Israel said Friday it was not seeking to destroy the Palestinian people, as it hit back at what it called a “profoundly distorted” and “malevolent” genocide case against it at the UN’s top court. South Africa has launched an emergency case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) arguing that Israel stands in breach of the UN Genocide Convention, signed in 1948 in the wake of the Holocaust.Pretoria wants judges to force Israel to “immediately” stop the Gaza campaign launched after the October 7 Hamas attacks that killed 1,140 people, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.At least 23,469 people, mostly women and children, have been killed in Israel’s offensive, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry.Tal Becker, a top lawyer representing Israel, said South Africa had “regrettably put before the court a profoundly distorted factual and legal picture.”Using videos and pictures, Becker painted a graphic image of the horrors of the October 7 attacks for the robed judges in the Peace Palace in The Hague, where the ICJ sits.Hamas militants “tortured children in front of parents, parents in front of children, burned people… systematically raped and mutilated,” he said.He stressed that Israel’s response was in self-defence and not aimed at the Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip.”Israel is in a war of defence against Hamas, not against the Palestinian people,” said Becker.”In these circumstances, there can hardly be a charge more false and more malevolent than the allegation against Israel of genocide.”Both Israel and its ally the United States have dismissed the case as groundless and vowed a robust defence.”The State of Israel is accused of genocide at a time when it is fighting genocide,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the run-up to the hearings.”A terrorist organisation carried out the worst crime against the Jewish people since the Holocaust, and now someone comes to defend it in the name of the Holocaust? What brazen gall. The world is upside down,” he added.In Washington, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said the South African case was “unfounded”. The ICJ will likely rule within a matter of weeks on South Africa’s request. Its rulings are final and legally binding but it has little power to enforce them.A month after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the ICJ ordered a halt to the military operation — to no avail.”If there have been acts that may be characterised as genocidal then they have been perpetrated against Israel,” said Becker, referring to what he called a “proudly declared agenda of annihilation” on the part of Hamas.- ‘Crossed the line’ -For this emergency proceeding, the court will not rule on the fundamentals of the case — whether Israel is actually committing genocide — but on whether the rights of Gazans to exist are at risk.South Africa can bring an ICJ case against Israel as both countries have signed the Genocide Convention.Pretoria’s Justice Minister Ronald Lamola told the court on Thursday that Israel had “crossed the line” and was in breach of the convention.He said that even the brutality of the Hamas attack could not justify this. “Genocides are never declared in advance,” said Adila Hassim, a top lawyer for South Africa.”But this court has the benefit of the past 13 weeks of evidence that shows incontrovertibly a pattern of conduct and related intention that justifies a plausible claim of genocidal acts.”The ruling African National Congress (ANC) has long been a firm supporter of the Palestinian cause, often linking it to its own struggle against the white-minority apartheid government, which had cooperative relations with Israel.Anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela famously said South Africa’s freedom would be “incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians”.Local officials in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Friday raised the flag of South Africa, sparking cheers from the crowd.Bethlehem mayor Anton Salman told AFP that South Africa had “shown up our suffering all around the world,” hoping the case would bring “fruitful results for the Palestinian people and for humanity in general.”Addressing the ICJ on Thursday, the lawyer for South Africa Blinne Ni Ghralaigh said international justice itself was on the line.”Some might say that the very reputation of international law, its ability and will to bind and protect all peoples equally, hangs in the balance,” she told the court.