Top UN court stops short of ordering ceasefire in Gaza but says Israel must 'prevent and punish' acts of genocide

26 January 2024, 12:50 | Updated: 26 January 2024, 13:14

Judge Joan Donoghue (centre) said Israel 'must take all measures to prevent any acts that could be considered genocidal'
Judge Joan Donoghue (centre) said Israel 'must take all measures to prevent any acts that could be considered genocidal'. Picture: Getty

By Asher McShane

Israel has been ordered to take immediate steps to ‘prevent and punish’ acts of genocide in Gaza, the UN’s top court ruled today.

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"Israel must take measures within its power to prevent and punish the direct and public incitement to commit genocide in relation to the members of the Palestinian group," said Judge Joan Donoghue at The International Court of Justice.

“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 in the Gaza Strip,” she added.

Israel must report to the court within a month on what it is doing to uphold the order.

The court however did not order an immediate halt to hostilities in Gaza.

Judges sitting at The International Court of Justice
Judges sitting at The International Court of Justice. Picture: Getty

"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," she said.

Israel rejects the genocide accusation and had asked the court to throw the charges out.

South Africa asked judges "as a matter of extreme urgency" to impose so-called provisional measures to protect Palestinians in Gaza.

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Palestinians are inspecting the damage in Nuseirat, central Gaza Strip
Palestinians are inspecting the damage in Nuseirat, central Gaza Strip. Picture: Getty

South Africa requested the court to order Israel to "immediately suspend its military operations in and against Gaza".

It is also asking for Israel to take "reasonable measures" to prevent genocide and allow access for desperately needed aid.

In a statement on Thursday, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh said he hoped the decision would "include immediate action to stop the aggression and genocide against our people in the Gaza Strip and a rapid flow of relief aid to save the hungry, wounded and sick from the threat of slow death that threatens them".

Israeli government spokesman Eylon Levy said on Thursday that Israel expected the court to throw out the "spurious and specious charges".

Israel often boycotts international tribunals and UN 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 and likely the fear that any court order to halt operations would be a major blow to the country's international standing.

An Israeli official said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu huddled with top legal, diplomatic and security officials on Thursday in anticipation of the ruling.

He said Israel was confident in its case but discussed "all scenarios".

Israel launched its massive air and ground assault on Gaza after Hamas militants stormed through Israeli communities on October 7 killing some 1,200 people, mainly civilians, and abducting another 250.

The offensive has decimated vast swathes of the territory and driven nearly 85% of its 2.3 million people from their homes.

More than 26,000 Palestinians have been killed, the Health Ministry in the Hamas-run enclave said on Friday.

The ministry does not differentiate between combatants and civilians in its death toll, but has said about two-thirds of those killed were women and children.

The Israeli military claims at least 9,000 of those killed in the nearly four-month conflict are Hamas militants.

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

Provisional measures by the world court are legally binding, but it is not clear if Israel would comply with any order.

Top Hamas official Osama Hamdan, meanwhile, said his group would abide by a ceasefire if ordered and would be ready to release the hostages it is holding if Israel releases Palestinian prisoners.

How the US, Israel's top ally, responds to any order will be key, since it wields veto power at the UN Security Council and thus could block measures there aimed at forcing Israel's compliance.