U.N. Court Orders Israel to Halt Rafah Offensive

The International Court of Justice on Friday ruled that Israel must immediately halt its military offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, dealing another blow to the country as it faces increasing international isolation.

The court has no means of enforcing its orders, and Israel said the language of the ruling left some room for interpretation. Hard-line politicians in Israel immediately vowed that Israel would not comply.

Still, the 13-2 ruling puts more pressure on the Netanyahu government over the conduct of the war. Gazan authorities say at least 35,000 people have been killed, without distinguishing between combatants and civilians, and hundreds of thousands have been forced to flee repeatedly to avoid the Israeli bombardment, which has devastated most of the enclave.

“The court considers that in conformity with obligations under the Genocide Convention, Israel must immediately halt its military offensive, and any other action in the Rafah governorate, which may inflict on the Palestinian group in Gaza conditions of life that could bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part,” the court’s president, Nawaf Salam, said in reading the ruling.

The ruling is the latest in a series of rebukes of Israel over the conduct of its war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The court emphasized the need for “the unhindered provision at scale by all concerned of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance,” including maintaining open land crossings and, in particular, the Rafah crossing, which Israel seized more than two weeks ago. It ordered Israel to “immediately take all effective measures to ensure and facilitate the unimpeded access” of United Nations investigators into Gaza. The judges also ordered Israel to submit a report on the measures it had taken to implement the decision within a month.

A South African legal team had urged the I.C.J., the United Nations’ top court, last week to put further constraints on Israel’s incursion in Rafah, saying it was “the last step in the destruction of Gaza and its people.”

Israel’s military has said that since early May, it has been conducting a precise, targeted offensive against Hamas in Rafah, and is fighting in neighborhoods near the heart of the city. More than a million people who fled other parts of Gaza were sheltering in Rafah, but most have fled this month.

Israel’s deputy attorney general for international law, Gilad Noam, and other Israeli lawyers rejected the claims before the court last week, calling South Africa’s case an “inversion of reality.”

In a statement, the Israeli government said its military “has not and will not” take actions that would lead to the partial or complete destruction of the civilian population of Rafah. In effect, it said that the court’s decision has no bearing on Israel’s offensive because the military is not committing the prohibited acts.

Satellite imagery of Rafah from May 22 showed damage and clearing reaching around four miles into Gaza from the border with Israel toward Rafah’s center.

Some far-right allies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the court order and suggested that Israel should not comply. “There ought to be one response: the conquest of Rafah, the escalation of military pressure, and the utter shattering of Hamas until the achievement of total victory,” Itamar Ben-Gvir, the national security minister, said in a statement.

Adil Haque, a professor of law at Rutgers Law School, said the ruling restricts Israel’s offensive in and around Rafah, but leaves it some room to defend itself.

“Large-scale military operations in or around Rafah are likely off the table because they will lead to mass death and displacement of civilians,” he said. “But the targeted operations to specifically respond to rocket fire or to rescue hostages, in principle, should still be on the table.”

“Israel can take the legally safe course and keep its operations strictly limited,” he added, “or it can take the legally risky course and test the court’s patience.”

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

South Africa argued that Israel’s control over the two major border crossings in southern Gaza, at Rafah and Kerem Shalom, prevented enough aid from getting in, plunging Gaza into “unprecedented levels of humanitarian need.” Few aid trucks are entering, according to U.N. data, but many commercial trucks — which carry goods to sell rather than to distribute free — have entered the enclave.

The hearings are part of South Africa’s case, filed in December, accusing Israel of genocide, which Israel strongly denies. In late January, the court ordered Israel to do more to prevent acts of genocide, but stopped short of calling for a cease-fire. The main body of the case, dealing with genocide, is not expected to start until next year.

In March, in its strongest language to that point, the court ordered Israel to stop obstructing humanitarian aid to Gaza as severe hunger there spread, open more border crossings for supplies and provide “full cooperation” with the United Nations.

Judge Salam said the situation in Gaza had deteriorated since March, and was now “to be characterized as disastrous.”

Israel launched its military operation in retaliation for the Oct. 7 attacks that officials say killed 1,200 people and led to the abduction of about 250 others into Gaza. The court reiterated its call for the “immediate and unconditional release” of the hostages still held by Hamas and other armed groups in Gaza.

Lauren Leatherby contributed reporting.

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