UN’s top court orders Israel to immediately halt Rafah offensive

The UN’s top court has ordered Israel to halt its assault on the southern Gaza city of Rafah in a ruling that will ratchet up the pressure on the increasingly isolated country.

The president of the international court of justice, Nawaf Salam, said the humanitarian situation in Rafah had deteriorated further and was now classified as “disastrous”, meaning the ICJ’s previously issued provisional measures were insufficient.

He said the court had voted by a majority of 13 votes to two that “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 civilians in Rafah governorate … 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 would bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”.

The order by the ICJ is not enforceable, and Israeli ministers indicated that they would not comply with it.

Israeli forces stepped up military strikes on Gaza, bombing targets in Rafah, even as the ICJ delivered its decision, residents and medics said.

Friday’s ruling by the ICJ is the court’s third – and by far the most significant – intervention in the conflict and comes four days after the chief prosecutor of the international criminal court, a separate court also based in The Hague, said he was seeking arrest warrants for senior Hamas and Israeli officials for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his defence minister, Yoav Gallant.

The ruling will increase pressure on the UK and the US, which criticised the ICC warrants request, to bring their influence to bear on Israel.

However, after speaking on the phone with the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, Israel’s war cabinet minister, Benny Gantz, a political rival of Netanyahu, said Israel was “obligated to continue fighting to return its hostages and ensure the safety of its citizens, at any time and place – including in Rafah. We will continue to act according to international law in Rafah and wherever we operate, and make an effort to avoid harming the civilian population. Not because of The Hague tribunal, but first of all because of who we are.”

In a statement, Netanyahu’s office rejected South Africa’s accusation of genocide as “false, outrageous and disgusting”, adding: “Israel has not and will not carry out a military campaign in the Rafah area that creates living conditions that could lead to the destruction of the Palestinian civilian population, in whole or in part.”

Israel’s far-right national security minister. Itamar Ben-Gvir, accused the court of being “antisemitic” and, quoting Israel’s first PM, David Ben-Gurion, said on X: “Our future is not dependent on what the gentiles will say but rather what the Jews will do!”

He added that the court’s ruling “should have only one answer – the occupation of Rafah, the increase of military pressure and the crushing of Hamas, until the complete victory in the war is achieved”.

The Palestinian Authority’s presidential spokesperson, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, said the ICJ’s decision represented a consensus to end the war on Gaza, while Hamas official Basem Naim also welcomed the ruling and urged the UN security council to implement it. But the militant group said did not go far enough and urged an end to Israel’s offensive on all of Gaza.

The South African official Zane Dangor described it as “groundbreaking” and “de facto calling for a ceasefire”.

In their only comment on the ruling, a White House spokesperson said: “We’ve been clear and consistent on our position on Rafah.”

The ICJ decision, in response to an application from South Africa, comes in the same week that Ireland, Norway and Spain announced that they would recognise Palestinian statehood.

Israel launched its assault on Rafah this month, forcing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to flee Gaza’s southernmost city, which had become a relative refuge to about half of the territory’s 2.3 million people.

Rafah has also been the main route in for aid, and international organisations say the Israeli operation has cut off the territory and raised the risk of famine.

Salam, the ICJ president, said UN officials had “consistently underscored the immense risks associated with a military offensive”, and added: “The court is 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, and in particular those recently displaced from the Rafah governorate, are sufficient to alleviate the immense risk to which the Palestinian population is exposed as a result of the military offensive in Rafah.”

South Africa’s lawyers asked the ICJ last week to impose emergency measures, saying Israel’s attacks on Rafah must be stopped to ensure the survival of the Palestinian people.

The court is the highest UN body for hearing disputes between states. Its rulings are final and binding but have been ignored in the past. The court has no enforcement powers.

South Africa’s wider case at the ICJ accuses Israel of orchestrating a state-led genocide against the Palestinian people. The ICJ has not ruled on the substance of that accusation – it could take years – but has rejected Israel’s demand to throw out the case.

In previous rulings, the court ordered Israel to prevent acts of genocide against Palestinians and allow aid to flow into Gaza, while stopping short of ordering a halt to Israeli military operations.

Approximately 36,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, have been killed in Israel’s military response to the 7 October attacks on southern Israel in which Hamas militants killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took another 250 hostage.

Israel has said it is acting in self-defence by seeking to eliminate Hamas and has made “extraordinary” efforts to protect civilians.

The court also issued orders, all passed on a 13-to-2 majority, that Israel must allow unhindered access for humanitarian assistance via the Rafah crossing, ensure the unimpeded access to the Gaza Strip of any appropriate body to investigate allegations of genocide, and produce a report within a month on its compliance with all of the measures.

It called for “the immediate and unconditional release” of all Israeli hostages taken by Hamas and other armed groups.

Reuters contributed to this report