Israel remains defiant despite week of diplomatic blows

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For the second time in less than a week, Israel suffered a damaging blow at the hands of an international tribunal on Friday, when the International Court of Justice ordered an “immediate” halt to the assault on the Gaza city of Rafah.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly insisted that an operation in Rafah is needed to defeat Hamas, which sparked the current hostilities with its Oct. 7 attack on Israel, as the city is the group’s last major stronghold. militant in Gaza.

But in a strongly worded order, the U.N. top court said humanitarian conditions in the city, which had become a refuge for more than 1 million civilians since war broke out last year, were “disastrous.” and that Israel’s efforts to protect them had been inadequate.

The order capped a week that laid bare Israel’s growing diplomatic isolation as the war in Gaza drags into its eighth month, with the International Criminal Court prosecutor on Monday seeking arrest warrants for Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, for the war, and three Europeans. The United States pledged Wednesday to recognize Palestine.

The week of setbacks also underscores how international opinion has hardened since Israel sent its forces to Rafah earlier this month, despite repeated warnings from aid groups about the catastrophic humanitarian cost of such a move, and pleas even from its closest ally, the United States, not to do so.

“Right now there is a legal push from both the ICC and the ICJ that is quite massive. (The order to) stop military operations is a very strong statementsaid Sheila Paylan, an expert in international law and human rights. “There is a very marked and visible abandonment of Israel and her position.”

Israel’s legal team at the ICJ in The Hague © Johanna Gerón/Reuters
International Court of Justice (ICJ), during a ruling on South Africa's request to order the cessation of the Israeli offensive in Rafah in Gaza
Vusimuzi Madonsela, right, South Africa’s ambassador to the Netherlands in the Hague courtroom for the ICC ruling on Gaza © Koen van Weel/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

In Israel, the initial response to the ICJ order (as it had been to previous actions by the ICC and the three states planning to recognize Palestine) was one of outrage and defiance.

Benny Gantz, a former general and opposition politician who joined Netanyahu’s war cabinet after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, insisted that Israel was “committed” to continuing to fight “to return its hostages and ensure the safety of its citizens.”

Meanwhile, far-right national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir said Israel’s response to “the irrelevant order of the anti-Semitic court in The Hague” should be “the occupation of Rafah, increased military pressure and the complete defeat of Hamas.

But Palestinian politicians welcomed the ruling, and South Africa’s Foreign Ministry, which brought the case, said it would now go to the UN Security Council to implement the court’s order.

“This order is groundbreaking as it is the first time that there has been explicit mention that Israel must stop its military action in any area of ​​Gaza, this time specifically in Rafah,” said Zane Dangor, the top official in the department of international cooperation. South Africa. -operation, he said in video comments.

“Although legally the court cannot use the term ceasefire, and we cannot legally ask for it either, this is de facto asking for a ceasefire,” he added.

Smoke rises during an Israeli airstrike in Rafah on Friday
Smoke rises during an Israeli airstrike in Rafah on Friday ©Mohammed Salem/Reuters

While Israel does not recognize the ICC, it is a member of the ICJ (which was created after World War II) and, like all members, is obliged to implement its rulings. However, the ICJ has no means to enforce its rulings itself: in 2022, it told Russia to suspend its military operations in Ukraine, but Moscow simply ignored the order.

In theory, the UN Security Council could impose sanctions on Israel if it refused to implement the ICJ order. But such a move would only be possible if the United States broke with its past policy of blocking U.N. measures that Israel considers hostile.

“Ignoring the decision would not lead to immediate sanctions, as the United States is likely to veto a Security Council resolution to that effect,” said Yuval Shany, a professor of public international law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a senior Israel researcher. Democracy. Institute.

But even if the ICJ ruling does not lead to sanctions, analysts said it could have consequences for how other states treat Israel, particularly in relation to measures that could support its war effort.

In recent weeks, Washington and governments in Europe have been reviewing the extent to which weapons they have supplied to Israel are being used in accordance with international law.

“Bilateral state sanctions (such as) downgrading of diplomatic relations (or) limits on arms exports are possible,” Shany said.

“In some respects (this) is even more significant than the ICC request, as it intervenes in an ongoing military operation and suggests that, under existing conditions, it is illegal.”

Additional reporting by Joseph Cotterill and Neri Zilber

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