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The top U.N. court has ordered Israel to stop its Rafah military operation

Presiding Judge Nawaf Salam reads the ruling of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, on Friday, May 24. The top United Nations court ruled on an urgent plea by South Africa for judges to order Israel to halt its military operations in Gaza and withdraw from the enclave.
Peter Dejong
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AP
Presiding Judge Nawaf Salam reads the ruling of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, on Friday, May 24. The top United Nations court ruled on an urgent plea by South Africa for judges to order Israel to halt its military operations in Gaza and withdraw from the enclave.

BERLIN and TEL AVIV — The United Nations’ highest court ordered Israel Friday to halt its offensive in Rafah, citing “immense risk” to the population of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who have sought refuge in the southern Gaza city. But the court did not call for an end to Israel’s wider offensive across the Gaza Strip.

Friday’s decision marked the third time this year that the 15-judge panel has issued preliminary orders to rein in the death toll and create pathways for more humanitarian aid in Gaza.

The court called on Israel to “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.”

In response to the court’s ruling, an Israeli government statement said the country intended to press on with its offensive in Rafah — in a way that would abide by Israel’s interpretation of the ruling.

“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 whole or in part,” the Israeli government statement said.

Yuval Shany, an international law expert at the Hebrew University and senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, says the court’s ruling left enough ambiguity to allow Israel to continue its offensive there.

Reading out the court’s ruling from the bench of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Court President Nawaf Salam noted that provisional measures ordered by the court earlier this year have not fully addressed the situation in Gaza and that conditions, particularly in Rafah, have deteriorated further.

Salam cited a report by the United Nations International Children’s Fund that estimated about half of 1.2 million Palestinians sheltering in Rafah were children, and he warned that “military operations there would result in, I quote, the few remaining basic services and infrastructure they need to survive being totally destroyed.”

Displaced Palestinian children wait for a water supply tank to fill their containers amid soaring temperatures at a tent camp in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on April 26.
Mohammed Abed / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Displaced Palestinian children wait for a water supply tank to fill their containers amid soaring temperatures at a tent camp in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on April 26.

In addition to ordering Israel’s military to immediately cease its operations in Rafah, the court ordered Israel to keep the Rafah border crossing into Egypt open for humanitarian aid, as well as ordering Israel to allow the U.N.'s investigative bodies access to Gaza so they can finish a fact-finding mission to collect evidence for the broader case brought by South Africa accusing Israel of genocide. Lastly, the court ordered Israel to submit a report within a month detailing the measures it has taken to fulfill the court’s orders.

Airstrikes in Rafah were reported before the court’s ruling

Minutes before the court announced its ruling, Palestinians in Rafah reported one of the most intensive Israeli bombardments there since troops entered the western part of the city in early May. Palestinian journalists said about a dozen Israeli airstrikes on a main road cut off access to a hospital in the city that had mostly been evacuated, but still had a medical team inside. The Israeli military had no immediate comment.

An hour after the court ruling, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a phone meeting to consult Israel’s top legal official and senior government ministers and officials, Netanyahu’s office said.

Israeli political leaders from across the political spectrum condemned the court’s ruling. Far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said, “History will judge who today stood by the Nazis of Hamas and ISIS.”

Opposition leader Yair Lapid, a centrist, called the court’s decision a “moral disaster” by not ordering the return of Israeli hostages held by Hamas since its Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel, which sparked the ongoing war.

Hamas and the head of the rival Palestinian government in the West Bank, President Mahmoud Abbas, both welcomed the court’s decision. But Mahmoud Abu Issa, a Rafah resident who fled the Israeli incursion in May, said he doubted Israel would abide by it.

“Netanyahu will not respect anyone,” said Abu Issa, who is sheltering in the ruins of a damaged school in the decimated city of Khan Younis. “He doesn’t respect the U.S. or the decisions of the court. Netanyahu doesn't care about anyone, and that’s why the decisions are all empty words.”

Outside the courtroom in the Hague, pro-Palestinian demonstrators told NPR they were disappointed with the court’s decision because it stopped short of calling for a total end to Israel’s Gaza offensive.

The dispute over Rafah

Israel’s military operation in Rafah has been a long-running dispute with the U.S. Israel said it was necessary to invade the city, calling it Hamas’ last bastion in Gaza. The U.S. opposed a major military operation because it would spark a humanitarian crisis for more than 1 million Palestinians sheltering in the city.

In early May, Israeli troops entered eastern Rafah and took control of Gaza’s border crossing with Egypt. Since then, Rafah has seen one of the biggest mass displacements of Palestinians in Gaza since the war began. More than 800,000 Palestinians sheltering in the city have fled for other parts of Gaza.

Displaced Palestinians travel on a cart in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on May 7.
-/AFP via Getty Images / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Displaced Palestinians travel on a cart in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on May 7.

In protest, Egypt has halted shipments of aid through its border with Gaza. The U.N. stopped distributing food in Rafah on May 21 due to lack of supplies and reported a surge in diseases from the mass displacement due to a lack of basic supplies.

The court has no power to enforce its ruling, but it adds pressure on Israel

Friday’s ruling was related to one of several provisional measures that South Africa has added to a broader case it filed with the ICJ in December against Israel, accusing it of committing acts of genocide in Gaza. The court has not yet ruled on that case and it could take months or years to do so.

The International Court of Justice, while serving as the U.N.’s highest court, does not have the powers necessary for enforcement of its rulings, and, as a result, its orders are often ignored. But Friday's ruling will likely add international pressure on Netanyahu's government to show more restraint as Israel continues its military offensive in Rafah.

It also means that the U.N. Security Council may feel obliged to weigh in on Israel’s Rafah offensive, and weigh how best to protect the Palestinians.

In that case, a draft resolution ordering Israel to comply with the court order could put the United States in the uncomfortable position of having to come to Israel's assistance and veto a vote on the matter. The U.S. has previously vetoed several attempts at the U.N. to recognize Palestinian statehood, saying that only negotiations can lead to a state.

Even if the U.S. were to block such a resolution, individual countries could pursue sanctions against Israel.

That possibility was echoed after the court ruling by Josep Borrell, the top diplomat for the European Union, who asked what position the EU would now take toward Israel. ”We will have to choose," he said, "between our support to international institutions of the rule of law or our support to Israel."

Rob Schmitz reported from Berlin and Daniel Estrin reported from Tel Aviv. Anas Baba contributed to this story in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip. Abu Bakr Bashir contributed in The Hague. Hadeel Al-Shalchi contributed in Tel Aviv.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
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