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ICJ Orders Israel to Halt Military Operations in Rafah

ICJ Orders Israel to Halt Military Operations in Rafah

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NEW DELHI, May 24: The top United Nations court, the International Court of Justice on Friday ordered Israel to halt military operations in Rafah but stopped short of ordering a cease-fire for the enclave, a landmark ruling likely to increase mounting international pressure on Israel more than seven months into Gaza war.

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 ICJ said. It also ordered Israel to keep open the Rafah Crossing into Gaza for the “unhindered” provision of humanitarian aid.

ICJ rulings are legally binding but the court has no concrete means to enforce them. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said he would consult senior Ministers by phone over the U.N. court ruling.

Israel’s far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich responded to the ruling on X, saying, “History will judge those who stand today alongside the Nazis of Hamas Daesh,” referring to the jihadist Islamic State group. Hamas hailed the ruling but criticised the world court’s decision to exclude the rest of war-torn Gaza from the order.

The Palestinian militant group “welcomes the decision of the International Court of Justice”, it said in a statement, adding however that it expected the ICJ ruling to “put an end to the aggression and genocide against our people throughout the Gaza Strip, and not just in Rafah,” Hamas said.

Although Israel is unlikely to comply with the order, it will ratchet up the pressure on the increasingly isolated country. Criticism of Israel’s conduct in the war in Gaza has been growing, particularly once it turned its focus to Rafah. This week alone, three European countries announced they would recognize a Palestinian state, and the chief prosecutor for another international court requested arrest warrants for Israeli leaders, along with Hamas officials.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also under heavy pressure at home to end the war, which was triggered when Hamas-led militants stormed into Israel, killing 1,200 people, most civilians, and taking some 250 captive. Thousands of Israelis have joined weekly demonstrations calling on the government to reach a deal to bring the hostages home, fearing that 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 order by the court to halt its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The court’s president, Nawaf Salam, read out the ruling, as a small group of pro-Palestinian protesters demonstrated outside.

Fears the court expressed earlier this year about an operation in Rafah have “materialized,” the ruling said, and Israel must “immediately halt its military offensive” in the city and anything else that might result in conditions that could cause the “physical destruction in whole or in part” of Palestinians there.

Rafah is in the southernmost part of the Gaza Strip, on the border with Egypt, and over 1 million people sought refuge there in recent months after fleeing fighting elsewhere, with many of them living in teeming tent camps. Israel has been vowing for months to invade Rafah, saying it was Hamas’ last major stronghold, even as several allies warned an all-out assault would spell disaster.

Rafah is also home to a critical crossing for aid, and the U.N. says the flow of aid reaching it has plunged since the incursion began, though commercial trucking has continued to enter Gaza.

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

(Manas Dasgupta)


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