World Court holds hearings on Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories

By Thomson Reuters Feb 16, 2024 | 11:05 AM

By Stephanie van den Berg

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – A record 52 states will present arguments about the legal consequences of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the U.N.’s highest legal body.

The ICJ’s six days of hearings starting on Monday come after the U.N. General Assembly asked the court in 2022 for an advisory, or non-binding, opinion on the occupation. While Israel has ignored such opinions in the past, it could add political pressure over its ongoing operation in Gaza, which has killed 28,775 people, mostly civilians.

It is part of a Palestinian push to get international law institutions such as the ICJ to examine Israel’s conduct which has become more urgent since the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas in Israel and Israel’s military response in the Gaza Strip.

“Politically, this will help in achieving a two-state solution. We are using the platform of the largest judicial body to advance our cause,” Omar Awadallah, a senior official in the Palestinian Foreign Ministry, told journalists at a briefing before the hearings.

Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem – areas of historic Palestine which the Palestinians want for a state – in a 1967 war. It withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but, along with neighbouring Egypt, still controls its borders.

It is the second time the U.N. General Assembly has asked the ICJ, also known as the World Court, for an advisory opinion related to the occupied Palestinian territory. In July 2004, the court found that Israel’s separation wall in the West Bank violated international law and should be dismantled, though it still stands to this day.

“The International Court of Justice is set for the first time to broadly consider the legal consequences of Israel’s nearly six-decades-long occupation and mistreatment of the Palestinian people,” said Clive Baldwin, senior legal adviser at Human Rights Watch.

“Governments that are presenting their arguments to the court should seize these landmark hearings to highlight the grave abuses Israeli authorities are committing against Palestinians, including the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”

The advisory opinion proceedings are separate from the genocide case that South Africa filed at the World Court against Israel for its alleged violations in Gaza of the 1948 Genocide Convention. In late January the ICJ in that case ordered Israel to do everything in its power to prevent acts of genocide in Gaza.

The outcome of the advisory opinion would not be legally binding but would carry “great legal weight and moral authority,” according to the ICJ.

The precise question put to the court is to give an opinion on the legal consequences of Israel’s “occupation, settlement and annexation … including measures aimed at altering the demographic composition, character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem, and from its adoption of related discriminatory legislation and measures.”

The general assembly also asked the 15-judge panel of the ICJ to advise on how those policies and practices “affect the legal status of the occupation” and what legal consequences arise for all countries and the United Nations from this status.

The court will hear over 50 states and three international organisations over six days of hearings including the United States, Russia, China and South Africa. While Israel has filed a written statement with the court, it has not asked to participate in the hearings. On Monday proceedings will start with submissions from the Palestinian authorities.

(Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg; Editing by Josie Kao)