Israeli officials: ICJ ruling gives leeway to continue Rafah offensive

‘We did not and will not commit genocide,’ says national security adviser, adopting minimalist view of ambiguous verdict; US said expected to exact price from Israel for UN veto

Journalists at the International Court of Justice photograph the Israeli legal team before Judges enter, in The Hague, Netherlands, May 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
Journalists at the International Court of Justice photograph the Israeli legal team before Judges enter, in The Hague, Netherlands, May 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

Jerusalem interprets an ambiguous order by the United Nations’ highest court on the military offensive on Rafah in southern Gaza in a way that allows room for some military action there, Israeli officials said Saturday.

In an emergency ruling as part of South Africa’s case accusing Israel of genocide, judges at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Israel on Friday to “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.”

The significant yet unclearly worded verdict was interpreted by four judges as a limited order instructing Israel to abide by the Genocide Convention during its activities in Rafah, but not requiring a complete halt to military operations there. The South African judge on the bench, by contrast, argued that the ruling explicitly requires Israel to halt all offensive military operations in Rafah. (The 10 other judges did not offer opinions or interpretations of the ruling.)

Israeli officials embraced the former interpretation.

“What they are asking us, is not to commit genocide in Rafah. We did not commit genocide and we will not commit genocide,” National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi told Channel 12 news in an interview on Saturday.

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.”

File: National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi gives a statement to the media at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv on October 14, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

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, or World Court, depicting it as conditional.

“The order in regard to the Rafah operation is not a general order,” the official told Reuters on condition of anonymity, saying the order’s wording did not rule out all military action.

“We have never, and we will not, conduct any military action in Rafah or elsewhere which may inflict any conditions of life to bring about the destruction of the civilian population in Gaza, not in whole and not in part,” the official said.

While the court has no means to enforce its orders, its verdict could lead the UN Security Council to levy sanctions against Israel if a resolution were adopted accusing the country of non-compliance with the ICJ ruling. Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, among others, has called on the Council to “shoulder its responsibility” in getting Israel to halt its Rafah campaign.

Hebrew media reported Saturday that the United States would likely exact a price from Israel before vetoing such a potential motion.

The Maariv daily, without providing a source, said Israel expects the United States would veto such a resolution, but not before securing concessions from Jerusalem on issues the two governments have been at odds about, such as a Saudi normalization deal Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has so far eschewed.

The White House and other allies have long warned Israel against the operation in Rafah, where about a million Palestinians flocked after being displaced from the Gaza Strip’s north and center, the overwhelming majority of whom have now fled to designated humanitarian zones.

Egypt, which abuts Rafah and is wary of being inundated by masses of Palestinian refugees, has warned Israel the two countries’ 45-year-old peace treaty could be at stake if a large-scale offensive in Gaza’s southernmost city were undertaken.

Illustrative: A Palestinian man and his children sit in a destroyed room following an Israeli airstrike on residential building in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on May 22, 2024. (Eyad Baba / AFP)

Publicly, the White House has been largely mum about the ICJ ruling on Rafah, saying only that US President Joe Biden’s position about the offensive there has been “clear and consistent.”

The Biden administration has repeatedly stated it opposes a major Israeli offensive in Rafah — which Israel says is necessary to defeat Hamas — with Washington recently pausing a shipment of bombs over concerns Israel might use them as part of the operation. US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, however, said this week that Israel’s military activities have not reached the level against which Washington had warned.

US President Joe Biden speaks during the graduation ceremony of the US Military Academy class of 2024 at Michie Stadium, May 25, 2024, in West Point, New York. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated Biden’s position on “a major Rafah operation” when he spoke with war cabinet minister Benny Gantz on Friday, the State Department said in a readout issued after the ICJ ruling.

A spokesperson for the British Foreign Office on Saturday criticized the ICJ ruling, which he implicitly understood as requiring an end to the fighting.

“The reason there isn’t a pause in the fighting is because Hamas turned down a very generous hostage deal from Israel,” said the spokesperson.

“The intervention of these courts – including the ICJ today — will strengthen the view of Hamas that they can hold on to hostages and stay in Gaza,” he continued, adding that “if that happens, there won’t be either peace or a two-state solution.”

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