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Accused of Genocide, Israelis See Reversal of Reality. Palestinians See Justice.

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.

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

But the case, brought by South Africa to the court in The Hague, 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 the Gaza Strip as a war of defense against an enemy, Hamas, that inflicted its own genocidal attack on Israel on Oct. 7, 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’re feeling today is that we’re 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 on 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 United States and, as Palestinians see it, by most of the world’s news media.

“In this one instance, Palestinians are able to overcome the enormous asymmetry that exists between Israelis and Palestinians, just for this fleeting moment,” said Khaled Elgindy, the 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 on 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.

The war began on Oct. 7, when Hamas-led attackers raided Israel, killing an estimated 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials, and abducting some 240 others. In response, Israel launched one of the most intense military campaigns in modern history, one that has killed more than 23,000 Gazans, according to Gazan officials, and displaced more than 80 percent of the enclave’s surviving population, according to the United Nations.

Israel’s lawyers said on 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 in nature: Its judges have few means of enforcing their rulings.

But, Mr. Elgindy said, “For Palestinians, it will be a moral victory, regardless of the legal outcome.”

For Israelis, it is a perversion of history to face claims of genocide, both because of the brutality of the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attacks and because of the Jewish people’s long history of oppression.

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.

And 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,” Mr. 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 United Nations.

Generally, Mr. 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’s rare.”

For Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib, a writer and analyst from Gaza who lost many relatives in a strike in December, the case will do little to salve his sense of loss or the pain felt by those still in Gaza.

“From my point of view, it’s difficult to see how this directly addresses what happened to my family, what happened to the childhood homes that I grew up in, and the suffering that my friends and community and people are experiencing on a daily basis,” said Mr. Alkhatib, who moved to the United States in 2005.

Nevertheless, Mr. Alkhatib, a fierce critic of Hamas and its terrorism, said he hoped that the prominence of the case might encourage more Palestinians to seek diplomatic or legal routes to improve their fate, instead of resorting in desperation to attacks on Israeli civilians.

“It actually is helpful for Palestinians to feel that there are alternatives to violence,” he said.

In turn, that could push both sides toward “a different strategy, a different future, one based on mutual respect mutual humanity and based on dialogue and engagement and based on sidelining those extremist voices that have become so dominant in both parties,” Mr. Alkhatib said.

It was a thought partly echoed by Mr. Halevi, the Israeli author. While rejecting the premise of the genocide accusation, he nevertheless acknowledged the role that offensive statements by far-right Israeli politicians, some of whom have called for a second Nakba, had played in the case against Israel.

“There needs to be an internal reckoning for that,” he said. “We won’t begin the process of healing Israel until this government is replaced and the far right is banished back to the fringes of Israeli politics.”

Rawan Sheikh Ahmad contributed reporting from Haifa, Israel.

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Nathan is an experienced journalist. He's covered a broad spectrum of topics, including politics, culture, and human interest stories, always aiming to engage and inform his audience. Nathan has a degree in Journalism and upholds the highest standards of integrity and accuracy in his work.

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