The International Court of Justice on Friday ruled that Israel must do more to protect civilians in the Gaza Strip amid its war on Hamas, and gave Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government one month to report back with a plan.
That timeline poses a major test for President Biden’s support for Israel’s war amid mounting international pressure for a ceasefire, especially as the U.S. has pushed other countries to respect decisions from the international tribunal.
“The U.S. will find it hard to accept noncompliance by Israel, because the U.S. judge [on the ICJ panel] joined what was essentially a consensus decision and because the U.S. has strongly supported the Court’s provisional orders in Ukraine, Myanmar, and Syria,” Stephen Rapp, who served as U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues during the Obama administration, wrote in an email to The Hill.
“Israel has taken this case very seriously because the Court’s orders do have real impact. All of the other major allies of the U.S. will expect Israel to comply, so that if it defies the orders, the Israeli government may find itself treated as a pariah.”
Friday’s ruling did not explicitly call for a ceasefire, which was among the requests made by South Africa, which brought accusations of genocide to the ICJ.
However, South Africa’s Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor, speaking after the ruling, said that only a ceasefire would fulfill the obligations set forth by the court.
“I believe that in exercising the order there would have to be a ceasefire, without it the order doesn’t actually work,” she said.
“The fact of delivering humanitarian aid, the fact of taking measures that reduce the level of harms against persons who have no role in what Israel is combatting, for me requires a ceasefire.”
The president and his senior aides have said forcing Israel to halt its war against Hamas would leave the designated terrorist group intact to repeat its shocking and brutal Oct. 7 attack – where an estimated 1,200 people were massacred and more than 100 people continue to be
held hostage in Gaza.
But the administration has called for Israel to do more to protect civilians, raising concern over mass destruction, displacement, disease, hunger and starvation and a death toll in Gaza estimated at more than 26,000 people – although Israel claims that at least 9,000 Hamas fighters are included in that number.
The U.S. position is increasingly in contrast with the stance of allies in Europe, a vocal minority of Democrat lawmakers, progressive staffers within the administration, and protesters who have dogged Biden on the campaign trail.
The administration said on Friday the ICJ’s ruling was consistent with the White House position.
“I think the court’s ruling is consistent with many of our positions, and much of the approach that we’ve taken with Israel,” said White House national security spokesperson John Kirby.
But he pushed back on the core of South Africa’s efforts at the ICJ accusing Israel of genocide.
“We haven’t seen indications that the Israeli Defense Forces are getting up out of the rack every day, putting their boots on the floor, and saying that their whole effort is to go exterminate the Palestinian people,” Kirby said. “They’re trying to eliminate the threat that Hamas poses.”
Still, the Biden administration has earlier rebuffed efforts, notably at the United Nations Security Council, to impose action on Israel. The U.S. has, at least twice, used its veto power to reject resolutions that would have compelled Israel to observe a humanitarian ceasefire.
The U.S. says Israel has a right to self-defense and argues against a general ceasefire that would allow Hamas to reconstitute itself, but the White House had advocated for what it calls “humanitarian pauses” to allow for the scaling up of assistance to civilians in Gaza, and as part of efforts to recover hostages.
But critics of the U.S. position say that Israel’s military operation is so destructive that only a ceasefire can provide the immediate relief to Gaza’s population of more than 2 million people.
And they further oppose U.S. military assistance to Israel – pointing to the court’s ruling that some of the acts and allegations outlined by South Africa in its case “appear to be capable of falling within the provisions of the Convention” on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
Celeste Kmiotek, a staff lawyer for the Strategic Litigation Project at the Atlantic Council, said that finding “puts other states—namely, those offering support to Israel—on notice.”
Nadia Daar, Chief Strategy and Impact Officer at Amnesty International USA, said the ruling “should be a wake-up call to the Biden administration to stop sending weapons to Israel or risk complicity. Failure to suspend such arms transfers could mean the U.S. would run afoul of the court’s preliminary measures related to the prevention of genocide.”
Raed Jarrar, Advocacy Director at Democracy for the Arab World Now, called the ICJ’s ruling “a pivotal moment in our efforts to stop genocide against the Palestinian people, as it established that it is at the very least plausible that Israel is committing genocide.”
“Today’s ruling establishes that the real risk — if not the actual fact — of genocide exists; the Biden Administration cannot continue its blank check support for Israel’s military operations in Gaza,” Jarrar continued.
Biden’s decision to reject pushing Israel to a ceasefire has triggered blowback on the campaign trail, where protesters have ambushed and disrupted the president’s events.
Abdullah H. Hammoud, the mayor of Dearborne, Michigan, who represents a significant bloc of Arab and Democrat voters, said he rejected a meeting with Biden’s campaign staff on Friday over the administration’s refusal to push for a ceasefire.
“Our immediate demand is crystal clear: the Biden Administration must call for a permanent ceasefire to a genocide it is defending and funding with our tax dollars. Dearborn residents have tirelessly protested and organized in demand of a ceasefire. As their mayor, I follow their lead,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter.
And in the administration, an anonymous group of staffers have staked out a position supporting a ceasefire and working to effect change inside the White House, as opposed to resigning in protest.
“President Biden said that he would bring humanity to foreign policy, yet over 25,000 people have been killed in Gaza, most of them women and children,” the staffers wrote in a statement on Thursday.
“There is no justification for this level of destruction, this level of terror. We unequivocally call on you to demand a ceasefire. We call on you to end our complicity in this brutality.”
While the majority of Congress is opposed to forcing Israel into a ceasefire, House and Senate Democrats have raised concern over Israel’s conduct of the war, ranging from calls for a general ceasefire to increased oversight on U.S. military assistance and sales to Israel.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) is lobbying senators to join his bill that would strengthen congressional oversight of U.S. arms sales to foreign militaries, a response to the Biden administration twice bypassing Congress for arms sales to Israel in the wake of Oct. 7.
A total of 22 Senate Democrats have signed onto the amendment, which Kaine is looking to attach to Biden’s National Security Supplemental request, which includes about $15 billion in aid for Israel.
“Support is growing for the commonsense proposition that Congress needs to be notified when the administration is transferring military aid to any nation,” Kaine said in a statement.
“The American people and their representatives in Congress deserve transparency on these important matters. No president of any party should bypass Congress on issues of war, peace, and diplomacy.”
Further, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) is working to attach an amendment to the supplemental that would require U.S. military assistance to other countries be used in compliance with international humanitarian law. The measure has 18 supporters as of Jan. 19.
The final and full ruling by the ICJ on whether Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians is expected to take years to come to a conclusion.
Those backing Israel’s right to self-defense against Hamas say the initial ICJ ruling has not inflicted too much damage, but is a warning shot.
“Thankfully, Israel avoided worst ICJ verdict in libelous genocide case but should not celebrate this as vindication,” Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Insitute for Near East Policy, wrote on X.
“Depth of concern at non-combatant fatalities / humanitarian situation, even among friends, is real and will have political implications.”