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  • An Israeli army tank takes up position near Palestinians who arrived in the southern Gaza town of Rafah.Fatima Shbair/The Associated Press

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The International Court of Justice, in a historic ruling in The Hague, has ordered Israel to take emergency steps to prevent genocide in Gaza and allow humanitarian aid into the Palestinian territory.

Friday’s ruling stopped short of ordering a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war but is considered a major victory for South Africa because it confirms that there is a plausible case that Israel may be committing genocidal acts in Gaza and must face a full hearing on that question.

The world court ordered that Israel must “take all measures within its power to prevent” any acts of killing or hardships in Gaza that would violate its obligations under the Genocide Convention, which was introduced in 1948 in response to the Holocaust. It said Israel must also “ensure with immediate effect” that its military does not commit such acts.

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The court also ordered Israel to take steps to “prevent and punish” the incitement of genocide against Palestinians in Gaza. And it said Israel must take “immediate and effective measures” to ensure the supply of “urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance” to the Gaza Strip.

The 17 judges of the court voted overwhelmingly in support to the emergency orders, by a margin of 15-2 or 16-1 on each one. The orders give Israel one month to report back to the court on its compliance.

The court rejected Israel’s efforts to toss out the case on jurisdictional grounds. Quoting extensively from United Nations officials who warned that famine is looming in the territory and that Gaza is becoming “uninhabitable,” the court said it must issue urgent orders because there is “real and imminent risk” of irreparable harm to Palestinian civilians.

“The Court considers that the catastrophic humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip is at serious risk of deteriorating further before the Court renders its final judgment,” it ruled.

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The court will next turn to assessing the merits of the genocide allegation made by South Africa, which could take months or years to consider. On a preliminary basis, it ruled that Palestinians in Gaza have “plausible rights” to be protected from acts of genocide and that South Africa has a right to seek Israel’s compliance with its obligations under the Genocide Convention.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the court ruling will not prevent Israel from continuing its military offensive. He said the allegation of genocide was false and outrageous. “We will continue to do what is necessary to defend our country and defend our people,” he said in a statement after the ruling.

“Our war is against Hamas terrorists, not against Palestinian civilians. We will continue to facilitate humanitarian assistance and to do our utmost to keep civilians out of harm’s way.”

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, in a speech to the country, said the court ruling was “a victory for international law, for human rights and, above all, for justice.” He urged Israel to comply with the emergency orders and said the ruling had vindicated South Africa’s decision to take the case to The Hague.

“Some have told us to mind our own business,” he said. “Others have said it was not our place. And yet it is very much our place, as people who know too well the pain of dispossession, discrimination, state-sponsored violence.”

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In nearly 16 weeks of bombardment, the Israeli military campaign has killed more than 26,000 Palestinians, according to reports by the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza, which does not distinguish between civilians and militants. The war began on Oct. 7 when Hamas militants from Gaza launched a cross-border attack that killed more than 1,200 people in southern Israel, according to the Israeli government’s count. The militants also took more than 240 people back to Gaza as hostages.

The ruling is a blow to Israel’s allies such as the United States and Germany, which had denounced South Africa’s court application as meritless.

Canadian human-rights activists are urging the federal government to tell Israel to comply with the emergency orders, as the government did when the same court issued orders against Russia, Myanmar and Syria. But in a brief statement after the ruling, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly did not comment on the emergency orders. She repeated her previous statement that Canada’s support for the world court “does not mean that we accept the premise of the case brought by South Africa.”

The European Union, for its part, said the orders are binding on all parties. “They must comply with them,” it said in a statement Friday. “The European Union expects their full, immediate and effective implementation.”

The orders are considered legally binding and cannot be appealed. But the court has no enforcement mechanism. If Israel refuses to comply, South Africa could turn to the UN Security Council to seek enforcement, but the United States is among the countries with veto power there.

The ruling was broadcast live on South African television and on large screens across the country. Top officials of the ruling African National Congress danced and cheered in celebration at a meeting of the party’s leadership.

“Today marks a decisive victory for the international rule of law and a significant milestone in the search for justice for the Palestinian people,” South Africa’s International Relations Department said in a statement.

“For the implementation of the international rule of law, the decision is a momentous one,” it said. It also argued that the court ruling “imposes an obligation on all states to cease funding and facilitating Israel’s military actions, which are plausibly genocidal.”

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Riyad al-Maliki, the Foreign Minister for the Palestinian Authority, praised the court’s orders. “They ruled in favour of humanity and international law,” he said. “The ICJ order is an important reminder that no state is above the law. It should serve as a wake-up call for Israel and actors who enabled its entrenched impunity.”

Israel’s Security Minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, said his government should ignore the ruling by the “antisemitic court.” He said the court “does not seek justice, but rather the persecution of the Jewish people.”

Human Rights Watch said the speedy ruling is “recognition of the dire situation in Gaza, where civilians face starvation and are being killed daily” in unprecedented numbers.

“The World Court’s landmark decision puts Israel and its allies on notice that immediate action is needed to prevent genocide and further atrocities against Palestinians in Gaza,” said a statement by Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “Lives hang in the balance, and governments need to urgently use their leverage to ensure that the order is enforced.”

With a file by Kristy Kirkup

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