At ICJ hearing, Israel defends Rafah operation as 'limited and localised'

Lawyers representing Israel defended the military operation in Rafah on Friday as “limited and localized,” arguing before the United Nations Supreme Court that judges should not seek to limit Israel's actions in Gaza.

During a hearing at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Israel responded to a South African petition for the court to order an immediate halt to the ground assault in Rafah.

Israeli forces have advanced into the outskirts of Rafah, Gaza's southernmost city, over the past week and a half, ordering mass evacuations and stepping up shelling ahead of a long-anticipated invasion of the city. According to the United Nations, more than 630,000 people have fled the area, many of them already displaced from other parts of Gaza.

The hearings are part of South Africa's case accusing Israel of committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza, filed in December. In late January, the court ordered Israel to do more to prevent acts of genocide, but the main case on whether or not genocide has been committed is not expected until next year.

Last week, South Africa asked judges to issue an emergency order aimed at preventing large-scale civilian harm in Rafah. South Africa's lawyers argued in court on Thursday that Israel's Rafah operation was “the final step in the destruction of Gaza and its Palestinian people.”

The court has no means to enforce its orders, but South Africa's case has contributed to international pressure on Israel to curb its campaign in Gaza. It is unclear when the court will issue a decision on South Africa's request for an emergency order.

On Friday, Gilad Noam, Israel's deputy attorney general for international law, reiterated Israel's fierce refusal to commit genocide in Gaza. He said Israeli authorities were working to facilitate the flow of humanitarian aid and to protect civilians from the fierce fighting in the enclave, including Rafah.

“Israel is taking steps to try to address the enormous complexity that this situation presents,” Noam told the judges. “That is why there was not a large-scale attack in Rafah, but rather specific, limited and localized operations, preceded by evacuation efforts and support for humanitarian activities.”

Israeli leaders have said the Rafah invasion is necessary to topple the Hamas government in Gaza. According to the Israeli army, four battalions of Hamas fighters are in the city, as are at least some of the more than 130 living and dead hostages still held by Palestinian armed groups since the October 7 attack on Israel that started the war in Israel . Gaza.

But the prospect of a major ground invasion of Rafah amid hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians has provoked sharp criticism internationally, including from the Biden administration. After Israel began its advance into the area, President Biden said Washington would retain some weapons if Israel launched a full-fledged assault into densely populated areas.

Noam argued that the Court was in danger of engaging in “micromanagement of the operational aspects of an armed conflict”. He said calling for a ceasefire would only tie Israel's hands because Hamas – an armed group rather than a state – is not subject to the court's jurisdiction.

South Africa also asked the court on Thursday to order Israel to grant greater access to Gaza for aid workers, investigators and journalists. Noam said Israel's justice system is working to crack down on alleged wartime misconduct and that military prosecutors have opened 55 criminal investigations into possible violations by Israeli forces since the war began.

Human rights groups argue that the Israeli military cannot conduct credible investigations into itself and that soldiers who kill Palestinians in disputed circumstances rarely face substantive sanctions. B'Tselem, a leading Israeli human rights monitor, has dismissed previous investigations by Israeli authorities into potential violations of the laws of war as a cover-up.

Israeli officials accused South Africa in dropping the case of acting as a “legal arm” of Hamas, which carried out the deadly Oct. 7 attack. Last week Hamas said a delegation of its officials had attended a conference in Johannesburg. Hamas posted on social media a photo of Basem Naim, the group's spokesperson, speaking to Naledi Pandor, South Africa's foreign minister.

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