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Thursday, July 11, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Top UN court finds risk of genocide in Gaza, orders Israel to allow in humanitarian aid

South Africa filed a complaint in December accusing Israel of committing genocide against the Palestinian people. 

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — The U.N.’s highest court ordered Israel to prevent genocide in Gaza, stopping short of calling for a cease-fire. 

Judges at the International Court of Justice found there is a risk of genocide against the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip and called on Israel to prevent any genocidal acts from occurring. 

As part of a complaint filed in December 2023 claiming that Israel is violating the 1948 Genocide Convention, South Africa asked the Hague-based court to issue a series of emergency measures including ordering Israel to stop military operations and to allow in humanitarian aid. 

“Israel must take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance,” presiding Judge Joan Donoghue said in reading out the order in the Peace Palace. 

During hearings two weeks ago, South Africa argued Israel’s military response in the Gaza Strip to the Oct. 7, 2023, attacks by Hamas goes beyond self-defense and violates the treaty, which was created in large part as a response to the Holocaust. 

The legally binding order did not go as far as calling on Israel to stop its military response to the acts. 

Outside of the courthouse, several hundred protesters gathered where the reading was livestreamed. Tears could be seen in the public gallery as the order was read out. 

Any party to the post-World War II treaty can initiate a case at the court against another signatory under the convention. The West African country of Gambia launched a complaint against Myanmar in 2020, claiming the government was committing genocide against the Rohingya. 

The South African delegation was pleased with the outcome. “This case was very much about international bodies, ensuring that they exercise their responsibility to protect us all, as global citizens,” Naledi Pandor, the country’s minister of international relations and cooperation, told reporters after the sitting. 

Her country has been a frequent critic of Israel's conduct in Gaza. Lawmakers in Johannesburg voted in November to cut off diplomatic ties with Israel until it agrees to a cease-fire. 

During hearings over the measures, lawyers for Israel told the court the country’s military is doing everything it can to minimize civilian deaths as it tries to root out Hamas. The militant organization killed more than 1,000 people and kidnapped 200 others when fighters launched a cross-border attack last year. 

The ensuing military response has killed more than 26,000 people and displaced more than 2 million. 

Israel said it was happy no cease-fire had been ordered but criticized South Africa for entertaining the charge of genocide. “The charge of genocide leveled against Israel is not only false, it’s outrageous, and decent people everywhere should reject it,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the order was announced. 

The court has no enforcement mechanism. In March 2022, the court ordered Russia to stop its invasion of Ukraine as part of a request for provisional measures in the case. More than two years on, the bloody conflict continues. 

Regardless, the ruling is seen as a symbolic win for Palestine. “This is a good day for humanity. This ruling is in favor of an international system based on law, against exceptionalism and double standards, which should be a wake-up call for Israel and its enablers,” Omar Awadallah, the head of the U.N. organizations department in the Palestinian Foreign Ministry, told reporters after the sitting. 

The order does not bind the court to any future ruling, but adherence may be taken into account when the case is decided on the merits.

“It creates an important historical record which may not change things on the ground right this moment but can be essential in future negotiations under new governments,” international law expert Juliette McIntyre told Courthouse News. 

Any order by the Court of Justice could have legal implications elsewhere. In the Netherlands, lawyers are currently appealing a decision to allow the export of fighter jet parts to Israel. The possibility that acts of genocide could be occurring in Gaza may influence future rulings. 

In November, South Africa also filed a referral to another court in The Hague, the International Criminal Court, claiming Israel was committing war crimes in Gaza. The court has already opened an investigation into the Palestinian territories. 

In 2015 Palestine signed onto the Rome Statute, the treaty that created the court in 2002, and asked the prosecutor to open an investigation into Israeli military action during the 2014 Gaza War, and into settlement construction in both the West Bank and annexed East Jerusalem. 

Judges at the world’s only permanent court for atrocity crimes ruled in 2021 that they have jurisdiction in the Palestinian territories, including in areas occupied by Israel during the 1967 Mideast War.

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