Judges at the top United Nations court ordered Israel on Friday to immediately halt its military assault on the southern Gaza city of Rafah, in a landmark emergency ruling in South Africa's case accusing Israel of genocide.

While the International Court of Justice, or World Court, has no means to enforce its orders, the case was a stark sign of Israel's global isolation over its devastating campaign in Gaza, particularly since it began its offensive against Rafah this month against the pleas of its closest ally the United States.

Reading out the ruling, World Court president Nawaf Salam said the situation in the Palestinian enclave had deteriorated since the court last ordered Israel to take steps to improve it. Conditions had been met for a new emergency order.

"The state of Israel shall (....) immediately halt its military offensive, 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," he said.

"Israel had not provided sufficient information about the safety of the population during the evacuation process, or the availability of food, water, sanitation and medicine for the 800,000 Palestinians that had already fled Rafah so far," Salam said. "Consequently, the court is of the view that Israel has not sufficiently addressed and dispelled the concerns raised by its military offensive in Rafah."

The ICJ ordered Israel to open the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza to allow in humanitarian aid. Israel must provide access to the besieged enclave for investigators, it added, and report back on its progress within one month.

The World Court order was adopted by the panel of 15 judges from around the world in a 13-2 vote, opposed only by judges from Uganda and from Israel itself.

It was handed down a week after it was requested by South Africa as part of

its case accusing Israel of violating the Genocide Convention enacted in the wake of the Holocaust.

The ICJ, based in The Hague, is the highest U.N. body for hearing disputes between states. Its rulings are final and binding but have been ignored in the past, as the court has no enforcement powers.

Israel has repeatedly dismissed the case's accusations of genocide as baseless, arguing in court that its operations in Gaza are self-defence and targeted at Hamas militants who attacked Israel on Oct. 7.

An Israeli government spokesman said on the eve of Friday's decision that "no power on Earth will stop Israel from protecting its citizens and going after Hamas in Gaza".

The delegations from Israel and South Africa made no comment after the ruling was read out.

Outside the court in the Dutch city, a small group of pro-Palestinian demonstrators waved flags and played a rap on a boom box calling for a free Palestine.

Israel started its armoured attack on Rafah earlier this month, forcing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to flee a city that had become a refuge to around half of the population's 2.3 million people.

Rafah, on Gaza's southern edge, has also been the main route in for aid, and international organisations say the Israeli operation has cut off the enclave and raised the risk of famine.

Israel says Rafah has served as a redoubt for thousands of Hamas fighters and the group's senior commanders, and it cannot achieve its war objective of wiping out the Islamist militant group without storming the city. It also says it believes Hamas is holding hostages there.

So far, fighting has taken place on Rafah's southern edge and eastern districts, but Israel has yet to begin an assault on the city's main populated area. Its closest ally, the U.S., has repeatedly called on it not to do so, saying Israel has yet to show a credible plan for how this can be done without causing mass casualties among the displaced people sheltering there.


South Africa's lawyers had asked the ICJ last week to order an emergency halt to the operation in Rafah, saying it must be stopped to ensure the survival of the Palestinian people. South Africa has also sought an order for Israel to end its entire wider war in the Gaza Strip, although the court has repeatedly held back from taking such a step.

Friday's decision came days after the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court - a separate court also based in The Hague - announced he had filed an application for arrest warrants against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, as well as leaders of Hamas.

Prosecutor Karim Khan accused Netanyahu and Gallant of crimes including extermination, using hunger as a weapon and deliberately attacking civilians. Israel strongly denied those charges and called on allies to repudiate the court.

South Africa's wider case at the ICJ accuses Israel of orchestrating a state-led genocide against the Palestinian people. The ICJ has not ruled on the substance of that accusation - this could take years - but has rejected Israel's demand to throw the case out.

In previous rulings, the court 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.

Israel launched its air and ground war on Gaza after Hamas-led militants stormed into southern Israeli communities, killing about 1,200 people and seizing more than 250 hostages, according to Israeli tallies. More than 35,000 Palestinians have since been killed in the offensive, Gaza's health ministry says.

(Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg and Anthony Deutsch; additional reporting by Mayaan Lubell in Jerusalem Writing by Peter Graff Editing by Andrew Heavens and Mark Heinrich)