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ICJ orders halt to Israel’s Gaza offensive over genocide fears

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Israel on Friday to immediately halt its military offensive in the Palestinian city of Rafah — the last major population center in the Gaza Strip following months of violent conflict. In this explainer, we unpack the situation in Gaza, the case against Israel, Israel’s response, and the basics of ICJ judgment enforceability.

What’s happening in Rafah?

Gaza has been engulfed in conflict since last October, when Israel invaded in the aftermath of a deadly Hamas attack. As cities have been targeted and civilians have been ordered to evacuate south, hordes of displaced people have fled to Rafah, a city on Palestine’s border with Egypt. Before the war, its population was about 250,000, according to a UNICEF reportf. By the time Israeli forces began their offensive of Rafah earlier this month, that figure had swelled to 1.2 million — or about half of Gaza’s population. Approximately half of these were children.

Pleading for a ceasefire at the start of Israel’s Rafah offensive, UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell said in a May 6 statement:

Hundreds of thousands of children who are now cramped into Rafah are injured, sick, malnourished, traumatized, or living with disabilities. … Many have been displaced multiple times, and have lost homes, parents and loved ones. They need to be protected along with the remaining services that they rely on, including medical facilities and shelter.

The next day, Israel launched its offensive of Rafah. According to the ICJ ruling, between May 7 and 18 some 800,000 were displaced from Rafah.

What brought about this ICJ ruling?

This is the latest set of provisional measures to emerge from an ongoing genocide case South Africa brought against Israel in December. Though South Africa is not engaged in the conflict, it has jurisdiction in the ICJ case because both it and Israel are members of the United Nations, and both states are party to the Genocide Convention.

Though the court has yet to rule on the merits, it has issued multiple sets of provisional measures at South Africa’s request. In January, the ICJ ordered Israel to “take all measures within its power” to prevent breaches of the Genocide Convention in the Gaza Strip. In March, it issued similar orders. With each set of orders, the court has required Israel to issue a report outlining steps it has taken to implement them. And following each cycle, South Africa has sought additional provisional measures, citing increasingly catastrophic conditions on the ground.

In its latest complaint, South Africa suggested Israel has failed to implement the court’s orders:

Israel’s conduct has been contemptuous of the Court and of international law. The provisional measures indicated by the Court to date have been ignored and violated. Israel has instead chosen to escalate the humanitarian catastrophe through total military onslaught.

How did the court rule?

In a 13-2 vote, the court held:

In conformity with its obligations under the Genocide Convention, 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.

The court again ordered Israel to report on its efforts within one month.

How did Israel react? 

Responding to the order, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Oren Marmorstein, issued a statement denying South Africa’s genocide allegations and insisting Israel has been and will continue to be incompliance with the relevant international laws.

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.

Is the court’s decision enforceable? 

In Friday’s ruling, the court emphasized the binding nature of its orders. Chapter 14 of the UN Charter establishes that all UN members are ipso facto parties to the ICJ Statute, and that each UN member must, in turn, “[undertake] to comply with the decision of the International Court of Justice in any case to which it is a party.”

The charter stipulates that if a state fails to uphold its obligations arising from an ICJ judgment, the UN Security Council (UNSC) can compel enforcement. In theory, the UNSC has enormous power to enforce international law — ranging from the creation of ad hoc war tribunals to the use of armed force. But in practice, UNSC is often stymied by the absolute veto powers granted to its five permanent members, which include China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US. Given current geopolitical tensions, it is unsurprising that Beijing, Moscow, and Washington have dominated recent UNSC veto history. Thus, while ICJ rulings are binding in theory, in practice enforcement is complicated.

Article: Explainer: ICJ Orders Halt to Israel’s Gaza Offensive Over Genocide Fears

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