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Top UN court stops short of ordering cease-fire in Gaza

January 26, 2024

Judges in The Hague have partially granted provisional measures requested against Israel by South Africa. The court ordered Israel to do more to protect civilians but did not demand a halt to military operations in Gaza.

Pro-Palestinian activists wave flags outside the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands as they watch the top United Nations judicial body preliminary ruling
Presiding judge Joan Donoghue read out the International Court of Justice findingImage: Patrick Post/AP Photo/picture alliance

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) Friday ordered Israel to prevent acts of genocide against Palestinians in Gaza and do more to help civilians.

The court ruled on South Africa's request for "provisional measures" against Israel amid claims of state-led genocide in its war against Hamas militants in the Palestinian territory. 

It stopped short of ordering a cease-fire as requested by South Africa.

ICJ responds to genocide case brought by South Africa

"The court is acutely aware of the extent of the human tragedy that is unfolding in the region and is deeply concerned about the continuing loss of life and human suffering," Court President Joan Donoghue, who read the court's ruling, said.

The judge said that, in the court's view, at least some of Israel's actions in Gaza brought forward by South Africa fell within the provisions of the UN's Genocide Convention. 

Donoghue said the court could not "accede to Israel's request that the case be removed from the general list."

What was the court asked to decide?

The Hague-based court was asked to rule on nine measures, including an order compelling Israel to suspend its military operations in Gaza.

The ruling did not deal with South Africa's core accusation in the case as to whether Israel is committing genocide in the Palestinian enclave. Instead, the measures sought by South Africa were intended to "protect against further... harm to the rights of the Palestinian people" under the Genocide Convention.

The provisional measures requested by South Africa were essentially requests to be put in place before a final ruling on the main case, which could take years.

 While the ICJ's rulings are binding on all parties, it has no mechanism to enforce them.

What was the response to the court's decision?

After the ruling, South Africa's Minister of International Relations, Naledi Pandor, called on Israel to implement the court's orders. 

"If Israel acts in accordance with, I think the implications are for future hopeful world. Should it not, then essentially we're opening up room for all abusers in many conflicts around the world, and I think we'll be setting a terrible, terrible precedent," she said.

South Africa's Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) Director-General Zane Dangor, South African International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor and South African Ambassador to the Netherlands Vusimuzi Madonsela stand as the International Court of Justice (ICJ) rule on emergency measures against Israel
South African minister for international relations, Naledi Pandor, said outside the court, the measures were tantamount to a call for a ceasefireImage: Piroschka van de Wouw/REUTERS

The court "has vindicated us," South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said.

"Some have told us that we should mind our own business and not get involved in the affairs of other countries. Others have said it was not our place," he said.

"And yet it is very much our place, as people who know too well the pain of dispossession, discrimination, state-sponsored violence," he said, referring to South Africa's former apartheid regime.   

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded, denouncing the genocide case as "outrageous" and saying Israel would continue to do "what is necessary" to defend itself.

"Israel's commitment to international law is unwavering. Equally unwavering is our sacred commitment to continue to defend our country and defend our people. Like every country, Israel has an inherent right to defend itself," he said. 

Netanyahu: Charge of genocide outrageous

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki called on all states to ensure that all the measures ordered by the court are implemented.

"The ICJ order is an important reminder that no state is above the law. It should serve as a wake-up call for Israel and actors who enabled its entrenched impunity," he said. 

The European Union said it wanted "immediate" implementation of the UN court's ruling and expected Israel and Hamas to comply fully, including the release of all the hostages held in Gaza.

"Orders of the International Court of Justice are binding on the parties and they must comply with them. The European Union expects their full, immediate and effective implementation," the European Commission said.

Germany echoed the EU's sentiments, saying, "Israel must abide" by the Court's decision.

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock also said Hamas must release all hostages.

She said Germany would fully support measures to ensure more humanitarian aid was delivered to Gaza. 

Germany had previously said it would intervene on Israel's behalf in the more significant genocide case.

What has the court heard so far?

South Africa has contended that Israel's actions have breached the United Nations Genocide Convention and that they were intended to "bring about the destruction of a substantial part of the Palestinian national, racial and ethnical group."

"The acts in question include killing Palestinians in Gaza, causing them serious bodily and mental harm, and inflicting on them conditions of life calculated to bring about their physical destruction," South Africa's writ says. "The acts are all attributable to Israel, which has failed to prevent genocide and is committing genocide in manifest violation of the Genocide Convention."

Israel's lawyer Tal Becker has dismissed the South African case as a "profoundly distorted factual and legal picture" and a "decontextualized and manipulative description of the reality."

Becker showed the court images of the brutal Hamas terror attack of October 7 and said that "if there have been acts that may be characterized as genocidal, then they have been perpetrated against Israel."

The lawyer denied that Israel's operations were aimed at Gaza's citizens. He said the army's aim was "not to destroy a people, but to protect a people, its people, who are under attack on multiple fronts."

Greta Thunberg attends a protest outside the International Court of Justice
Climate activist Greta Thunberg's was part of those demonstrating outside the court in solidarity with PalestiniansImage: Piroschka van de Wouw/REUTERS

Israel has vowed to eradicate the Islamist movement Hamas after the attacks that left about 1,140 people dead in Israel.

The Israeli military has launched an offensive in Gaza that the Palestinian territory's Hamas-run health ministry says has killed at least 25,900 people.

Israel's strongest ally the United States has opposed South Africa's case, while some European Union members and Britain have refused to support it.

Israel had sought to have the case thrown out instead it would have to comply with the court’s directives, the court ordered the country to report back in one month with evidence that it is implementing the orders.

lo,rc/wmr (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)