International Court of Justice orders Israel to limit harm to Palestinians in Gaza

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The International Court of Justice has ordered Israel to limit harm to Palestinians in Gaza in a politically explosive case brought by South Africa that claims the country is committing genocide in the enclave.

The United Nations’ highest court ruled Friday that Israel should also take measures to “prevent and punish” incitement to genocide, as well as to ensure basic services and humanitarian assistance to Palestinians in Gaza.

At a hearing in The Hague, the 17-judge panel rejected South Africa’s request to order Israel to “immediately suspend” its military operations in the enclave. But, hitting Israel hard, it refused to drop the case, as the Jewish state had requested.

“The Court is acutely aware of the scale of the human tragedy occurring in the region and is deeply concerned by the continued loss of life and human suffering,” said Joan Donoghue, President of the Court.

The court’s findings came on the same day that the United Nations relief agency for Palestinian refugees said it was investigating “several” employees after receiving information from Israel about their alleged involvement in the Hamas attack on 7 October. The United States later announced it would suspend aid to the agency, known as UNRWA.

Eylon Levy, spokesperson for the Israeli government, accused UNRWA of spreading the news while international attention was focused on the International Court of Justice’s decision. “Any other day, this would have been a major headline: Israel presents evidence of UN employees’ complicity with Hamas,” he wrote on X.

The International Court of Justice’s decision on Friday only affects South Africa’s request to apply emergency measures while the case is being heard. It will likely take years to reach a final ruling on Pretoria’s charge that Israel is committing genocide.

But the case – which has left a Western-backed democracy facing accusations of committing the gravest international crime – has already made headlines around the world. This is likely to add to growing international pressure on Israel to curb its operations in Gaza.

After the order, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to continue the military campaign doing “everything possible to keep civilians out of harm’s way.”

Describing the genocide allegations as “false and outrageous”, he described the court’s decision not to call for a ceasefire as a victory for Israel. “Like any country, Israel has the inherent right to defend itself,” she said. “The cowardly attempt to deny Israel this fundamental right constitutes blatant discrimination against the Jewish State, and has been rightly rejected.”

But South Africa hailed the ruling, watched live by President Cyril Ramaphosa alongside Palestinian officials, as a “decisive victory for the international rule of law and a significant milestone in the quest for justice for the Palestinian people.”

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki said the International Court of Justice had ruled “in favor of humanity and international law.” He added that the decision “should serve as a wake-up call to Israel and the actors who have enabled its entrenched impunity.”

The decision was also welcomed in Gaza. “Even though Israel did not respect the court’s decisions, it was exposed in front of everyone,” said Israa Howeila, a 23-year-old displaced from the northern enclave.

The EU said it expected “full, immediate and effective implementation” of all International Court of Justice orders.

South Africa brought the case under the 1948 Genocide Convention. It claimed that by killing Palestinians in Gaza, causing serious physical and mental harm and inflicting “living conditions calculated to bring about their physical destruction”, Israel was responsible for the genocide.

During hearings at the ICJ this month, South Africa’s legal team argued that Israel’s assault killed 1% of Gaza’s population and injured one in four Gazans, arguing that Israel had a “genocidal intent ” which was “evident by the way [its] a military attack is underway.”

Israel has furiously rejected the claims as “deeply distorted”, arguing that its forces in Gaza respect international law.

Israel declared war after the Oct. 7 attack, in which 1,200 people were killed and 250 others taken hostage, according to Israeli officials.

Israel’s retaliatory assault on Gaza has killed more than 26,000 people, as well as displacing 1.7 million of the enclave’s 2.3 million inhabitants and reducing huge swaths of land to uninhabitable rubble, according to Palestinian officials.

In its application to the Court, South Africa had requested nine emergency measures. The court enforced six of them, including instructions for Israel to preserve evidence related to the case and to submit a report to the court on the measures it is taking to comply within a month.

The court also said it was “gravely concerned” by the fate of the hostages captured by Hamas on October 7 and called for their “immediate and unconditional release”.

Court decisions on emergency measures are legally binding, but it itself cannot enforce them. In March 2022 he ordered Russia to suspend its military operations in Ukraine, but Moscow refused to comply.

Additional reporting by Mehul Srivastava, Rob Rose and Mai Khaled

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