World Court to hear South Africa’s demand to halt Israel’s Rafah offensive this week

ICJ was petitioned earlier this month to order Israel to ‘immediately withdraw’ from the southern Gaza city; court will hear from Pretoria Thursday followed by Jerusalem on Friday

Illustrative: South Africa's Foreign Minister Naledi Pandorthe, left, attends the session of the International Court of Justice, or World Court, in The Hague, Netherlands, Friday, January 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Patrick Post)
Illustrative: South Africa's Foreign Minister Naledi Pandorthe, left, attends the session of the International Court of Justice, or World Court, in The Hague, Netherlands, Friday, January 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Patrick Post)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — The International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague said it would hold hearings Thursday and Friday over South Africa’s request to impose emergency orders on Israel to halt its Rafah offensive.

The top UN court will hear lawyers from South Africa on Thursday, followed by Israel’s response the next day, it said in a statement.

Earlier this month, Pretoria petitioned the ICJ for so-called provisional measures over the incursion into Rafah, asking the court to order Israel to “immediately withdraw and cease its military offensive.”

It also requested the court to order Israel to take “all effective measures” to facilitate the “unimpeded” access of humanitarian aid into Gaza.

Nearly 450,000 Palestinians have left Rafah in recent days, and around 100,000 others have fled northern Gaza, according to UN agencies, which warned that “no place is safe” in the territory.

Ground fighting and heavy Israeli strikes have been reported recently around Rafah as well as in Gaza City and Jabalia in the north, as well as in Nuseirat in the center of the enclave.

The United States and other countries, as well as top UN officials, have warned that a full-out assault on Rafah could have a disastrous impact on the thousands of refugees driven there by fighting elsewhere in Gaza.

Israel has said it is attempting to keep civilian casualties to a minimum as it fights to eradicate the Hamas terror group and has repeatedly warned civilians to leave specific areas ahead of the entrance of troops.

South Africa’s delegation, left, and Israel’s delegation, right, stand during a session at the International Court of Justice, or World Court, in The Hague, Netherlands, January 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Patrick Post)

The war between Israel and Hamas erupted on October 7, when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists burst through the border with Israel, slaughtering some 1,200 people across some 20 communities.

The terrorists also seized 252 hostages, 128 of whom are believed to still be in captivity. The deaths of 36 of those still in captivity have been confirmed by the IDF.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 35,000 people in the Strip have been killed in the fighting so far, a toll that cannot be independently verified. The UN says some 24,000 fatalities have been identified at hospitals at this time.

The rest of the total figure is based on murkier Hamas “media reports.” It also includes 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.

‘Last refuge’

In a ruling in mid-January, the ICJ ordered Israel to comply with a series of provisional measures following an application filed by South Africa against Israel that Israel’s actions in Gaza fall under the scope of the Genocide Convention.

The court also ruled that Israel must allow aid into Gaza to ease the humanitarian situation there.

The court will likely take several years to rule if Israel’s actions constitute genocide.

Israel has strongly denied South Africa’s claims that it is acting in contravention of the 1948 UN Genocide Convention, and has accused Pretoria of acting as the “legal arm of Hamas.”

In its request submitted earlier this month, Pretoria argued that additional emergency measures are needed in light of the ongoing military action in Rafah, which it calls the “last refuge” for Palestinians in Gaza. Israel says the operation in the southern city is crucial as it believes four of Hamas’s six remaining battalions to be located there, along with the terror group’s leaders and many of the hostages.

South Africa asked the court to order that Israel cease the Rafah offensive and allow unimpeded access to Gaza for UN officials, organizations providing humanitarian aid, and journalists and investigators.

Tent encampments housing displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on May 11, 2024. (AFP)

“In attacking Rafah, Israel is attacking the ‘last refuge’ in Gaza, and the only remaining area of the Strip which has not yet been substantially destroyed by Israel,” South Africa said in its submission.

“With Rafah’s destruction, the destruction of Gaza itself will be complete,” it added.

Israel has said it remained “committed to the observance of its international legal obligations” and had taken several measures to alleviate humanitarian suffering in Gaza.

It has also asserted that its offensive is aimed at Hamas but that it faces a hard task of avoiding civilian casualties, providing evidence that Hamas embeds itself and stores its weapons in civilian areas.

It has lashed out at South Africa for its “bellicose and offensive tone,” describing the accusations as “outrageous and categorically denied.”

The ICJ, also known as the World Court, generally rules within a few weeks on requests for emergency measures. It will likely take years before the court will rule on the merits of the overall genocide case. While the ICJ’s rulings are binding and without appeal the court has no way to enforce them.

Times of Israel Staff contributed to this report.

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