UN Court Orders Israel to Prevent Harm to Civilians in Gaza but Does Not Order a Cease-Fire

‘Israel has the basic right to defend itself,’ the Israeli prime minister said.
UN Court Orders Israel to Prevent Harm to Civilians in Gaza but Does Not Order a Cease-Fire
Israel's deputy Attorney-General for International Law Gilad Noam and British jurist Malcolm Shaw stand on the day the International Court of Justice (ICJ) rule on emergency measures against Israel following accusations by South Africa that the Israeli military operation in Gaza is a state-led genocide, in The Hague, Netherlands, January 26, 2024. REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw
Ryan Morgan

The International Court of Justice (ICJ), the United Nation’s top court, has ordered Israel to take added measures to prevent harm to civilians and to preserve evidence related to allegations of genocide in Israel’s ongoing war against the Hamas terrorist group in the Gaza Strip but has stopped short of ordering a cease-fire.

The ICJ issued the order on Friday, in response to an ongoing case brought by South Africa, accusing Israel of violations of the 1948 U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The ICJ’s ruling on Friday amounts to an interim decision while the genocide case proceeds.

South Africa has argued before the Netherlands-based international court that Israel’s operations in the Gaza Strip amounted to genocide because their actions appear “intended to bring about the destruction of a substantial part of the Palestinian national, racial and ethnical group.” The South African applicants for this genocide determination had asked the ICJ to order a cessation of hostilities in the Gaza Strip while it continues to consider the evidence and arguments presented around the genocide allegations.

In a series of votes, between 15 and 16 of the 17 ICJ members presiding over the case ruled that the Israeli side should take specific steps to prevent harm to the Palestinian civilian population, prevent and punish efforts to incite genocide against the civilian population, enable humanitarian assistance to the civilian population, and ensure the preservation of evidence related to genocide allegations. The panel further ordered the Israeli side to prepare a report within the next month of its efforts to comply with these orders. But the ruling did not include an order for Israel to halt its military actions, as South Africa had requested.

In its interim ruling, the ICJ ruled that the South African side had asserted a plausible case for seeking a genocide determination against Israel.

The Humanitarian Cost of the Israel-Hamas War

More than 1,200 Israelis were killed and more than 240 Israelis were taken hostage when members of Hamas terrorist group broke through the Israel-Gaza barrier and carried out attacks across southern Israel on Oct. 7. Those figures include around 370 Israeli police and security forces members and nearly 800 civilians.

After Oct. 7, Israel declared war on Hamas and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have conducted an expansive military operation in the Gaza Strip. As of Friday, the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry estimated 26,000 Gazans had been killed in the ongoing fighting in the strip. It does not distinguish between combatants and civilians in its death toll.

The Israeli military has not offered regular assessments of the total number of people killed in Gaza since Oct. 7, but has claimed to have killed at least 9,000 combatants in the ongoing fighting.

The South African case for accusing Israel of genocide notes the widespread destruction of homes has led to the displacement “of the vast majority of the population” of the Gaza Strip. The South African application states Israel’s military operations have also led to the widespread destruction of schools, medical facilities, and other vital infrastructure within the Gaza Strip.

“Areas where civilians were told to relocate for their safety have come under bombardment,” the South African ICJ application adds.

The IDF has provided documentation to media of cases where Hamas endangers the civilian population of Gaza by placing their headquarters, weapons storage, and weapons firing locations either within or near schools, hospitals, and mosques. It has also accused Hamas of using civilians as human shields. Hamas has denied these allegations.
Last month, after conducting a strike near a Gaza refugee camp operated by the U.N.’s Relief and Works Agency that by some estimates killed more than 100 people, the Israeli military said the strike “likely caused unintended harm to additional uninvolved civilians“ and would be investigated.
“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,” ICJ President Joan E. Donoghue, a member of the court from the United States, told reporters following the U.N. court’s decisions on Friday.

Israel, South Africa React to ICJ Ruling

Though the ICJ declined South Africa’s request for a ceasefire, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the fact that the international court was even willing to discuss the genocide claims was a “mark of shame that will not be erased for generations.” Mr. Netanyhau vowed Israel would press on with the war and would do everything it could to protect Israeli citizens within the bounds of international law.

“We will continue to do what is necessary to defend our country and defend our people,” the Israeli leader continued. “Like every country, Israel has the basic right to defend itself. The court in the Hague rightfully rejected the outrageous request to take that away from us.”

The South African government welcomed the ICJ’s interim ruling despite it falling short of the ceasefire they'd sought.

“Today marks a decisive victory for the international rule of law and a significant milestone in the search for justice for the Palestinian people,” the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation wrote on Friday. “In a landmark ruling, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has determined that Israel’s actions in Gaza are plausibly genocidal and has indicated provisional measures on that basis.”

South Africa’s international affairs department argued the ICJ’s ruling also imposes an obligation on the international community to refrain from funding or facilitating Israel’s military actions.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki, of the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, said the ICJ “ruled in favor of humanity and international law” by ordering Israel to fulfill the various interim measures.

“We call on all states to ensure that all provisional measures ordered by the Court are implemented, including by Israel, the occupying power. This is a binding legal obligation,” Mr. Maliki added. “States now have clear legal obligations to stop Israel’s genocidal war on the Palestinian people in Gaza and to make sure that they are not complicit.”

Eylon Levi and Israeli government spokesman said in a post on X, formerly Twitter, “South Africa brought an action to the ICJ seeking to end the war with the hostages still trapped in Gaza and with Hamas still in power. The ICJ wisely threw that out.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.