Israel continues Rafah operation as hostage bodies are recovered

<span>A Palestinian woman writes slogan over a map of Israel painted with an Arab keffiyeh imposed over it.</span><span>Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images</span>
A Palestinian woman writes slogan over a map of Israel painted with an Arab keffiyeh imposed over it.Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images

Israel appears to be forging ahead with its offensive on the southern Gaza city of Rafah, despite a new ruling from the UN’s top court to halt the assault, which it said is worsening an already “disastrous” humanitarian crisis.

About 900,000 people have fled Rafah, previously the shelter of last resort for 85% of the Gaza Strip’s 2.3 million population, since the Israeli ground operation in the area began on 6 May. At the same time, deliveries of humanitarian supplies and fuel to the Palestinian territory have slowed to a trickle, with the two main aid crossings – Rafah, on the border with Egypt, and nearby Kerem Shalom, a goods crossing linking Gaza with Israel – effectively blocked by the fighting.

On Friday, the International Court of Justice in The Hague (ICJ), which arbitrates disputes between nations, made its third intervention in the conflict so far, ordering Israel to immediately stop its Rafah operation. The court president Nawaf Salam said when announcing the 13-2 majority ruling, that Israel is obliged under the UN’s genocide convention not to inflict “conditions of life that would bring about [the Palestinian people’s] physical destruction in whole or in part”. But Israeli airstrikes on the south and eastern edges of Rafah appeared to escalate even as the ICJ delivered its decision, residents and medics said, as Israeli ground troops edge closer to the overcrowded city centre. Another 30 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire in the last 24 hours, Palestinian medics reported on Saturday; battles are also ongoing in northern and central parts of the Strip such as Jabalia and Zeitoun, where forces belonging to the Palestinian militant group Hamas have regrouped.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said on Friday night that it had carried out “operational activity in specific areas of Rafah” including killing Hamas fighters and destroying parts of the group’s tunnel network.

Egypt’s president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, said in a phone call with US President Joe Biden on Friday night that the country would resume allowing UN trucks to travel to Kerem Shalom, but with Rafah still closed and fighting raging it remains unclear whether relief agencies will be able to access or distribute deliveries. Delivery operations that began from a new US-funded floating pier were halted almost immediately after desperate people seized most of the shipment last week.

The order from the ICJ is not enforceable, and Israeli ministers have vowed that they will not comply with it.

About 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed in Hamas’s 7 October surprise assault, with a further 250 taken hostage. Nearly 36,000 people have been killed in the ensuing war in Gaza, according to the Palestinian health ministry, which does not differentiate between civilian and combatant deaths.

Before the beginning of Shabbat on Friday night, Israeli war cabinet minister Benny Gantz said his country was “obligated to continue fighting to return its hostages and ensure the safety of its citizens, at any time and place – including in Rafah. We will continue to act according to international law in Rafah and wherever we operate, and make an effort to avoid harming the civilian population. Not because of The Hague tribunal, but first of all because of who we are.”

A statement from the office of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, rejected the accusations of genocide first brought to the ICJ by South Africa in December as “false, outrageous and disgusting”.

Yet the ICJ decision comes the same week as the news that the International Criminal Court, which tries individuals, is considering issuing arrest warrants for senior Hamas and Israeli officials, including Netanyahu, for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It also comes in the wake of a decision by EU members Ireland, Norway and Spain to formally recognise a Palestinian state, as international pressure aimed at stopping or reining in the Israeli war effort in Gaza ratchets up on the increasingly isolated country.

An initial ceasefire and hostage and prisoner swap at the end of November broke down after a week, while several attempts since aimed at a new truce, mediated by the US, Egypt and Qatar, have foundered. The last round of talks quickly drew to a stalemate after Israel launched its attack on Rafah.

The CIA director, Bill Burns, reportedly met with Israeli and Qatari officials in Paris on Friday for informal talks aimed at getting the negotiations back on track.

Meanwhile, the bodies of three more hostages killed on 7 October were recovered overnight from Gaza, the Israeli army said on Friday evening. About 100 hostages are still believed to be alive in Gaza, and Israel estimates 39 have died in captivity. A total of 17 bodies have now been recovered.