Written by 18:16 World

What Does the ICJ Ruling on Israel’s Military Offensive in Rafah Mean?

I had two thoughts on Friday as I listened to the chief judge of the International Court of Justice tell Israel to halt its military offensive in Rafah, the city in southern Gaza to which more than a million displaced people fled earlier in the conflict.

The first was that the court’s ruling was unusually forceful: the judge said Israel “must halt” its military offensive in Rafah “immediately.” Many observers had not expected the court to issue such a direct order because it has no jurisdiction to impose similar requirements on Hamas, Israel’s opponent in the war.

My second thought was that the court’s use of punctuation was definitely going to provoke debate. Here’s the key part of the ruling:

The State of Israel shall, in conformity with its obligations under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and in view of the worsening conditions of life faced by civilians in the Rafah Governorate:

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.

Sure enough, for several days some legal scholars have been arguing about whether the clause that begins “which may inflict” put conditions on the order to “immediately halt.”

Has Israel been told to halt its offensive, or to do so only if that offensive is about to partly or completely destroy Palestinians as a group?

In some ways, the debate is a distraction. There is a substantial consensus among legal experts that Israel cannot continue its current offensive in Rafah without violating the court’s order. Five leading legal scholars I contacted said the order was clear on that point, and more said the same in interviews and social media posts online. (“The current offensive as currently planned and executed is prohibited under any reading,” wrote Adil Haque, an international law expert at Rutgers University. “This sentence means Israel must halt its current military offensive in Rafah,” wrote Janina Dill, the co-director of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law, and Armed Conflict.)


Last modified: 2 June 2024