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World Court orders Israel to halt assault on Gaza's Rafah

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THE HAGUE -

Judges at the top United Nations court ordered Israel on Friday to immediately halt its military assault on the southern Gaza city of Rafah, in a landmark emergency ruling on South Africa's case accusing Israel of genocide.

While the International Court of Justice, or World Court, has no means to enforce its orders, the case was a stark sign of Israel's global isolation over its campaign in Gaza, particularly since it began its offensive against Rafah this month against the pleas of its closest ally the United States.

Reading out the ruling, World Court president Nawaf Salam said the situation in the Palestinian enclave had deteriorated since the court last ordered Israel to take steps to improve it, and conditions had been met for a new emergency order.

"The state of Israel shall (....) 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," he said.

Israel had not explained how it would keep the population safe during an evacuation of Rafah, or provide food, water, sanitation and medicine for the 800,000 Palestinians that had already fled the Israeli advance, he said.

The ICJ ordered Israel to open the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza to let in aid. Israel, it added, must provide access for investigators and report back on its progress within one month.

The order was adopted by the panel of 15 international judges in a 13-2 vote, opposed only by judges from Uganda and Israel itself.

South Africa hailed the ruling as ground-breaking.

The internationally recognized Palestinian Authority said it represented a global consensus that the war must end, although presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh said it did not go far enough because it did not halt fighting in other parts of Gaza.

Senior Hamas official Basem Naim told Reuters: "We call upon the U.N. Security Council to immediately implement this demand by the World Court into practical measures to compel the Zionist enemy to implement the decision."

'Moral disaster'

Israelis responded with outrage. Far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said that those demanding Israel stop the war were also demanding that it cease to exist, which Israel would not agree to.

Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid called the order "a moral collapse and a moral disaster" for failing to link the demand to halt fighting to a demand that Hamas free hostages.

The order was handed down a week after it was requested by South Africa as part of its case accusing Israel of violating the Genocide Convention enacted in the wake of the Holocaust.

The ICJ, based in The Hague, is the highest U.N. body for hearing disputes between states. Its rulings are final and binding but have been ignored in the past, as the court has no enforcement powers.

Israel has repeatedly dismissed the case's accusations of genocide as baseless, arguing in court that its operations in Gaza are self-defence and targeted at Hamas militants who attacked Israel on Oct. 7.

An Israeli government spokesman said on the eve of Friday's decision that "no power on Earth will stop Israel from protecting its citizens and going after Hamas in Gaza."

Outside the court on Friday, a small group of pro-Palestinian demonstrators waved flags and played a rap on a boom box calling for a free Palestine.

Israel started its armoured attack on Rafah earlier this month, forcing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to flee a city that had become a refuge to around half of the population's 2.3 million people.

Rafah, on Gaza's southern edge, has also been the main route in for aid, and international organizations say the Israeli operation has cut off the enclave and raised the risk of famine.

Israel says Rafah has served as the last redoubt for thousands of Hamas fighters and their senior commanders, and it cannot achieve its war aim of wiping out the Islamist militant group and rescuing its hostages without storming the city.

So far, fighting has taken place on Rafah's southern edge and eastern districts, but Israel has yet to begin an assault on the city's main populated area. Its closest ally, the U.S., has repeatedly called on it not to do so, saying Israel has yet to show a credible plan for how this can be done without causing mass casualties among the displaced people sheltering there.

Emergency measures

South Africa's lawyers had asked the ICJ last week to order an emergency halt to the operation in Rafah, saying it must be stopped to ensure the survival of the Palestinian people.

South Africa has also sought an order for Israel to end its entire wider war in the Gaza Strip, although the court has repeatedly held back from taking such a step.

Friday's decision came days after the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court - a separate court also based in The Hague - announced he had filed an application for arrest warrants against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, as well as leaders of Hamas.

Prosecutor Karim Khan accused Netanyahu and Gallant of crimes including extermination, using hunger as a weapon and deliberately attacking civilians. Israel denied those charges and called on allies to repudiate the court.

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 but has rejected Israel's demand to throw the case out.

Israel launched its air and ground war on Gaza after Hamas-led militants stormed into southern Israeli communities, killing around 1,200 people and seizing more than 250 hostages, according to Israeli tallies. More than 35,000 Palestinians have since been killed in the offensive, Gaza's health ministry says.

(Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg and Anthony Deutsch; additional reporting by Mayaan Lubell in Jerusalem. Writing by Peter Graff. Editing by Andrew Heavens and Mark Heinrich)

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