The ICJ Moves to Protect International Law from Israeli Transgressions

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) today issued its long-awaited decision regarding the situation in the Gaza Strip and the case advanced by South Africa—and supported by several countries around the world since—against Israel’s conduct there. South Africa had in December 2023 presented a case to the ICJ against Israel accusing it of committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza. The court had responded on January 26 by issuing orders to Israel to take all measures to prevent such a crime, prevent its military from doing same, desist from incitement to commit genocide, allow humanitarian assistance to flow to Gaza, and report on measures it intended to take to execute the court’s orders.

Today’s decision by the ICJ ordering Israel to end its military operation in Rafah is a significant and historic development that should, if honored by Israel and the United States, contribute to the prompt conclusion of a genocidal war that brought nothing but pain and misery to an unstable region. Above all, the decision represents a victory for justice and the supremacy of international law.

In today’s decision, a majority of 13 to 2 judges reaffirmed the court’s previous decisions of January 26 and March 28, 2024. The court also, by a majority of 13 to 2, approved a set of orders that Israel must execute. Israel and Uganda were the only two objections to the near unanimous vote. As stated by the court’s decision, Israel must:

  1. Immediately halt its current offensive against the Governorate of Rafah in the southern part of the Gaza Strip.
  2. Maintain the Rafah crossing open for the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the people in the Strip.
  3. Allow international fact-finding missions and commissions of inquiry to investigate “allegations of genocide.”
  4. Submit a report within one month on measures taken to address these orders by the court.

It goes without saying that Israel must stop its military operations against Rafah where more than a million Palestinians live and have taken shelter, as well as other areas of the Gaza Strip. Israel’s war has killed almost 36,000 Palestinians and injured more than 80,000 others. The least the court could do is call for a halt to the ongoing massacre of men, women, and children and the destruction of the physical environment in Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  has declared that military operations in Rafah, or Gaza in general, will not stop until they achieve victory over Hamas, a goal that has so far proven very hard to attain.

Israel must also end its siege of the Gaza Strip and allow for the delivery of desperately needed humanitarian aid, the entry of which Israel’s leaders ordered stopped immediately after the beginning of military operations last October. Karim Khan, the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, has applied to the ICC to issue arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on charges of using starvation as a weapon of war. Not only Israeli leaders but also rightwing settlers are obstructing the transport of food, water, medical supplies, and other necessities to Gaza without being stopped by Israeli military or security forces.

What really shows that the ICJ is a neutral, credible, and respectable international judicial body is its call on Israel to allow for an unfettered investigation into the charge of genocide. Indeed, the court’s decision by no means is the final determination on whether Israel is actually committing genocide against the Palestinian people, for the court demands that commissions of inquiry be allowed to enter the Gaza Strip to investigate the allegation. In that, the court is affirming that it is not prejudging the case and that it will base its final decision regarding the genocide matter on evidence that is independently obtained, irrefutable, and verifiable.

The ICJ’s decision today affirms a number of issues, in fact truths, regarding its handling of the South Africa case against Israel’s war on Gaza. First, like on other occasions when its rulings were sought, the court has reasserted that it has jurisdiction to preside over the Israeli case and decide on the genocide matter. Second, the court has avoided the political pressures exerted by powerful states that have threatened to use their influence to thwart the pursuit of justice. Third, the court has indeed used the opportunity of this case to re-affirm and re-assert the centrality of international law when it comes to judging the behavior of states.

Fourth, its past, current, and future decisions and orders on this and other cases that may be brought before it are likely to garner more support from less powerful actors in the international system, specifically those in the Global South, who look for equity and justice in how international law gets adjudicated and, just as importantly, implemented. It behooves the Global North and influential actors around the world, especially the United States, to stand by the ICJ—despite the political risks—in its rightful pursuit of peace and justice.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.