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ICJ orders Israel to cease military offensive in Rafah and allow aid to enter Gaza

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The top United Nations court has ordered Israel to stop its military operation in Rafah in southern Gaza. The International Court of Justice does not have the power to enforce its rulings, but it does add to the growing international pressure on Israel to end the war in Gaza. This comes as the humanitarian situation throughout Gaza is incredibly dire. Aid has slowed to a trickle. NPR's Kat Lonsdorf joins us from Tel Aviv. Kat, thanks for being with us.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: Thanks, Scott.

SIMON: Let's begin with what the International Court of Justice is saying.

LONSDORF: Yeah. So there were actually four rulings issued yesterday - one, that Israel must cease its military offensive in Rafah; two, to reopen the Rafah border with Egypt to allow humanitarian aid in; three, that Israel needs to allow U.N. investigators access to Gaza to collect evidence for a genocide case; and finally, that Israel has to hand over a report within a month to show what it's done to comply with these court orders. Now, all of these have to do with a broader case that South Africa filed earlier, charging Israel with genocide. But we won't know the result of that for months or even years.

SIMON: Court orders, but any particular legal effect?

LONSDORF: Well, this doesn't mean that Israeli forces are going to withdraw from Rafah, not necessarily. Like you said, the ICJ doesn't have the power to enforce its rulings. It can't force Israel to stop. And Israel, for its part, responded by saying that it is already complying with the ruling. You see, there's some vague language in there. Take a listen here to how the court president, Nawaf Salam words it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NAWAF SALAM: Israel must immediately halt its military offense and any other action in the Rafah governate which may inflict on the Palestinian group in Gaza conditions of life that could bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.

LONSDORF: So one international law expert we talked to pointed out that the way the court chose to word that order leaves enough ambiguity for Israel to continue its offensive there. You know, Israel says it's in Rafah to defend itself against Hamas and that they're reducing the damage to the civilian population as much as possible.

SIMON: Let me ask about Rafah, the city in which nearly a million people were told to flee for safety back in December and is now the center of intense fighting. Do we know what conditions are like there?

LONSDORF: Yeah, they're bad. Israel troops are pushing into the city, and people have been told to evacuate yet again. So some 800,000 people have left Rafah this month, but there's not really many options for places to go. You know, our producer there, Anas Baba, says that many have fled to central Gaza, where fighting is also still happening, and they're living in destroyed buildings. Meanwhile, Rafah is plunging into a deeper humanitarian crisis. The crossing there, which was the main artery for aid since early on in the war - it's been closed since Israel seized it on May 7. So there's very little food and water and fuel to be found which is why one of those four orders from the court was to reopen this crossing for aid. And aid groups say that the fighting makes it hard for them to access even the small amount of aid that is getting in through other crossings.

SIMON: And what about the situation in the rest of Gaza?

LONSDORF: They're also really, really bad, the conditions. The fighting is now happening throughout Gaza, so there's increasingly a feeling that nowhere is safe. And while there are a few other ways that aid can get into Gaza, including through that new pier that the U.S. military built, it's just not nearly enough. There's a real risk of famine for the 2 million people living there. Disease is spreading. And there are very few hospitals still operational due to lack of fuel. And international aid groups warned that people are running out of water. Some are living on just 3% of the minimum standard for daily water needs.

SIMON: NPR's Kat Lonsdorf in Tel Aviv. Kat, thanks so much.

LONSDORF: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.