The United Nations’ highest court on Friday ordered Israel to take steps to prevent and punish direct incitement to genocide in its Gaza war, although it stopped short of ordering a ceasefire in a case brought by South Africa.
“The State of Israel must (…) take all measures in its power to prevent the commission of any acts falling within the scope of Article II of the Genocide Convention,” declared the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
In a sweeping ruling, a large majority of the ICJ’s 17 judges voted in favor of urgent measures that covered most of what South Africa was asking for, with the notable exception of stopping Israeli military action in Gaza.
The court ordered Israel to refrain from any acts that might fall under the Genocide Convention and also to ensure that its troops do not commit any acts of genocide in Gaza.
Israel must report to the court within a month on what it is doing to enforce the order.
The decision is legally binding, but the court has no way of enforcing it.
Former Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth told CBC News on Friday that the court does not have the ability to rule on a ceasefire because Hamas is a non-state actor. The court urged Hamas to release the hostages it still holds following the October 7 attacks in southern Israel.
“I think, frankly, the court can only go so far,” Roth said.
Roth said the decision could potentially make a “huge difference” in the lives of Palestinians on the ground and exert “strong political pressure” for Israel to comply with the decision.
According to the Israeli government, approximately 1,200 people were killed in the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, including Israeli security forces and civilians, as well as foreign nationals. Around 250 other people were taken hostage. Israel responded with considerable force in Gaza, saying its attacks were aimed at eliminating Hamas and its supporters, not civilians.
Gaza’s health ministry said thousands of women and children were among the more than 25,000 people killed since then in the territory, a figure that does not differentiate between civilians and Hamas fighters.
Limited humanitarian aid has been allowed into Gaza over the past 100 days.
The ICJ, also known as the World Court, has not addressed South Africa’s main claim, whether Israel is committing genocide, although it said Friday it would not reject the deal, as Israel had requested.
Palestinians appear to be a group protected by the genocide convention, the court said.
“The ICJ judges assessed the facts and the law, they ruled in favor of humanity and international law,” Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki said in a televised speech.
Israeli judge votes in favor of 2 measures
South Africa welcomed in a first statement what it called a “decisive victory” for the international rule of law. Outside the Hague court, Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s minister for international relations, said it was vital that states “exercise their responsibility to protect the citizens of the world.”
“South Africa felt that we could not stand idly by,” she said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel’s “commitment to international law was unwavering”, but he again rejected the premise of South Africa’s argument.
“The accusation of genocide against Israel is not only false, it is outrageous, and honest people should reject it,” Netanyahu said.
“Our war is against Hamas terrorists, not against Palestinian civilians,” he added. “We will continue to facilitate humanitarian assistance and do everything possible to keep civilians out of danger, even if Hamas uses civilians as human shields.”
The Israeli judge on the 17-member panel, Aharon Barak, wrote in a separate opinion that “although I am convinced that there is no plausibility of genocide,” he voted for two of the measures. He said he was joining the majority in ordering Israel to refrain from public incitement “in the hope that this step will help reduce tensions and discourage harmful rhetoric.”
He said he voted for a measure to guarantee humanitarian aid in the hope that it will “mitigate the consequences of armed conflict for the most vulnerable.” The panel’s Ugandan judge was the only member not to vote in favor of the humanitarian aid measure.
The United States, through a State Department spokesperson, said the decision was consistent with Washington’s view that Israel has the right to act, consistent with international law.
“We continue to believe that the allegations of genocide are unfounded and note that the tribunal did not draw a conclusion about the genocide or call for a ceasefire in its decision and that it called for the immediate release and unconditional protection of all hostages held by Hamas,” the statement said. the spokesperson said.
In Ottawa on Friday, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly issued a statement saying Canada would continue “to follow the matter very closely,” noting that Canada supports the ICJ’s role in resolving disputes, but that this support “does not mean that we accept the principle of the case brought by South Africa.
During two days of public hearings Earlier this month, South Africa condemned Hamas for its brutal attack on Israel in October, but said there was no justification for the scale of the Israeli response in Gaza.
South Africa has asked the court to order Israel to stop its attack on Palestinian territory, among nine emergency measures it has requested. He also pushed for more humanitarian aid to enter Gaza.
Israel categorically rejected the genocide claim and argued in court that South Africa’s claim was “distorted.” Israel also said it had the right to defend itself and that it was targeting Hamas and not Palestinian civilians.