Judges at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) rule on emergency measures against Israel following accusations by South Africa that the Israeli military operation in Gaza is a state-led genocide, in The Hague, Netherlands, January 26, 2024. REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw

Genocidal Starvation in Gaza and the Responsibility of Third-Party States

The ICJ ruled that Israel may be carrying out genocide and should take specific steps to stop. Without any change in Israel’s behavior, what can and should be done?

April 1, 2024
Djaouida Siaci

The extraordinary scene of U.S. military cargo planes dropping 38,000 ready-to-eat meals to beleaguered and malnourished Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, while 2,000 aid trucks queued, stranded, outside the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, recently underscored the desperate plight of Gaza’s civilians and the world’s willful failure to help them.  

The airdrop represented a tiny proportion of the needs of Gaza’s besieged and bombarded Palestinians, who are on the brink of a famine largely of Israel’s making. As such, it was a stark illustration of U.S. weakness in the face of Israel’s intransigence, egregious breaches of the Genocide Convention, and flagrant violations of the International Court of Justice (ICJ)’s ruling of January 26. Indeed, the delivery amounted to a humiliation for the U.S., and as one aid worker put it, serves only to “relieve the guilty consciences” of officials in Washington 

More generally, it represented a failure by third-party states to shoulder their responsibilities under international law. 

The deliberate starvation of civilians and the hindering of humanitarian access—an egregious but proliferating tactic of war—has been weaponized by Israel to break the resistance in Gaza. It is also being used as a bargaining chip—particularly at this crucial stage of ceasefire negotiations between Hamas and Israel. But what can be done when there is a legal prohibition of an international crime amounting to genocide and a judicial order to cease the violation if there is no enforcement mechanism?  

The scope and gravity of Israel’s war crimes in Gaza have shocked the world. Its targeting of Palestinian civilians shows contempt for the international rules-based order. The ICJ’s January order places binding legal obligations on Israel. It also places responsibilities on third-party states, especially those facilitating the Israeli military campaign that has killed more than 30,000 people—mainly women and children—wounded 72,000, laid waste to the enclave and forcibly displaced most of its population. Such horrors would not have been possible without unwavering American support and deep involvement in the conflict. 

More than a month since the ICJ issued its near-unanimous ruling on provisional measures on the application of the Genocide Convention in the Gaza Strip, Israel’s genocidal campaign has continued relentlessly. The court ordered Israel to “take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance,” giving it one month to report back on the actions it had taken to comply.  

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the ICJ ruling and vowed that Israel “will continue to defend itself and its citizens” while adhering to international law. Refusing to reverse course, Israeli forces reportedly killed at least a further 3,500 Palestinians, an average of 120 a day, since the ICJ ruling. At least 5,250 Palestinians were wounded in Israeli attacks. In a cruel irony, 115 people were killed and 700 wounded as they crowded around an aid convoy in Gaza City on February 29. Palestinian health officials blamed Israeli gunfire, while Israel said it was the result of a stampede.  

International Humanitarian Law (IHL)—the body of law governing armed conflict—makes clear that the deliberate starvation of a civilian population for military gains is a war crime. Some 300,000 Palestinians remaining in the northern region of the enclave—now cut off from the south and totally devastated—have been starving and eating animal feed for two months due to Israel’s aid restrictions. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, 15 children have died from starvation in one hospital alone.  

A UN report released March 18 by several agencies tasked with monitoring famine stated that 677,000 people in Gaza are facing “the highest level of catastrophic hunger.” Even in the city of Rafah, supposedly a safe zone that now shelters about 1.5 million Palestinians mainly displaced earlier in the war, Israel has caused mass civilian casualties. Netanyahu has continued to insist that Israel will press on with plans to invade the southern city. There simply is no safe place in Gaza.  

Under international law, as an occupying power, Israel bears specific legal duties and responsibilities regarding the civilian population of Gaza. Not only should Israel not harm them, but it must protect them. As a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, Israel has an international obligation to ensure the protection, welfare, and human rights of the civilian population under its occupation. Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention provides that collective punishment is prohibited, and Article 59 places an obligation on the occupier to facilitate relief efforts and relief schemes if the territory is inadequately supplied. Israel has not abided by any of these obligations. 

The ICJ’s ruling on January 26 was clear: Israel must cease acts of genocide, preserve evidence of the same, and prevent and punish incitement to genocidal acts. In light of the enclave’s worsening humanitarian crisis, South Africa returned to the court on March 6 to ask it to avert “genocidal starvation” in Gaza by ordering additional emergency measures against Israel, which Pretoria said was breaching the initial ruling and threatening Palestinians in Gaza with widespread starvation.  

Third-Party States Obligations 

Yet the obligation to prevent genocide does not fall to Israel alone. It is a fundamental principle enshrined in the Genocide Convention, which places a legal duty on states to prevent and punish acts of genocide and to protect individuals and groups from such atrocities. This legal and treaty-based duty applies to all states involved in the current conflict in Gaza. 

Considering Israel’s continuing breaches of the Genocide Convention and its clear, ongoing violations of the provisional measures indicated by the ICJ on January 26, it is incumbent on third-party states to exercise leverage to ensure Israel’s compliance. States backing Israel with political, financial or military support are also responsible either for the failure to prevent genocide (Article I) or for complicity in genocide (Article III (e)). 

The U.S. is the only state capable of stopping Israel’s genocidal campaign in Palestine. However, in his recent State of the Union address, President Joe Biden emphasized the need for humanitarian aid to the Palestinians and for a two-state solution, but he gave no indication that he would intervene to stop Israel from continuing its war on the Palestinians.  

Calling on Israel to allow aid to the Palestinians does not absolve the U.S., or its European allies, of their complicity in Israel’s genocidal policies. Nor does it relieve them of their duty as signatories to the Genocide Convention to exercise all leverage, including through sanctions, severing diplomatic ties, and the imposition of arms embargoes, to ensure Israel’s compliance and the implementation of an immediate, permanent, and sustainable ceasefire.  

Silence is no longer an option for Western governments. It is time they turned words into action to save the Palestinians of Gaza, afford them the protection provided for under international law, and to restore their dignity.  


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Council on Global Affairs.


Issue: Israel War on Gaza, U.S. Foreign Policy
Country: Palestine-Israel


Djaouida Siaci is an attorney with a dual specialization in cross-border disputes and international criminal investigation with a focus on the GCC and the Middle East and North Africa region.