Top UN court says Israel must take ‘all measures’ to prevent genocide in Gaza but stops short of calling for ceasefire

The UN’s top court ordered Israel to prevent genocide against Palestinians in Gaza, but stopped short of calling for Israel to suspend its military campaign in the war-torn enclave, as South Africa had requested.

In a hearing in The Hague, the Netherlands, on Friday, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) said Israel must “take all measures” to limit the death and destruction caused by its military campaign, prevent and punish incitement to genocide, and ensure access to humanitarian aid.

South Africa had accused Israel of violating international laws on genocide, written in the wake of the Holocaust, and wanted the court to order Israel to cease fire in Gaza.

While the ICJ did not order Israel to end its war, the ruling represents a blow to Israel, which had hoped the case would be dismissed outright.

Friday’s decision related only to South Africa’s request for emergency measures, which act like a restraining order while the court considers the full merits of the genocide case, which could take years.

“The catastrophic humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip is at serious risk of deteriorating further before the court renders its final judgment,” Judge Joan Donoghue, the ICJ’s president, said Friday.

By an overwhelming majority, the court’s 17-judge panel voted in favor of six emergency measures, ordering Israel to “take all measures within its power” to prevent acts which could fall foul of the 1948 Genocide Convention, and to ensure its military does not commit genocidal acts in Gaza.

It also ordered Israel to “prevent and punish the direct and public incitement to commit genocide,” and to guarantee the “provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance” in the enclave.

Israel was also ordered to preserve evidence related to allegations of genocide and report back to the court on its compliance with these measures in a month.

Pro-Palestinian protesters gathered outside Peace Palace in The Hague as the court handed down its ruling. - Piroschka van de Wouw/Reuters
Pro-Palestinian protesters gathered outside Peace Palace in The Hague as the court handed down its ruling. - Piroschka van de Wouw/Reuters

The ICJ’s decisions are binding and cannot be appealed, but it has no way of enforcing them. In 2022 it ordered Russia to immediately suspend its invasion of Ukraine, but Moscow’s war rages on nearly two years later.

Israel had already indicated it would not accept the ICJ’s orders. “Nobody will stop us – not The Hague, not the axis of evil and not anybody else,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office wrote on X.

The court’s panel ordinarily comprises 15 judges, but was expanded in this case by additional judges from South Africa and Israel.

Israel’s judge Aharon Barak, an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor and former president of the country’s Supreme Court, voted in favor of two of the emergency measures, ordering Israel to curb incitements to genocide and to ensure aid can enter the enclave.

Both sides hail ruling

Apart from its call for a halt in fighting, the bulk of South Africa’s nine requests to the court were granted.

The Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister, Riyad al-Maliki, said the ICJ had “ruled in favor of humanity and international law” and thanked South Africa for bringing the case to the court.

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa called the ruling a “victory for international law, for human rights, and above all for justice.”

While South Africa said it was “disappointed” that the court did not order a ceasefire, its Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said she believes Israel will have to observe one if it is to comply with the other measures ordered.

“In exercising the order, there would have to be a ceasefire,” she said after the hearing. “Without it the order doesn’t actually work.”

Pro-Palestinian supporters react to the ICJ's decision at the headquarters of the Palestinian mission in Pretoria, South Africa. - Alet Pretorius/Reuters
Pro-Palestinian supporters react to the ICJ's decision at the headquarters of the Palestinian mission in Pretoria, South Africa. - Alet Pretorius/Reuters

Despite the court’s ordering emergency measures, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed the ruling as a rejection of discrimination against his country.

“Like every country, Israel has an inherent right to defend itself,” he said in a short video message. “The vile attempt to deny Israel this fundamental right is blatant discrimination against the Jewish state, and it was justly rejected.”

However, not all members of Netanyahu’s cabinet welcomed the ruling. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant criticized the court’s decision to hear the case altogether, claiming the ICJ “granted South Africa’s antisemitic request to discuss the claim of genocide in Gaza, and now refuses to reject the petition outright.”

Israeli war cabinet minister Benny Gantz said, “Those truly needing to stand trial are those that murdered and kidnapped children, women and the elderly,” referring to those killed and taken hostage by Hamas on October 7.

Palestinian militant group Hamas also welcomed the court’s decision in a statement on Friday, saying it anticipates further court decisions convicting Israel “of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.”

‘A very significant rebuke’

Legal experts have said that, while the court did not grant the most explosive of South Africa’s requests, in finding that Israel is “plausibly” violating laws on genocide, its decision is damning.

“Even though it is not a definitive verdict, it is a very significant rebuke for the armed forces of a democratic state that sometimes says it has the most moral army in the world,” Janina Dill, co-director at Oxford University’s Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict, told CNN.

“The world court looked at (Israel’s) actions in Gaza and said it is not implausible that it’s violating the Genocide Convention. I don’t see how that can possibly be a victory. In some sense it’s a rebuke, and it is also a rebuke to the governments of the world that support Israel in its actions in Gaza,” she said.

In the initial hearing two weeks ago, South Africa alleged that Israel’s leadership was “intent on destroying the Palestinians as a group in Gaza,” and that its aerial and ground assaults aimed to “bring about the destruction” of Palestinians in the enclave.

South Africa and Israel are both parties to the Genocide Convention, meaning they are obliged not to commit genocide and to prevent and punish it.

Israel reacted furiously to the accusation and rejected what it called South Africa’s “grossly distorted story,” telling the court its war in Gaza was fought in self-defense, that it was targeting Hamas rather than Palestinian civilians, and that its leadership had not displayed genocidal intent.

It said the accusation of genocide was an attempt to “pervert the meaning” of the term and empty it of its “unique force.”

Israel claimed if genocidal acts had been committed, they were “perpetrated against Israel” on October 7, when Hamas fighters stormed into the country from Gaza, killing more than 1,200 people and taking 240 hostage, according to Israeli officials. Israel’s retaliatory offensive in Gaza has since killed more than 26,000 people, according to the Hamas-run health ministry in the enclave.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

CNN’s Eve Brennan, Catherine Nicholls, Hamdi Alkhshali and Lauren Izso contributed reporting.

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