By ISABEL DEBRE
RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Palestinians across the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem spent Thursday captivated by the proceedings in a faraway courtroom, closely following the first hearing in an unprecedented case brought by South Africa that accuses Israel of committing genocide in the Gaza Strip.
Friends and family gathered before screens in living rooms and local coffee shops to watch the opening statements at the top United Nations court, located in the Netherlands. Cab drivers used their phones between shifts to tune into the International Court of Justice’s livestream from The Hague.
Televisions typically filled with images of bloodshed and destruction in Gaza instead broadcast foreign lawyers and judges holding forth in lofty halls. In at least one cafe in the West Bank city of Ramallah, some cheered as they watched South Africa’s justice minister expound on the decades-long “systematic oppression and violence” of Palestinians. Others wept.
“I am amazed at the fact that the international community is trying to hold Israel accountable,” Assalah Mansour, a 25-year-old lawyer, said from the northern West Bank city of Nablus. The hearing in The Hague was the talk of the town Thursday, she said.
“For the first time, I felt like this case restored the Palestinian people’s hope in the international community,” Mansour said.
Israel has vehemently denied the genocide allegations and has chosen to defend itself, in person, for the first time, attesting to the case’s symbolic importance. South Africa is seeking binding preliminary orders to compel Israel to stop its current military campaign in Gaza.
Israel declared war on Hamas, the group that rules Gaza, after thousands of militants launched a surprise attack in southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking about 250 hostages. The war has killed more than 23,000 people in Gaza, according to the territory’s health ministry.
No matter the outcome of the lengthy judicial process, Palestinians hailed Thursday’s hearing as a watershed moment for a population that felt forgotten by world powers and betrayed by its own leaders throughout decades of suffering abuses under Israeli occupation.
Since Israel seized the West Bank and Gaza in a 1967 war, Palestinians have endured land-seizing Israeli settlements, army raids on their homes, restrictions on their movements, bars to using their own natural resources and military courts — all entrenching a feeling that the world’s hand-wringing about human rights doesn’t apply to them.
“Even if nothing comes out of this, the sheer fact that the whole world is listening to our story is a victory,” Marwan Mohammed, a coffee shop owner in al-Bireh, a town abutting Ramallah, said.
Nearby, a few dozen Palestinians and senior officials paid tribute to South Africa at a city square named after Nelson Mandela, who led the emancipation of South Africa from white minority rule and regularly discussed the Palestinian people’s plight before he died in 2013.
“I proudly salute you, you defenders of human dignity and human rights,” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh said, addressing South Africa.
Around the Arab world, many celebrated the proceedings, though some expressed dismay that an Arab country had not filed the case. In Tunisia, a crowd gathered outside the South African Embassy on Thursday.
“We wanted to thank South Africa … which did what no Arab or Islamic country could do,” Naila Al Zouglami said at the demonstration as protesters chanted in support of a cease-fire and Palestinian freedom.
Palestinians in the West Bank welcomed the hearing as a rare bright spot despite a growing sense of despair, vulnerability and abandonment. Attacks by Israeli settlers and military raids have surged in the occupied territory since Hamas’ brutal attack on southern Israel more than three months ago.
Increased army restrictions on Palestinian movements in the past few months have turned West Bank towns into isolated enclaves.
“In all the wars that have devastated Gaza, in all that we have experienced here with settlement expansion and violence, we have never seen this happen before,” Sliman Mukarkar, a 29-year-old from the West Bank city of Bethlehem. “We are happy in our hearts because it teaches the world about what’s happening to us.”
The Rev. Munther Isaac, a Palestinian pastor whose Christmas sermon about Gaza’s devastation was quoted in Thursday’s opening statement, felt a wave of gratitude for South Africa.
“It’s hard to put into words how grateful we feel for their work and courage,” he said. “People were in tears. I was moved.”
But Isaac said the joy was mixed with frustration over the international community’s wider failure to stop the staggering destruction of Gaza; Israeli aerial and artillery strikes continued to kill dozens of Palestinians in the enclave even as the International Court of Justice proceedings unfolded.
“After letting it sink in, you realize you cannot be too happy about this,” Isaac said. “It is a deeply sad occasion.
Few in Gaza said they had the time, interest or internet connection to watch the two-day hearing live.
Naseem Hassan, 48, a medic in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis, said he was rushing the bodies of more dead Palestinians into an overwhelmed hospital just a few hundred meters from Israeli tanks.
He pointed to repeated instances of inaction by the United Nations during the war, with the United States vetoing appeals for a cease-fire and a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding an influx of humanitarian aid toothless over two weeks after it passed.
“Israel is above every law and we have no hope,” Hassan said, the constant buzz of aerial drones audible through the phone. “Even if the court rules against Israel, this war has shown us that they can do whatever they want.”
AP correspondent Sam Metz in Rabat, Morocco, contributed to this report.