The meaning of the first I.C.J. ruling in the genocide case against Israel

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Today the United Nations’ highest court, the International Court of Justice, issued its first, preliminary decision in the genocide case South Africa brought against Israel.

South Africa won its application for “provisional measures,” roughly equivalent to a temporary injunction, ordering Israel to take proactive steps to ensure genocide doesn’t occur in the future, while the broader case is pending.

But the court declined to order the immediate cease-fire that South Africa requested. Instead, it ordered Israel to prevent its forces from committing or inciting genocidal acts, and to enable humanitarian assistance and basic services in Gaza. It also said it was “gravely concerned” about the fate of the remaining hostages abducted by Hamas and called for their “immediate and unconditional release.”

Israeli officials, who have strongly denied the genocide accusation, denounced the provisional measures order, but expressed relief that the court had not ordered a cease-fire.

So what does the decision mean? And what might happen next? “People tend to have a really bifurcated view of what this court is and can do,” said Kate Cronin-Furman, a professor at University College London who studies accountability for mass atrocities. “Either they think the U.N. will be coming in with black helicopters to enforce orders, or they think the judgments of the court are just empty words with no impact.”

The reality, experts say, is somewhere in between. The court has no direct enforcement powers, helicopter based or otherwise. But a decision like this can still have an impact by shifting the political calculations of the countries involved — and their allies.

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The meaning of the first I.C.J. ruling in the genocide case against Israel

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