ICJ orders Israel to halt its offensive on Rafah, Gaza in new ruling

Judges at the top United Nations court order Israel to immediately halt its military assault on the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

Judges at the top United Nations court ordered Israel to halt its offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah and withdraw from the enclave, in a case brought by South Africa accusing Israel of genocide, citing “immense risk” to the Palestinian population.

Friday’s decision marked the third time this year the 15-judge panel has issued preliminary orders seeking to rein in the death toll and alleviate humanitarian suffering in Gaza. While orders are legally binding, the court has no police to enforce them.

Reading out a ruling by the International Court of Justice or World Court, the body’s president, Nawaf Salam, said provisional measures ordered by the court in March did not fully address the situation in the besieged Palestinian enclave now, and conditions had been met for a new emergency order.

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,” Salam said, and called the humanitarian situation in Rafah “disastrous”.

INTERACTIVE - ICJ_Rafah

South Africa’s lawyers had asked the ICJ in The Hague last week to impose emergency measures, saying Israel’s attacks on Rafah must be stopped to ensure the survival of the Palestinian people.

Reporting from The Hague, in the Netherlands, Al Jazeera’s Step Vaessen said that 13 of the 15 ICJ judges agreed to call on Israel to halt its assault.

“[Salam] said 800,000 are displaced, and that he doesn’t believe Israel’s word that they are provided safety and humanitarian access. He said there was no evidence of that,” she noted.

“That’s why the court has now made a very strong order that Israel should immediately stop its offensive and military operation in Rafah and withdraw its troops from there. He also made a ruling on border crossings, that they must be reopened as soon as possible to get humanitarian aid in,” Vaessen added.

She said that the judge also stressed that observers from the UN have to get access as soon as possible to make sure that no evidence of any possible war crimes disappear from the region.

The ICJ has also ordered Israel to report back to the court within one month over its progress in applying measures ordered by the institution.

Israel launched its assault on the southern city of Rafah this month, forcing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to flee a city that had become a refuge to about half of the population’s 2.3 million people.

Rafah, on Gaza’s southern edge, has also been the main route in for aid, and international organisations say the Israeli operation has cut off the enclave and raised the risk of famine.

Reporting from Deir el-Balah in central Gaza, Al Jazeera’s Hind Al Khoudary said that people in the Gaza Strip have not yet reacted to the ICJ ruling since many of them do not have internet connection.

“People here in the Gaza Strip are currently trying to feed themselves … after being constantly displaced. So people are not very well aware of what’s going on. They’re asking journalists … if there is anything positive,” she said.

Khoudary added that, as journalists in Gaza, they do not want to give people in the region false hope and are waiting to hear more information about how the ICJ’s ruling will be implemented in Rafah, where the situation remains tense.

The Palestinian Authority has welcomed the decision on Friday from the International Court of Justice, saying it represents an international consensus to end the war on the Gaza Strip, Palestinian presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina told the Reuters news agency.

Shortly after the ruling, Israel’s finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, said on the social media platform X that “the State of Israel is at war for its existence.”

“Those who demand that the State of Israel stop the war, demand that it decree itself to cease to exist. We will not agree to that,” he said.

“We continue to fight for ourselves and for the entire free world. History will judge who today stood by the Nazis of Hamas and ISIS [ISIL],” he added.

Reporting from Amman, Jordan, Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan said that diplomatic sources have told Israel’s Channel 13 that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will convene an emergency meeting.

“Foreign Minister Israel Katz, war cabinet minister Benny Gantz and the government’s judicial adviser will be in the meeting. This is how seriously they are taking this ruling,” Khan said.

“We are hearing from political sources speaking to local media that Israel will not respond to the decision of the court, both politically or militarily,” he added.

According to war crimes prosecutor Reed Brody, the ICJ has stepped up to confront the reality in the Gaza Strip.

“I’m really impressed, first of all by South Africa’s tenacity and perseverance and coming back to the court. And the court has responded almost unanimously,” he told Al Jazeera.

Brody noted that South Africa has been asking for an order for Israel to stop its military offensive since the start of the war on Gaza, with the court saying it cannot make a move because Hamas and the Palestinian side is not present on the stand.

“But that’s what they have finally chosen to do here and it’s a testament to this court and what it does,” he said.

“Together with the decision by the ICC prosecutor [to recommend arrest warrants against top Israeli officials], it is a real one-two legal punch.”

Members of the South Africa's legal team (L) attend a hearing at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as part of South Africa's request on a Gaza ceasefire in The Hague
Members of the South Africa’s legal team, left, attend a hearing at the ICJ [Nick Gammon/AFP]

The ICJ, also known as the World Court, is the highest UN body for hearing disputes between states. Its rulings are final and binding, but have been ignored in the past.
In a highly charged ruling in January, the court ordered Israel to do everything in its power to prevent genocidal acts in Gaza, but stopped short of ordering a halt in the fighting.

Israel has repeatedly dismissed the case’s accusations of genocide as baseless, arguing in court that its operations in Gaza are self-defence and targeted at Hamas fighters who attacked Israel on October 7.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies