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ICJ orders Israel to stop military operations in Rafah that risk 'physical destruction in whole or in part' of civilian population

Judge Nawaf Salam, president of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) presides over a hearing on South Africa's request to order a halt to Israel's Rafah offensive in Gaza as part of a larger case brought before the Hague-based court by South Africa accusing Israel of genocide, in The Hague, Netherlands, May 24, 2024. (Photo: REUTERS/Johanna Geron)

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Israel on Friday to stop its military operations in Gaza if they risk causing the “physical destruction in whole or in part” of Gazans. 

“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,” the judges wrote in the ruling. 

The ICJ order was agreed upon by 13 of the 15 judges with Vice President Julia Sebutinde of Uganda and Ad Hoc Israeli Judge Aharon Barak dissenting.

Four judges, including Court VP Sebutinde, warned against misinterpreting the ICJ ruling as prohibiting Israel from conducting its military operations in Rafah.

The order, Sebutinde wrote, “only operates to partially restrict Israel’s offensive in Rafah to the extent it implicates rights under the Genocide Convention."

"This directive may be misunderstood as mandating a unilateral ceasefire in Rafah and amounts to micromanaging the hostilities in Gaza by restricting Israel’s ability to pursue its legitimate military objectives, while leaving its enemies, including Hamas, free to attack without Israel being able to respond.”

This interpretation was supported by Barak, as well as German judge Georg Nolte and Romanian judge Bogdan Aurescu, who both approved the order itself.

Judge Tladi of South Africa – a country that has strong ties to both Hamas and Iran and initiated the case against Israel – strongly disagreed with Sebutinde. He wrote that the court, “in explicit terms, ordered the State of Israel to halt its offensive in Rafah” and also that it “does not permit the continuation of the military operation…  elsewhere in the Gaza Strip.”

The five aforementioned judges were the only ones who explained their views on the court order in writing.

In its Friday ruling, the court claimed, “the humanitarian situation is now to be characterized as disastrous” and that it is “not convinced” Israel’s efforts to protect Gazans - one million Gazans have been evacuated already from Rafah - “are sufficient to alleviate the immense risk to which the Palestinian population is exposed as a result of the military offensive in Rafah.”

The ICJ also ordered Israel to keep the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza open to allow the “unhindered provision at scale” of humanitarian aid to the region. The crossing has been closed since the IDF took control of the Gaza side of the crossing during a military operation earlier this month. Egypt has refused to reopen the Rafah crossing as long as the IDF controls the other side. 

Finally, the ICJ ordered Israel to allow “unimpeded access to the Gaza Strip” for any commissions of inquiry, fact-finding missions, or other investigative bodies mandated by the UN to investigate allegations of genocide.

Israel was ordered to report on its implementation of the orders within one month. If, after that time, the ICJ rules Israel has not complied with the orders, the alleged violations could be referred to the UN Security Council, which could then decide to vote on measures against Israel.

Regarding the hostages, the court stated “The Court finds it deeply troubling that many of these hostages remain in captivity and reiterates its call for their immediate and unconditional release.”

Israeli ministers blasted the ICJ ruling, with Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich expressing Israel's commitment to continue to war.

“Those who demand that the State of Israel stop the war, demand that it decree the cessation of its existence – we will not agree to that. We will continue to fight for ourselves and for the entire free world. History will judge who today stood by the Nazis of Hamas and ISIS,” Smotich said.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid also condemned the ICJ ruling, while criticizing the Netanyahu government.

“Israel is the one that was brutally attacked from Gaza and had to defend itself against a horrible terrorist organization that murdered children, raped women and still fires rockets at innocent civilians,” Lapid said.

“There is no country in the world that would not react with force to such an attack. This verdict could and should have been prevented. A sane and professional government would have prevented [incendiary] statements from ministers and stopped criminals who burn aid trucks,” he added.

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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