Israel strikes Rafah after top UN court orders it to halt offensive

Gaza - Israel bombed the Gaza Strip, including Rafah, on Saturday, despite an order from the UN's top court for it to "immediately halt" its military offensive in the southern city.

Smoke rises during an Israeli air strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip.
Smoke rises during an Israeli air strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip.  © REUTERS

At the same time, renewed efforts are getting underway in Paris aimed at securing a ceasefire deal.

In a case brought by South Africa alleging the Israeli military operation amounts to genocide, the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to halt its Rafah offensive and demanded the immediate release of hostages still held by Palestinian militants.

The Hague-based ICJ, whose orders are legally binding but lack direct enforcement mechanisms, also instructed Israel to keep open the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza, which Israel closed before sending troops and tanks into the besieged city and crossing earlier this month.

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Israel gave no indication it was preparing to change course in Rafah, insisting the court had got it wrong.

"Israel has not and will not carry out military operations in the Rafah area that create living conditions that could cause the destruction of the Palestinian civilian population, in whole or in part," National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said in a joint statement with Israel's foreign ministry spokesperson.

Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, welcomed the ICJ ruling on Rafah but criticized its decision to exclude the rest of the Palestinian territory from the order.

Israel defies ICJ order and strikes Gaza

A protester draped in a Palestinian flag holds up a sign reading "Stop the War Crimes, Save Palestine" outside the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands.
A protester draped in a Palestinian flag holds up a sign reading "Stop the War Crimes, Save Palestine" outside the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands.  © REUTERS

In spite of the ICJ ruling, Israel carried out strikes on the Gaza Strip on Saturday morning.

Palestinian witnesses and AFP teams reported Israeli strikes in Rafah and the central city of Deir al-Balah.

"We hope that the court's decision will put pressure on Israel to end this war of extermination because there is nothing left here," said Oum Mohammad Al-Ashqa, a Palestinian woman from Gaza City displaced to Deir al-Balah.

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Mohammed Saleh, also interviewed by AFP in the central Gazan city, said, "Israel is a state that considers itself above the law. Therefore, I do not believe that the shooting or the war will stop other than by force."

In its ruling, the ICJ said 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."

It ordered Israel to allow UN-mandated investigators "unimpeded access" to Gaza to look into the genocide allegations.

It instructed Israel to open the Rafah crossing for the "unhindered provision at scale" of humanitarian aid and also called for the "immediate and unconditional release" of the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza.

Israel has killed at least 35,857 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, since October, according to data from the occupied territory's health ministry.

Paris ceasefire meetings

Israeli military vehicles operate in the Gazan side of the Rafah Crossing, severely limiting the entry of humanitarian aid into the besieged territory.
Israeli military vehicles operate in the Gazan side of the Rafah Crossing, severely limiting the entry of humanitarian aid into the besieged territory.  © Israel Defense Forces/Handout via REUTERS

Israel has come under mounting international pressure over its Gaza offensive.

The ICJ ruling came days after Ireland, Spain, and Norway said they would formally recognize a Palestinian state next week and the International Criminal Court prosecutor requested arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and top Hamas leaders on suspicion of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

On the diplomatic front, efforts have resumed to seek the first ceasefire in Gaza since a week-long truce in November that saw more than 100 hostages released in exchange for 240 Palestinian hostages held in Israeli jails.

CIA chief Bill Burns was expected to meet Israeli representatives in Paris in a bid to relaunch negotiations, a Western source close to the issue said.

Separately, French President Emmanuel Macron received the prime minister of Qatar and the Saudi, Egyptian, and Jordanian foreign ministers on Friday "to press for a ceasefire," according to Cairo. The French presidency said they held talks on the Gaza war and ways to set up a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Top US diplomat Antony Blinken also spoke with Israeli war cabinet minister Benny Gantz about new efforts to achieve a ceasefire and reopen the Rafah border crossing, Washington said.

Ceasefire talks involving US, Egyptian, and Qatari mediators ended shortly after Israel launched the Rafah operation, though Netanyahu's office this week said the war cabinet had asked the Israeli delegation "to continue negotiations for the return of the hostages."

"End this nightmare"

A Gaza-bound food aid truck sits abandoned near the entrance to the Kerem Shalom border crossing.
A Gaza-bound food aid truck sits abandoned near the entrance to the Kerem Shalom border crossing.  © REUTERS

Israeli ground troops started moving into Rafah in early May, defying global opposition. It has since ordered mass evacuations from Rafah, with the UN saying more than 800,000 people have fled.

Troops took over the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, further slowing sporadic deliveries of aid for Gaza's 2.4 million people.

The US military has also installed a temporary jetty on the Gaza coast to receive aid by sea that a UN spokesperson said had delivered 97 trucks of aid after "a rocky start" a week ago.

The security and humanitarian situation in the territory remains alarming, with a risk of famine and most hospitals no longer functioning.

UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said on social media site X on Friday that the situation had reached "a moment of clarity."

"At a time when the people of Gaza are staring down famine... it is more critical than ever to heed the calls made over the last seven months: Release the hostages. Agree a ceasefire. End this nightmare."

Cover photo: REUTERS

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