Updated May 24, 2024 - World

ICJ orders Israel to halt military offensive in Rafah

Palestinians, including children, who migrated from Rafah to Deir al-Balah due to Israeli attacks wa

Palestinians, including children, who migrated from Rafah to Deir al-Balah due to Israeli attacks wait in long lines to get clean water on May 22, 2024. Photo: Ashraf Amra/Anadolu via Getty Images

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued an order on Friday calling on Israel to stop its military operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

Why it matters: It's the court's first order about the war in Gaza, where more than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to local health officials.

  • The order from the court, which began discussing the matter in January, significantly increases international pressure on Israel to stop the latest fighting in Gaza that began after Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 people and taking 250 others hostage.
  • The decision is likely to prompt another effort to pass a resolution at the UN Security Council calling for an immediate ceasefire. The Biden administration will be pressed not to veto a new resolution.

Driving the news: On Friday, the court ruled that "Israel must immediately halt its military offensive, and any other action in the Rafah Governate, which may inflict on the Palestinian group in Gaza conditions of life that could bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part."

  • The court said in its ruling that its concerns about the situation in Rafah have materialized and that the current humanitarian situation in the city "is disastrous."
  • The court said 800,000 Palestinians have been displaced from the city since Israel began its operation there two weeks ago. It quoted in its ruling that UN officials warned of the dangers of such an operation to the population.
  • It also said in its ruling that it is not convinced the evacuation orders and other measures Israel took are sufficient to protect civilians in Rafah.
  • The court also called on Israel to immediately reopen the Rafah border crossing, which the IDF took over earlier this month, and for Israel to allow any international commission of inquiry to enter the Gaza strip.

What they're saying: The Israeli government said it doesn't see the ruling as an order to halt all military operations in Rafah.

  • "Israel has not and will not conduct military actions in the Rafah area which may inflict on the Palestinian civilian population in Gaza conditions of life that could bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part," Tzachi Hanegbi, head of the Israeli National Security Council, said in a statement.
  • Hanegbi's statement, which followed a conference call convened by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Israel will "act, in full compliance with the law, to reduce as much as possible the harm caused to the civilian population in Gaza."
  • "Israel will continue to enable the Rafah crossing to remain open for the entry of humanitarian assistance from the Egyptian side of the border, and will prevent terror groups from controlling the passage," he added.

Zoom in: Shortly after the ICJ ruling, Israel Defense Forces conducted an airstrike on an underground bunker in Rafah where Israel says the Hamas Rafah brigade commander Mohammed Shabana was located along with other Hamas commanders, a senior Israeli official told Axios.

  • He said the results of the airstrike are still unclear.

Catch up quick: South Africa in late December filed a case at the ICJ accusing Israel of violating its obligations under the 1948 Genocide Convention. It alleged Israel's actions "are genocidal in character because they are intended to bring about the destruction of a substantial part" of the Palestinian population in Gaza. Israel has rejected the accusations.

  • The court held two days of hearings in January at South Africa's request for the court to issue urgent provisional measures while the case makes its way through the court, which is expected to take years.
  • At that time, the court ordered Israel to take urgent action to prevent genocide in Gaza, but stopped short of ordering the Israeli military to halt its offensive in the enclave completely.
  • It also ordered Israel to allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza and take effective measures to prevent and punish incitement of genocide.

In late March, the ICJ rejected South Africa's request to issue an order for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, but determined that "the catastrophic living conditions of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have deteriorated further" since its last order in late January.

  • As such it ordered Israel, in conformity with its obligations under the Convention on the Prevention of Genocide, "to take all necessary and effective measures" to cooperate with the UN in facilitating "urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance."

Go deeper: ICC prosecutor seeks arrest warrants against Netanyahu, Hamas leaders

Editor's note: This story has been updated with a statement from the Israeli government.

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