ICJ orders Israel stop Rafah attack

May 25, 2024

The World Court on Friday ordered that Israel immediately halt its assault on the city of Rafah in Gaza after a request from South Africa, which brought genocide charges against Israel.

By Joe Lauria
Special to Consortium News

Israel’s assault against Rafah must stop “immediately” to prevent genocide from being committed, the International Court of Justice ruled on Friday.

In an 18-page legally binding ruling, it said:

“The Court considers that, in conformity with its obligations under the Genocide Convention, 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.”

Israel must also allow “unimpeded access” to “any commission of inquiry, fact-finding mission or other investigative body mandated by competent organs of the United Nations to investigate allegations of genocide,” the 15 judge court ruled in a 13-2 decision.(Uganda and Israel opposed)

The ICJ said it also “considers that the catastrophic situation in Gaza confirms the need for the immediate and effective implementation of the measures indicated” by its rulings of Jan. 26 and March 28, which ordered Israel to “take all measures within its power to prevent the commission of all acts” of genocide.

The court based its ruling, it said, on statements from senior United Nations officials who have “consistently underscored the immense risks associated with a military offensive in Rafah.”

The spokesperson of the U.N.’s  Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) for instance warned on May 3 that “an assault on Rafah would put ‘hundreds of thousands of people . . . at imminent risk of death’ and would severely impact the humanitarian operation in the entire Gaza Strip, which is run primarily out of Rafah,” the ruling said.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) indicated on May 6 that about half of the approximately 1.2 million Palestinians sheltering in Rafah were children, and “warned that military operations therein would result in ‘the few remaining basic services and infrastructure they need to survive being totally destroyed.’ There is ‘nowhere safe to go’ for the 600,000 children of Rafah.’”

U.N. sources indicate that the “above-mentioned risks have started to materialize and will intensify even further if the operation continues,” the ICJ ruled.

South African delegation at the ICJ on Friday. (ICJ)

The court said it was “not convinced that the evacuation efforts and related measures that Israel affirms to have undertaken to enhance the security of civilians in the Gaza Strip” are “sufficient to alleviate the immense risk to which the Palestinian population is exposed as a result of the military offensive in Rafah.”

Israel did not provide sufficient information about the safety of the population during evacuation nor about conditions for 800,000 Palestinians having been sent to the Al-Mawasi area, the court said. “Consequently, the Court is of the view that Israel has not sufficiently addressed and dispelled the concerns raised by its military offensive in Rafah,” the court concluded.

It said the Rafah offensive could entail a “further risk of irreparable prejudice to the plausible rights claimed by South Africa” and that there is “urgency, in the sense that there exists a real and imminent risk that such prejudice will be caused before the Court gives its final decision” about whether Israel is committing genocide.

Friday’s ruling came after a May 10 submission from South Africa that “Israel shall immediately withdraw and cease its military offensive in the Rafah Governorate.”

The South African request also said Israel must allow humanitarian aid, as well as human rights investigators and journalists into Gaza in “order to assess and record conditions on the ground in Gaza and enable the effective preservation and retention of evidence.”

After oral arguments on May 17, South Africa further demanded that Israel “cease its military operations in the Gaza Strip, including in the Rafah Governorate, and withdraw from the Rafah Crossing and immediately, totally and unconditionally withdraw the Israeli army from the entirety of the Gaza Strip.”

A test of democracy

Lawyers representing Israel listen to court’s ruling on Friday. (ICJ)

The ICJ ruling on Friday is just one more legal move against Israel, which before its current assault on Gaza was unthinkable.

On Monday, Karim Khan, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, asked for arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant as well as three Hamas leaders.

Khan had appeared extremely reluctant to confront the United States and other Western governments by issuing such a bold request. That he did is an indication of the extent of public and political pressure that is being exerted around the world on authorities to act against Israel to stop it from committing ongoing genocide.

Whether that public pressure, including by university students in the U.S. and around the world, succeeds is a real test of how much democracy is left in Western societies.

Background to the case 

South Africa first brought its case of genocide against Israel to the ICJ on Dec. 29 last year.

On Jan. 26, the court ruled Israel is plausibly committing genocide in Gaza. It said:

“The State of Israel shall, in accordance with its obligations under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, in relation to Palestinians in Gaza, take all measures within its power to prevent the commission of all acts within the scope of Article II of this Convention, in particular:

(a) killing members of the group;

(b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part … “

After a South African request for further provisional measures on March 6, the ICJ ruled on March 28:

“The State of Israel shall, in conformity with its obligations under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and in view of the worsening conditions of life faced by Palestinians in Gaza, in particular the spread of famine and starvation …

Ensure with immediate effect that its military does not commit acts which constitute a violation of any of the rights of the Palestinians in Gaza as a protected group under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, including by preventing, through any action, the delivery of urgently needed humanitarian assistance.”


For those who may be interested, read the text of today’s order by the International Court of Justice.

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