U.N. Court Orders Israel to Prevent Genocide, but Does Not Demand Stop to War

U.N. Court Orders Israel to Prevent Genocide, but Does Not Demand Stop to War

The United Nations’ highest court said on Friday that Israel must take action to prevent acts of genocide by its forces in the Gaza Strip, adding to the international pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reduce death and destruction in the battered Palestinian enclave.

But the court did not rule on whether Israel was committing genocide, and it did not call on Israel to stop its military campaign to crush Hamas, as South Africa, which brought the case, had requested.

While the ruling had elements that each side could embrace, the court allowed the case charging Israel with genocide to proceed, which will likely keep the country under international scrutiny for years to come.

“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,” Joan E. Donoghue, the president of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, said as she announced the interim ruling. The decision also ordered the delivery of more humanitarian aid to Palestinians, and called for the release of hostages held by armed groups in Gaza.

The South Africans who argued the case this month have equated the oppression they faced under apartheid with the plight of Palestinians.

The genocide accusation is acutely sensitive for Israel, which was founded in 1948 in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Many Israelis argue that it is Hamas that should face charges of genocide after its attack on Oct. 7, when about 1,200 people were killed in Israel and about 240 were taken captive, according to Israeli officials.

“The very notion that Israel is perpetrating genocide is not only false, it is outrageous, and the court’s willingness to discuss it is a mark of shame that will last for generations,” Mr. 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 defended by the United States and other close allies. More than 25,000 people in Gaza have been killed since Israel’s offensive began, nearly 2 million have been displaced, and half of 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 on the Palestinian people in Gaza and to make sure that they are not complicit,” said Riad Malki, the foreign minister of the Palestinian Authority, which partly administers the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

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 been getting away with murder,” Mr. Zomlot said in an interview. “But it is not going to get away with genocide.”

But some Palestinians expressed extreme disappointment that the court had not ordered Israel to stop its military offensive. “You failed Palestinians again,” Hind Khoudary, a journalist in Gaza, wrote on social media.

The U.S. State Department said the decision was “consistent with our view that Israel has the right to take action to ensure the terrorist attacks of Oct. 7 cannot be repeated, in accordance with international law.”

The Biden administration has staunchly backed Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas, while urging that it do more to protect civilians.

“We continue to believe that allegations of genocide are unfounded,” the State Department said in a statement, “and note the court did not make a finding about genocide or call for a cease-fire in its ruling and that it called for the unconditional, immediate release of all hostages being held by Hamas.”

Although the ruling is considered legally binding, the court has no means of enforcing it, but ordered Israel to report back on its progress in one month. The court, established by the founding charter of the United Nations in 1945, was created to settle disputes between member states.

Also known as the World Court, it typically has a panel of 15 judges who are elected by the General Assembly and Security Council. In this case, Israel and South Africa each appointed an additional judge to sit on the bench on their behalf.

In a packed courtroom earlier this month, lawyers for South Africa argued that Israel had meant to “create conditions of death” in Gaza and urged the 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 it invaded and restarting deliveries of food and fuel into the enclave.

Israel said that Hamas was to blame for putting Gazans at risk, asserting that 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 either taken out of context or made by officials without executive power over the military.

In its 29-page interim ruling, the court said that Israel must “take all measures within its power” to prevent violations of the Genocide Convention adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948.

In particular, it said Israel must not take certain actions with the intent to destroy, wholly or partly, Palestinians as a group, including killing them; causing them “serious bodily or mental harm”; deliberately inflicting on them “conditions of life” calculated to bring about their “physical destruction in whole or in part”; or imposing measures to prevent births.

The court said Israel must also prevent and punish “direct and public incitement to commit genocide,” and allow more urgently needed aid into Gaza.

Mr. Netanyahu noted that the court had not ordered Israel to end its military offensive, which he has 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,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “The court justly rejected the disgraceful demand to nullify that right.”

Raz Nizri, a former Israeli deputy attorney general, said Israel was already taking most of the actions the court ordered, such as ensuring the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza and punishing statements that could incite genocide.

“And there was no injunction to stop the fighting,” he said. “It’s extremely important that no such order was given.”

But some Palestinians said the ruling could increase pressure on Israel to curtail its military offensive.

“It is impossible to implement the I.C.J. decisions without immediate and permanent cease-fire,” 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 to account on the world stage after long being protected from scrutiny at the United Nations by the United States and other powerful allies.

“The problem for the past 112 days is that Israel has been operating with complete impunity,” said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian Canadian lawyer and former adviser to the negotiating team of the Palestine Liberation Organization. “This now is a departure from that impunity, because now there is a court saying there is a plausible risk of imminent genocide.”

South Africa also welcomed the ruling, with members of the country’s governing party, the African National Congress, chanting “Free! Free! Palestine!” in Johannesburg, as the decision was announced.

The ruling was “a decisive victory for the international rule of law and a significant milestone in the search for justice for the Palestinian people,” South Africa said in a statement.

Reporting was contributed by Edward Wong, John Eligon and Isabel Kershner.