Top UN court orders Israel to halt Rafah offensive

A Palestinian boy stands amid the rubble of a destroyed house in central Gaza (Bashar TALEB)
A Palestinian boy stands amid the rubble of a destroyed house in central Gaza (Bashar TALEB)

The top UN court ordered Israel Friday to halt military operations in Rafah, a landmark ruling likely to increase mounting international pressure on Israel more than seven months into the war sparked by Hamas's October 7 attack.

The International Court of Justice also demanded the immediate release of all hostages still held by Palestinian militants, hours after the Israeli military announced troops had recovered the bodies of three more of the captives from north Gaza.

The Hague-based court, whose orders are legally binding but lack direct enforcement mechanisms, also ordered Israel to keep open the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza, which it closed earlier this month at the start of its assault on the city.

The orders come ahead of separate meetings on the Gaza conflict later Friday in Paris between the CIA chief and Israeli representatives on one side and French President Emmanuel Macron and the foreign ministers of four key Arab states on the other.

In its keenly awaited ruling, the ICJ said 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".

Israel must "maintain open the Rafah crossing for unhindered provision at scale of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance", the UN court added.

"The court finds it deeply troubling that many of these hostages remain in captivity and reiterates its call for their immediate and unconditional release," it said.

There was no immediate reaction to the ruling from the Israeli government, which said only that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would discuss it with ministers shortly.

Israel had argued before the court that an order to stop military activity would give free rein to Hamas extremists and prevent its army from rescuing hostages taken in the October 7 attack.

But far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich posted on X that "history will judge those who stand today alongside the Nazis of Hamas Daesh." The last was a reference to the jihadists of the Islamic State group, also known as Daesh.

Israel had argued before the court that an order to stop military activity would give free rein to Hamas extremists and prevent its army from rescuing hostages taken in the October 7 attack.

Hamas gave a qualified welcome to the ruling, regretting only that it applied solely to Rafah and not the whole Gaza Strip.

The court had stopped short of ordering a ceasefire in Gaza in an interim ruling in January but instructed Israel to do everything possible to prevent genocidal acts.

- Bodies recovered -

The Gaza war broke out after Hamas's unprecedented attack on October 7 resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

Militants also took 252 hostages, 121 of whom remain in Gaza, including 37 the army says are dead.

Israel's retaliatory offensive has killed at least 35,800 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

The Israeli military said the three hostages whose bodies were recovered in north Gaza on Friday -- Israeli hostage Chanan Yablonka, Brazilian-Israeli Michel Nisenbaum and French-Mexican Orion Hernandez Radoux -- were "murdered" during the October 7 attack and their bodies taken into Gaza.

It follows the recovery last week of four bodies of hostages found in tunnels under Jabalia, including of Hernandez Radoux's girlfriend Shani Louk.

The military reported raids in Jabalia and operations in central Gaza, and said "troops eliminated dozens of terrorists" in the north.

Witnesses and AFP also reported overnight air and naval strikes in Gaza City, and the civil defence and an Al-Ahli hospital doctor said at least five people were killed when a family home in the city's Al-Daraj neighbourhood was hit.

A Palestinian security source told AFP there were clashes between Israeli forces and militants in the town of Jabalia and its refugee camp, with another source at Kamal Adwan hospital saying it was "out of service, and has 14 medical staff trapped inside".

Along with Al-Awda, Kamal Adwan is one the last two functioning hospitals in northern Gaza, both of which are besieged, according to the World Health Organization.

Other facilities across Gaza are suffering severe shortages of medical supplies and fuel to power generators, according to UN and Palestinian officials.

Israel in early May launched an assault on Rafah, the last Gazan city to be entered by its ground troops, defying global opposition and sending more than 800,000 people fleeing, according to UN figures.

Troops took over the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, further slowing the sporadic arrival of trucks carrying badly needed aid for Gaza's 2.4 million people.

Military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said "we will not stop fighting" for the freedom of hostages "being held by Hamas in living hell".

- Paris truce talks -

Ceasefire talks involving US, Egyptian and Qatari mediators ended shortly after Israel launched the Rafah operation, though Netanyahu's office this week said the war cabinet had asked the Israeli delegation "to continue negotiations for the return of the hostages".

CIA chief Bill Burns is expected to hold talks in Paris with Israeli representatives on Friday or Saturday in a bid to relaunch negotiations, a Western source close to the issue said.

Macron's office said the French president would be joined in the capital later by his own foreign minister and the top diplomats of Qatar, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia for talks on the conflict.

The US-based Axios news website said Israeli negotiators have developed a "new proposal" which includes "some compromises" in Israel's position compared to the last round of negotiations in Cairo.

In Egypt, which hosted the last, abortive round of truce talks, Al-Qahera News, which is linked to the intelligence services, reported late Thursday that "the Israeli position is still not sufficient to reach a deal".

burs-kir/dv