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The International Court of Justice has ordered Israel to urgently open new land crossings for supplies to Gaza to halt the spread of famine and starvation in the Palestinian territory.

The top United Nations judicial body, in a ruling on Thursday in response to a renewed request from South Africa, said Israel must comply with its obligations under the Genocide Convention by ensuring the “unhindered” supply of food, water, electricity, fuel, shelter and medical supplies to Gaza.

The emergency order was unanimously endorsed by all 16 judges on the case, including Israel’s appointed judge, Aharon Barak, a former president of Israel’s Supreme Court and one of its most respected jurists. All of the court’s orders are legally binding, although the court lacks an enforcement mechanism.

The world court, based in The Hague, had earlier responded to South Africa’s original request for action by issuing a ruling in late January with a series of emergency orders against Israel, including an order requiring it to ensure the supply of basic services and humanitarian aid to Gaza.

“The Court observes with regret that, since then, the catastrophic living conditions of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have deteriorated further, in particular in view of the prolonged and widespread deprivation of food and other basic necessities to which the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have been subjected,” the court said.

In its order in January, the court had said it was worried about the risk of famine in Gaza, but this is more than just a risk now, it said in its latest ruling. “That famine is setting in,” it said, quoting a UN report that 27 children had already died of malnutrition and dehydration.

The court ordered that Israel must increase “the capacity and number” of its land crossings to Gaza and keep them open “as long as necessary.”

A child walks past a pile of household refuse as he transports objects in a street in Gaza City on March 28, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas group.

In a separate emergency order, by a 15-1 decision, the judges said Israel must “ensure with immediate effect” that its military does not commit acts that violate the rights of Palestinians in Gaza as a protected group under the Genocide Convention – including by preventing in any way the delivery of urgently needed humanitarian assistance.

In the text of its ruling, the court reiterated its earlier call for the immediate release of the hostages that were seized on Oct. 7 during the Hamas attack on Israel. “The Court finds it deeply troubling that many of these hostages remain in captivity,” it said.

In its application to the court, South Africa had also requested an emergency order requiring the immediate suspension of Israel’s military operations in Gaza. The court did not issue this order, but several of its judges said in separate statements that a suspension of Israel’s military offensive is necessary.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, in a statement issued by his office, said his government welcomed the additional orders by the world court.

“The impact of the International Court of Justice’s order is significant,” the statement said. “The changing circumstances in Gaza warrant the implementation of new strategies. The fact that Palestinian deaths are not solely caused by bombardment and ground attacks, but also by disease and starvation, indicates a need to protect the group’s right to exist. The most effective way to uphold this right is through prevention.”

There was no immediate reaction from the Israeli government. But in its response to the court on March 15 after South Africa’s latest application, Israel complained that the South African request for new emergency orders was “a sensationalist and obsessive attempt to accuse Israel of the most egregious crimes regardless of the law or the facts.” It said the allegations against it were “morally repugnant” and “wholly unfounded.”

The Globe and Mail:
Geoffrey Yorkafrica Bureau Chief Johannesburg

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