UN top court orders Israel to prevent genocide in Gaza – but stops short of demanding ceasefire

UN judges today said that Israel must ensure its forces do not commit genocide against Palestinians in Gaza, in a devastating ruling that many will view as a vindication of a legal case brought forward by South Africa.

In a hearing at the Hague on Friday, the 17-strong panel of judges said it would not throw out the case against Israel and that it must provide basic humanitarian aid in the Gaza Strip, but stopped short of calling for a ceasefire.

South Africa had asked for the court to order Israel to halt its operation, which has laid waste to much of the enclave and killed more than 25,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza health authorities.

But the court instead urged Israel to try and contain death and damage in its military offensive, which is still ongoing.

In a ruling heavy with complex legal argument, the UN top court said:

  • It refused to throw out South Africa’s case and said that claims of genocide were “plausible”
  • That Palestinians appeared to be a protected group under the 1948 Genocide Convention.
  • It condemned the “dehumanising” language from Israeli officials, including one official who described Palestinians as “human animals”.
  • Israel must try to limit death and damage during its military operation in Gaza.

Joan E Donoghue, the court’s president, who read out ruling said the court was “deeply concerned” about the “loss of life and human suffering”.

The South African government said it welcomed the provisional measures ordered by the ICJ, where as Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s security minister responded by tweeting: “Hague Shmague”.

Friday’s decision is only an interim one and it could take years for the full case brought by South Africa to be considered.

Israel has called South Africa’s allegations false and “grossly distorted”, and said it makes the utmost efforts to avoid civilian casualties.

Presiding judge Joan Donoghue, right, opens the session at the International Court of Justice


A senior Hamas official has told the news agency Reuters that the ICJ decision is an important development that contributes to exposing its crimes in Gaza. Israel began its offensive in Gaza after a terror attack by Hamas militants killed an estimated 1,200 people across southern Israel on 7 October.

The air and ground assault on Gaza, accompanied by a blockade on supplies entering the Strip, started in northern Gaza City before spreading to the south, and is now focussed on the city of Khan Younis.

More than 26,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since Israel launched its operation, according to the Gaza health ministry, which does not distinguish between civilian and militant casualties.

Israel strongly denies targeting civilians, but many of the victims of the more than three-month-long war have been women and children. Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to fight on until his country achieves a “complete victory” with the eradication of Hamas.

Pro-Palestinian activists wave flags during session of the International Court of Justice


South Africa’s team of lawyers asked the panel of 17 judges to give an interim order compelling Israel to “immediately cease its military operations in Gaza, take reasonable measures to prevent the genocide of Palestinians, ensure that the displaced return to their homes and have access to humanitarian assistance, including adequate food, water, fuel, medical and hygiene supplies, shelter and clothing”.

South Africa had called on the court to issue a provisional order against Israel “as a matter of extreme urgency” given it could take years for judges to issue a full ruling on the genocide case.

Provisional orders by the International Court of Justice are legally binding, but it lacks any significant powers of enforcement. Experts have said Friday’s ruling will add to the political pressure on Israel rather than having major practical implications.

Israel has faced growing pressure in recent weeks from even its closest International allies, with the US president Joe Biden saying last month that Tel Aviv was losing global support due to its “indiscriminate bombing” of Gaza.

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