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THE HAGUE: Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki on Monday demanded an immediate end to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories at the start of hearings on the legal status of the disputed land at the United Nations’ top court.

More than 50 states will present arguments before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague until Feb. 26, following a 2022 request from the U.N. General Assembly for an advisory, or non-binding, opinion on the occupation.

Israeli leaders have long disputed that the territories are formally occupied on the basis that they were captured from Jordan and Egypt during a 1967 war rather than from a sovereign Palestine.

Al-Maliki accused Israel of subjecting Palestinians to decades of discrimination and apartheid - accusations Israel has rejected - arguing that they had been left with the choice of “displacement, subjugation, or death”.

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“The only solution consistent with international law is for this illegal occupation to come to an immediate, unconditional and total end,” he said.

The judges are expected to take several months to deliberate before issuing their opinion.

Israel has ignored such legal opinions in the past, but this one could increase political pressure over its war in Gaza, which has killed about 29,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza health officials, since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7.

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Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem - areas of historic Palestine which the Palestinians want for a state - in the 1967 conflict. It withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but, along with neighbouring Egypt, still controls its borders.

‘Moral, political and legal imperative’

The hearing is part of Palestinian efforts to get international legal institutions to examine Israel’s conduct. These have stepped up since Israel’s war on Gaza in response to the Hamas attacks, which killed 1,200 people, according to Israeli tallies.

Al-Maliki reiterated accusations of Israeli genocide in Gaza which Israel firmly rebuffed at separate hearings in The Hague last month.

“The genocide underway in Gaza is a result of decades of impunity and inaction. Ending Israel’s impunity is a moral, political and legal imperative,” al-Maliki said.

Israel has said it faces an existential threat by Hamas and other groups and is acting in self-defence.

There are mounting concerns about an Israeli ground offensive against the Gaza city of Rafah, a last refuge for more than a million Palestinians after they fled to the south of the enclave to avoid Israeli assaults.

It is the second time the U.N. General Assembly has asked the ICJ, also known as the World Court, for an advisory opinion related to the occupied Palestinian territory.

In July 2004, the court found that Israel’s separation wall in the West Bank violated international law and should be dismantled, though it still stands to this day.

Judges have now been asked to review Israel’s “occupation, settlement and annexation … including measures aimed at altering the demographic composition, character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem, and from its adoption of related discriminatory legislation and measures.”

Among countries scheduled to participate in the hearings are the United States - Israel’s strongest supporter, China, Russia, South Africa and Egypt. Israel will not, although it has sent written observations.

Since 1967, Israel has greatly expanded Jewish settlements in the West Bank - an action Palestinians say compromises the creation of a viable Palestinian state. It has also annexed East Jerusalem in a move not recognised by most countries.

The General Assembly also asked the ICJ’s 15-judge panel to advise on how those policies and practices “affect the legal status of the occupation” and what legal consequences arise for all countries and the United Nations from this status.

The advisory opinion proceedings are separate from the genocide case that South Africa filed at the World Court against Israel for its alleged violations in Gaza of the 1948 Genocide Convention. In late January the ICJ in that case ordered Israel to do everything in its power to prevent acts of genocide in Gaza.

The outcome of the advisory opinion would not be legally binding but would carry “great legal weight and moral authority,” according to the ICJ.

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