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Palestinians react after an Israeli strike on a building in Nuseirat on May 25, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

Gaza: Israel’s military is pressing ahead with its operations against Hamas in the southern Gaza city of Rafah despite a ruling from the International Court of Justice ordering it to halt such activity in the name of sparing civilians.

Officials in Israel say they interpret Friday’s ruling in The Hague as permitting the incursion to continue as long as it’s done with care, adding that the military is carrying out targeted strikes in Rafah, far short of a full invasion.

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In a ruling on Friday, the ICJ said that “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 wording of the sentence has led to diverging interpretations. Many regard it as as an order to stop the offensive, and that’s how it was widely reported on Friday. But Israeli officials say the order is conditional “- that their military must stop any action which could destroy civilians.

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The campaign in Rafah will not “lead to the destruction of the Palestinian civilian population,” Israel’s National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said in a joint statement with the Foreign Ministry’s legal advisers. Speaking later on Israel’s Channel 12, Hanegbi said, “What they are asking us is to not commit genocide in Rafah. We did not commit genocide and we will not commit genocide.”

Some liberal legal scholars in Israel agree.

“The ICJ didn’t prohibit all Israeli operations in Rafah,” said Mordechai Kremnitzer, a specialist in international law at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Israel Democracy Institute. “Israel was ordered to avoid operations that inflict harm on the Palestinian population in Gaza and avoid conditions that could bring about its physical destruction.”

He added that his interpretation is bolstered by the fact that the court didn’t order Hamas to release hostages and stop firing missiles at Israel, and it’s not reasonable that the court is ordering one side to stop but not the other. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, was to convene his war cabinet Sunday to discuss the latest efforts towards a Gaza truce and hostage release deal, a senior official told AFP.

Main focus

The news came despite more deadly Gaza fighting and a rocket barrage Hamas aimed at Tel Aviv that sent people scrambling for bomb shelters as air defences intercepted projectiles streaking across the sky.

US President Joe Biden has pushed for renewed international efforts to halt the Gaza war, and CIA chief Bill Burns on Friday met Mossad director David Barnea and Qatar’s prime minister in Paris.

A man carries a girl injured in Israeli strikes on Bureij, at the Al Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in Deir Al Balah in the central Gaza Strip on May 25, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

While Israel’s main focus is to free the remaining hostages, Hamas has insisted on a permanent end to the war raging since October 7 - a demand Netanyahu has so far rejected out of hand.

An Israeli senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP that “the war cabinet is expected to meet in Jerusalem tonight at 2100 (1800 GMT) to discuss a hostage release deal”.

The official had said on Saturday that “there is an intention to renew these talks this week” after negotiations involving US, Qatari and Egyptian mediators had stalled in early May.

A member of the Hamas political bureau, Izzat Al Rishq, however said on Sunday that “regarding the rumours about negotiations, we have not received anything from the mediators” so far.

He insisted on Hamas’s long-standing demand for a permanent cessation of hostilities in all of Gaza as “the foundation and the starting point for anything”.

Al Rishq charged that Netanyahu is “trying to buy more time to continue the aggression” while seeking to create the “false impressions of his concern” for the Gaza captives and their families.

Shortly afterwards, Hamas’s armed wing the Ezzedine Al Qassam Brigades said they had targeted Tel Aviv “with a large rocket barrage in response to the Zionist (Israeli) massacres against civilians”.

Israel’s army said at least eight rockets were fired from Gaza’s far-southern city of Rafah and that “a number of the projectiles were intercepted”, with no initial reports of casualties.

Netanyahu has vowed to destroy Hamas to prevent any repeat of an attack of the kind the Palestinian Islamist group launched on October 7.

But he also faces strong pressure from families of the hostages - and from top ally the United States, where outrage over the Gaza war and US support for Israel has become a major issue for Biden in the election battle against Donald Trump.

Sirens in Tel Aviv

The Gaza war ground on, as more air strikes and artillery shelling rained down on northern, central and southern areas Sunday.

Israel’s military said that over the past 24 hours it had destroyed “over 50 terror targets across the Gaza Strip”.

In Jabalia, troops had raided a weapons depot “embedded inside a school where troops located dozens of rocket parts and weapons”.

Fighting has centred on Rafah, where Israel has vowed to destroy the last remaining Hamas battalions despite a chorus of international opposition to a ground invasion.

Gaza’s civil defence agency said it had retrieved six bodies after a house was targeted in a strike on eastern Rafah.

“The situation in Rafah is one of constant bombardment from land and air, which has destroyed many houses,” one Rafah resident, Moaz Abu Taha, 29, told AFP.

“We are also suffering from hunger, thirst and a severe lack of aid.”

The military said that “during targeted operations in the area of Rafah, terrorist operatives who attempted to attack IDF troops were eliminated”.

Israeli troops had also “located tunnel shafts and large quantities of weapons, including AK-47s, RPGs, grenades and explosives” and struck two rocket launchers that were aimed at the Kerem Shalom border crossing.

Hamas, meanwhile, said Saturday it had taken “prisoner” at least one Israeli soldier in an ambush in the Jabalia camp - a claim the army denied.