Israel must take all measures within its power to prevent acts of genocide in Gaza, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has ruled, but it stopped short of ordering a ceasefire.
The ruling on Friday comes at an early stage in South Africa’s case alleging that Israel’s military action in Gaza amounts to genocide.
Israel rejected the accusation and had asked the top UN court to throw out the case.
Following the ruling, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel will “continue to do what is necessary” to defend itself.
He rejected the genocide claims as “outrageous”.
Presiding Judge Joan Donoghue said the court has jurisdiction to rule over emergency measures and will not throw away the case, as Israel requested.
She said some of the allegations against Israel fall within the provisions of the Genocide Convention, adding that Palestinians appear to be a protected group under the treaty.
She detailed the six provisional measures made by the court to protect Palestinians in Gaza, including an order for Israel to take all measures within its power to prevent its troops from committing genocide.
The provisional measures ordered by the ICJ
- Israel shall, in accordance with its obligations under Genocide Convention, take all measures within its power to prevent the commission of all acts in scope of article 2 of the convention.
- Israel shall ensure with immediate effect that its military do not commit any acts in the previous point.
- Israel shall take all measures within its power to prevent and punish the direct and public incitement to genocide.
- Israel shall take immediate and effective measures to provide urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance to people in Gaza.
- Israel should preserve evidence related to the possible commission of violations of Genocide Convention.
- Israel shall submit a report on all measures taken to comply with these legally binding orders within a month.
Israel must report to the court within a month on what it is doing to uphold the order, Judge Donoghue said, adding that the ruling creates international legal obligations for the country.
Judge Donoghue said the court notes that Israel’s military operation in Gaza has resulted in a large number of deaths and injuries, as well as massive destruction of homes and the forcible displacement of 1.7 million people.
She cited a statement by senior UN official Martin Griffiths, saying: “Gaza has become a place of death and despair.”
The highly anticipated decision made by a panel of 17 judges came as the death toll in the Gaza Strip surpassed 26,000 on Friday, according to health officials in the Palestinian territory.
“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,” Judge Donoghue said.
The South African government hailed what it called a “decisive victory” for international rule of law and thanked the ICJ for its swift ruling.
“South Africa sincerely hopes that Israel will not act to frustrate the application of this order, as it has publicly threatened to do, but that it will instead act to comply with it fully, as it is bound to do,” South Africa’s department of international relations and co-operation said in a statement.
Senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said the court’s decision was an important development that contributes to isolating Israel and exposing its crimes in Gaza.
“We call for forcing the occupation to implement the court’s decisions,” he told Reuters.
In its submission to the court, South Africa asked the judges “as a matter of extreme urgency” to impose provisional measures to protect Palestinians in Gaza while the case proceeds through the court, a process likely to take years.
It asked the court to order Israel to “immediately suspend its military operations in and against Gaza”.
The Israeli military launched its massive air and ground assault on Gaza after Hamas militants stormed southern Israel on 7 October killing about 1,200 people and abducting another 240.
Hamas said on Thursday that it would abide by a ruling calling for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip as long as Israel reciprocates.
Ahead of the hearing, Israeli government spokesperson Eylon Levy said Israel expected the court to toss out the “spurious and specious charges”.
Experts say ruling ‘balanced, significant but disappointing for some’
Analysts and humanitarian organisations have pointed to the lack of a ceasefire directive in the ruling, but described the provisional measures as significant nonetheless.
Alonso Gurmendi, lecturer in international relations at King’s College London, said that while it may be unsatisfactory for some that the court did not order a halt in the fighting, its ruling was “in line with what most of us were expecting”.
“Many will be disappointed that there was no order for a ceasefire, but remember: we were not really expecting that, given the big and complicated debate about self-defence in occupied territory,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter
He described the court’s finding of “irreparable harm for Palestinians” under the Genocide Convention as “huge”, saying: “The ICJ was clear that Palestinians are a protected national group. Think of this next time someone tells you ‘there is no such thing as Palestinians’.”
He continued: “Israel’s claim that it is not doing anything wrong and it can continue to act as it is doing now, has been disproven. They legally need to change course. What this new course looks like is to be seen, yes. But this is still a good thing.”
Solon Solomon, assistant professor of international law at Brunel University London, and a former member of the Knesset legal department on international and constitutional issues, said the ICJ gave a “balanced” statement.
He noted that “already and irrespective of The Hague proceedings” the Israeli army had announced “more targeted operations” in Gaza.
“So the future of the warfare operations might entail more less-scale, targeted operations inside Gaza from the Israeli army’s part, entailing much less civilian collateral damages,” he added.
John Deverell, former director of defence diplomacy at the Ministry of Defence, called on the UK Government to suspend arms sales to Israel.
“By the Government’s own rules, British weapons cannot be deployed when they risk being used to breach international law – conditions in Gaza clearly meet that threshold,” he said
“Ultimately, an immediate end to the fighting is the only way to protect innocent civilians.”
International charity ActionAid welcomed the measures set out by the ICJ as it called on the international community to ensure Israel implements them.
But it added: “It is clear that an immediate and permanent ceasefire is the only way to end this suffering and the world must unite to address the broader, urgent issues at hand and end this intolerable loss of civilian life.”
Sara Husseini, director of the British Palestinian Committee advocacy group, said the ICJ’s interim ruling has placed “greater onus on states” to prevent genocide and ensure that they are “not complicit in the atrocities being carried out”.
She added: “The British Government should be urgently reassessing its military, diplomatic, and other ties to the State of Israel.”
Similarly, Karla McLaren, Amnesty International UK’s head of government affairs, said Britain has an obligation to take meaningful action to prevent genocide being committed.
“This must now become a reality,” she said.
“The Government’s stance has at times looked like a blanket willingness to provide diplomatic cover for the Israeli authorities, no matter how many Palestinian civilians are killed in air strikes or how many face starvation amid Israeli’s cruel and illegal blockade.”
The UK Government has not publicly commented on the ICJ ruling, but Foreign Secretary David Cameron had previously said it was “nonsense” to suggest Israel intends to commit genocide.
In Washington, Nancy Okail, president and chief executive of the Centre for International Policy think-tank, said the interim ruling marks “a pivotal moment in international law”.
“The US must recognise this historic decision’s legitimacy and respond appropriately,” she added. “This is more than a legal technicality; it’s about safeguarding human rights on a global scale.”