Top UN court hears S. Africa calls to stop Israel Rafah offensive

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South Africa will ask the top UN court on Thursday to order an immediate halt to Israel's incursion in Rafah, describing it as a "genocidal" operation threatening the "very survival of Palestinians".

Top lawyers for Pretoria will kick off two days of hearings at the Peace Palace, home of the International Court of Justice, imploring judges to order a ceasefire throughout Gaza.

Israel will respond on Friday. It has previously highlighted its "unwavering" commitment to upholding international law and described South Africa's case as "wholly unfounded" and "morally repugnant".

In a ruling that made headlines around the world, the ICJ in January ordered Israel to do everything in its power to prevent genocidal acts and enable humanitarian aid to Gaza.

But the court stopped short of ordering a ceasefire and South Africa's argument is that the situation on the ground -- notably the Rafah operation -- requires fresh ICJ action.

"As the overwhelming evidence demonstrates, the very manner in which Israel is pursuing its military operations in Rafah, and elsewhere in Gaza, is itself genocidal," South Africa said in its submission.

"It must be ordered to stop."

The orders of the ICJ, which rules in disputes between states, are legally binding but it has little means to enforce them.

It has ordered Russia to halt its invasion of Ukraine, to no avail.

South Africa is asking the ICJ for three emergency orders -- "provisional measures" in court jargon -- while it rules on the wider accusation that Israel is breaking the 1948 UN Genocide Convention.

First, it wants the court to order Israel to "immediately withdraw and cease its military offensive" in Rafah.

Second, Israel should take "all effective measures" to allow "unimpeded access" to Gaza for humanitarian aid workers, as well as journalists and investigators.

Lastly, Pretoria asked the court to ensure Israel reports back on its measures taken to adhere to the orders.

- 'Last refuge' -

The United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said on Wednesday that 600,000 people have fled Rafah since military operations intensified, amid battles and heavy Israeli bombardment in the area.

"As the primary humanitarian hub for humanitarian assistance in Gaza, if Rafah falls, so too does Gaza," said South Africa in its submission.

"In attacking Rafah, Israel is attacking the 'last refuge' in Gaza, and the only remaining area of the Strip which has not yet been substantially destroyed by Israel," the document added.

Pretoria stressed its view that the only way for the existing court orders to be implemented was a "permanent ceasefire in Gaza".

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly said that Israel cannot defeat Hamas without sending ground troops into Rafah in search of remaining fighters.

But Israel's main allies, the United States and the EU, as well as the UN, have all warned against a major operation in Rafah given that it would add to the civilian toll.

Israel's military operations in Gaza were launched in retaliation for Hamas's October 7 attack which killed more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, and saw around 250 hostages taken, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Israel's military has conducted a relentless bombardment from the air and a ground offensive inside Gaza that has killed more than 35,000 people, mostly civilians, according to the Gaza health ministry.