Welcomed by crowds lining the steps of the UN’s highest court, the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to take immediate steps to ensure that it does not commit acts of genocide in Gaza, and also guarantee that evidence of possible war crimes in the devastated territory is not destroyed.
The Israeli judge on the panel, Aharon Barak, is a Lithuanian born Holocaust survivor. His South African counterpart, Dikgang Moseneke, a former anti-apartheid campaigner, who was a fellow inmate of Nelson Mandela at Robben Island prison.
The rulings came with overwhelming majority among the judges, 16 to 2, on all of the decisions, apart from 16 to 1 on one single count. The dissenting voice on that occasion did not come from Israeli Judge Barak, who voted with the majority censuring Israel, but Justice Juia Sebutinde, from Uganda.
The interim judgment in the Hague upheld most of what South Africa, which had brought the legal action against Israel, had asked for including urgent humanitarian assistance to alleviate the desperate plight of the people of Gaza, where 85 per cent of inhabitants are now homeless.
The court also ordered Israel must prevent and punish any public comments which could be considered an incitement to genocide. More than 26,000 have been killed in Gaza so far, many of them women and children.
Although the court ruling did not order a ceasefire, it has put Israel on notice about its conduct in Gaza, and that is likely to have an impact on the conduct of its forces and will make it difficult for Israel to resist the rising international clamour for a drastic rise in humanitarian assistance getting into the territory.
What the court decided is also important in the wider political context. Patience among Israel’ allies, including President Joe Biden’s administration, is said to be fraying with Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to compromise.
During the ruling, remarkably aggressive remarks by Israeli government ministers were read out. They included defence minister Yoav Gallant saying he had released all restrictions on fighting against "human animals", before adding "we will eliminate everything”, and President Isaac Herzog blaming civilians in Gaza for the Hamas attack on Israel, holding “they could have risen up against Hamas” he said.
The judges did not order an immediate ceasefire as South Africa has argued should take place. Instead, they ordered Israel to produce a report within a month to show that it was complying with the ruling which have been made.
Presiding Judge Joan Donoghue stressed that “all parties to the conflict in the Gaza Strip are bound by international law."
The provisional ruling does not affect any decision the court may make in its final ruling on the allegation of genocide. That, however, may take up to four years to arrive. There is no right of appeal against the verdict, but there is also no power to enforce it. Russia has ignored a ruling by the Court in a case brought by Ukraine that it should halt its offensive.
Friday’s proceedings in what is the highest court in the world were followed with huge interest across the world with live television coverage. Judge Donoghue, from the US who had formerly served in the State Department in Barack Obama’s administration, took just under an hour to summarise the evidence, and announce the court’s decisions.
Judge Donoghue said Israel must “take all measures within its power to prevent” killing Palestinians, causing them serious bodily or mental harm, deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about the physical destruction in whole or in part of the Palestinian group, and imposing measures intended to prevent births of Palestinians.
“The court is also of the view that Israel must take measures within its power to prevent and punish the direct and public incitement to commit genocide in relation to the members of the Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip,” she said. “The court further considers that Israel must take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance to address the adverse conditions of life faced by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip”.
Stressing the appalling situation faced by civilians in Gaza, the Judge continued: “The court considers that the civilian population in the Gaza Strip remains extremely vulnerable. “It recalls that the military operation conducted by Israel after 7 October 2023 has resulted inter alia in tens of thousands of deaths and injuries and the destruction of homes, schools, medical facilities and other vital infrastructure, as well as displacement on a massive scale. The court notes that the operation is ongoing, and that the prime minister of Israel announced on 18 January 2024, that the war, I quote, ‘will take many more long months’.”
The latest figures of carnage in Gaza came while the ruling was being handed down. The Palestinian Health Authority said 26,083 people have been killed and more than 64,400 wounded since October 7. The Hamas attack on Israel on that day led to 1,200 deaths around 250 hostages being taken.
The South African government welcomed the court orders, calling the judgement a "landmark ruling". The ruling African National Congress (ANC) has been in government for 30 years, but it spent even longer as an anti-apartheid liberation movement when links of solidarity were forged with revolutionary groups, including Palestinian. Nelson Mandela, after becoming president, stated “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians”.
Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said it was matter of regret that the court did not call for a ceasefire. "I would have wanted that the word cessation is included in the judgement but I’m satisfied with the directions that have been given," she said. Asked whether she thought Israel "will conform to the orders", she replied she’s “never really been hopeful about Israel”, but hoped the country’s "powerful friends" will advise it to do so.
Before the court ruling, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that his country will ignore whatever the highest court in the world rules, declaring “ no one will stop us, not the Hague, not anyone else”. He has also refused pleas for an extended ceasefire. The Israeli Prime Minister faces an imperilled future after the war facing multiple investigations.
Following the ruling Mr Netanyahu said “like every country, Israel has an inherent right to defend itself. The vile attempt to deny Israel this fundamental right is blatant discrimination against the Jewish state, and it was justly rejected. We will continue to defend ourselves and our citizens while adhering to international law" until absolute victory all hostages are returned".
Israel’s hard-right security minister Iramar Ben Gvir’s first reaction to the ruling was “HagueSchmeg, so what!” He later commented: “The decision of the antisemitic court in The Hague proves what was already known: This court does not seek justice, but rather the persecution of Jewish people. They were silent during the Holocaust and today they continue the hypocrisy and take it another step further”.
Mr Ben Gvir has advocated that Gaza’s Palestinian population should b expelled, and the territory settled by Israelis. He had also called for the annexation of the West Bank, which is under the nominal control of the Palestinian Authority.
In Ramallah, the Foreign Minister of the Palestinian Authority welcomed the judges’ decisions. “They assessed the facts and the law, they ruled in favour of humanity and international law”, he said.
Reflecting the mood towards Mr Nertanyahu in Washington, Carlos Del Toro, the US Navy Secretary directly linked a possible end to the conflict between the American led coalition and the Houthis in Yemen to a pause in fighting in Gaza and increased international aid going there..
Pointing to the Houthi attacks being in retaliation for Israel’s actions in Gaza, he said on Thursday “we see the suffering that’s taking place in Gaza, the deaths of over 25,000 civilians, we need to get to a better place. Gaza is the reason why the Houthis are conducting these attacks. So we hope there is a strategic pause that allows additional humanitarian assistance to come into Gaza to relieve the suffering of innocent children, women and men who are in the worst of the circumstances. President Biden is working very, very closely with Netanyahu and others to try to convince him to allow that humanitarian relief to come into Gaza. And we hope that that those actions and inevitably, will have an impact on the behaviour of the Houthis.”