Top UN court orders Israel to prevent genocide in Gaza but stops short of ordering cease-fire

Jan 25, 2024, 9:59 PM | Updated: Jan 26, 2024, 8:40 pm

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — The United Nations’ top court on Friday ordered Israel to do all it can to prevent death, destruction and any acts of genocide in Gaza, but the panel stopped short of ordering an end to the military offensive that has laid waste to the Palestinian enclave.

In a ruling that will keep Israel under the legal lens for years to come, the court offered little other comfort to Israeli leaders in a genocide case brought by South Africa that goes to the core of one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. The court’s half-dozen orders will be difficult to achieve without some sort of cease-fire or pause in the fighting.

“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,” court President Joan E. Donoghue said.

The ruling amounted to an overwhelming rebuke of Israel’s wartime conduct and added to mounting international pressure to halt the nearly 4-month-old offensive that has killed more than 26,000 Palestinians, decimated vast swaths of Gaza and driven nearly 85% of its 2.3 million people from their homes.

Allowing the accusations to stand stung the government of Israel, which was founded as a Jewish state after the Nazi slaughter of 6 million Jews during World War II.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the fact that the court was willing to discuss the genocide charges was a “mark of shame that will not be erased for generations.” He vowed to press ahead with the war.

The power of the ruling was magnified by its timing, coming on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Later Friday, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stressed that the top court’s rulings are legally binding and “trusts” that Israel will comply with its orders, including “to take all measures within its power” to prevent acts that would bring about the destruction of the Palestinian people.

“Those truly needing to stand trial are those that murdered and kidnapped children, women and the elderly,” former Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said, referring to Hamas militants who stormed through Israeli communities on Oct. 7 in the attack that set off the war. The assault killed some 1,200 people and resulted in another 250 being kidnapped.

The court also called on Hamas to release the hostages who are still in captivity. Hamas urged the international community to make Israel carry out the court’s orders.

Many of the measures were approved by an overwhelming majority of the judges. Of the six orders, an Israeli judge voted in favor of two — an order for humanitarian aid and another for the prevention of inflammatory speech.

Israeli Judge Aharon Barak said he supported those orders in the hope that they would “help to decrease tensions and discourage damaging rhetoric” while easing the ”consequences of the armed conflict for the most vulnerable.”

Such provisional measures issued by the world court are legally binding, but it is not clear if Israel will comply with them.

“We will continue to do what is necessary to defend our country and defend our people,” said Netanyahu, who pushed back against the ruling in two languages. In a message aimed at his domestic audience, the tone was more defiant in Hebrew, and he stopped short of overtly criticizing the court in English.

The court ruled that Israel must do all it can to prevent genocide, including refraining from harming or killing Palestinians. It also ruled that Israel must urgently get basic aid to Gaza and that the country should punish any incitement to genocide, among other measures.

The panel told Israel to submit a report on steps taken within a month.

“That’s a time that the court could come back and say, ‘You have not met the orders. You have not complied. Now we find you are in the midst of committing genocide,’” said Mary Ellen O’Connell, a professor of law and international peace studies at Notre Dame University’s Kroc Institute.

Friday’s decision was an interim ruling. It could take years for the court to consider all aspects of South Africa’s genocide allegations. The U.N. Security Council scheduled a meeting for Wednesday to follow up on the ruling.

In Israel, commentators said the decision not to order a cease-fire was received with some relief since it helped Israel avoid a collision with a top U.N. body.

Palestinians and their supporters said the court took an important step toward holding Israel accountable. The Foreign Ministry of the internationally backed Palestinian self-rule government in the West Bank said the ruling “should serve as a wake-up call for Israel and actors who enabled its entrenched impunity,” an apparent reference to the United States, Israel’s chief ally.

The U.S. repeated its position that Israel must “take all possible steps” to minimize harm to civilians, increase humanitarian aid and curb “dehumanizing rhetoric.”

“We continue to believe that allegations of genocide are unfounded,” the State Department said in a statement.

The South African government said the ruling determined that “Israel’s actions in Gaza are plausibly genocidal.”

“There is no credible basis for Israel to continue to claim that its military actions are in full compliance with international law,” the government said in a statement.

Israel often boycotts international tribunals and U.N. investigations, saying they are unfair and biased. But this time, it took the rare step of sending a high-level legal team — a sign of how seriously it regards the case.

The Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza does not differentiate between combatants and civilians in its death toll, but the agency has said about two-thirds of those killed have been women and children.

The Israeli military claims at least 9,000 of the more than 26,000 dead were Hamas militants.

U.N. officials have expressed fears that even more people could die from disease and malnutrition, with at least one-quarter of the Gaza population facing starvation.

Yuval Shany, a law professor at Hebrew University and senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, said the court’s decision was “not as bad as Israel feared it would be” and would not fundamentally alter the way the military conducts the war.

“The greatest fear was that the court would ask Israel to stop the war,” Shany said, describing the decision as “something that Israel can live with.”


Casert reported from Brussels. Associated Press writers Josef Federman and Julia Frankel in Jerusalem; Gerald Imray in Cape Town, South Africa; and Jill Lawless and Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.


Follow AP’s war coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war


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Top UN court orders Israel to prevent genocide in Gaza but stops short of ordering cease-fire