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Top UN court orders Israel to halt military operation in Rafah

The International Court of Justice in The Hague (AP)
The International Court of Justice in The Hague (AP)

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.

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 court requested arrest warrants for Israeli leaders, along with Hamas officials.

Israeli legal team
Israel legal team, with Yaron Wax, Malcolm Shaw and Avigail Frisch Ben Avraham (AP)

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.

Immediately after the ruling, Mr Netanyahu announced he would hold a special ministerial meeting to decide how to respond. Yair Lapid, the leader of the opposition, derided the decision.

“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,” he said.

“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.

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

Judge at the ICJ
Presiding Judge Nawaf Salam ask the parties to be seated before he starts reading the ruling (AP)

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.

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

South Africa’s foreign minister, Naledi Pandor, said the country’s allegation that a genocide is under way is getting “stronger and stronger by the day”.

“We are really pleased that the court has given very serious consideration to the matters that we put before it and has affirmed that an urgent decision is needed from the court to pause this onslaught against innocent Palestinian people,” she told South African state broadcaster SABC, adding that it is now up to the UN Security Council to determine how to protect the Palestinians.

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.

The dead hostages
The bodies of Michel Nisenbaum, 59, Hanan Yablonka, 42, and Orion Hernandez Radoux, 30, were recovered ((Hostages Families Forum Headquarters via AP)

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.

Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch, said the court’s order “underlines the gravity of the situation facing Palestinians in Gaza, who have for months endured the blocking of basic services and humanitarian aid amid continued fighting”.

“The ICJ’s decision opens up the possibility for relief, but only if governments use their leverage, including through arms embargoes and targeted sanctions, to press Israel to urgently enforce the court’s measures,” Ms Jarrah said.

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.

The ICJ rules in disputes between nations. A few kilometres away, the International Criminal Court files charges against individuals it considers most responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

On Monday, its chief prosecutor, Karim Khan, said he has asked ICC judges to approve arrest warrants for Mr Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and three top Hamas leaders — Yahya Sinwar, Mohammed Deif and Ismail Haniyeh — of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Gaza Strip and Israel.

Israel Palestinians How It Ends
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

Israel is not an ICC member, so even if the arrest warrants are issued, Mr Netanyahu and Mr Gallant do not face any immediate risk of prosecution. But the threat of arrest could make it difficult for the Israeli leaders to travel abroad.

Also on Friday, the United Nations Security Council approved a resolution that strongly condemns attacks on humanitarian workers and UN personnel, and demands that all combatants protect them in accordance with international law.

The vote was 14-0 with Russia abstaining.

The Swiss-sponsored resolution expresses grave concern at the growing number of attacks and threats against UN and humanitarian personnel along with the continuing disregard and violations of international humanitarian law by combatants.

The draft resolution did not single out any conflict, but it was voted on as battles rage in Gaza, Ukraine, Sudan, Myanmar and many other hotspots around the world.

It is the seven-month war in Gaza, however, that has seen the greatest number of attacks on UN and humanitarian personnel. More than 190 UN staff have been killed, a death toll unprecedented in the United Nations’ nearly 80-year history, according to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

The war has also seen the killing of other humanitarian personnel, including seven World Central Kitchen workers who died in an Israeli airstrike last month.

Hundreds of Palestinians participated in an Islamist march in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah on Friday, calling on Muslim nations to militarily intervene to end the war in Gaza.

Demonstrators carried banners demanding action to liberate the Palestinian territories.

“This is a call to the Islamic nation to take action. It has the power, capability, and military forces necessary,” said Youssef Abu Zir, a member of the media team of the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir which organised the protest.

It came as Israel’s military announced on Friday that it killed what it described as a Hamas deputy commander in Gaza.

The military said Diaa al-Din al-Sharafa was killed in a strike a day earlier, and had been “responsible for overseeing the forces that secured the Gaza Strip’s borders”.

Al-Sharafa was the deputy commander of the police’s National Security department, the civilian police force operated by the Hamas-run Interior Ministry. He was not a commander of the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas.