THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Israel on Friday defended the military necessity of its Gaza offensive at the International Court of Justice after South Africa asked judges to order it to halt operations in Rafah and completely withdraw from the Palestinian territory.

Israeli Justice Ministry official Gilad Noam called South Africa's case, which accuses Israel of violating the Genocide Convention, "completely divorced from facts and circumstances".

"(The case) makes a mockery of the heinous charge of genocide," Noam said.

Ahead of Israel's presentation, several dozen pro-Israeli protesters gathered outside, displaying photographs of hostages taken by Hamas fighters on Oct. 7 and demanding their release.

More than 35,300 Palestinians have been killed in Israel's seven-month-old assault on the Gaza Strip, health officials in the enclave said on Thursday. The war began when Hamas militants attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and abducting 253 others.

On Thursday, South Africa's ambassador to the Netherlands, Vusimuzi Madonsela, requested the court to order Israel to "immediately, totally and unconditionally, withdraw the Israeli army from the entirety of the Gaza Strip."

The South African legal team framed the Israeli military operation as part of a genocidal plan aimed at bringing about the destruction of the Palestinian people.

In past rulings, the court has rejected Israel's demands to dismiss the case and ordered it to prevent acts of genocide against the Palestinians, while stopping short of ordering it to halt the assault.

(Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg and Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Peter Graff)