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Israel attacks Rafah in Gaza after top UN court orders it to stop offensive

The United Nations’ top court on Friday ordered Israel to immediately halt its military offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, but stopped short of ordering a ceasefire in the enclave. Although Israel is unlikely to comply with the order, it will increase pressure on the increasingly isolated country.

Criticism of Israel’s conduct in the war in Gaza has been increasing, particularly since it turned its attention to Rafah. Just this week, three European countries announced they would recognize a Palestinian state, and the chief prosecutor of another international court sought arrest warrants for Israeli leaders, along with Hamas officials.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also under strong domestic pressure to end the war, which was triggered when Hamas-led militants swept into Israel, killing 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and taking about 250 captive. Thousands of Israelis have joined weekly demonstrations calling on the government to reach a deal to bring the hostages home, fearing time is running out.

While the ruling by the International Court of Justice 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 court order to stop its large-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Previously, Israel had signaled that it would also ignore an ICJ order to halt its operations. “No power on earth will stop Israel from protecting its citizens and pursuing Hamas in Gaza,” government spokesman Avi Hyman said at a news conference Thursday.

Immediately after the ruling, Netanyahu announced that he would hold a special ministerial meeting to decide how to respond. Yair Lapid, the opposition leader, mocked the decision.

“The fact that the ICJ did not even directly link the end of the military operation in Rafah with the release of the hostages and with Israel’s right to defend itself against terrorism is an abject moral failure,” he said.

Chief Justice Nawaf Salam read the ruling as a small group of pro-Palestinian protesters demonstrated outside.

The fears the court expressed earlier this year about an operation in Rafah have “materialized,” according to the ruling, and Israel must “immediately stop its military offensive” in the city and anything else that could result in conditions that could causing the “physical destruction in whole or in part” of the Palestinians there.

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

Israel began issuing evacuation orders about two weeks ago when it began operations on the outskirts of the city. Since then, the military says about 1 million people have left as forces advance inland.

Rafah is also home to a critical aid crossing, and the UN says the flow of aid there has plummeted since the incursion began, although commercial trucks have continued to enter Gaza.

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

But he did not call for a complete ceasefire throughout Gaza as requested by South Africa, which brought the case, in hearings last week.

South Africa’s Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said the country’s accusation that a genocide is taking place is “stronger every day.”

“We are really satisfied that the court has considered very seriously the issues that we presented to it and has stated that an urgent decision by the court is needed to stop this attack on the innocent Palestinian people,” he told South African state broadcaster SABC. , adding that it is now up to the UN Security Council to determine how to protect the Palestinians.

Balkees Jarrah, associate director of international justice at Human Rights Watch, said the court’s order “underscores the seriousness of the situation facing Palestinians in Gaza, who for months have endured the blockade of basic services and humanitarian aid amid continuing combats.”

“The ICJ’s decision opens up the possibility of relief, but only if governments use their influence, including through arms embargoes and targeted sanctions, to pressure Israel to urgently implement the court’s measures,” Jarrah said.

The ceasefire request is part of a case filed late last year accusing Israel of committing genocide during its campaign in Gaza. Israel vehemently denies the allegations. The case will take years to resolve, but South Africa wants interim orders to protect Palestinians while the legal dispute continues.

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

In 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 “fully and unconditionally withdraw” from the Gaza Strip.

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

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

“This may well be the last chance for the court to act,” Irish lawyer Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh, who is part of South Africa’s legal team, told the judges last week.

Israel rejects the claims of South Africa, a nation with historical ties to the Palestinian people.

“Israel takes extraordinary measures to minimize harm to civilians in Gaza,” Tamar Kaplan-Tourgeman, a member of Israel’s legal team, told the court last week.

In January, ICJ judges ordered Israel to do everything possible to prevent death, destruction and any acts of genocide in Gaza, but the panel stopped short of ordering an end to the military offensive. In a second order in March, the court said Israel must take steps to improve the humanitarian situation.

The ICJ decides disputes between nations. A few kilometers (miles) away, the International Criminal Court is bringing charges against people it considers most responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

On Monday, its chief prosecutor, Karim Khan, said he had asked ICC judges to approve arrest warrants for Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and three senior Hamas leaders (Yahya Sinwar, Mohammed Deif and Ismail Haniyeh) for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Gaza Strip and Israel.

Israel is not a member of the ICC, so even if arrest warrants are issued, Netanyahu and Gallant face no immediate risk of prosecution. But the threat of arrest could make it difficult for Israeli leaders to travel abroad.

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