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ICJ Orders Israel to Halt Military Operations in Rafah

The ICJ ruled following an urgent plea by South Africa amid Gaza’s humanitarian crisis.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) on Friday ordered Israel to immediately halt its military operations in Rafah, the city in southern Gaza where over 1 million Palestinians had sought refuge under dire conditions.

Israel was unlikely to comply with the order, which the top United Nations court lacked the power to enforce, but the landmark ruling added pressure on the increasingly isolated U.S. ally.

Defying mounting international outrage over the humanitarian crisis in the enclave, the Israeli military pressed ahead with the deadly offensive it launched following Hamas’ 7 October attacks. Talks for a cease-fire had stalled, despite pressure at home for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to secure the release of hostages still held in Gaza.

The ICJ’s order followed an urgent plea by South Africa as part of its ongoing case at the court, based in The Hague, Netherlands, accusing Israel of genocidal acts in its months-long assault on Gaza, a charge both Israel and the United States had denied. The case was likely to take years to resolve, but South Africa sought interim orders to protect Palestinians.

An Israeli official told NBC News earlier on Friday that its government would study the ruling before making decisions, but would not accept a court order to end the war against Hamas.

Friday’s ruling came just days after the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor applied for arrest warrants for Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, as well as Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar and others over alleged war crimes. The ICC could charge individuals with war crimes and related charges. It is separate from the ICJ, which considers cases between states and lacks real power to enforce its rulings. Russia, for example, ignored an order in 2022 to halt its war in Ukraine.

The ICC announcement received swift condemnation from Israel and from President Joe Biden, who said the “outrageous” move suggested a false “equivalence” between Israel and Hamas. His stance put the president at odds with several allies, who defended the independence of the top global crimes court.

Days later, three U.S. allies — Spain, Norway and Ireland — announced that they would formally recognise a Palestinian state. The move was met with outrage from Israeli officials, and on Friday, Foreign Minister Israel Katz said he had decided to sever connections between the Spanish embassy in Israel and the Palestinians to “prohibit the Spanish consulate in Jerusalem from providing services to the Palestinians.”

While Biden had expressed continued support for the eventual recognition of a Palestinian state, the White House said earlier this week that he “believes a Palestinian state should be realised through direct negotiations between the parties, not through unilateral recognition.”

But there had been little sign of an end to the war, with hundreds of thousands of people forced to flee Rafah in recent weeks as the IDF launched ground operations in the city it said were necessary to defeat Hamas, despite public scepticism from Washington.

Fighting had also continued in northern and central Gaza, including in areas the IDF previously said it had cleared of Hamas’ presence. On Friday, the IDF announced it had retrieved the bodies of three hostages in the area of Jabalia camp in northern Gaza as part of those operations.

“We have a national and moral duty to do everything we can to return our abducted,” Netanyahu said on Friday.

More than 35,000 people had been killed in the enclave, according to local health authorities, since Israeli forces began their offensive following Hamas’ 7 October attacks, in which some 1,200 people were killed and around 250 others taken hostage, according to Israeli officials, marking a major escalation in a decades-long conflict.

More than 100 people were believed to remain held in Gaza, with at least around a quarter of them believed to be dead.

The Biden administration had repeatedly warned Israel against launching a full-scale invasion of Rafah, threatening to withhold the transfer of certain arms if the Israeli military did push ahead with a broader assault.

Israel appeared to expand its operations in Rafah incrementally, rather than launching what might be perceived as a full-scale attack.

Humanitarian groups had warned of a spiralling crisis not only in Rafah but also in parts of Gaza where hundreds of thousands had fled. Many lacked adequate access to food, water and other necessities.

The U.S. had said that the flow of aid into Gaza had increased since it installed a temporary pier earlier this month amid concerns over closed crossings that were crucial for the flow of supplies into Gaza.

In a January ruling, the ICJ ordered Israel to do everything it could to prevent genocidal acts in Gaza but stopped short of ordering the immediate cease-fire that Palestinians and humanitarian groups had hoped for.

The decision also fell short of Israel’s own calls to see the case thrown out, however, and delivered a high-profile blow to its efforts to justify its deadly offensive in Gaza as necessary to defeat Hamas and within the bounds of international law.

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