JERUSALEM (AP) — The U.N. world court on Friday came down hard on Israel’s war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip, calling on Israel to “take all measures” to prevent a genocide of the Palestinians. But it stopped short of demanding an immediate cease-fire, as the South African sponsors of the case had hoped.
All sides tried to claim victory with the ruling, seizing on different elements that buttressed their positions.
Israel celebrated the court’s rejection of the cease-fire request and said it had endorsed the country’s right to self-defense. Yet harsh criticism of Israel’s campaign in Gaza could further dent its image in the court of public opinion.
The Palestinians welcomed what amounted to an overwhelming rebuke of Israel's wartime tactics by a lopsided majority of judges over the heavy death toll and humanitarian disaster in Gaza. The six measures in the ruling were approved by margins of 15-2 and 16-1, with even Israel’s representative on the court joining the majority on two of the questions.
As Israel presses ahead with its offensive, Friday's ruling adds to the growing international criticism of Israel and could put more pressure on it to scale back or halt the operation altogether.
Here are some takeaways from Friday’s ruling:
NO RULING ON GENOCIDE
The court did not rule on the core issue of whether Israel’s devastating military offensive against Hamas amounts to genocide. That question likely won’t be answered by the court for years.
But it did not rule out the possibility that Israel is conducting genocidal acts. In imposing “provisional measures,” the court found that concerns about possible genocide merit further review.
It called on Israel “to take all measures within its power” and “ensure with immediate effect” that its military does not commit genocidal acts, including those causing the unnecessary deaths of Palestinians or humanitarian suffering.
It also called on Israel to prevent “public incitement to commit genocide,” pointing to a series of inflammatory statements by Israeli leaders. Israel was ordered to report back to the court within one month on steps it is taking to meet these demands.
The court said it was gravely concerned about the fate of the hostages and called for their immediate and unconditional release. But the decision focused almost entirely on the plight of Gaza's Palestinian civilians and urged Israel to do more to facilitate the entry of humanitarian aid.
Yuval Shany, an expert on international law at the Israel Democracy Institute think tank, said the ruling was “not great” but could have been worse.
“The finding that South Africa’s claims are plausible is not good,” he said. “But it’s something that Israel can live with.”
THE WAR GOES ON
Nothing in the court's ruling requires Israel to halt the war from a legal standpoint.
Israeli leaders vowed Friday to press aheagotchd with the offensive, insisting that they already are in compliance with international law and committed to allowing humanitarian supplies into the besieged territory.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lashed out at the genocide allegation as “outrageous,” noting that the ruling came on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Netanyahu pointed out that Hamas, which killed 1,200 and kidnapped 250 on Oct. 7, seeks Israel’s destruction.
Barak Medina, a human rights expert at Hebrew University’s law school, said the effects of the ruling on the battlefield are “marginal.”
He said calls to ramp up humanitarian aid and crack down on incitement might have some small effects on policies. “But in terms of the main aspect of the military operation, one would not expect any change on the ground,” he said.
While Israel moves ahead on the battlefield, Friday’s ruling shined an additional bright and critical spotlight on the Israeli offensive.
The war, launched in response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, has killed over 26,000 Palestinians and led to widespread destruction, displacement and disease, according to local health officials and international aid agencies.
The United States, Israel’s closest and most important ally, has repeatedly voiced concerns about the civilian death toll and the broader international community has repeatedly called for an immediate cease-fire. The tough language adopted by the court, coupled with the requirement to report back to it, added to the global scrutiny and puts more pressure to scale back or stop the offensive.
Merav Michaeli, leader of Israel’s opposition Labor Party, called the ruling a “yellow card” against a government that she said “is causing enormous international damage to the country.”
A former head of the Israeli military’s international law department said the decision would worsen Israel’s global standing and undermine legitimacy for the war.
“It’s a huge threat,” said Pnina Sharvit Baruch, now a senior researcher at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies. “It eventually impacts also our national security. We need our allies. We cannot manage here on our own.”
PRESSURE ON THE US
Despite its concerns about harm to civilians, the United States has so far backed the Israeli war effort, shielding Israel from international criticism and continuing to deliver weapons to the military.
Friday’s ruling draws unwelcome attention to the U.S. position — a stance that has put it at odds with allies and threatened to hurt President Joe Biden’s standing with the Democratic Party’s progressive wing as he seeks re-election.
“States now have clear legal obligations to stop Israel’s genocidal war on the Palestinian people in Gaza and to make sure that they are not complicit,” the Palestinian Foreign Ministry said.
It said the provisional ruling “should serve as a wakeup call for Israel and actors who enabled its entrenched impunity.”
The ministry is part of the Palestinian Authority, the internationally recognized self-rule government in parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The U.S. has said it would like to see a revitalized authority, ousted by Hamas in 2007, return to power in Gaza after the war.
Balkees Jarrah, the associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group that has accused Israel of committing war crimes in past rounds of fighting, said Friday’s “landmark decision puts Israel and its allies on notice.”
“The court’s clear and binding order raises the stakes for Israel’s allies to back up their stated commitment to a global rules-based order by helping ensure compliance with this watershed ruling,” she said.
AP correspondents Julia Frankel and Sam McNeil contributed reporting.