UN’s top court orders Israel to ‘immediately’ halt its operation in Rafah

The United Nations’ top court has ordered Israel to immediately halt its controversial military operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, further increasing international pressure on Israel over its war against Hamas.

“Israel must immediately halt its military offensive and any other action in Rafah which may inflict on the Palestinian group in Gaza conditions of life that could bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part,” Judge Nawaf Salam, president of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), said on Friday.

The court considers the humanitarian situation in Rafah to be classified as “disastrous,” he said, adding that UN officials have indicated that the situation was set to “intensify even further” if the Israeli operation in Rafah continues.

Israel began a limited ground offensive in Rafah on May 7, defying calls from the international community, including the United States, not to proceed.

More than a million Palestinians were taking shelter in Rafah before Israel started its operation, but the court noted that around 800,000 have since been displaced.

Upon entering Rafah, the military seized the city’s border crossing with Egypt, which has remained shut since. The crossing was a vital entry point for humanitarian aid.

The court ordered Israel to open the Rafah crossing for humanitarian assistance and said it had found that the evacuation and living conditions provided by Israel are not “sufficient to alleviate the immense risk, which the Palestinian population is exposed” to.

Rulings by the court are final and binding, but the ICJ doesn’t have a mechanism to enforce them, and they have been ignored in the past.

Israeli officials have condemned the ICJ’s ruling. Yair Lapid, leader of Israel’s opposition party Yesh Atid, said that “the fact that the ICJ did not even directly connect the end of the military operation in Rafah to the release of the hostages and to Israel’s right to defend itself against terror is an abject moral failure.”

Naftali Bennett, who was the 13th Prime Minister of Israel, wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, that “The International Court of Justice just provided every terror organization on earth with THE PERFECT METHOD TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER.”

Hamas welcomed the order in a statement, but said it had expected it would be for the entire Gaza Strip, emphasizing that the situations in Jabalya and other cities are equally dire and warrant similar attention.

South Africa filed an urgent request on May 10 for additional measures against Israel, accusing it of using forced evacuation orders in the southern Gaza city of Rafah to “endanger rather than protect civilian life.” The request was part of a larger case brought by Pretoria against Israel in which South Africa accuses Israel of committing genocide against Palestinians during the seven-month-long conflict.

Ambassador of the Republic of South Africa to the Netherlands, Vusimuzi Madonsela, waits for judges to enter the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands on Friday. - Peter Dejong/AP
Ambassador of the Republic of South Africa to the Netherlands, Vusimuzi Madonsela, waits for judges to enter the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands on Friday. - Peter Dejong/AP

Israel’s Deputy Attorney General for International Law Gilad Noam denied the allegations in his opening remarks at the ICJ last week and asked the court to “respect the predicament” Israel is in.

Two interpretations

Following the ruling, a joint statement by the Israel’s National Security Council and Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Friday that Israel “has not carried out and will not carry out military activity in the Rafah area that creates living conditions that could lead to the destruction of the Palestinian civilian population.”

In response to other orders by the ICJ, including keeping the Rafah crossing open, the statement said that Israel will “continue its efforts to allow humanitarian aid to enter the Gaza Strip” and “reduce as much as possible the harm to the civilian population in the Gaza Strip.”

Eliav Lieblich, a professor of international law at Tel Aviv University, told CNN that the text of the ruling had some ambiguity.

“The order can be understood in two ways: either that Israel has to halt the offensive in Rafah; or specifically components that may lead to conditions of life that could bring physical destruction,” he said.

What is clear, however, is that in the eyes of the court, “the operation cannot continue in the same way, because it found that as it is now the situation is a risk to the rights protected by the (genocide) Convention,” Lieblich said, adding that it is hard to tell whether Israel will comply with the ruling.

“I hope that it doesn’t argue that the order means that nothing has to change, because that clearly isn’t the case,” he added.

The development comes as Israel faces mounting international and domestic pressure to end the war in Gaza.

This week, the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC), a separate court in The Hague, sought arrest warrants for Hamas leaders as well as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity over the October 7 attacks on Israel and the subsequent war in Gaza.

Families of Israeli hostages held in the territory also stepped up pressure on Netanyahu to bring the captives home, releasing graphic footage of female members of the Israel Defense Forces before they were abducted.

Unclear how US will respond

It is unclear how the US, Israel’s closest ally, will respond to the ICJ’s order. The Biden administration has spoken out strongly against the genocide case against Israel, but it has repeatedly warned Israel that Washington will not support a major ground offensive in Rafah unless it sees a credible plan to ensure the safety of civilians.

This month, the US halted arms shipments to Israel for the first time out of fear that they could be used in Rafah to harm civilians. In an interview with CNN, US President Joe Biden acknowledged that American bombs had been used to kill civilians in Gaza, in a stark recognition of the US’ role in the war. The US is Israel’s biggest weapons supplier.

The move by the ICJ is likely to add to mounting pressure on Israel to scale down its war in Gaza, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that his country will defend itself even if “forced to stand alone.

Israel says that Rafah is the last bastion of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that led an attack on Israel on October 7, killing 1,200 people and taking 250 hostages, according to Israeli authorities. Israel’s subsequent war in Gaza has killed more than 35,000 people, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza.

‘Unprecedented’ pressure

The international pressure facing Israel is “unprecedented,” Yossi Mekelberg, an associate fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the Chatham House think tank in London, told CNN. “Because this war is unprecedented, and the way Israel conducts the war is unprecedented.”

While there has always been criticism of some of Israel’s actions, such as the expansion of settlements, “this is on a different scale, a different universe altogether,” he said. “The current Israeli government does its best to make Israel a pariah state.”

The ruling could also undermine Israel’s own judiciary, according to Neve Gordon, professor of human rights law at Queen Mary University of London.

In response to the ICC’s decision to seek arrest warrants against top Israeli officials, Israel’s Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara and State Attorney Amit Aisman were cited by the Times of Israel as backing the Israeli military and said the judicial system is capable of handling such cases.

“(The) ruling would serve yet another blow to Israel’s judicial system, and particularly the attorney general and the Supreme Court, since the subtext would be that it is not doing its job in ensuring that Israel abide by international law,” said Gordon.

CNN’s Niamh Kennedy and Nadeen Ebrahim contributed to this report.

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