What to Know About the U.N. Court Hearings on Israeli Occupation

The International Court of Justice will hear arguments from more than 50 countries this week on the legality of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. It is the first time the world’s highest court has been asked to give an advisory opinion on the issue, which has been the subject of years of debates and resolutions at the United Nations.

The hearings are expected to focus on decades of Israeli actions in the Palestinian territories, including the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But the arguments have gained urgency amid the deadliest ever Israeli-Palestinian war, in Gaza, and less than a month after the court ordered Israel to restrain its attacks in Gaza in a separate case.

The sessions began on Monday at the Peace Palace in The Hague. Israel has not appeared, but it has filed a written submission rejecting the validity of the proceedings.

Here is what to know.

The I.C.J., based in The Hague, was established by the U.N. Charter in 1945 to rule on issues of international law and settle disputes among nations. Only states can bring cases before the court. All countries belonging to the United Nations are automatically members of the court and are expected to accept its jurisdiction.

The court has long had a low profile, often dealing with staid issues such as border disputes. But more recently it has been drawn into pressing conflicts, notably between Ukraine and Russia and Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza.

The court’s rulings are binding, but it has no power to enforce them; it expects states to put them into place. Governments at times ignore them when they believe their interests are threatened.

The judges can also be asked to give advisory opinions, as in this instance. Advisory opinions carry authority and legal weight, but they are not binding.

The six days of hearings focus on the legality of Israel’s “prolonged occupation, settlement and annexation” of Palestinian territories. The Palestinian Authority’s foreign minister, Riyad al-Maliki, opened the sessions, and representatives for the Palestinians — including a team of prominent international lawyers — are expected to argue that Israel has long abused Palestinian rights with impunity.

Starting Tuesday, other speakers will be allotted 30 minutes each, with representatives of 52 countries — far more than usual for hearings at the court — scheduled to participate. Among them are influential supporters of Israel, including the United States and Britain, as well as critics, including China and Russia.

While these sessions have been planned for a year, they have stirred attention in light of the bloodshed in Gaza and on the heels of a genocide case brought against Israel at the court.

Legally speaking, the two matters are unrelated. Hearings last month before the same court were initiated by South Africa, which hoped to get Israel to reduce the intensity of its military campaign to crush Hamas after the group’s deadly attacks in October. Israel’s invasion of Gaza has largely razed the territory and produced large-scale civilian casualties.

The judges did not rule on whether Israel was committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza but decreed that Israel must take action to prevent it.

Sessions this week were requested by a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly in December 2022. Essentially the judges are being asked to review a panoply of Israel’s longtime policies and the legality of Israel’s continuing occupation.

One focal point will be Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — both officially promoted expansion of settlements for Israeli citizens on Palestinian territory as well as the government’s tolerance of violent land grabs by settlers.

Every Israeli government has allowed some Israeli construction, but the Netanyahu government has expanded the program and announced plans for thousands of new housing units. More than 400,000 Israelis have settled in the West Bank since 1967.

Navanethem Pillay, who led a U.N. commission of inquiry that urged the General Assembly to seek the court opinion on the legality of the occupation, said, “Israel has ignored numerous U.N. resolutions, including on illegal settlement.” But the court had never looked into the lawfulness of prolonged occupation.

The International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice are often confused. The I.C.C., started in 2002, is a criminal court independent of the United Nations and prosecutes cases against individuals rather than national governments. It hears cases involving the most serious international crimes, including genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

A case was brought by the Palestinians against Israeli leaders at the I.C.C. in 2015, but there has been little progress.

Joan E. Donoghue, an American judge who ended her term as I.C.J. president this month, recently said the opinion would need to answer “a complicated and quite detailed set of questions.” Arriving at those answers, she said, would take at least several months.