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ICJ order to halt Rafah offensive further isolates Israel

May 24, 2024

A fresh decision from the UN's top court on Israel's operations in Gaza is the latest unwelcome development for the government. Though it is unlikely to be heeded, the ICJ ruling still piles on the pressure.

A tent camp with sea in background
In Rafah, displaced Palestinians are sheltering in tent campsImage: Hatem Khaled/REUTERS

The International Court of Justice, which is colloquially known as the World Court, ordered Israel to cease its offensive in southern Gaza on Friday in yet another blow to the country's international standing. Judges said evacuation efforts were insufficient to alleviate the "immense risk" for civilians.

"Israel must immediately halt its military offensive or 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," ICJ President Nawaf Salam said.

Two weeks ago, and despite warnings from its allies, Israel launched an incursion in Rafah, where more than 1 million displaced Palestinians had already fled since Israel declared war on Hamas, the militant group that rules Gaza, after its terrorist attack on Israel on October 7

Humanitarian situation ‘disastrous'

Since May 6, about 800,000 Gazans, around one-third of the sealed-off coastal enclave's entire population, have been displaced from Rafah alone, Salam said, citing UN findings that also flagged ongoing food, water and medicine shortages compounded by border closures.

"The humanitarian situation is now to be characterized as disastrous," the judge told the Palace of Peace courthouse in The Hague, reading out the 13-2 decision.

How much of a defeat for Israel is the ICJ ruling?

The interim World Court order is part of an ongoing genocide trial brought by South Africa late last year against Israel for its campaign in Gaza. Israel says it aims to wipe out Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by Germany, the European Union, the US, and others, and secure the release of more than 100 hostages seized on October 7 and still believed to be in Gaza.

Israel has argued that it is fighting a war of self-defense against an antisemitic group.

Hamas cannot be tried at the ICJ because it is not a state.

On Friday, the court also ordered Israel to prevent the destruction of potential evidence for investigations into Israel's conduct in Gaza, and to ensure the passage of aid through the Israeli-controlled Palestinian side of Rafah's land border with Egypt.

With the final ruling in the broader trial not expected for many months or perhaps even years, South Africa's government has requested that the ICJ hand down a string of emergency measures to protect civilians in the meantime.

In a separate interim ruling in late March, the court told Israel that it must let more aid through its blockade amid warnings of imminent famine. A few days after the Rafah offensive began on May 6, South Africa petitioned the ICJ again, at least partly successfully.

Israel slams ruling

The latest ruling comes in a flurry of developments that leave Israel looking increasingly isolated internationally, if still backed by Western allies — most crucially the United States.
On Monday, the International Criminal Court (ICC) said it would seek arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, plus several Hamas officials, on charges of war crimes. Nearly 1,200 people were killed on October 7, according to Israel's official tally, and more than 35,000 Palestinians have reportedly been killed during Israel's Gaza campaign.
On Wednesday, Ireland, Spain and Norway announced that they would recognize Palestinian statehood, something Israel said was essentially a reward for Hamas. The US and the EU both officially support the eventual creation of a Palestinian state as part of a two-state solution, but who could govern it is highly disputed.

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich appeared to brush off the ICJ ruling on Friday. "The state of Israel is at war for its existence," he wrote on X. "Those who demand that the State of Israel stop the war demand that it decree itself to cease to exist. We will not agree to that."

Israel rebukes South Africa over Gaza genocide allegations

There is no serious expectation that Israel will comply, Hugh Lovatt, an analyst from the European Council on Foreign Relations, told DW. At the same time, "it'd be wrong to dismiss today's ruling and what's been happening in the past few days and weeks as having no impact," he said.
Such rulings have piled pressure on Israel, offering its allies a chance to push the government to engage more with cease-fire negotiations with Hamas, Lovatt said. Together with the ICC arrest warrant orders, it could also put pressure on countries like the US and Germany that provide Israel with arms, he added.

People walk amid rubble and a fire
Israel says Rafah is Hamas' final strongholdImage: AFP/Getty Images

"This is yet another golden opportunity for [US President Joe Biden's] administration to leverage these sources of international pressure to actually affect real change," Lovatt said. Washington warned Israel for weeks against launching operations in Rafah.

‘Immediate implementation'

Though quick to stress its solidarity with Israel in the wake of October 7, the European Union has struggled to speak with one voice on Gaza because of divisions among the 27 member states. In March, it called for a "humanitarian pause” in fighting leading to a "sustainable cease-fire.”

On Friday, European Crisis Management Commissioner Janez Lenarcic wrote on X that Israel, as an ICJ signatory, must comply with its orders. "I expect their full and immediate implementation,” he said.

Three people sit in a wood-paneled courtroom
Israeli lawyers at the ICJ have slammed the genocide trial as deeply warpedImage: Johanna Geron/REUTERS

Speaking at an event in Florence, EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said Europeans faced a difficult decision: "We will have to choose between our support to the international institutions and the rule of law, or our support to Israel.”

Both officials are regarded to be more sympathetic to Palestinians than European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, for example, a German conservative who is more closely aligned to Israel.
As Lenarcic said, ICJ orders are legally binding. But the court has no police force or judiciary mechanism to enforce them. The judges instructed Israel to submit a report on how they had complied with the new measures in one month.

Edited by: Anne Thomas