The International Court of Justice is set to rule on Friday on South Africa’s demand that Israel immediately suspend its military offensive in Gaza. The ruling is an initial step in a wider case about whether Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians in the enclave.
Decisions by the court, the United Nations’ top judicial body, are binding, but the court has few means of enforcement. Still, a ruling against Israel would add to international pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government over the war.
Here’s what you should know about the ruling.
What is the case?
This month, the South African government accused Israel at the court in The Hague of “acts and omissions” that are “genocidal in character” against Palestinians in Gaza. Arguing before a panel of 17 judges, South African lawyers said that Israeli leaders and lawmakers had communicated in public statements their intent to commit genocide, which would be a violation of the U.N. genocide convention, to which Israel is a party.
South Africa offered as evidence the words of Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who said in October that Israel would impose a complete siege on the territory because it was fighting “human animals.” One South African lawyer showed the court a video of Israeli troops dancing and singing that “there are no uninvolved citizens,” arguing that it showed that the soldiers had understood “the inciting words” of their leaders.
What is Israel’s defense?
Israel has categorically denied the accusation. Lawyers for the country told the court that the Israeli military had worked to preserve civilian life, giving noncombatants two weeks to leave northern Gaza before invading in late October. They also say that, after freezing aid deliveries to Gaza at the start of the war, they have since enabled it to be supplied daily.
Israel’s lawyers say that some inflammatory statements by Israeli leaders were made by people without executive power over the military campaign, or have been taken out of context. Israel has declassified more than 30 secret orders made by government and military leaders, which it says show Israeli efforts to limit harm to civilians.
What is the case’s significance?
At some level, the case is a legal reckoning for the war in Gaza, which began when Hamas led an Oct. 7 attack that killed around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, according to Israeli officials, with about 240 others taken hostage. Israel has retaliated with airstrikes and a ground invasion that have killed more than 25,000 people in Gaza, according to health authorities there. The United Nations says that around 70 percent of the dead are women or children.
Many Israelis see the case as part of an effort dating back decades to turn the country into a pariah and to hold it to a higher level of scrutiny than other nations. Israeli leaders have called the case absurd, arguing that Israel, which was founded after a genocide of Jews, is fighting a genocidal enemy in Hamas, which has called for Israel’s destruction.
Many Palestinians, however, see the case as a rare opportunity to subject Israel to scrutiny. They argue that the United States and other powerful allies have protected Israel from accountability, including at the U.N. Security Council.
What could a ruling mean?
The court is not expected to issue a ruling on the genocide charge for years. The decision expected on Friday is over whether to order “provisional measures” that would ask Israel to take proactive steps to ensure genocide doesn’t occur in the future, while the case is pending, and to halt “further severe and irreparable harm” to the Palestinian people.
Because Israel defended itself at the court, legal experts argue it could be more difficult for it to dismiss any court orders. But Israel has ignored the court’s findings before: In 2004, the court issued a nonbinding opinion that an Israeli security barrier inside the occupied West Bank was illegal and should be dismantled; two decades later, the system of walls and fences remains standing.