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Top UN court orders Israel to halt military operation in Rafah

24 May 2024 4 minute read
Palestinians evacuate wounded after an Israeli airstrike in Rafah. Photo Anas Mohammed

The top United Nations court has ordered Israel to halt its military operations in the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

Israel insists it has the right to defend itself from Hamas militants and is unlikely to comply with the ruling.

The order by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) further ratchets up international pressure on an increasingly isolated Israel to rein in its war on Hamas in Gaza.

Friday’s decision marked the third time this year the 15-judge panel has issued preliminary orders seeking to reduce the death toll and alleviate humanitarian suffering in Gaza.

While orders are legally binding, the court has no police to enforce them.

Growing criticism

Criticism of Israel’s conduct in the war in Gaza has been growing — even from its closest ally, the United States, which warned against an invasion of Rafah, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have sought shelter from fighting elsewhere.

This week alone, three European countries announced they would recognise a Palestinian state, and the chief prosecutor for another UN court requested arrest warrants for Israeli leaders, along with Hamas officials.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also under heavy pressure at home to end the war, which was triggered when Hamas-led militants stormed into Israel, killing 1,200 people, most civilians, and taking some 250 captive.

Thousands of Israelis have joined weekly demonstrations calling on the government to reach a deal to bring the hostages home, fearing that time is running out.

While the ruling by the ICJ is a blow to Israel’s international standing, the court does not have a police force to enforce its orders. In another case on its docket, Russia has so far ignored a 2022 order by the court to halt its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Israel signalled it, too, would brush off an ICJ order to stop its operations.

“No power on earth will stop Israel from protecting its citizens and going after Hamas in Gaza,” Avi Hyman, the government spokesperson, said in a press briefing on Thursday.

The court’s president, Nawaf Salam, read out the ruling, as a small group of pro-Palestinian protesters demonstrated outside.

Fears expressed earlier “with respect to the developments in Rafah have materialised and that the humanitarian situation is now to be characterised as disastrous,” the ruling said.

Ceasefire request

The court did not call for a full ceasefire throughout Gaza as South Africa had requested at hearings last week.

The ceasefire request is part of a case filed late last year by South Africa accusing Israel of committing genocide during its Gaza campaign. Israel vehemently denies the allegations.

Smoke rises after Israeli air strikes on the city of Rafah

The case will take years to resolve, but South Africa wants interim orders to protect Palestinians while the legal wrangling continues.

The court has already found that Israel’s military operations pose a “real and imminent risk” to the Palestinian people in Gaza.

Israel’s offensive has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between combatants and civilians. The operation has obliterated entire areas, hundreds of thousands of people fleeing their homes, and pushed parts of the territory into famine.

“This may well be the last chance for the court to act,” Irish lawyer Blinne Ni Ghralaigh, who is part of South Africa’s legal team, told judges last week.

Israel rejects the claims by South Africa, a nation with historic ties to the Palestinian people.

“Israel takes extraordinary measures in order to minimize the harm to civilians in Gaza,” Tamar Kaplan-Tourgeman, a member of Israel’s legal team, told the court last week.

In January, ICJ judges ordered Israel to do all it can to prevent death, destruction and any acts of genocide in Gaza, but the panel stopped short of ordering an end to the military offensive.

In a second order in March, the court said Israel must take measures to improve the humanitarian situation.

Earlier on Friday, the Israeli army said the bodies of three more hostages killed on October 7 have been recovered overnight from Gaza.

Military officials said the bodies of Hanan Yablonka, Michel Nisenbaum, and Orion Hernandez have been identified and their families have been informed.

The army said they were killed on the day of the attack at the Mefalsim intersection and their bodies were taken to Gaza.


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