Home Estate Planning Key takeaways from the ICJ ruling on Gaza: It will likely lead to a shift in Israeli strategy

Key takeaways from the ICJ ruling on Gaza: It will likely lead to a shift in Israeli strategy

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The ICJ may not have the power to enforce its ruling but the reality is that Israel wants to avoid a charge of genocide. So how will the Netanyahu regime react?

On Friday the International Court of Justice demanded that Israel try to contain death and damage in its military offensive, though it stopped short of ordering a ceasefire in Gaza in a genocide case filed by South Africa.

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to press on with the war. “We will continue to do what is necessary to defend our country and defend our people,” he said. “Like every country, Israel has the basic right to defend itself. The Court in the Hague rightfully rejected the outrageous request to take that away from us.”

But now that the Court has directed Israel to do all it can not to commit or incite genocide, including refraining from killing Palestinains or causing them harm, and to provide a report within a month to the ICJ proving they are taking steps to prevent genocide from occurring.

In the case of the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the ICJ acquitted the Serbian state of actively committing genocide but ruled Serbia had breached the Genocide Convention by failing to prevent genocide from occurring. 

Israel has done its best to discredit the ICJ’s actions – as demonstrated by comments such as tweeting “Hague, schmague” coming from no less than the Israeli security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir just moments after the ICJ’s judgement. But its actions tell a different story.

Despite ‘Hague, schmague-gate’, Israel still fears a charge of genocide

Despite Netanyahu calling South Africa’s accusations “outrageous”, he still sent a high level legal team suggesting Israel views the case seriously. This was in contrast to previous incidents where Israel has boycotted international tribunals and UN investigations.

To ignore the ICJ’s orders would require member states to go to the UN Security Council to have the ruling enforced – and it would then be up the US to veto or abstain. To do so would set a dangerous precedent: the Court will next week rule on Ukraine’s case against Russia’s involvement in the shooting down of MH17; ignoring the Gaza ruling but endorsing another would risk accusations of hypocrisy. 

Another ongoing ruling at the ICJ concerns genocide in Myanmar. Britain is amongst the backers of Gambia’s accusations that the Myanmar junta is committing genocide against Rohingya Muslims. Failure to recognise an ICJ judgement on Israel would make this case far less powerful.

The point of the rules-based order? Reputation matters

What’s more, the international community’s opinion matters. This Court ruling has attracted huge amounts of attention – unlike previous ICJ judgements – which have undeniably harmed Israel’s case. A poll released two days ago showed a third of Americans now believe Israel is committing genocide.

The US may have reacted by saying it  still believes genocide allegations against Israel are unfounded but this position may become untenable.

Geoffrey Nice, a human rights lawyer, said if Israel refused point blank to comply, it would “draw hatred from all sorts of places and add to what may seem to be a public sentiment that favours Palestinians.”

South Africa had requested the ICJ order a ceasefire – so why didn’t they?

Thomas Macmanus of Queen Mary University, said a ceasefire order would have “render[ed] Israel defenceless against an attack, and that’s not really within the purview of the court in this case”.

“But what they are asking … they asked to stop the killing,” he said. “Maybe not a total cessation of hostility, and maybe now Israel can have very targeted counterterrorism operations, but they cannot continue with the attack on Gaza as we have seen over the last hundred or more days.”

Kenneth Roth, former ED of Human Rights Watch, agreed: “No serious observer thought that would happen because it would be an order to one side in an armed conflict. This was a big defeat for Israel.”

The South African foreign minister for international relations, Naledi Pandor, said outside the court that Israel can’t effectively implement the measures ordered without a ceasefire – and indeed, a cessation of killing of Palestinians does imply a cessation in warfare.

Israel’s shift in strategy, from shelling Gaza to targeted killings in Lebanon

Having been directed to prevent Palestinian deaths, Israel is likely to shift its strategy from its military campaign in Gaza, which has so far killed over 25,000 Palestinians but has not been especially successful in in rooting out members of Hamas. They haven’t killed any senior members of Hamas in Gaza.

In a gruesome statistic, the IDF claimed the ratio of deaths is 2:1 (civilian to militant). At the end of December the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor estimated Gaza Strip deaths as 30,034 total and civilian deaths at 27,681 which would mean about 2,353 militant deaths. 

This month, Israel has appeared to shift strategy to a campaign of assassinating Hezbollah and Hamas militants in Lebanon – migrating the conflict zone from the border area to further inside Lebanon. This is likely a result of the mounting death toll in Gaza, of Palestinians but also IDF members.

“Now, the Lebanese front has become an easier theatre for the Netanyahu government to distract from the military and diplomatic impasse in Gaza,” Joe Macaron of the Wilson Center explains. In the light of the ICJ’s ruling, it seems plausible that Israel will accelerate this approach.

The international rules-based order – not so useless after all?

Israel has so far made a case that it is not committing genocide. So, to fail to submit the report demanded by the ICJ to show they are not committing genocide would not be a good look. Netanyahu’s regime – itself on shaky ground due to internal dissent about failure to return hostages and the legacy of judicial reforms – must now produce a report to the ICJ within a month demonstrating a change in strategy. It is unlikely to ignore that obligation which would put the US and itself at risk.

Undoubtedly the ICJ’s ruling presents a blow to Israel’s war in Gaza and standing on the world stage. Rather than demonstrating the uselessness of global bodies, the ruling seems to have done the opposite, being a nod to the power of public perception and the moral authority international law still wields.

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