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Israel strikes Rafah after UN court orders halt to offensive

By AFP - May 26,2024 - Last updated at May 26,2024

Palestinians inspect the aftermath of an Israeli strike on a building in Nuseirat on Saturday (AFP photo)

RAFAH, Palestinian Territories — Israeli warplanes and artillery pounded Rafah on Saturday, as the government dismissed an order by the top UN court to halt its military offensive in the southern Gaza city.

At the same time, renewed international efforts were under way aimed at securing a ceasefire in the war sparked by Palestinian group Hamas' unprecedented October 7 surprise attack on Israel.

An Israeli official said the government had an "intention" to restart stalled negotiations over the coming days.

In a case brought by South Africa alleging the Israeli military operation amounts to "genocide", the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Israel to halt its Rafah offensive, and demanded the release of hostages and the "unhindered provision" of humanitarian aid into Gaza.

The Hague-based ICJ, whose orders are legally binding but lack direct enforcement mechanisms, also instructed Israel to keep open the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza, after Israel's seizure of the Palestinian side earlier this month effectively shut it.

Israel gave no indication it was preparing to change course in Rafah, insisting the court had got it wrong.

The ruling 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".

But National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, in a joint statement with the foreign ministry, said: "Israel has not and will not carry out military operations in the Rafah area that create living conditions that could cause the destruction of the Palestinian civilian population, in whole or in part."

Hamas, the Iran-backed Islamist group that has ruled Gaza since 2007, welcomed the ruling but criticised the court’s decision to exclude the rest of the Palestinian territory from its order.

‘Nothing left here’

Israel carried out strikes throughout the Gaza Strip early on Saturday as fighting raged between the army and Palestinian militants.

Witnesses and AFP teams reported strikes or shelling in Rafah, the central city of Deir Al Balah, and Gaza City and Jabalia refugee camp in the north.

In Gaza City, an AFP photographer saw a grieving woman embracing one of several bodies, some of children, which were shrouded in blood-stained white cloth and laid on the ground outside a clinic ahead of funerals.

They were killed in a strike on a school turned shelter in nearby Jabalia, relative Saleh Al Aswad told AFP.

Umm Mohammad Al Ashqa, a Palestinian woman from Gaza City displaced to Deir Al Balah by the war, told AFP she hoped “the court’s decision will put pressure on Israel” to end the fighting, “because there is nothing left here”.

Mohammed Saleh, also interviewed in Deir Al Balah, said Israel “considers itself above the law” and would not stop.

The ICJ ruling came days after the International Criminal Court prosecutor, Karim Khan, requested arrest warrants for Israeli and Hamas leaders for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

It also followed announcements by Ireland, Spain and Norway that they would formally recognise the State of Palestine — a move two other European governments, Germany and Portugal, signalled on Friday they were not ready to join.

Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares demanded Saturday that Israel comply with the ICJ’s ruling.

Paris meeting

Diplomatic efforts have resumed to seek the first ceasefire in Gaza since a week-long truce and hostage release in November.

The Israeli official, requesting anonymity to discuss the negotiations, told AFP that “there is an intention to renew these talks this week, and there is an agreement”.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has come under increasing domestic pressure over the fate of the hostages, with demonstrators rallying again in Tel Aviv on Saturday.

The official did not elaborate on the agreement, but Israeli media said intelligence chief David Barnea had agreed a new framework for negotiations in a meeting with US and Qatari mediators in Paris.

Speaking at the US military academy West Point, President Joe Biden said his administration was engaged in “urgent diplomacy to secure an immediate ceasefire that brings hostages home”.

Internet down

Mediator Egypt was continuing “its efforts to reactivate ceasefire negotiations”, said Al Qahera News, which has links with Egyptian intelligence.

Israeli forces entered Rafah in early May, defying global opposition and prompting an exodus of more than 800,000 people, according to UN figures.

Troops took over the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing, further slowing sporadic deliveries of aid for Gaza’s 2.4 million people.

The White House said Egypt had agreed to temporarily send UN aid through another crossing, Kerem Abu Salem near Rafah, on Gaza’s border with Israel.

The Al Qahera report said Egypt was exerting “pressure on Israel to urgently let in the aid and fuel” stranded at the Rafah crossing, and mentioned “temporary measures” to provide Gazans with humanitarian relief.

The UN has warned of famine in the besieged territory, where most hospitals are no longer functioning.

The Kuwaiti hospital in Rafah pleaded for fuel deliveries to ensure the “continued operation” of the only medical facility in the area still receiving patients.

Telecommunications operator Paltel said internet access in northern Gaza was disrupted on Saturday “due to the ongoing aggression”.

Meanwhile the US military said four of its vessels, supporting a temporary pier built to deliver aid to Gaza by sea, had run aground in heavy seas.

“No US personnel will enter Gaza. No injuries have been reported and the pier remains fully functional,” a statement from US Central Command.

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