The International Court of Justice on Friday issued a stunning initial ruling in South Africa’s legal challenge to Israel’s devastating U.S.-backed military offensive in Gaza — acknowledging that there is a plausible risk of Israel committing genocide there and issuing six orders for a change in Israel’s conduct as it combats the Gaza-based Palestinian militant group Hamas.
The decision by the chief legal organ of the United Nations to sustain the case represents a major escalation in international pressure for a change in course by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief foreign backer, President Joe Biden. Israel hoped to convince judges to dismiss the case, arguing they lacked jurisdiction and genocide accusations were belied by Israel’s approval of limited humanitarian aid for Gaza. The White House with legal advisors on Thursday and Israel declassified government documents to suggest to the judges its government internally prioritized aid for Gaza and dismissed public statements by far-right ministers.
Abofoul noted that the court’s decision has big ramifications for other states, chiefly the U.S., by activating their obligation to stop genocide from occurring under international and domestic laws.
A former senior Israeli government official told HuffPost Israel was likely to try to smear the court and continue on its current path in Gaza.
Netanyahu “will leverage [the ruling] to claim that ‘the world is a hypocrite, anti-Semitic and totally untrustworthy,’” said the former Israeli official, who requested anonymity given the sensitivity of the issue. Israel “will try to send a message of ‘business as usual’ in terms of continuing the war,” they continued, saying they felt the country was unlikely to tolerate even a “lukewarm” decision seeking only greater humanitarian aid for Gaza.
Adil Haque, a Rutgers University professor, said earlier that there’s little chance Israel will immediately abide by the court’s ruling.
“The court’s orders are legally binding, and it could punish noncompliance in a future proceeding,” Haque told HuffPost. “But if Israel stops engaging with the court then only the U.N. Security Council can impose sanctions (an arms embargo, trade restrictions, etc).”
That means that in the immediate aftermath of the order, the Biden administration, on whose support Israel’s Gaza campaign depends, faces added scrutiny. Human rights advocates say the development underscores Washington’s special responsibility to prevent bloodshed and war crimes. “The court’s clear and binding orders raise the stakes for Israel’s allies to back up their stated commitment to a global rules-based order,” Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch, said in a Friday morning statement.
A U.S. official working on Middle East policy told HuffPost the Biden administration’s plan in advance of the ruling was to try to shift the narrative from its earlier criticism of the case by saying the ICJ’s orders reflect what the U.S. is already calling for.
“While it was a legal blow, it didn’t go as far as to address slowing or stopping [military] activity, which would have been a nightmare for our legal teams and top leadership,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record. They identified an ICJ order for a cease-fire as Biden’s chief fear.
But messaging is unlikely to halt the growing drumbeat of international calls for a shift in Gaza policy, and the ICJ’s order for Israel to provide a report on its compliance that will be shared with South Africa increases the danger for Israel and the U.S. of being proven to make no changes.
It’s also possible the question of abiding by the ruling will soon be taken up by the U.N. Security Council. That would pose an added headache for the U.S., a permanent member of the body that can veto its actions and has often done so on behalf of Israel. U.S. attempts to shield Israel’s Gaza policy at the Council have drawn international scorn as most global governments rally around calls for a ceasefire in the war that began following a Hamas attack on Oct. 7, and America’s weakened influence in the international community has hurt attempts to build agreement on matters like supporting Ukraine against Russia, HuffPost has found.
The U.S. has also tried to stymie another attempt to investigate whether international law has been broken by any parties in the Israel-Hamas war, by seeking to deter Switzerland from accepting a Palestinian request for a global conference on violations of the Geneva Conventions, widely agreed-upon standards for warfare to which Israel and the U.S. are parties, HuffPost revealed last month.
The ICJ ruling set significant precedents that are likely to bolster Palestine in a broad array of courts, legal experts noted.
“The ICJ was clear that Palestinians are a protected national group. Think of this next time someone tells you, ‘There is no such thing as Palestinians,’” King’s College London lecturer Alonso Gurmendi wrote on Twitter, formerly X. “Israel’s claim that it is not doing anything wrong and it can continue to act as it is doing now, has been disproven. They LEGALLY need to change course. What this new course looks like is to be seen, yes. But this is still a good thing.”
Heidi Matthews, an assistant law professor at York University, argued the order could also force countries globally to reconsider arms exports to Israel.
“In order for states to fulfill their international obligations under the Genocide Convention they must *do something* … the fact that states are now on formal notice that there is a serious risk of genocide should mean that preventing genocide in these circumstances means halting arms exports,” Matthews wrote.
Later on Friday, a federal court in California will hold the first hearing in a case brought by Palestinian Americans and rights groups seeking to end Biden’s support for the Gaza campaign and accusing him of complicity in genocide.