Top U.N. court rejects demand for Gaza cease-fire

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The United Nations’ top court Friday ordered Israel to take steps to limit death and destruction in its war in Gaza, but stopped short of demanding a cease-fire.

The International Court of Justice issued the ruling in a case brought by South Africa that accuses Israel of committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza. South Africa had asked the court to issue an emergency decree ordering Israel to halt its military campaign until the case is decided.

The court did not grant that request. But in a victory for South Africa, it declared that the genocide case may proceed and ordered Israel to refrain from killing Palestinian civilians and to allow in more humanitarian aid. The court also said Israel should act to prevent and punish incitement to genocide. It ordered Israel to report back within a month to show that it is complying with the measures.

The ruling, read out by the court’s president, Joan E. Donoghue, expressed sympathy for civilians in Gaza and quoted a United Nations official who said: “Gaza has become a place of death and despair. … Gaza has simply become uninhabitable.”

“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,” Donoghue said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted angrily to the court’s decision to try the case and vowed to carry on with the war.

“We will continue to do what is necessary to defend our country and defend our people,” he said.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Israel “does not need to be lectured on morality” by the court, and dismissed South Africa’s case as antisemitic.

The foreign ministry of the Palestinian Authority welcomed the court’s decision, which it said had “ruled in favor of humanity and international law.”

The court has no way of enforcing its order, and Israel does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction, although it sent lawyers to argue its case.

Israel’s ongoing offensive was launched after the Hamas militant group’s deadly Oct. 7 cross-border attack. Israel says more than 1,100 people, the majority of them civilians, were killed in the incursion, and more than 200 people were kidnapped.

Israel’s relentless aerial bombardment and ground campaign in Gaza has killed more than 26,000 people, according to the enclave’s Hamas-run Health Ministry. The figure does not differentiate between combatants and noncombatants, but officials say that two-thirds of the victims have been women and children.

Nearly all of the Gaza’s 2.3 million residents have been displaced, and food, water and medicine are in scant supply.

On Dec. 29, South Africa went to the International Court of Justice to formally accuse Israel of committing genocide.

At a two-day hearing this month, South Africa laid out evidence, including public statements by top Israeli officials, that Israel was trying to “destroy Palestinians in Gaza.”

Israel described the filing as a “despicable and contemptuous exploitation of the Court.” It rejects the accusation, saying it is at war not with Gazans but with Hamas and has tried to limit the war’s impact on civilians. It asked the court to dismiss the charges.

The case may take years to be decided. In the interim, South Africa asked the judges to issue calls for an immediate cease-fire to protect Palestinians in Gaza while it winds its way through court.

In the interim ruling, the 17-judge panel upheld South Africa’s right to take Israel to court despite the fact that it is not a party to the conflict.

Donoghue also quoted statements from Israeli leaders, including Gallant, the defense minister, who told soldiers in the opening days of the war: “We are fighting human animals. … Gaza won’t return to what it was before.”

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