and discussed efforts to protect and aid civilians in Gaza. The Palestinian Authority said Abbas told Blinken no Palestinians should be displaced from Gaza or the West Bank.
Senior White House adviser Amos Hochstein is expected to visit Beirut on Thursday, a U.S. official said, as part of U.S. efforts to ease tension along the Israel-Lebanon border.