THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Israel is set to hear Friday whether the United Nations’ top court will order it to end its military offensive in Gaza in a preliminary ruling while the panel hears a case filed by South Africa accusing Israel of genocide.
The International Court of Justice’s president, Joan E. Donoghue, will read out the highly anticipated decision taken by a panel of 17 judges.
The ruling comes at an early stage in South Africa’s case alleging that Israel’s military action in its war with Hamas in Gaza amounts to genocide. Israel vehemently rejects the accusation and has asked the court to throw out the case.
South Africa has asked the judges “as a matter of extreme urgency” to impose so-called provisional measures to protect Palestinians in Gaza while the case proceeds slowly through the court, a process likely to take years.
Top of the South African list is a request for the court to order Israel to “immediately suspend its military operations in and against Gaza.”
Israeli government spokesperson Eylon Levy said Thursday that Israel expects the court to toss out the case.
“We expect the ICJ to throw out these spurious and specious charges,” he said.
An Israeli official said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu huddled with top legal, diplomatic and security officials on Thursday in anticipation of the ruling. He said Israel is confident in its case but discussed “all scenarios.” Israel’s war cabinet was meeting later Thursday as well. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing confidential meetings.
Marieke de Hoon, an associate professor of international law at the University of Amsterdam, said she doesn’t think the court will end the case Friday because the legal bar South Africa has to clear at this early stage in proceedings is lower than if the court decides to rule on the merits of the claim.
“The standard … is not, has there been genocide? But a lower standard,” she said. “Is it plausible that there could have been a risk of genocide that would invoke Israel’s responsibility to prevent genocide?”
But De Hoon also does not expect the world court to order an end to Israel’s military operation.
“I think that they will shy away from actually calling for a full ceasefire, because I think they will find that beyond their abilities right now,” she said in a telephone interview.
Provisional measures by the world court are legally binding, but it is not clear if Israel would comply with any orders the court might make.
European Union foreign policy spokesman Peter Stano said the 27-nation bloc’s position is clear: “We respect the ICJ and we are of the opinion that the verdicts and decisions of the ICJ should be respected. This is the highest UN court.”
Israel launched its massive air and ground assault on Gaza soon after Hamas militants stormed through Israeli communities on Oct. 7 killing some 1,200 people, mainly civilians, and abducting another 250.
Netanyahu has vowed to fight on until his country achieves a “complete victory” over Hamas.
The offensive has come at a high humanitarian cost for Gaza residents. More than 26,000 Palestinians have been killed, the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said on Friday, and over 64,000 people have been wounded.
The ministry does not differentiate between combatants and civilians in its death toll, but has said about two-thirds of those killed were women and children.
The Israeli military claims at least 9,000 of those killed in the nearly four-month conflict are Hamas militants.
Israel’s massive ground and air assault has also decimated vast swathes of Gaza and driven nearly 85% of Gaza’s 2.3 million people from their homes. Much of northern Gaza, including Gaza City, has been reduced to rubble.
U.N. officials have expressed fears that even more people could die from disease, with at least one-quarter of the population facing starvation.
South Africa’s foreign ministry said in a statement Thursday that it was seeking an interim ruling from the world court that “Israel immediately cease its military operations in Gaza, take reasonable measures to prevent the genocide of Palestinians, ensure that the displaced return to their homes and have access to humanitarian assistance, including adequate food, water, fuel, medical and hygiene supplies, shelter and clothing.”
It also said Israel should “take necessary steps to punish those involved in the genocide and preserve the evidence of genocide.”
South Africa will be represented at the ruling at The Hague by Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor. She spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken by phone on Thursday, according to the State Department.
State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said Blinken spoke about the need to protect all civilians in the war in Gaza and guarantee that humanitarian assistance reaches Palestinian civilians, while working towards lasting regional peace that “ensures Israel’s security and advances the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.”
“The secretary reaffirmed support for Israel’s right to ensure the terrorist attacks of Oct. 7 can never be repeated,” Miller said.
The genocide case strikes at the national identity of Israel, which was founded as a Jewish state after the Nazi slaughter of 6 million Jews during World War II.
South Africa’s own identity is key to it bringing the case. Its governing party, the African National Congress, has long compared Israel’s policies in Gaza and the West Bank to its own history under the apartheid regime of white minority rule, which restricted most Black people to “homelands” before ending in 1994.