A ruling on Friday by the International Court of Justice on charges of genocide against Israel had deep historical resonance for both Israelis and Palestinians. But it lacked immediate practical consequences.
The World Court did not order a halt to fighting in the Gaza Strip and made no attempt to rule on the merits of the case brought by South Africa, a process that will take months — if not years — to complete.
But the court did order Israel to comply with the Genocide Convention, to send more aid to Gaza and to inform the court of its efforts to do so — interim measures that felt like a rebuke to many Israelis and a moral victory to many Palestinians.
For many Israelis, the fact that a state founded in the aftermath of the Holocaust had been accused of genocide was “one hell of a symbol,” Alon Pinkas, an Israeli political commentator and former ambassador, said after the ruling by the court in The Hague.
“That we’re even mentioned in the same sentence as the concept of genocide — not even atrocity, not disproportionate force, not war crime, but genocide — that is extremely uncomfortable,” he added.
For many Palestinians, the court’s intervention offered a brief sense of validation for their cause. Israel is rarely held to account for its actions, Palestinians and their supporters say, and the ruling felt like a welcome exception amid one of the deadliest wars this century.
“The slaughter is ongoing, the carnage is ongoing, the total destruction is ongoing,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a former Palestinian official. But the court’s decision reflected “a serious transformation in the way Israel is being perceived and treated globally,” she said.
“Israel is being held accountable for the first time — and by the highest court, and by an almost unanimous ruling,” she added.
To Gazans, the intervention will bring little immediate relief.
Israel’s campaign in Gaza has killed more than 25,000 Gazans, according to Gazan officials, and damaged most of the buildings in the territory, according to the United Nations. More than four in five residents there have been displaced from their homes, the health system has collapsed, and the U.N. has repeatedly warned of a looming famine.
In ordering compliance with the Genocide Convention, the court pushed Israel to follow an international law that was written in 1948 and that prohibits signatory states from killing members of an ethnic, national or religious group with the intention of destroying, even partly, that particular group.
To many Israelis, the decision seemed like the latest example of bias against Israel in an international forum. They say that the world holds Israel to a higher standard than most other countries. And to the Israeli mainstream, the war is one of necessity and survival — forced on Israel by Hamas’s attack on Oct. 7, which killed about 1,200 people and led to the abduction of 240 others to Gaza, according to Israeli estimates.
Yoav Gallant, the Israeli defense minister whose inflammatory statements about the war were cited by the court in the preamble to its ruling, called the court’s ruling antisemitic.
“The state of Israel does not need to be lectured on morality in order to distinguish between terrorists and the civilian population in Gaza,” said Mr. Gallant.
“Those who seek justice will not find it on the leather chairs of the court chambers in The Hague,” he added.
Still, the court’s instructions might give momentum and political cover to Israeli officials who have been pushing internally to temper the military’s actions in Gaza and alleviate the humanitarian disaster in the territory, according to Janina Dill, an expert on international law at Oxford University.
“Any dissenting voices in the Israeli government and Israeli military who disagree with how the war has been conducted so far have now been given a really powerful strategic argument to ask for a change in course,” Professor Dill said.
For Professor Dill, the case also prompted reflection “about the human condition,” given how Israel was founded in part to prevent genocide against the Jewish people.
“Preventing human beings from turning against each other is a constant struggle, and no group in the world is incapable of that,” she added.
It was a topic that appeared to preoccupy the sole Israeli judge, Aharon Barak, among the 17 assessing the case on the World Court.
As a child, Mr. Barak, 87, survived the Holocaust after escaping from a Jewish ghetto in Lithuania by hiding in a sack.
“Genocide is a shadow over the history of the Jewish people, and it is intertwined with my own personal experience,” Mr. Barak wrote. “The idea that Israel is now accused of committing genocide is very hard for me personally, as a genocide survivor deeply aware of Israel’s commitment to the rule of law as a Jewish and democratic state.”
Against that complex backdrop, Mr. Barak chose to vote against several of the measures passed by the court. But he joined his colleagues in calling on Israel to allow more aid into Gaza and to punish people who incite genocide — surprising observers who had expected him to side on every single point with Israel.
While many Israelis expressed frustration at the ruling, some found relief in the fact that the court did not order Israel to cease its military operation.
According to Mr. Barak, that course would have left Israel “defenseless in the face of a brutal assault, unable to fulfill its most basic duties vis-à-vis its citizens.”
“It would have amounted to tying both of Israel’s hands, denying it the ability to fight even in accordance with international law,” he wrote.
But to some Palestinians, particularly those in Gaza, that same decision constituted a betrayal. Many had hoped the court would call on Israel to stop the war entirely — a move that would be nearly impossible to enforce but that would have constituted a victory in the battle for public opinion.
“It talks like genocide & walks like genocide,” Muhammad Shehada, a rights activist from Gaza, wrote on social media. “No need to stop the genocidal war though! All good?”
Six hours after the court’s ruling, the Gazan Health Ministry released the latest casualty figures from the war. An additional 200 Gazans had been killed in the past 24 hours, the ministry said on Friday evening.
Rawan Sheikh Ahmad contributed reporting from Haifa, Israel, and Johnatan Reiss from Tel Aviv.