The United Nations’ highest court on Friday ruled that Israel has to avoid any acts of genocide in Gaza and ensure “urgently needed” humanitarian relief for the trapped population, issuing verdicts in a case that has attracted worldwide attention.
The court advised Israel to abstain from any potential genocidal acts as it continues its military campaign in the Gaza Strip, but did not demand a halt to the hostilities.
Israel has to take “immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance to address the adverse conditions of life faced by Palestinians,” the court said.
The ICJ was not yet judging if Israel was actually committing genocide in Gaza — that process would take several years.
But the court cautioned Israel to “take all measures in its power to prevent” acts that could violate the UN Genocide Convention, established in 1948 as the world recoiled from the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust.
It also said Israel should “prevent and punish” any provocation of genocide.
The case was filed by South Africa, which has charged Israel with violating the UN Genocide Convention.
Lawyers from both sides clashed over the interpretation of this Convention in the ornate hall of the Peace Palace, where the ICJ is located, during two days of hearings earlier this month.
South Africa accused Israel of “genocidal” acts that aimed to cause the “destruction of a substantial part of the Palestinian national, racial and ethnical group.”
It urged the court to order Israel to “immediately suspend” its military operations in Gaza and allow humanitarian aid to reach the civilians there.
Israel rejected the case as a “grossly distorted story” and said that if any genocidal acts had occurred, they had been perpetrated against Israel during the October 7 Hamas attacks.
“What Israel seeks by operating in Gaza is not to destroy a people, but to protect a people, its people, who are under attack on multiple fronts,” said Tal Becker, Israel’s top lawyer.
The question now is whether the court’s rulings will be respected.
Although its rulings are legally binding, it has no way to enforce them and they are sometimes totally disregarded — it has ordered Russia to stop its invasion of Ukraine for example.
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already hinted Israel would not comply with any ruling saying “no one will stop us”, not even a verdict in The Hague.
But experts believe that besides the significant symbolic impact of the ruling, there could be real consequences on the ground.
“It makes it much harder for other states to continue to support Israel in the face of a neutral third party finding there is a risk of genocide,” said Juliette McIntyre, international law expert from the University of South Australia.
“States may withdraw military or other support for Israel in order to avoid this,” she added.
The October 7 Hamas attack killed around 1,140 people in Israel, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.
At least 26,083 Palestinians, around 70 percent of them women, young children and adolescents, have died in the Gaza Strip in Israeli bombardments and ground offensive since then, according to the Hamas government’s health ministry.