As UN court rules on Israel's military action in Gaza, what happens next?

Israeli soldiers take up positions near the Gaza Strip border, in southern Israel. Credit: AP

By ITV News Producer Hannah Ward-Glenton

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has said Israel must take all measures within its power to prevent genocide in Gaza, but what does that mean for the Israel-Hamas conflict going forward?

Judges stopped short of ordering for a ceasefire, as requested by South Africa in its original complaint, but demanded Israel try to contain the death and destruction in its military offensive in Gaza.

The court refused to throw out the case, saying: “The court considers that it cannot accede to Israel’s request that the case be removed from the general list.”

Israel vehemently rejected an accusation of genocide and asked the court to throw out the case.

The highly anticipated decision was made by a panel of 17 judges and read out by The International Court of Justice’s president, Joan E. Donoghue.

South Africa filed the case accusing Israel of having committed genocide in December, detailing the allegation in an 84-page legal document.

In a two-day hearing earlier this month, South Africa asked for provisional measures requiring Israel to immediately end its military campaign in Gaza.

Gaza was described as a "concentration camp where genocide is taking place," the Untied Nations' top court heard in the landmark case.

The document accused Israel of committing acts that are "genocidal in character because they are intended to bring about the destruction of a substantial part of the Palestinian national, racial and ethnical group".

"The acts in question include killing Palestinians in Gaza, causing them serious bodily and mental harm, and inflicting on them conditions of life calculated to bring about their physical destruction," the paper continued.

What does the ruling mean and what happens next?

The ruling ordered that Israel must do everything in its power to prevent death and destruction in its military operations in Gaza, but stopped short of demanding a ceasefire.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyadh Maliki welcomed “the significant order.”

According to the ICJ, Israel must prevent the displacement of Gaza residents from their homes, and is responsible for ensuring adequate, food, water, humanitarian assistance and medical supplies are able to reach the people there.

Israel has also been ordered to avoid the destruction of any evidence, such as military orders - which are pertinent to the allegations - and cannot prevent access to fact-finding international missions.

The ruling will come into force immediately, with all official UN bodies expected to comply.

Pro-Israel activists gather next to a screen near the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands. Credit: AP

A variety of legal repercussions will also be triggered domestically in each of those countries respectively.

How can Israel justify its military operation?

Israel has made a series of justifications for its actions in Gaza.

The current conflict broke out as a result of terrorist group Hamas' surprise attacks in Israel on October 7, and Israel has repeatedly declared it has the right to defend itself against such attacks.

Global leaders have reinforced this, with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak strongly backing Israel's right to self defence in October, saying it was not just a right but "a duty".

There is also the argument that Hamas has used Israelis as "human shields", while Israel says its troops were simply trying to minimise the harm to civilians.

This argument has a lot of criticism however, as more than 26,000 Palestinians have now been killed in the conflict, the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said on Friday, and more than 64,000 people have been wounded.

There will also be lengthy debate as to whether Israel's behaviour in Gaza amount to intentional genocide against the Palestinian people, and also discussion as to whether Israel has prevented sufficient aid from reaching people who need it.

In an interview with ITV News in December, UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron said the responsibility of getting aid into Gaza lies with Israel.

How binding is the ruling?

Provisional measures by the world court are final, cannot be appealed against and are legally binding, but it is not clear if Israel would comply with any orders the court might make, as the ICJ has no jurisdiction in the Middle East.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the genocide claims as "outrageous" on Friday and said that the war will carry on. “We will continue to do what is necessary to defend out country and defend our people,” he said.

He had already said on January 14 the ICJ would be unable to halt the war in Gaza.

"No-one will stop us - not The Hague, not the Axis of Evil and no one else. It is possible and necessary to continue until victory and we will do it," Mr Netanyahu said in a televised press conference.

Destruction in Gaza from Israeli bombardment. Credit: AP

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.”

Regardless of Israel's response, a ruling that Israeli military operations amount to genocide would not look good to the rest of the world, and will likely have an impact on public opinion on Israel's behaviour in Gaza.

What does the ruling mean for the US, UK and other allies of Israel?

The United States has been particularly vocal in its support for Israel since October 7, with Joe Biden saying Israel's security "can rest on the United States" in December and regularly repeating his commitment to supporting Tel Aviv.

The US president did however warn that Israel was losing international support in December because of its "indiscriminate bombing" of Gaza.

The role of the United States, which could be viewed as complicit in Israel's behaviour under Article 3 of the convention, is further unchartered territory, with unpredictable legal and diplomatic implications.

Having signed the Genocide Convention, the United States is required to “undertake to prevent and punish” the crime of genocide.

A Palestinian woman displaced by the Israeli bombardment sits in a makeshift tent in Rafah, Gaza Strip. Credit: AP

Speaking about the case two weeks ago, David Cameron said: “We don’t agree with what the South Africans are doing.”

Much of Europe has offered Israel unyielding support since the Hamas attacks, but there will likely be a divide in how different nations respond to the verdict delivered by The Hague.

Will there now be a ceasefire in Gaza?

The ICJ judges did not order for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, just that Israel takes measures to preserve the lives of those in the region and minimise destruction.

South Africa had 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, including a request for the court to order Israel to “immediately suspend its military operations in and against Gaza.”

South Africa’s foreign ministry said in a statement Thursday 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 the displaced return to their homes and have access to humanitarian assistance, including adequate food, water, fuel, medical and hygiene supplies, shelter and clothing.”

Mr Netanyahu has repeatedly 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 more than 64,000 people have been wounded.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know…