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International Court of Justice ruling on genocide claims is welcomed

01 February 2024

Interim judgment requires Israel to limit harm to Palestinians in Gaza


Smoke rises after an Israeli bombardment in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday

Smoke rises after an Israeli bombardment in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday

THE International Court of Justice (ICJ) has issued its first ruling on the claim brought by South Africa that alleges that Israel is guilty of “genocidal acts” (News, 19 January).

The interim judgment, which was handed down in The Hague last Friday, does not order the end of the war, or an immediate ceasefire. Instead, Israel is required to limit harm to Palestinians in Gaza. It must “take all measures within its power to prevent the commission of all [potentially genocidal] acts” within the scope of the Geneva Convention, both through military action and anything that could incite the public to genocide.

The court, which voted by 15 to two, defined those acts as: “killing members of the [Palestinian] group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; and imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.”

South Africa welcomed the ruling as a “significant milestone”, and Palestine’s foreign ministry described it as “a wake-up call for Israel”. The Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, said that the charge of genocide was “outrageous”, and he went on to affirm Israel’s “unwavering commitment” to international law, along with its right to defend itself.

In a statement on social media, the Dean of St George’s College, Jerusalem, the Very Revd Canon Richard Sewell, said: “Such an important decision from the ICJ. They declined to call for a ceasefire, which is so needed, but other than that, they have found in favour of SA’s appeal to the court. This will have to change Israel’s conduct in the war. The court had a massive majority. Extraordinary.”

Evidence was heard from Israel, South Africa, and others, including the World Health Organization, independent experts, and special working groups embedded in the region. In November, 37 special rapporteurs issued a statement concerning “discernibly genocidal and dehumanising rhetoric coming from senior Israeli government officials”.

The ruling reported that the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination had noted “the sharp increase in racist hate speech and dehumanization directed at Palestinians since 7 October”.

Taking the human cost into account, the court also said that it “considers that the catastrophic humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip is at serious risk of deteriorating further before the Court renders its final judgment”. Such a decision could be years away. Until then, the ICJ says 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”.

The head of the Asia and Middle East regions for CAFOD, Janet Symes, said: “We do not believe this conflict offers any lasting solution to the crisis in the region and it must stop immediately.

“The measures the ICJ have stipulated include the need for immediate humanitarian assistance. This must be urgently acted upon. There are no safe spaces in Gaza, and the current level of assistance is nowhere near enough. Our partners working inside Gaza are exhausted as they continue to offer shelter and assistance to families. Only a sustained ceasefire will create the conditions for a full humanitarian response.”

The Pope gave an interview to the Italian newspaper La Stampa, published on Monday, in which he advocated a “global ceasefire” and a two-state solution for Israel-Gaza. “Until that agreement is applied, true peace remains distant,” he said.

The same day, NBC News began to report that a framework for the release of remaining Hamas hostages had been agreed by a team of negotiators from Egypt, Israel, Qatar, and the United States.

The ICJ does not have the power to enforce its orders, although they are legally binding. It also, as part of the judgment, instructed Israel to submit, within one month, a report to the court on what it has done to comply with this ruling.

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