Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

The Israeli government has failed to comply with at least one measure in the legally binding order from the International Court of Justice in South Africa’s genocide case, Human Rights Watch has said. Citing warnings about “catastrophic conditions” in Gaza, the court ordered Israel on January 26, 2024, to “take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian aid,” and to report back on its compliance to the specific measures “within one month.”

One month later, however, Human Rights Watch says that Israel continues to obstruct the provision of basic services and the entry and distribution within Gaza of fuel and lifesaving aid, acts of collective punishment that amount to war crimes and include the use of starvation of civilians as a weapon of war. Fewer trucks have entered Gaza and fewer aid missions have been permitted to reach northern Gaza in the several weeks since the ruling than in the weeks preceding it, according to United Nations Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

“The Israeli government is starving Gaza’s 2.3 million Palestinians, putting them in even more peril than before the World Court’s binding order,” said Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch. Shakir added: “The Israeli government has simply ignored the court’s ruling, and in some ways even intensified its repression, including further blocking lifesaving aid.”

Other countries should use all forms of leverage, including sanctions and embargoes, to press the Israeli government to comply with the court’s binding orders in the genocide case, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch found in December 2023 that Israeli authorities are using starvation as a weapon of war. Pursuant a policy set out by Israeli officials and carried out by Israeli forces, the Israeli authorities are deliberately blocking the delivery of water, food, and fuel, wilfully impeding humanitarian assistance, apparently razing agricultural areas, and depriving the civilian population of objects indispensable to its survival.

Israeli authorities have kept its supply of electricity for Gaza shut off since the October 7 Hamas-led attacks. After initially cutting the entire supply of water that Israel provides to Gaza via three pipelines, Israel resumed piping on two of its three lines. However, due to the cuts and widespread destruction to water infrastructure amid unrelenting Israeli air and ground operations, only one of those lines remained operational at only 47 percent capacity as of February 20. Officials at the Gaza Coastal Municipalities Water Utility told Human Rights Watch on February 20 that Israeli authorities have obstructed efforts to repair the water infrastructure.

According to data published by OCHA and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the daily average number of trucks entering Gaza with food, aid, and medicine dropped by more than a third in the weeks following the ICJ ruling: 93 trucks between January 27 and February 21, 2024, compared to 147 trucks between January 1 and 26, and only 57 between February 9 and 21. A survey of impediments to the entry of aid faced by 24 humanitarian organizations operating in Gaza between January 26 and February 15 pointed to a lack of transparency around how aid trucks can enter Gaza, delays and denials at Israeli crossings and inspection points, and concerns about safety of trucks.

By comparison, an average of 500 trucks of food and goods entered Gaza each day before the escalation in hostilities in October, during which time 1.2 million people in Gaza were estimated to be facing acute food insecurity, and 80 percent of Gaza’s population were reliant on humanitarian aid amid Israel’s more than 16-year-long unlawful closure.

High-ranking Israeli officials have articulated a policy to deprive civilians of food, water, and fuel, as Human Rights Watch has documented. The Israeli government spokesperson said more recently that there are “no limits” to aid entering Gaza, outside of security. Some Israeli officials blame the UN for distribution delays and accuse Hamas of diverting aid or Gaza police for failing to secure convoys.

Human Rights Watch says the Israeli government cannot shift blame to evade responsibility. As the occupying power, Israel is obliged to provide for the welfare of the occupied population and ensure that the humanitarian needs of Gaza’s population are met. The Israeli human rights group Gisha challenged the Israeli government’s claims that it is not obstructing entry or distribution of aid and also found that it is not complying with the ICJ order.

Israeli authorities have also obstructed the aid that enters Gaza from reaching areas in the north. The survey of humanitarian organizations found that “almost no aid is distributed beyond Rafah,” Gaza’s southernmost governorate. On February 20, the World Food Programme paused deliveries of lifesaving food to the north, citing lack of safety and security. Israeli forces struck a food convoy on February 5, the UN said and CNN documented.

Between February 1 and 15, Israeli authorities only facilitated 2 of 21 planned missions to deliver fuel to the north of the Wadi Gaza area in central Gaza and none of the 16 planned fuel delivery or assessment missions to water and wastewater pumping stations in the north. Fewer than 20 percent of planned missions to deliver fuel and undertake assessments north of Wadi Gaza have been facilitated between January 1 and February 15, as compared with 86 percent of missions planned between October and December, according to OCHA.

“Israel’s ground forces are able to reach all parts of Gaza, so Israeli authorities clearly have the capacity to ensure that aid reaches all of Gaza,” Shakir said.

Since the ICJ order, Israeli authorities have also apparently destroyed the offices of at least two humanitarian organizations in Gaza and taken steps to undermine the work of UNRWA, the largest provider of humanitarian aid in Gaza, which more than half of other humanitarian organizations rely on to facilitate their operations. The head of UNWRA, Philippe Lazarini, said in a February 22 letter to the UN General Assembly president that the agency has reached a “breaking point” due to multiple government suspensions of funding and Israel’s campaign to shut the agency down.

Israel’s finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, said on February 13 that he had blocked a US-funded flour shipment to Gaza, because it was going to UNRWA. Israel has alleged that at least 12 of the agency’s 30,000 employees participated in the October 7 attacks, which the UN is investigating.

In late December, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), a multi-partner initiative that regularly publishes information on the scale and severity of food insecurity and malnutrition globally, concluded that over 90 percent of Gaza’s population is at crisis level of acute food insecurity or worse. The IPC said that virtually all Palestinians in Gaza are skipping meals every day while many adults go hungry so children can eat, and that the population faced famine if current conditions persisted. “This is the highest share of people facing high levels of acute food insecurity that the IPC initiative has ever classified for any given area or country,” the group said.

On February 19, The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) found that 90 percent of children under age 2 and 95 percent of pregnant and breastfeeding women face “severe food poverty.” On February 22, Save the Children said families in Gaza “are forced to forage for scraps of food left by rats and eating leaves out of desperation to survive,” noting that “all 1.1 million children in Gaza [are] facing starvation.”

In response to a request by South Africa for additional provisional measures following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s order for Israeli authorities to explore a possible plan to evacuate Rafah ahead of a ground incursion, the ICJ said that the “perilous situation demands immediate and effective implementation of the provisional measures” throughout Gaza – but not new measures – and highlighted Israel’s duty to ensure “the safety and security of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.”

Beyond enabling the provision of basic services and aid, the measures in the ICJ’s binding order require Israel to prevent genocide against Palestinians in Gaza and prevent and punish incitement to commit genocide. The ICJ issued these measures “to protect the rights claimed by South Africa that the Court has found to be plausible,” including “the right of the Palestinians in Gaza to be protected from acts of genocide.” Although South Africa asked the court in its oral arguments during January hearings on the provisional measures to make any report it ordered public, the court did not indicate that it has done so.

Between January 26 and February 23, more than 3,400 Palestinians were killed in Gaza, according to figures from Gaza’s Health Ministry compiled by OCHA.

South Africa’s case against Israel for genocide is distinct from the proceedings on the legal consequences of Israel’s 57-year-occupation, which began at the ICJ on February 19.

“Israel’s blatant disregard for the World Court’s order poses a direct challenge to the rules-based international order,” Shakir said. “Failure to ensure Israel’s compliance puts the lives of millions of Palestinians at risk and threatens to undermine the institutions charged with ensuring respect for international law and the system that ensures civilian protection worldwide.”

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Image credit: Number 10 Downing Street – Creative Commons