IDF presses ahead with Rafah offensive after World Court’s ambiguous halt order

Officials say ruling allows Israel to continue operations in Gaza’s southernmost city; soldier seriously hurt in northern Strip as IDF battles Hamas across the enclave

Illustrative: Troops of the Nahal Brigade operate in eastern Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, in a handout image published May 22, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)
Illustrative: Troops of the Nahal Brigade operate in eastern Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, in a handout image published May 22, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israeli troops on Saturday engaged in clashes with Palestinian gunmen across the Gaza Strip, including Rafah, a day after the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to halt operations in the enclave’s southernmost city that would risk destroying the civilian population.

A statement from the Israel Defense Forces said that a cell in Rafah that opened fire at troops was killed, and several tunnel shafts were found and destroyed, alongside caches of weapons.

The fighting came after Palestinian media on Friday evening reported a large Israeli airstrike in Rafah’s Shaboura area, one of the neighborhoods located about halfway between the Israeli border and the coast where the IDF began operating against Hamas earlier in the week.

The IDF operation in Rafah, which the military asserts is Hamas’s last major stronghold, has fueled further international criticism of Israel over the war in Gaza, with the ICJ issuing a significant but somewhat ambiguous ruling instructing Israel to stop military activities that could result in the destruction of the civilian population sheltering there.

Israeli officials said they consider the ICJ order to allow room for some operations in Rafah, rejecting interpretations that the court ruling required Israel halt the offensive altogether.

“What they are asking us is not to commit genocide in Rafah. We did not commit genocide and we will not commit genocide,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, told Channel 12 news.

Related: Confused by the ICJ’s decision on Gaza? Blame the judges’ deliberate ambiguity

Magistrates are seen at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as part of South Africa’s request on a Gaza ceasefire in The Hague, on May 24, 2024. (Nick Gammon/AFP)

Asked whether the Rafah offensive would continue, Hanegbi said: “According to international law, we have the right to defend ourselves and the evidence is that the court is not preventing us from continuing to defend ourselves.”

The ICJ, which is based in The Hague, did not immediately comment on Hanegbi’s remarks. Hamas also did not immediately comment.

Another Israeli official pointed to the phrasing of the ruling by the ICJ, depicting it as conditional.

“The order in regard to the Rafah operation is not a general order,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

Fighting in northern and central Gaza

Also Saturday, a reservist with the Bislamach Brigade’s 6828th Battalion was seriously wounded during fighting against terror operatives in northern Gaza.

He was taken to a hospital for treatment.

The announcement came after the military said troops operating in northern Gaza’s Jabaliya killed dozens of gunmen in close-quarters combat and by calling in airstrikes over the past day.

The troops also located and demolished rocket launching sites and buildings used by terror groups, alongside caches of weapons, the IDF said.

Among those killed were operatives who had directed attacks on troops, and a Hamas sniper cell that had opened fire at soldiers several times in recent days, according to the military.

Troops of the 7th Armored Brigade operate in northern Gaza’s Jabaliya, in an image cleared for publication on May 25, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Meanwhile, in central Gaza, several more operatives were killed in clashes with troops and by tank shelling, the IDF said.

On Friday in central Gaza, the IDF said an airstrike killed the deputy commander of Hamas’s national security force.

According to the IDF, Diaa al-Din al-Sharafa was responsible for “managing the mechanism that secures the borders of the Gaza Strip.”

“During the war, this mechanism prevented the population from evacuating from combat zones,” the IDF said

Israel has vowed to eliminate Hamas following the October 7 terror onslaught that started the war, including its civil authority and members of its political wing.

Further details on ‘complex’ IDF op to recover hostages’ bodies

The military on Saturday released footage and additional details from the operation to recover the bodies of three slain hostages from the northern Gaza Strip late Thursday.

The bodies of Orión Hernández Radoux, 30, Hanan Yablonka, 42, and Michel Nisenbaum, 59, who were all killed on October 7, were located in a tunnel in Jabaliya, the same area where the bodies of another four hostages were recovered a week earlier.

L-R: Hostages Michel Nisenbaum, Orion Hernandez, Hanan Yablonka. Their bodies were recovered from northern Gaza’s Jabaliya in an operation announced May 24, 2024. (Courtesy)

The IDF said troops of the 75th Armored Battalion killed a terror operative who was apparently a lookout over the area where the bodies were held. The soldiers then raided and captured the site.

A short while later, troops of the elite Yahalom combat engineering unit, Shin Bet agents, and special forces of the Military Intelligence Directorate entered the tunnel and located the bodies.

The bodies were extracted from the tunnel in a “complex” overnight operation, the military said.

According to the IDF, the location of the bodies was extracted from intelligence obtained in recent days by the military and Shin Bet.

The intelligence also revealed that the three were abducted by Hamas terrorists from the Mefalsim area in southern Israel on October 7, and were killed there or a short while later en route to Gaza.

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