ICJ orders Israel to stop its military incursion into Rafah

The International Court of Justice on Friday ordered Israel to “immediately” halt its military offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, dealing another blow to the country facing growing international isolation and a raft of criticism over its conduct in war.

The court has few effective means of enforcing its order and stopped short of ordering a ceasefire in Gaza, and some of the court’s judges argued that Israel could still carry out some military operations in Rafah under the terms of its decision.

But the order added more pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, which has faced internal and external calls to reach a ceasefire deal with Hamas that would lead to the release of hostages held in Gaza.

“The court considers that, in accordance with the obligations arising from the Genocide Convention, Israel must immediately stop its military offensive and any other actions in the Rafah governorate that could inflict on the Palestinian group in Gaza living conditions that could lead to their physical destruction. total or partial destruction,” said the president of the court, Nawaf Salam, when reading the 13-2 ruling.

The court, based in The Hague, also specified the need to open land crossings, particularly the Rafah crossing, as part of its request for “the unhindered provision” of humanitarian assistance and services. Israel has controlled the Rafah crossing for more than two weeks and very few aid trucks have entered the enclave since then, according to United Nations data.

The Israeli government said in a statement that its army “has not taken and will not take” actions that would lead to the partial or total destruction of the Palestinian population of Rafah. In effect, he said the court’s decision has no bearing on Israel’s offensive because the prohibited acts are not occurring.

Hardline Israeli politicians said Israel should simply ignore the ruling.

“There should be a response: the conquest of Rafah, the escalation of military pressure and the total destruction of Hamas until total victory is achieved,” Itamar Ben-Gvir, the far-right national security minister, said in a statement.

Hamas welcomed the court’s orders in a statement on the messaging app Telegram, calling on the international community to pressure Israel to comply. But the Palestinian armed group, which led the October 7 attacks on Israel that precipitated the war and led to the deaths of 1,200 people and the kidnapping of another 250 in Gaza, criticized the court for refusing to order Israel to stop operating in Gaza completely. .

Israel’s other actions “were no less criminal and dangerous than what is happening in Rafah,” Hamas said.

The ruling was the latest rebuke against Israel for the conduct of its war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Gaza health officials say more than 35,000 people, many of them women and children, have died, although officials have not distinguished between fighters and civilians. Additionally, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have repeatedly fled parts of the territory to avoid Israeli bombing.

The court’s orders came two days after three European countries – Ireland, Spain and Norway – announced they would recognize a Palestinian state. They also came after the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced on Monday that he was seeking arrest warrants for Netanyahu and Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, along with three senior Hamas officials, including Yahya Sinwar, the leader. of the group inside Gaza. accused of crimes against humanity.

The case against Israel was brought last week before the International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court, by a South African legal team, which had urged judges to put more restrictions on Israel’s incursion into Rafah, saying it was ” “the latest step in the destruction of Gaza and its people.”

Israel’s deputy attorney general for international law, Gilad Noam, and other Israeli lawyers rejected the allegations in court last Friday, calling the South Africa case a “reversal of reality.” Noam called Israel’s incursion into Rafah “limited, localized operations preceded by evacuation efforts and support for humanitarian activities.”

But on Friday, Judge Salam said the court remained unconvinced that Israel’s mass evacuation efforts and humanitarian measures actually protected Palestinian civilians from the “immense risk” they faced as a result of the military offensive in Rafah.

Israeli officials have vowed to operate in Rafah to dismantle the Hamas government there, despite international outcry over the mass displacement of Palestinians taking refuge in the city. But legal analysts said the Israeli military might have some room for maneuver.

“This decision does not order the cessation of all military actions in Rafah, only military activity that does not allow life to continue in Rafah,” said Michael Sfard, a prominent Israeli human rights lawyer. “At the same time, if Israel wants to comply with the ruling, it will have to significantly reduce its operations.”

Dire Tladi, a South African judge on the court, said that “legitimate defensive actions, within the strict limits of international law, to repel specific attacks,” would be consistent with the court’s ruling. But he added that “the continuation of the offensive military operation in Rafah and elsewhere” would not.

“Israel can take the legally safe path and keep its operations strictly limited,” said Adil Haque, a law professor at Rutgers Law School, “or it can take the legally risky path and test the court’s patience.”

Israel has said its operation in Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city and where more than 800,000 people have fled since the incursion began two weeks ago, is a precision operation to target Hamas fighters hiding there. Before the Hamas-led Oct. 7 assault, the Palestinian armed group had established four battalions in the city, Israeli officials say. Hamas had also built dozens of cross-border tunnels that allowed it to smuggle weapons and ammunition despite the Israeli-Egyptian blockade.

Israel said Thursday that its forces were advancing slowly from the east toward central Rafah, where half of the territory’s population had taken refuge before the Israeli military ordered mass evacuations.

And on Friday, the military said its forces had been destroying “weapons storage facilities as well as tunnel shafts.” Hamas has also posted a series of updates on its Telegram channel, claiming that its armed wing was attacking Israeli troops with mortars and explosive devices in Rafah.

Activist groups such as Human Rights Watch welcomed the court’s order. “The order from the International Court of Justice underscores the seriousness of the situation faced by Palestinians in Gaza, who for months have endured the blockade of basic services and humanitarian aid amid ongoing fighting,” said Balkees Jarrah, associate director of justice. international group.

“Nowhere in Gaza is safe and civilians there face starvation,” Jarrah added, “and yet the Israeli government continues to flout the binding orders of the World Court by obstructing the entry of life-saving aid and services.” .

Yair Lapid, who leads Israel’s parliamentary opposition, denounced the World Court ruling. But he added that if Netanyahu’s government had behaved more responsibly, it “could and should” have avoided such a damaging decision by the judges.

“A sane and professional government would have avoided insane statements by ministers, would have stopped criminals who set fire to aid trucks, and would have carried out silent and effective political work,” Lapid wrote on social media. “We will not win with this government.”

The South African team had argued before the World Court that Israel’s control over the two main border crossings in southern Gaza, at Rafah and Kerem Shalom, was preventing sufficient aid from reaching the battered enclave, plunging Gaza into “levels of need.” unprecedented humanitarian “

While few aid trucks are entering Gaza, at least dozens of commercial trucks have arrived from Israeli-operated crossings in northern and southern Gaza. These trucks transport goods to sell rather than distribute them freely.

On Friday, the White House and the Egyptian presidency announced that Egypt had agreed to allow fuel and humanitarian aid to pass from Egypt to Gaza through Kerem Shalom. The office of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt called it a “temporary measure.” His government had initially opposed sending trucks to Kerem Shalom in what U.S. and Israeli officials called an attempt to pressure Israel to back off its operation in Rafah.

The court hearings are part of South Africa’s case accusing Israel of genocide, which it filed in December. On Friday, a joint statement from Israel’s National Security Chief of Staff and Foreign Ministry spokesperson again rejected the claim, calling it “false, scandalous and repugnant.”

The main case, which deals with the genocide allegation, is not expected to begin until next year.

Richard Perez Pena, Raja Abdulrahim and James C. McKinley Jr. contributed with reports.

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