After ICJ ruling, Israel says it ‘has not and will not’ destroy Rafah’s civilian population

Israel says it is continuing efforts for aid to enter Gaza and is acting in compliance with international law; Hamas welcomes court’s ruling, but says it doesn’t go far enough

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) holds a hearing on South Africa's request that the court order Israel to halt its military operation in Gaza, May 24, 2024. (Nick Gammon/AFP)
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) holds a hearing on South Africa's request that the court order Israel to halt its military operation in Gaza, May 24, 2024. (Nick Gammon/AFP)

Israel’s National Security Council and Foreign Ministry on Friday issued a joint statement responding to the International Court of Justice’s ruling on Rafah, saying Israel “has not and will not” carry out operations that risk the destruction of the civilian population in the southern Gaza city.

The Israeli statement said the charges of genocide brought by South Africa against Israel at the ICJ in The Hague were “false, outrageous and morally repugnant.”

It added: “Following the horrific attack against the citizens of Israel on October 7th, 2023, Israel embarked upon a defensive and just war to eliminate Hamas and to secure the release of our hostages. Israel is acting based on its right to defend its territory and its citizens, consistent with its moral values and in compliance with international law, including international humanitarian law.

“Israel has not and will not conduct military actions in the Rafah area which may inflict on the Palestinian civilian population in Gaza conditions of life that could bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part,” the statement said, echoing language used by the court in its operative clauses.

In a significant but somewhat ambiguous sharpening of its treatment of genocide claims against Israel, the court said earlier Friday that “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.”

However, according to the interpretation of four judges on the court, this order was not a direct and total order to stop the Rafah operation, but rather a limited order instructing Israel not to violate the Genocide Convention in that military campaign. Nearly one million of the 1.4 million Palestinians sheltering in Rafah have already evacuated, amid IDF orders to do so.

A Palestinian man and his children sit in a destroyed room of a building heavily damaged, apparently by an Israeli airstrike, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on May 22, 2024 (Eyad AL-BABA / AFP)

Along with its orders regarding Israel’s military operation in Rafah, the court also ordered Israel to “maintain open” the Rafah Border Crossing between Egypt and Gaza to allow the “unhindered provision at scale” of humanitarian aid to the region.

This, too, was addressed in the statement from the Foreign Ministry and NSC, which said that Israel “will continue its efforts to enable humanitarian assistance and will act, in full compliance with the law, to reduce as much as possible harm caused to the civilian population in Gaza.”

While the statement stressed Israel’s commitment to prevent terror organizations from retaking the Rafah Crossing, Jerusalem said it remained committed to allowing aid to be delivered through the gateway.

“Israel will continue to enable the Rafah crossing to remain open for the entry of humanitarian assistance from the Egyptian side of the border, and will prevent terror groups from controlling the passage,” the Israeli statement said.

Egypt has refused to reopen the crossing since Israel took over the Gaza side on May 7 — not wanting to be seen as complicit, Cairo has refused to re-open Rafah until Israeli troops have withdrawn from the other side.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority on Friday welcomed the ICJ order.

“The presidency welcomes the decision issued by the International Court of Justice, which represents an international consensus on the demand to stop the all-out war on Gaza,” Nabil Abu Rudeineh said.

The Hamas terror group also welcomed the ICJ ruling while telling Reuters that it fell short of recognizing the ongoing fighting in other parts of the enclave.

“We believe it is not enough since the occupation’s aggression across the Gaza Strip, especially in northern Gaza, is just as brutal and dangerous,” senior Hamas official Basem Naim said.

The terror group called on the United Nations Security Council to implement the International Court of Justice decision, he said, adding that Hamas welcomed the court’s request to allow investigation committees to reach the Gaza Strip to probe allegations of genocide against the Palestinian people.

Israel has strongly denied it has carried out acts of genocide in its war against Hamas in Gaza, which is now in its eighth month.

“Hamas pledges to cooperate with the investigation committees,” Naim told Reuters.

Two women walk on an asphalt road in the middle of a deserted camp for displaced Palestinians on the border with Egypt in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on May 22, 2024. (Eyad Baba/AFP)

Israel believes Hamas leaders and many operatives are hiding in Rafah, and also that an unspecified number of the remaining 121 hostages kidnapped in the Hamas-led October 7 atrocities are being held in the city.

Israel says it has no choice but to carry out an operation in the city to root out the Hamas battalions there and prevent the smuggling of weapons and cash into Gaza.

War broke out between Israel and Hamas following Hamas’s October 7 onslaught, in which terrorists infiltrated Israel, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping 252, while committing widespread atrocities and sexual assault.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 35,000 people in the Strip have been killed or are presumed dead in the fighting since the beginning of the Israeli offensive, though only some 24,000 fatalities have been identified at hospitals. The tolls, which cannot be verified, include some 15,000 terror operatives Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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