Top U.N. court orders Israel to halt military assault in Rafah; Israel is unlikely to comply

The Peace Palace in The Hague with a Palestinian flag in the near foreground
A demonstrator waves a Palestinian flag Friday outside the Peace Palace, where the International Court of Justice meets in The Hague.
(Peter Dejong / Associated Press)

The top United Nations court ordered Israel on Friday to immediately halt its military operations in the southern Gaza city of Rafah — but stopped short of ordering a full cease-fire. Although Israel is unlikely to comply with the order, it will ratchet up the pressure on the increasingly isolated country.

Criticism of Israel’s conduct in the war in Gaza has been growing, particularly since it turned its focus to Rafah. This week, three European countries announced they would recognize a Palestinian state, and the chief prosecutor for another international court requested arrest warrants for the top leaders of Israel and Hamas.

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 on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people, most civilians, and taking some 250 captive. About 100 hostages are still being held in Gaza in addition to the bodies of about 30 who were killed. 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.


“The charges of genocide brought by South Africa against Israel at the International Court of Justice in the Hague are false, outrageous and morally repugnant,” Netanyahu’s government said in a statement in response to the ruling, maintaining its position that the military hasn’t and won’t target civilians.

Israel’s offensive has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between combatants and civilians in its tally. The operation has obliterated entire neighborhoods, sent hundreds of thousands of people fleeing their homes and pushed parts of the territory into famine.

South Africa was able to bring its case before the International Court of Justice because it and Israel are signatories to the U.N.’s Genocide Convention, which includes a clause allowing the court to settle disputes over it.

Although the ruling 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.

The sharply focused decision ordered a halt to the Rafah offensive, access to Gaza for war crimes investigators and a large and immediate increase of humanitarian aid to the region.

Rafah is in the southernmost Gaza Strip, on the border with Egypt, and more than 1 million people sought refuge there in recent months after fleeing fighting elsewhere, with many of them living in tent camps. Israel has been vowing for months to invade Rafah, saying it was Hamas’ last major stronghold, even as several allies warned that an all-out assault would spell disaster.


Israel started issuing evacuation orders about two weeks ago as it began assaults at the edge of the city. Since then, the army says an estimated 1 million people have fled as forces press deeper inside.

The court ordered Israel to keep the Rafah crossing open, saying that “the humanitarian situation is now to be characterized as disastrous.”

“This legally binding and very specific ruling leaves Israel with very little wiggle room,” said Reed Brody, a veteran human rights lawyer and prosecutor.

Benny Gantz, a centrist member of Netanyahu’s wartime Cabinet, appeared to indicate that Israel would not change course on Rafah.

“The State of Israel is committed to continue fighting to return its hostages and promise the security of its citizens — wherever and whenever necessary — including in Rafah,” he said in a statement.

“We will continue operating in accordance with international law wherever we might operate, while safeguarding to the best extent possible the civilian population. Not because of the ICJ, but because of who we are and the values we stand for.”


Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch, said the court’s order underscored the perilous situation of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, but warned that it could be ignored if the international community doesn’t use whatever leverage it can on Israel.

“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,” Jarrah said.

The court’s president, Nawaf Salam, read out the ruling as a small group of pro-Palestinian protesters demonstrated outside.

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Fears the court expressed in recent months about an operation in Rafah have “materialized,” the ruling said, and Israel must “immediately halt its military offensive” in the city and anything else that might result in conditions that could cause the “physical destruction in whole or in part” of Palestinians there.

The court did not call for a full cease-fire throughout Gaza, as South Africa, which has historical ties to the Palestinian people, requested last week.

The cease-fire request is part of the case filed late last year, 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.


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The court ruled Friday that Israel must ensure access for any fact-finding or investigative mission sent by the United Nations to investigate the genocide allegations.

At public hearings last week at the International Court of Justice, South Africa’s ambassador to the Netherlands, Vusimuzi Madonsela, urged the panel of 15 international judges to order Israel to “totally and unconditionally withdraw” from the Gaza Strip.

The court has already found that Israel’s military operations pose a “real and imminent risk” to the Palestinian people in Gaza.

“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.

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. A second order in March said Israel must take measures to improve the humanitarian situation.

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


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On Monday, its chief prosecutor, Karim Khan, said he has asked ICC judges to approve arrest warrants for 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.

Corder writes for the Associated Press.