Top UN Court Orders Israel to Halt Rafah Combat Operations

Top UN Court Orders Israel to Halt Rafah Combat Operations
Judge Nawaf Salam, president of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) presides over the International Court of Justice (ICJ), during a ruling on South Africa's request to order a halt to Israel's Rafah offensive in Gaza as part of a larger case brought before the Hague-based court by South Africa accusing Israel of genocide, in The Hague, Netherlands, on May 24, 2024. (Johanna Geron/Reuters)

The Netherlands-based International Court of Justice (ICJ) called on the Israeli government on Friday to immediately halt its military operations in the southern Gaza Strip territory of Rafah.

By a 13–2 vote, the top United Nations court ordered Israeli forces to halt “its military offensive, and any other action in the Rafah Governorate.”

This ICJ ruling comes after the government of South Africa requested the court modify its January order for the Israeli government to take precautions to prevent harm to civilians amid its ongoing military operations in the Gaza Strip. The South African government had argued that the Israeli operations in the Gaza Strip could constitute acts of genocide against the Palestinian people, and had sought an ICJ ordered ceasefire across the territory, which the international court declined in its January order.

In its Friday ruling, the majority at the Hague court concluded the latest Israeli operations in and around Rafah “may inflict on the Palestinian group in Gaza conditions of life that could bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”

In a second 13–2 vote, the ICJ also called on the Israeli government to “maintain open the Rafah crossing for unhindered provision at scale of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance.”

In a third vote along the same margins, the ICJ called for Israel to ensure U.N. investigative teams have unimpeded access to enter the Gaza Strip “to investigate allegations of genocide” within the embattled territory.

In a fourth 13–2 vote, the ICJ also ordered the government of Israel to issue a report documenting its efforts to comply with the court’s other orders regarding the conflict in the Gaza Strip.

Rafah Humanitarian Concerns Complicate Israeli Operations

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described Rafah as one of the last remaining strongholds of Hamas, the Israeli- and U.S.-designated Palestinian terrorist group that led widespread attacks inside Israel on Oct. 7. Mr. Netanyahu has insisted that a full-scale assault in the city is necessary to achieving his wartime goal to eliminate Hamas.

Still, President Joe Biden’s administration and other international observers, have urged against expansive operations in Rafah without a plan to protect the civilian population. The Biden administration paused a shipment of “high-payload munitions” to Israel and the president has directly threatened to block other weapons shipments if the Israeli government doesn’t take sufficient measures to protect civilians in Rafah.

Earlier on in the war, Israeli forces routinely advised residents in the northern parts of the Gaza Strip to evacuate southward to avoid being caught in the crossfire. In recent weeks, Israeli forces have begun advising areas of the Rafah Governorate to relocate to tent encampments to avoid being killed.

Even as Israel has begun ordering evacuations from Rafah, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) has raised concerns about the conditions for the internally displaced Gazans. UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini estimated on May 18 that about 800,000 people had relocated or begun relocating from Rafah since the evacuation orders began.

“Every time, they are forced to leave behind the few belongings they have: mattresses, tents, cooking utensils, and basic supplies that they cannot carry or pay to transport,” Mr. Lazzarini said last week. ”Every time, they have to start from scratch, all over again.  The areas that people are fleeing to now do not have safe water supplies or sanitation facilities.”

As of Friday, May 24, UNRWA reports around 1406 truckloads of food and humanitarian supplies have entered the Gaza Strip through two land crossings thus far in the month of May, for a daily average of about 41 trucks. That number is down from the approximately 500 daily truckloads of food and supplies U.N. officials have said are needed to sustain the Gaza Strip’s population.

The delegations from Israel and South Africa made no comment after the ruling was read out on Friday.

NTD News reached out to the Israeli Mission to the U.N. and to the Israeli Foreign Ministry for comment on the ICJ’s new ruling. Neither office responded by press time.

Reuters contributed to this article.

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