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UN’s top court orders Israel to ensure ‘unhindered’ food aid into Gaza: ‘Famine is setting in’

A child walks through Gaza City with belongings (AFP via Getty)
A child walks through Gaza City with belongings (AFP via Getty)

The UN’s top court has unanimously ordered Israel to take all the necessary and effective action to tackle crippling food shortages inside Gaza.

Judges at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) said that Palestinians in Gaza face worsening conditions of life, and famine and starvation are spreading. “The court observes that Palestinians in Gaza are no longer facing only a risk of famine ... but that famine is setting in,” the judges said.

The ICJ issued two new so-called provisional measures as part of a case brought by South Africa accusing Israel of acts of genocide in its military campaign in Gaza. Israel launched its offensive, including an aerial bombardment, ground operations and a blockade after the 7 October terror attack by Hamas in southern Israel during which around 1,200 people were killed and another 250 taken hostage. Israel stringently denies it is committing genocide and says its military campaign is self-defense. More than 32,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, Palestinian health officials say.

Thursday's legally binding order came after South Africa sought more provisional measures, including a ceasefire, citing starvation in Gaza. Israel urged the court not to issue new orders. Israel’s foreign ministry had no immediate comment on the order, but in a written response to South Africa’s request earlier this month it said the claims in its request were “wholly unfounded in fact and law, morally repugnant, and represent an abuse both of the Genocide Convention and of the court itself”.

Almost two weeks ago, The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, whose assessments are relied on by UN agencies, issued a report saying widespread famine is imminent in north Gaza, where an estimated 70 per cent of the population faces catastrophic hunger – warning of a “major acceleration of death” if an immediate ceasefire is not reached alongside an increase in aid. In its new orders, the ICJ cited a report from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs that said at least 31 people, including 27 children, have already died of malnutrition and dehydration.

The court told Israel to take measures “without delay” to ensure “the unhindered provision at scale by all concerned of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance” including food, water, fuel and medical supplies. The judges said that this could be done “by increasing the capacity and number of land crossing points and maintaining them open for as long as necessary”.

It also ordered Israel to immediately ensure that its military does not take action that could harm Palestinians’ rights under the Genocide Convention, “including by preventing, through any action, the delivery of urgently needed humanitarian assistance”.

Smoke rises above buildings during an Israeli strike in the vicinity of the Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City (AFP via Getty)
Smoke rises above buildings during an Israeli strike in the vicinity of the Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City (AFP via Getty)

The court told Israel to report back in a month on its implementation of the orders.

The UN and international aid groups say deliveries have been impeded by Israeli military restrictions, ongoing hostilities and the breakdown of public order. After initially sealing Gaza’s borders in the early part of the war, Israel began to allow humanitarian supplies into Gaza. It says it places no restrictions on the amounts of humanitarian aid allowed into Gaza and accuses the United Nations of failing to properly organise the deliveries.

Israel has repeatedly feuded with the United Nations, particularly UNRWA, the UN refugee for Palestinian refugees and main provider of aid in Gaza. Israel accuses the agency of tolerating and even cooperating with Hamas – a charge UNRWA denies. At the end of January, the US, UK and several countries halted funding UNRWA following allegations by Israel that some of its staff were involved in the 7 October attack. The UK is currently reviewing the allegations and has not said if it will restart funding when the investigation is complete. A UN investigation is also ongoing.

Multiple aid agencies, however, have warned that UNRWA is the only agency capable of delivering the aid needed to prevent widespread famine.

Palestinians inspect the site of an Israeli strike in Rafah, southern Gaza (Reuters)
Palestinians inspect the site of an Israeli strike in Rafah, southern Gaza (Reuters)

Cogat, the Israeli unit in charge of Palestinian civilian affairs, has also run pilot programmes to inspect the humanitarian aid at Israel’s main checkpoints in the south and then use land crossings in central Gaza to try to bring aid to the devasted northern part of the strip. They had no immediate comment on the ICJ ruling.

The new orders come amid fierce fighting around Al-Shifa hospital in northern Gaza. The Israeli army said it continued to operate around the Al-Shifa complex in Gaza City after storming it more than a week ago. The military claimed Its forces had killed around 200 gunmen since the start of the operation. Gaza’s health ministry said wounded people and patients were being held inside an administration building in Al-Shifa that was not equipped to provide them with healthcare. Five patients had died since the Israeli raid began due to shortages of food, water and medical care, the ministry in the Hamas-run territory said.

Al-Shifa, the Gaza Strip’s biggest hospital before the war, had been one of the few healthcare facilities even partially operational in north Gaza before the latest fighting. It had also been housing displaced civilians. Israeli forces have also continued to blockade Al-Amal and Nasser hospitals in Khan Younis, in southern Gaza, while several other areas came under Israeli fire, residents said.

In Rafah, at the southernmost tip of Gaza, where more than a million people have been sheltering, health officials said an Israeli airstrike on a house killed eight people and wounded others. Israel has said that it is planning an operation inside Rafah, something that staunch ally the US has warned against, given those sheltering in the city have no place to turn.

Talks aimed at bringing top Israeli officials to Washington to discuss potential military operations in Gaza, including Rafah, have restarted the White House has said – after Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu cancelled a planned visit this week because he was angry about the US not using its veto on a recent UN cease-fire resolution.

“So we’re now working with them to find a convenient date that’s obviously going to work for both sides,” said press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.