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The U.N.'s top court says it will rule Friday on Israel's offensive in Gaza

International Court of Justice President Joan Donoghue (center) and ICJ judges arrive at the court in The Hague prior to the verdict announcement in a genocide case against Israel, brought by South Africa, Jan. 26, 2024. The top U.N. court said Israel should do everything it could to prevent any acts of genocide in the Gaza Strip, in a highly anticipated ruling early this year.
Remko de Waal
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ANP/AFP via Getty Images
International Court of Justice President Joan Donoghue (center) and ICJ judges arrive at the court in The Hague prior to the verdict announcement in a genocide case against Israel, brought by South Africa, Jan. 26, 2024. The top U.N. court said Israel should do everything it could to prevent any acts of genocide in the Gaza Strip, in a highly anticipated ruling early this year.

BERLIN – The United Nations’ top court is expected to issue an order on Friday on Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip.

The court has no way to enforce its orders, but the case, brought by South Africa, has put increasing international pressure on Israel to show more restraint in its military campaign in Gaza.

Last week, as part of its defense at the U.N.’s International Court of Justice in The Hague, Israel characterized its military operation in Rafah, which lies on Gaza’s border with Egypt, as “limited and localized.” It argued that the court’s judges should not restrict Israel’s actions in Gaza. Lawyers for South Africa argued that Israel’s Rafah offensive was “the last step in the destruction of Gaza and the Palestinian people.”

Israel’s government has accused South Africa of acting as a “legal arm of Hamas” by filing the case in The Hague and it says it is not bound by the court’s rulings.

Israel’s military this week is fighting in the neighborhoods of central Rafah, expanding its campaign against Hamas in an operation that began on May 6, when the military said it was carrying out a “limited operation” against Hamas battalions in the city, “making every effort to prevent harm to civilians.”

Israel says the Rafah offensive is necessary to topple the remaining four battalions of Hamas fighters it says are left in the city, as well as to try and rescue some of the 128 living and deceased hostages still held by Palestinian armed groups since the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on Israel that set off the war in Gaza.

Around 900,000 Palestinians have fled Rafah since Israel’s offensive began. Before Israel’s current military offensive, an estimated 1.3 million Palestinians displaced from elsewhere in Gaza were sheltering there.

Hundreds of Palestinians migrate from eastern neighborhoods after Israel warns them to evacuate Rafah, Gaza Strip, on May 6.
Ali Jadallah / Anadolu via Getty Images
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Anadolu via Getty Images
Hundreds of Palestinians migrate from eastern neighborhoods after Israel warns them to evacuate Rafah, Gaza Strip, on May 6.

One concern among Israel’s leadership is that an injunction from the ICJ could precipitate a similar resolution by the U.N. Security Council, where Israel would rely on the United States to veto such a measure.

This week also saw the International Criminal Court, a separate entity from the ICJ, submit requests from prosecutor Karim Khan to issue arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Hamas leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar, Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh, and Mohammed Deif, the leader of Hamas' military wing, the Al Qassem Brigades.

Khan is seeking warrants for Sinwar, Deif and Haniyeh on charges that include crimes against humanity including extermination, murder and sexual violence. He wants to bring charges against Netanyahu and Gallant for the war crime of "starvation as a weapon of warfare," marking the first time this charge would be used in international courts.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.