By Tom Watling

THE HAGUE - The UN’s top court has ruled that Israel must “immediately halt its military offensive” in the city of Rafah on Gaza’s southern border.

The order by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) further ratchets up international pressure on an increasingly isolated Israel to rein in its war on Hamas in Gaza. The decision marked the third time this year the 15-judge panel has issued preliminary orders seeking to reduce the death toll and alleviate humanitarian suffering in the territory as part of a case filed late last year by South Africa accusing Israel of committing genocide, allegations vehemently denied by Israel.

“The court considers that, in conformity with the obligations, under the genocide convention, Israel must immediately halt its military offensive in Rafah 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 court’s president, Nawaf Salam said. The decison was made by 13 votes to two.

Judge Salam said Israel must also allow "unimpeded access" for any fact-finding or investigative mission sent by the United Nations to investigate the genocide allegations. The court said Israel must also reopen the Rafah crossing from Gaza into Egypt – with the Israeli military having taken control of the Gaza side earlier this month – to allow humanitarian aid to flow into the enclave. The court did not call for a full ceasefire throughout Gaza as South Africa had requested at hearings last week. It has already found that Israel's military operations pose a "real and imminent risk" to the Palestinian people in Gaza.

Israel insists it has the right to defend itself from Hamas and is unlikely to comply with the ruling. Israel launched its air and ground war on Gaza after Hamas stormed into southern Israeli communities in a terror attack on 7 October, killing around 1,200 people and seizing more than 250 hostages. More than 35,000 Palestinians have since been killed in the Israeli offensive, health officials in the Hamas-run strip say.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under heavy pressure at home to end the war. Thousands of Israelis have joined weekly demonstrations calling on the government to reach a deal to bring the hostages home, fearing that time is running out. Around 120 people are still being held in Gaza, although a number are believed to be dead.

The ICJ has not ruled on the substance of the genocide accusation from South Africa – that could take years – but the court has rejected Israel's demand to throw the case out. South Africa requested interim orders to protect Palestinians while the legal case continues. South Africa’s lawyers last week asked to impose emergency measures, saying Israel’s attacks on Rafah must be stopped to ensure the survival of the Palestinian people.

In previous rulings, the ICJ ordered Israel to prevent acts of genocide against the Palestinians and allow aid to flow into Gaza, while stopping short of ordering a halt to Israeli military operations.