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The International Court of Justice orders Israel to immediately protect Palestinians


Earlier this month, the United Nations' top court heard arguments on the question of whether Israel is committing genocide in Gaza. Today the court issued what it calls a provisional order. It instructed Israel to take immediate steps to protect Palestinian civilians and report back to the court in 30 days. From London, NPR's Lauren Frayer reports.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: It was an American judge, Joan Donoghue, president of the International Court of Justice, who read out today's provisional order. She said Israel's response to the October 7 Hamas attacks has resulted, in Gaza....


JOAN DONOGHUE: In tens of thousands of deaths and injuries and the destruction of homes, schools, medical facilities and other vital infrastructure.

FRAYER: And she ordered Israel to take, quote, "all measures within its power" to prevent further destruction and killings of civilians. This is in response to a lawsuit brought by South Africa alleging that Israel's military operation in Gaza amounts to genocide against the Palestinian people. Donoghue said the court finds that plausible, which means this case will continue, likely for years, before a definitive ruling. But she said that, given the deteriorating situation in Gaza, the court had to intervene now.


AMMAR HIJAZI: The cries and suffering of our people in Gaza have been heard in the great hall of justice.

FRAYER: That's Ammar Hijazi, a Palestinian Foreign Ministry official outside the courtroom in The Hague today. They were celebrations there and in South Africa, where President Cyril Ramaphosa cast today's ruling as a moral victory for the Global South.


PRESIDENT CYRIL RAMAPHOSA: It is very much our place as a people who know too well the pain of dispossession, discrimination, state-sponsored violence.

GEOFFREY NICE: South Africa's led the way. It's shown the United States and all the other countries what they should have done.

FRAYER: Geoffrey Nice was the lead prosecutor at Slobodan Milosevic's war crimes trial in The Hague. He says he's skeptical about whether Israel will comply with this order.

NICE: In the past, Israel has never recognized and accepted the judgments of this particular court.

FRAYER: Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, today sounded defiant.


PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Like every country, Israel has an inherent right to defend itself. The vile attempt to deny Israel this fundamental right is blatant discrimination against the Jewish state.

FRAYER: He noted that tomorrow is Holocaust Remembrance Day and said it's Hamas that's genocidal, not Israel. Nice, the Milosevic prosecutor, says he'll be watching Israel's allies now.

NICE: The decision of the court may, of course, affect other countries who either supply Israel with arms or who are able to apply moral pressure to Israel, and that may have the effect of changing the way Israel conducts the war even if it doesn't respect the judgment of the court.

FRAYER: Notable, too, was what the court did not say today. South Africa had asked judges to order an immediate cease-fire in Gaza.

WILLIAM SCHABAS: I don't know whether it was reasonable to expect that order. Obviously, South Africa asked for everything.

FRAYER: International law expert William Schabas says he doesn't think it was in the court's jurisdiction to order a halt to fighting between Israel and Hamas since the latter is not part of this case. The court did mention Hamas, though, saying it's gravely concerned about hostages being held by the group and calling for their immediate release. Schabas says that even without an explicit call for a cease-fire, today's ruling is indeed a call for action from Israel.

SCHABAS: Israel has to do things as a result of this order, so it's not just an order to refrain from doing things. It speaks about the catastrophic humanitarian situation and requires that Israel take - and the term they use is - immediate and effective measures. So this is a very strong order.

FRAYER: And the court ordered Israel to report back within 30 days to explain what actions it's taken. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF USHER AND H.E.R. SONG, "RISK IT ALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.