Updated Jan 26, 2024 - World

Top UN court tells Israel to prevent genocide in Gaza, but doesn't order ceasefire

Judges take their seats prior to the hearing of Israel's defense at the International Court of Justice on Jan. 12. Photo: Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu via Getty Images

Judges take their seats prior to the hearing of Israel's defense at the International Court of Justice on Jan. 12. Photo: Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu via Getty Images

The International Court of Justice on Friday ordered Israel to take urgent action to prevent genocide in Gaza, but it stopped short of ordering the Israeli military to halt its offensive in the enclave completely.

The big picture: The ICJ, known as the World Court, also ordered Israel to allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza, take effective measures to prevent and punish incitement to genocide and submit a report to the court within a month on what actions it has taken to comply with the order.

  • The decision was only on the request from South Africa, which brought the case, for provisional measures, not the merits of the genocide charge.

What they're saying: South Africa and the Palestinian government welcomed the order.

  • Riyadh al-Maliki, Palestinian minister of foreign affairs, called the decision a "significant order" in a statement.
  • "The ICJ ruling is an important reminder that no state is above the law or beyond the reach of justice," he added. "It breaks Israel's entrenched culture of criminality and impunity, which has characterized its decades-long occupation, dispossession, persecution and apartheid in Palestine."

South Africa in a statement called the decision "a decisive victory for the international rule of law and a significant milestone in the search for justice for the Palestinian people."

  • "There is no credible basis for Israel to continue to claim that its military actions are in full compliance with international law, including the Genocide Convention, having regard to the Court's ruling," the statement said.
  • South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor added: "If you read the order, by implication a ceasefire must happen."
  • "How do you provide aid and water without a ceasefire?" Pandor said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement after the ruling that "Israel's commitment to international law is unwavering. Equally unwavering is our sacred commitment to continue to defend our country and defend our people."

  • "The vile attempt to deny Israel this fundamental right is blatant discrimination against the Jewish state, and it was justly rejected," he added.
  • Netanyahu also said Israel would "continue to facilitate humanitarian assistance, and to do our utmost to keep civilians out of harm's way."

The U.S. said the court's "consistent with our view that Israel has the right to take action to ensure the terrorist attacks."

  • "We have consistently made clear that Israel must take all possible steps to minimize civilian harm, increase the flow of humanitarian assistance, and address dehumanizing rhetoric," a State Department spokesperson added.

Catch up quick: South Africa in late December filed a case at the ICJ accusing Israel of violating its obligations under the 1948 Genocide Convention.

  • The court held two days of hearings earlier this month specifically on South Africa's request for the court to issue urgent provisional measures while the case makes its way through the court, which is expected to take years.

South Africa argued the growing civilian death toll, mass displacement and destruction in Gaza, and conditions the offensive created in the enclave amounted to genocide.

  • More than 26,000 Palestinians — the vast majority women and children — have been killed since the war began, according to the Ministry of Health in Hamas-run Gaza. More than 1.9 million people have been displaced, per the UN.
  • The UN has warned that the risk of famine in the Strip is growing every day.

Israel rejected the case, calling South Africa's accusations "grossly distorted."

  • Its legal team said Israel is defending itself against Hamas, which killed more than 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took 250 others hostage in the Oct. 7 terrorist attack.
  • Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas and bring all the remaining hostages being held in Gaza home.

What to watch: It's unclear if Israel will comply with Friday's order. The ICJ has no real enforcement powers.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details throughout.

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