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Top UN court has ordered Israel to immediately stop its military operation in Rafah

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The top United Nations court has ordered Israel to immediately stop its military operation in Rafah, in southern Gaza. The International Court of Justice does not have the power to enforce its own rulings, but this ruling does add to the pressure that Israel feels internationally and domestically to end the war in Gaza. NPR's Hadeel Al-Shalchi joins us now from Tel Aviv. Hey, Hadeel.

HADEEL AL-SHALCHI, BYLINE: Hello.

CHANG: OK, so tell us more about the court's ruling today.

AL-SHALCHI: Sure. So today's ruling is related to one of several provisional measures that South Africa added to a broader case it filed with the ICJ in December against Israel, accusing it of genocide. Today, four orders were delivered. One, Israel should cease its military offensive in Rafah. Two, keep the Rafah border with Egypt open. Three, Israel needs to allow all U.N. investigative bodies access to Gaza to collect evidence for the genocide case. And finally, Israel has to hand over a report within a month to show what it's done to comply with the court's orders.

CHANG: Well, I'm guessing that Israel is not happy with this ruling. What has been the government's reaction so far?

AL-SHALCHI: You guessed right. Israel has always maintained that its offensive in Gaza is being done in self-defense, that they're trying to root out Hamas, who attacked Israel on October 7 and killed around 1,200 people. Israel says there are still four Hamas battalions inside Rafah that it needs to destroy. Today, after the ICJ ruling, the Israeli government said its operations in Rafah have not led to the destruction of Palestinian lives. But Palestinians inside Rafah have told NPR of airstrikes that have hit homes, killing entire families. The Gaza Health Ministry has reported hundreds of deaths since the Rafah offensive began, and more than 35,000 have been killed since the war began last October.

But I also talked to international law expert at Hebrew University, Yuval Shany, and he told me that the wording of the court order seemed to be left vague. It seemed to say that Israel could continue its offensive as long as it doesn't put Palestinian lives at exceptional risk. So it does seem like Israel will continue its operations, and in fact, we've seen reports of more airstrikes of Rafah even today.

CHANG: Well, how have Palestinians themselves been reacting to this court decision?

AL-SHALCHI: Yeah. Hamas welcomed the ICJ decision but said it wasn't enough and urged the end of the offensive in all of Gaza. That was echoed by its rival, the Palestinian Authority, which governs some of the West Bank. But on the ground, our own producer, Anas Baba in Gaza, spoke to one person who had evacuated from Rafah about his thoughts. His name is Mahmoud Abu Issa. And when he was asked if he believed the Israeli government would comply with the order, he was skeptical.

MAHMOUD ABU ISSA: (Non-English language spoken).

AL-SHALCHI: He says, "no, no, not at all. Netanyahu will not respect anyone. He doesn't respect the U.S. or the decisions of the court." He says, "Netanyahu doesn't care about anyone, and that's why the decisions of the court are all empty words."

CHANG: Well, the thing is, Hadeel, Israel was already looking increasingly isolated diplomatically, right? And even though this court can't enforce its own ruling, how does this decision add to that diplomatic isolation?

AL-SHALCHI: Well, it hasn't been a great week for Israel. The International Criminal Court sought arrest warrants for Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Minister of Defense on possible war crime charges together with three leaders of Hamas, and that infuriated Israel. But then Spain, Norway and Ireland all announced their recognition of a Palestinian state, and domestic pressure is rising here also. Israelis are protesting weekly for elections and for Netanyahu to resign and hostage families getting angrier that their loved ones are still not home. The ICJ court order really just adds to the Israeli government feeling like it's being closed in on.

CHANG: That is NPR's Hadeel Al-Shalchi in Tel Aviv. Thank you so much, Hadeel.

AL-SHALCHI: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Hadeel Al-Shalchi
Hadeel al-Shalchi is an editor with Weekend Edition. Prior to joining NPR, Al-Shalchi was a Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press and covered the Arab Spring from Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, and Libya. In 2012, she joined Reuters as the Libya correspondent where she covered the country post-war and investigated the death of Ambassador Chris Stephens. Al-Shalchi also covered the front lines of Aleppo in 2012. She is fluent in Arabic.
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