World Court Orders Israel to Halt Its Military Offensive Into Rafah

The International Court of Justice on Friday ordered Israel to “immediately” halt its military offensive in the city of Rafah in southern Gaza, dealing another blow to the country as it faces increasing international isolation and a drumbeat of criticism over its conduct in the war.

The court has few effective means of enforcing its order, and it stopped short of ordering a cease-fire in Gaza, with some of the court’s judges arguing that Israel could still conduct some military operations in Rafah under the terms of their decision.

But the order added more pressure on the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has faced domestic and external calls to reach a cease-fire deal with Hamas that would lead to the release of hostages held in Gaza.

“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 13-2 ruling.

The court, based at The Hague, also specified the need for open land crossings, in particular the Rafah crossing, as part of its request for “the unhindered provision” of humanitarian assistance and services. Israel has controlled the Rafah crossing for more than two weeks, and very few aid trucks have entered the enclave since, according to United Nations data.

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

Hard-line Israeli politicians said that Israel should just disregard the ruling.

“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 far-right national security minister, said in a statement.

Hamas welcomed the court’s orders in a statement on the Telegram messaging app, calling on the international community to pressure Israel to obey. But the Palestinian armed group — which led the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel that precipitated the war and led to the deaths of 1,200 people and the abduction of 250 others into Gaza — criticized the court for declining to order Israel to cease operating in Gaza entirely.

Israel’s other actions were “no less criminal and dangerous than what is happening in Rafah,” Hamas said.

The ruling was the latest rebuke against Israel over the conduct of its war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Gazan health officials say that more than 35,000 people, many of them women and children, have been killed, though the officials have not distinguished between combatants and civilians. In addition, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have repeatedly fled parts of the territory to avoid Israeli bombardment.

The court’s orders came two days after three European countries — Ireland, Spain and Norway — announced that they would recognize a Palestinian state. They also came after the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court announced on Monday that he was seeking arrest warrants for Mr. Netanyahu and Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, along with three top Hamas officials — including Yahya Sinwar, the group’s leader within Gaza — on charges of crimes against humanity.

The case against Israel was presented to the International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court, last week by a South African legal team, which had urged the judges to put further constraints on Israel’s incursion into Rafah, saying it was “the last step in the destruction of Gaza and its people.”

Israel’s deputy attorney general for international law, Gilad Noam, and other Israeli lawyers rejected the claims before the court last Friday, calling South Africa’s case an “inversion of reality.” Mr. Noam called Israel’s incursion into Rafah “limited and localized operations prefaced with evacuation efforts and support for humanitarian activities.”

But on Friday, Judge Salam said the court remained unconvinced that Israel’s mass evacuation efforts and humanitarian measures truly protected Palestinian civilians from the “immense risk” they faced as a result of the military offensive in Rafah.

Israeli officials have vowed to operate in Rafah to dismantle Hamas’s rule there, despite international outcry over the mass displacement of Palestinians sheltering in the city. But legal analysts said the Israeli military may have some room to maneuver.

“This decision does not order a halt to every military action in Rafah — only military activity that does not enable life to continue in Rafah,” said Michael Sfard, a prominent Israeli human rights lawyer. “At the same time, if Israel wants to comply with the ruling, it will have to scale down operations considerably.”

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

“Israel can take the legally safe course and keep its operations strictly limited,” said Adil Haque, a professor of law at Rutgers Law School, “or it can take the legally risky course and test the court’s patience.”

Israel has said that its operation in Rafah, the southernmost city in Gaza and one from where more than 800,000 people have fled since the incursion began two weeks ago, is a precision operation to target Hamas fighters hiding there. Before the Oct. 7 assault led by Hamas, the armed Palestinian group had established four battalions in the city, Israeli officials say. Hamas had also built dozens of cross-border tunnels that enabled it to smuggle in weapons and ammunition despite an Israeli-Egyptian blockade.

Israel said on Thursday that its forces were slowly advancing from the east toward central Rafah, where half of the territory’s population had been sheltering before the Israeli military ordered mass evacuations.

And on Friday, the military said its forces had been destroying “weapons storage facilities, as well as tunnel shafts.” Hamas has also released a stream of updates on its Telegram channel, claiming that its armed wing was targeting Israeli troops with mortars and explosive devices in Rafah.

Activist groups like Human Rights Watch welcomed the court’s order. “The International Court of Justice’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,” said Balkees Jarrah, the group’s associate international justice director.

“Nowhere in Gaza is safe, and civilians there are facing famine,” Ms. Jarrah added, “and yet the Israeli government continues to flout the World Court’s binding orders by obstructing the entry of lifesaving aid and services.”

Yair Lapid, who leads Israel’s parliamentary opposition, denounced the World Court’s ruling. But he added that had Mr. Netanyahu’s government behaved more responsibly, it “could and should” have avoided such a damaging decision by the judges.

“A sane and professional government would have prevented insane statements by ministers, stopped criminals who torch aid trucks and performed quiet and effective political work,” Mr. Lapid wrote on social media. “We won’t win with this government.”

The South African team had argued before the World Court that Israel’s control over the two major border crossings in southern Gaza, at Rafah and Kerem Shalom, was preventing enough aid from getting into the battered enclave, plunging Gaza into “unprecedented levels of humanitarian need.”

While few aid trucks are entering Gaza, at least dozens of commercial trucks have arrived from the Israeli-operated crossings in northern and southern Gaza. Those trucks carry goods to sell rather than to distribute freely.

On Friday, the White House and the Egyptian presidency announced that Egypt had agreed to allow fuel and humanitarian aid to move from Egypt into Gaza through Kerem Shalom. The office of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt called it a “temporary measure.” His government initially had held out on sending trucks toward Kerem Shalom in what American and Israeli officials called an attempt to pressure Israel to back down from its Rafah operation.

The court hearings are part of South Africa’s case accusing Israel of genocide, which it filed in December. On Friday, a joint statement from Israel’s national security chief of staff and the spokesman for the foreign ministry again rejected the claim, calling it “false, outrageous and disgusting.”

The main case, dealing with the accusation of genocide, is not expected to start until next year.

Richard Pérez-Peña, Raja Abdulrahim and James C. McKinley Jr. contributed reporting.

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