What are the provisional measures South Africa is requesting in its genocide case against Israel?

Man talking into microphones
South Africa's Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Ronald Lamola, center, and Palestinian assistant Minister of Multilateral Affairs Ammar Hijazi, right, address the media outside the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024. The United Nations' top court opens hearings Thursday into South Africa's allegation that Israel's war with Hamas amounts to genocide against Palestinians, a claim that Israel strongly denies. (Photo: Patrick Post / AP)


Posted January 11, 2024 | Updated on Apr 05, 2024

In short: South Africa is presenting its genocide case against Israel this week at the International Court of Justice, the main judicial body of the United Nations. While it could take years for the ICJ to issue a ruling on the case, South Africa is asking the court to implement provisional measures that include ordering Israel to stop military actions in the Gaza Strip while the case is being determined.  

What are provisional measures?

Provisional measures are temporary orders that call upon warring states to stop what they’re doing to prevent possible “irreparable harm” from occurring while the court is deciding on the merits of the case, according to Leila Sadat, the special adviser on crimes against humanity to the International Criminal Court prosecutor.

Sadat noted in a panel discussion at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs that provisional measures are not a ruling on the merits of a case. Specifically in the case being heard against Israel, the granting of a provisional measure would not be “an adjudication of genocide.” It would be more similar to the court issuing a restraining order for the duration of a case.

South Africa is requesting nine provisional measures be brought into effect, most notably that Israel suspend any military operations in or against Gaza.

How long will it take the ICJ to decide on the provisional measures?

Sadat said that there is pressure on the ICJ to rule on the requested measures within two months, because in the most recent genocide case that came before the ICJ – between Ukraine and Russia – the court approved Ukraine’s requested provisional measures in 18 days. It was a “lightning speed” decision in the world of international courts, Sadat said.  

That said, one significant difference between Ukraine’s case against Russia and South Africa’s case against Israel, is that Russia declined to appear before the court to defend itself. Israel is participating in ICJ proceedings and presenting its defense this week, including against the implementation of any provisional measures. 

The Overview newsletter

The news you need to navigate our world, delivered to your inbox every weekday afternoon.


What is South Africa’s case against Israel?

According to South Africa’s application to the ICJ asking it to hear the case, Israel’s actions against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack are in breach of a 1948 U.N. convention that defines and outlines genocide as a crime.

Defining "genocide"

According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the term was first used in 1944 by a Polish Jewish lawyer in reference to the actions of the Nazis. The United Nations made genocide an international crime in 1948 and outlined it as certain acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

South Africa says Israel’s actions are “genocidal in character” because they are “intended to bring about the destruction” of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Among its evidence, South Africa includes the death toll, at the time of filing the case, of over 21,000 Palestinians and widespread food insecurity across Gaza. It’s estimated that between Dec. 8, 2023, and Feb. 7, 2024, all of Gaza’s 2.2 million residents will be considered in “crisis or worse” by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, a scale used by governments and international organizations to analyze food insecurity. 

As South Africa presented its case to the ICJ on Jan. 11, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said it was witnessing “one of the greatest shows of hypocrisy in history and a series of baseless and false claims,” according to Reuters. 

On Oct. 7, Hamas launched an attack against Israel, killing about 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians, and taking more than 200 hostages. In response, Israel launched a “complete siege” on Gaza, killing at least 23,000 Palestinians, most of them women and children, and waging “the deadliest and most destructive” military campaign in recent history, the Associated Press reported. 

This work needs your support

Your tax-deductible donation enables us to break down the most complex global issues so you have the info you need to build a better world.