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Top U.N. court orders Israel to halt Rafah offensive

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some other news today. The United Nations' highest court ordered Israel to cease its offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah. The court has no way to enforce this order, but the order has put more international pressure on Israel. NPR's Berlin correspondent, Rob Schmitz, has covered the story for a long time. He's on the line from Berlin. Hey there, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What exactly does the order say?

SCHMITZ: So the court issued four orders today - first, that Israel shall immediately halt its military offensive in Rafah; secondly, that Israel needs to keep the Rafah border crossing open to humanitarian aid; third, the court ruled that Israel needs to allow the U.N.'s investigative bodies access to Gaza, and these are U.N. fact-finding missions that are collecting evidence for the broader case brought by South Africa on charges of genocide. And lastly, the court ordered Israel to submit a report within a month on the measures its taken to fulfill the court's orders today. Court President Nawaf Salam spent much of today outlining the deteriorating situation in Rafah, and he included this fact discovered by the U.N.'s Children's Fund.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NAWAF SALAM: About half of the approximately 1.2 million Palestinians sheltering in Rafah were children and warned that military operations therein would result in - I quote - "the few remaining basic services and infrastructure they need to survive being totally destroyed."

SCHMITZ: And, Steve, Israel has argued here that - in court that its operations in Gaza are done in self-defense and are targeted at Hamas militants who attacked Israel on October 7. An Israeli military spokesman says Israel's military is operating, quote, "carefully and precisely in Rafah," where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have sought refuge from Israeli bombing and operations elsewhere in Gaza.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to get my brain around this whole idea of a court telling a country to stop a war. This seems new to me. And in trying to think about it, I'm reminded of a thing that happens with American courts. They'll sometimes issue a temporary injunction. Stop what you're doing until we can sort it out in court. Is that what this is?

SCHMITZ: That's exactly what this is. You know, today's ruling was related to one of several provisional measures that would be like a temporary injunction in the United States. This one was called an emergency measure that South Africa has added to a broader case that it launched late last year against Israel that accuses Israel of genocide. The court has yet to rule on that broader accusation - that could take months or years. But it has issued an injunction against Israel earlier this year to prevent acts of genocide against Palestinians and to allow humanitarian aid to flow into Gaza.

INSKEEP: What, if anything, does this actually mean for Israel on the ground?

SCHMITZ: Well, you know, it's important here to remember that the International Court of Justice does not have any enforcement powers, and its rulings are often ignored. That said, today's ruling will likely add international pressure on the government of Benjamin Netanyahu to show more restraint as it goes about its operation in Rafah. This also means that the U.N. Security Council might feel obliged to weigh in on Israel's Rafah offensive, and it could force the U.S. to be in the uncomfortable position to veto a vote on that to help Israel.

INSKEEP: Is it troublesome for Israel just because it's another sort of international thumbs down?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, I mean, it's - we've seen that also all week. You know, it's been a really bad week for Israel's government. It started with the International Criminal Court, which I should point out is a separate entity from the International Court of Justice. And that in that court, there was an arrest warrant or an application for arrest warrant, and that could take weeks. And on Wednesday, a bunch of European countries said they'd recognize a Palestinian state. So this is just adding to all of that.

INSKEEP: NPR's Rob Schmitz, thanks so much.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. 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.

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.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.