What the ICJ’s interim ruling means for Israel’s war on Gaza

The International Court of Justice on Friday issued a series of provisional measures that require Israel to comply with the 1948 Genocide Convention, allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza and act against those who issue genocidal statements.

The World Court’s interim ruling, in a case brought by South Africa accusing Israel of committing genocide in Gaza, stopped short of ordering Israel to pause or stop its devastating war on Gaza, which has killed more than 26,000 Palestinians in the enclave since October 7.

But it rejected Israel’s contention that the court did not have the jurisdiction to direct provisional measures and iterated that its findings were binding.

The Palestinian Authority welcomed the ruling. “The ICJ ruling is an important reminder that no state is above the law or beyond the reach of justice,” Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki said in a statement. “It breaks Israel’s entrenched culture of criminality and impunity, which has characterised its decades-long occupation, dispossession, persecution, and apartheid in Palestine.”

While the court itself does not have the power to enforce the interim ruling, or indeed the final verdict it delivers in the case, its directives on Friday could influence the war in Gaza, said analysts. Pressure has been mounting on Israel and its American backers in recent weeks, as global calls for a ceasefire continue to pick up steam.

Friday’s ruling does not determine whether Israel is committing genocide, as South Africa has alleged. But Judge Joan Donahue, the current president of the ICJ, said while announcing the provisional measures that the court had concluded that the “catastrophic situation” in Gaza could get much worse by the time it delivers its final verdict, necessitating provisional measures.

“The ruling sends a strong message to Israel that the court views the situation as very serious and that Israel should do what it can to perform restraint in carrying out its military campaign,” said Michael Becker, an assistant professor of international human rights law at Trinity College in Dublin who also served as an associate legal officer at the International Court of Justice in The Hague from 2010 to 2014.

Palestinians carry an injured man as they flee Khan Younis to escape the Israeli ground and air offensive on the Gaza Strip, on Monday, January 22, 2024 [Bashar Taleb/AP]

Can the war continue?

The ICJ in its provisional measures did not order Israel to stop its military campaign in Gaza. South Africa had requested such a cease-and-desist directive in its request for provisional measures, citing the prospect of genocide in Gaza.

The court had ordered Russia to halt its war in Ukraine in March 2022, a month after it had launched an invasion of Ukraine, though Moscow has ignored that ruling.

So, Israel would not be in violation of the ICJ’s Friday directives in continuing with a war that it insists it will pursue until it has decimated Hamas, the Palestinian armed group that attacked southern Israel on October 7, killing nearly 1,200 people and abducting 240 others.

Yet, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will likely be under greater scrutiny than ever over the actions of its soldiers in Gaza and the statements of its leaders and generals.

Israel is required, under the ICJ’s ruling, to submit a report within a month showing that it is complying with the provisional measures. South Africa will have the chance to pick holes in Israel’s claims.

Will Israel even follow the ICJ ruling?

When South Africa filed its case at the ICJ in late December, Israeli officials dismissed it as “lies” and accused the South Africans of “hypocrisy”. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel would not be swayed by any ruling.

“We will restore security to both the south and the north,” Netanyahu wrote on the platform known as X, formerly Twitter, from the official account of the Israeli Prime Minister. “Nobody will stop us – not The Hague, not the axis of evil and not anybody else.”

But even if Israel decides not to abide by the ICJ’s ruling, there will be pressure on its international backers.

“Israeli politicians have already said that they’re going to ignore the ICJ order,” Mark Lattimer, the executive director of Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights, told Al Jazeera. “It is much harder for, particularly, the US and European states including the UK, to ignore the order because they have a much stronger record of holding or supporting the International Court of Justice.”

Legal experts expect Israel’s allies in the West, including the US, to respect the ICJ’s ruling. To fail to do so would have serious repercussions.

It would undermine the “credibility of the rules-based international order that the US claims to uphold”, Lattimer said. He added that it would also “entrench a growing divide” between the US and Western countries versus states in the Global South which view those claims of “upholding global order” with scepticism.

Palestinians fleeing from Khan Younis, where Israel has focused its operations in recent days, arrive in Rafah, southern Gaza, on Monday, January 22, 2024 [Fatima Shbair/AP]

Will the ruling add global pressure for a ceasefire?

While the ruling itself does not call for a ceasefire, it could make it harder for Israel’s allies to continue to stonewall global efforts to bring the war to a halt.

“The ICJ ruling puts a lot more pressure on the US and other Western allies to move on a ceasefire resolution,” Zaha Hassan, a human rights lawyer and a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Al Jazeera. “It makes it a lot harder for the US, along with Israel, to make the case to Western governments that are still very much concerned with international legitimacy, to maintain the idea that Israel is acting within the constraints of international law in Gaza and that it’s acting in self-defence.”

Some evidence suggests that Israel knows this, too. Soon after South Africa announced that it would bring a case before the ICJ, Israel’s tactics on the ground started to change, experts said.

There was “a rush to wipe out any possibility for a Palestinian return to the north of Gaza”, Hassan said, pointing to controlled bombings of universities and hospitals. “Once you have hospitals taken out, you make it impossible for people in war to stay. That’s a part of a strategy to force Palestinian population transfer and permanent displacement.”

But this may be an acknowledgement that the time Israel has to carry out its military campaign is running out.

“There needs to be enough international pressure to essentially create more incentives for a negotiated ceasefire,” Lattimer said. “The ICJ order is a major contribution.”

Brothers in arms

The US, in particular, has provided military aid that Israel is reliant on to continue to wage war. President Joe Biden circumvented US Congress twice in less than a month to greenlight emergency weapons sales to Israel.

The Biden administration claims it has asked Israel to protect civilian life but that has not shielded it from heavy criticism, including internally, for failing to convince Israel to hold higher regard for innocent lives in Gaza.

“This administration is concerned with the growing number of members of Congress, particularly moderate Democrats in the Senate who are raising red flags about the misuse of US weapons and the potential for US complicity if they continue to send unconditional supplies to Israel,” Hassan said.

The ICJ ruling could add steam to the push for a ceasefire in Gaza and for the US to insist on a higher level of accountability when it comes to Israeli military action.

“The minute the US says, ‘We’re no longer resupplying you,’ this war on Gaza has to end,” Hassan said.

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