The International Court of Justice, in a historic ruling in The Hague, has ordered Israel to take emergency steps to prevent genocide in Gaza and to allow urgent humanitarian aid in the Palestinian territory.

The ruling stopped short of ordering a full ceasefire in Gaza, but it is considered a major victory for South Africa in its bid to establish that there is a plausible case that Israel may be committing genocidal acts in Gaza.

The court ordered that Israel must prevent any acts of killing or physical destruction in Gaza that would violate its obligations under the Genocide Convention, which was introduced in 1948 after the Holocaust.

It also ordered Israel to take steps to prevent the incitement of genocide. And it said Israel must take “immediate and effective measures” to ensure the supply of “urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance” to Gaza.

The17 judges of the court gave overwhelming support to the emergency orders, voting by a margin of 15-2 or 16-1 on each order. The orders give Israel a one-month deadline to report back to the court on its compliance with the orders.

The court will next turn to assessing the merits of the genocide allegation, which could take months or years to consider.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the court ruling will not prevent Israel from continuing its military offensive. “We will continue to do what is necessary to defend our country and defend our people,” he said in a statement after the ruling.

“Our war is against Hamas terrorists, not against Palestinian civilians. We will continue to facilitate humanitarian assistance, and to do our utmost to keep civilians out of harm’s way.”

The ruling is a blow to Israel’s allies such as the United States and Germany, which had denounced South Africa’s court application as meritless. The Canadian government has not commented on the merits of the case but has pledged to fully support the court.

The emergency orders by the World Court are considered legally binding and cannot be appealed. But the court has no enforcement mechanism. If Israel refuses to comply, South Africa could turn to the United Nations Security Council, but the United States is among the countries with veto power there.

The court ruling was broadcast live on South African television and on large screens across the country. Top officials of the ruling African National Congress danced and sang in celebration at a meeting of the party’s leadership.

“Today marks a decisive victory for the international rule of law and a significant milestone in the search for justice for the Palestinian people,” South Africa’s international relations department said in a statement.

“For the implementation of the international rule of law, the decision is a momentous one,” it said. It also argued that the court ruling “imposes an obligation on all states to cease funding and facilitating Israel’s military actions, which are plausibly genocidal.”

Palestinian officials called it a historic day and said Israel will now face genocide allegations at a full trial.

Israel’s security minister, Ben Gvir, said his government should ignore the ruling by the “antisemitic court.”

Human Rights Watch said the speedy ruling by the World Court is “recognition of the dire situation in Gaza, where civilians face starvation and are being killed daily” in unprecedented levels.

“The World Court’s landmark decision puts Israel and its allies on notice that immediate action is needed to prevent genocide and further atrocities against Palestinians in Gaza,” said a statement by Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “Lives hang in the balance, and governments need to urgently use their leverage to ensure that the order is enforced.”

The Globe and Mail, January 26, 2024