The United Nations’ highest court said Friday that Israel must take steps to prevent acts of genocide by its forces in the Gaza Strip, adding to international pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reduce deaths. and destruction in the battered Palestinian enclave.
But the court did not rule on whether Israel was committing genocide and did not ask Israel to stop its military campaign to crush Hamas, as requested by South Africa, which brought the case.
While the ruling had elements that each side could accept, the court allowed the case accusing Israel of genocide to proceed, which is likely to keep the country under international scrutiny for years to come.
“The court is acutely aware of the extent of the human tragedy unfolding in the region and is deeply concerned by the continued loss of life and human suffering,” said Joan E. Donoghue, president of the International Court of Justice in The Hague said in announcing the provisional sentence. The decision also ordered the delivery of more humanitarian aid to the Palestinians and called for the release of hostages held by armed groups in Gaza.
South Africans who argued the case this month equated the oppression they faced under apartheid with the plight of the Palestinians.
The charge of genocide is extremely sensitive for Israel, which was founded in 1948 after the Holocaust. Many Israelis argue that it is Hamas that should face genocide charges after its Oct. 7 attack, when about 1,200 people were killed in Israel and about 240 were taken captive, according to Israeli officials.
“The very idea that Israel is perpetrating genocide is not only false, but scandalous, and the court’s willingness to discuss it is a mark of shame that will last for generations,” Netanyahu said in a statement on Friday.
For many Palestinians, the court decision was a rare moment of reckoning for Israel, whose campaign has been championed by the United States and other close allies. More than 25,000 people in Gaza have died since the Israeli offensive began, nearly 2 million have been displaced and half the population is at risk of starvation, according to the territory’s health officials and the United Nations.
“States now have clear legal obligations to stop Israel’s genocidal war against the Palestinian people in Gaza and ensure that they are not complicit,” said Riad Malki, foreign minister of the Palestinian Authority, which partially administers the Palestinian-occupied West Bank. Israel. .
Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian ambassador to Britain, said the decision should force the United States and its allies to rein in Israel’s military. “For 75 years, Israel has gotten its way,” Zomlot said in an interview. “But he won’t get away with genocide.”
But some Palestinians expressed extreme disappointment that the court had not ordered Israel to stop its military offensive. “You have failed the Palestinians again,” wrote Hind Khoudary, a Gaza journalist, in social media.
The US State Department said the decision was “consistent with our view that Israel has the right to take measures to ensure that the October 7 terrorist attacks are not repeated, consistent with international law.”
The Biden administration has strongly supported Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas, while urging it to do more to protect civilians.
“We continue to believe that the accusations of genocide are unfounded,” the State Department said in a statement, “and we note that the court did not reach a conclusion on genocide or call for a ceasefire in its ruling and that it called for an unconditional cessation.” . , immediate release of all hostages held by Hamas.”
Although the ruling is considered legally binding, the court has no means to enforce it, but ordered Israel to report on its progress within a month. The court, established by the founding charter of the United Nations in 1945, was created to resolve disputes between member states.
Also known as the World Court, it usually has a panel of 15 judges elected by the General Assembly and the Security Council. In this case, Israel and South Africa each appointed an additional judge to sit on the court on their behalf.
In a packed courtroom earlier this month, South African lawyers argued that Israel had intended to “create deadly conditions” in Gaza and urged judges to immediately suspend Israel’s military campaign.
Israel argued that it has taken steps to protect civilians by warning them to evacuate northern Gaza before invading and restarting food and fuel deliveries to the enclave.
Israel said Hamas was to blame for putting Gazans at risk, claiming the group hides its fighters and weapons in tunnels, schools and hospitals. Israel also said that statements by its government ministers, which South Africa had cited as evidence of genocidal intent, were taken out of context or made by officials without executive power over the military.
In particular, he said that Israel should not take certain actions with the intention of destroying, in whole or in part, the Palestinians as a group, including killing them; cause them “serious bodily or mental harm”; deliberately inflicting on them “living conditions” calculated to cause their “total or partial physical destruction”; or impose measures to prevent births.
The court said Israel must also prevent and punish “direct and public incitement to commit genocide” and allow more urgent aid to reach Gaza.
Netanyahu noted that the court had not ordered Israel to end its military offensive, which he said would continue until Hamas is dismantled and the remaining hostages, numbering more than 100, are freed.
“Like any state, Israel has the basic right of self-defense,” Netanyahu said. “The court rightly rejected the shameful demand to overturn that right.”
Raz Nizri, Israel’s former deputy attorney general, said Israel was already taking most of the actions ordered by the court, such as ensuring the flow of humanitarian aid to Gaza and punishing statements that could incite genocide.
“And there was no court order to stop the fighting,” he said. “It is extremely important that no such order was given.”
But some Palestinians said the ruling could increase pressure on Israel to limit its military offensive.
“It is impossible to implement the ICJ decisions without an immediate and permanent ceasefire,” said Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian opposition politician based in Ramallah in the West Bank. He and others said the ruling was a rare example of Israel being held accountable on the world stage after long being shielded from scrutiny at the United Nations by the United States and other powerful allies.
“The problem for the last 112 days is that Israel has been operating with complete impunity,” said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian-Canadian lawyer and former adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization negotiating team. “This marks a move away from that impunity, because now there is a court that says there is a plausible risk of imminent genocide.”
South Africa also welcomed the ruling, with members of the country’s ruling party, the African National Congress, chanting “Free! Free! Palestine!” in Johannesburg, when the decision was announced.
The ruling was “a decisive victory for the international rule of law and an important milestone in the quest for justice for the Palestinian people,” South Africa said in a declaration.
The report was contributed by Eduardo Wong, John Eligon and Isabel Kershner.