President Joan Donoghue, and other judges in the ICJ take their seats prior to the hearing on the genocide case against Israel in The Hague on 11 January 2024. Image: Remko de Waal / ANP

ICJ’s Ruling Shifts ‘Genocide’ Debate To Legal Certainty


On 26 January, the UN’s top court ruled that Israel must take all measures to prevent genocidal acts in Gaza, but stopped short of ordering an immediate halt to Isreal’s military operations.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued a momentous verdict in favor of South Africa in its case against Israel, alleging the latter’s perpetration of acts of genocide in the Gaza Strip. The decision has elicited a range of responses, with some commending it as a triumph for international law and human rights, while others denounce it as feeble and ineffectual.

The ICJ has ordered Israel to utilize all available means to prevent any occurrences of genocide. This ruling is significant, as it represents the first instance in which the court has held a state responsible for breaching the Genocide Convention. This establishes a significant example that demonstrates that no state is exempt from international law and emphasizes the obligation of all states to prevent genocide. Nevertheless, the ruling fails to adequately address the fundamental aspect of South Africa’s argument—whether genocide has indeed occurred in Gaza. Furthermore, it neglects to insist on a cessation of hostilities or the removal of Israeli military forces from the region. This constrains the influence of the ruling and raises uncertainties regarding its efficacy in effectuating tangible transformation in practical terms.

Critics argue that the ICJ failed to seize a chance to deliver a ruling with greater influence. They propose that the Court could have mandated Israel to cease its military operations in Gaza or withdraw its forces. Some contend that the ruling should have explicitly recognized the incidence of genocide in Gaza. Although it has certain constraints, the verdict has already initiated a discourse on the definition of genocide and brought attention to the difficult situation of Palestinians in Gaza.

The decision carries great importance in establishing the principle of state responsibility for potential genocidal acts. The extent to which it can achieve concrete transformation is yet to be determined. The international community must maintain a watchful and unwavering stance in promoting tangible actions to resolve the Gaza crisis. The ongoing participation of the ICJ will be crucial in achieving an equitable and all-encompassing solution to this complex and intricate conflict.

The ruling by the ICJ has the capacity to shape the discussion on international law and human rights. This serves as a reminder of the crucial role that international institutions have in addressing accusations of serious human rights violations. The ruling may serve as a catalyst for other states to actively pursue legal channels in their quest for redress regarding alleged acts of mass violence, but the ruling also exposes the constraints of international law and the difficulties in ensuring its implementation. The decision, although significant in its symbolic value, lacks the ability to be enforced, and it is uncertain whether Israel will adhere to it. It highlights the necessity of ongoing diplomatic endeavors, alongside grassroots mobilization and promotion, to strive for substantial transformation.

Many wanted it, but few truly believed it would happen, and while a lot has been achieved, South Africa wanted more binding and immediate provisional measures. The ICJ did not order a ceasefire, but it has given Israel some breathing space. Although it has asked for immediate attention to be paid to humanitarian issues and for Hamas to release all the hostages, waiting for a month for Israel to prove it has taken the necessary steps, given current rates, means another 7,000 Gazans will die (of which roughly 75 percent will be women and children), and this is a calculation that the ICJ would likely have taken into account. But one thing is clear: no state is above international law; this is a powerful conclusion.

Palestinians walk through a ravaged street following Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City, on 10 October 2023. Image: Mahmud Hams/AFP

The microcosms of this conflict are now fully accessible to all, and so many have already learned so much and have taken a definitive stance, including the last few who have remained sitting on the fence. Today’s outcome will also help all in Israel—Palestinians and Jews—including those who have been silenced on both sides, and optimistically, this will start a shift in the dialogue in institutions, in the media, politics, and wider society, particularly in the West. This greater international pressure on an already hugely unpopular Israeli prime minister domestically will be welcome news to many.

ICJ’s verdict is more of a yellow card than a red card, which many activists, campaigners, and politicians were hoping for. It does, however, place Israel in a critical position to act without impunity and demonstrate genuine humanitarianism. It may also encourage some of the senior political figures in the country to curb their utterances, some of which were seen as evidence of genocidal intent by South Africa and upheld by the ICJ.

For the most part, although the ruling by the ICJ signifies progress toward justice, it is inadequate in tackling the intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is imperative for the international community to persistently apply pressure on Israel in order to cease the violence and ensure the protection of Palestinian civilians. The World Court can have a significant impact on guaranteeing a fair and equitable resolution by evaluating additional measures, such as referring the case to the Security Council, but it remains advisory. The added attention that places on the specifics of Israel will, nevertheless, cause many inside and outside of the country to think twice before voicing support for it while recognizing the full extent of the ongoing suffering of the Palestinian people, which has galvanized activism everywhere across the world in this present moment, which continues to watch closely what Israel and its allies in the global north say and do next.


On 29 December 2023, South Africa filed a case against Israel at the ICJ, alleging genocide against Palestinians following the 7 October 2023 attacks by Hamas and other groups. The 84-page filing accuses Israel of genocidal acts in Gaza. Hearings on South Africa’s request for provisional measures occurred on 11 and 12 January 2024, in The Hague, Netherlands. The ICJ, as the UN’s principal judicial organ, settles disputes between states, including those related to the Genocide Convention. Article 94 of the UN Charter states that ICJ judgments are binding, with the Security Council addressing non-compliance. On 26 January, the ICJ directed Israel to take all necessary measures to prevent casualties in the Gaza Strip and specifically act to avert the risk of genocide. The court also noted that it recognizes the right of Palestinians in Gaza to be protected from acts of genocide and that Palestinians appear to be a protected group under the genocide convention. Read More

Tahir Abbas

Tahir Abbas is Professor of Radicalisation Studies at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs at Leiden University in The Hague. He holds a PhD in Ethnic Relations from the University of Warwick (2001). His current research interests are the intersections of Islamophobia and radicalisation, gender and violence, inter-generational transmission of Islamism, and ethnic relations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Don't Miss