Israeli assault on Rafah would flout international court: UN rights chief

GENEVA – Israel’s planned ground assault on Rafah in the Gaza Strip would contravene the orders issued by the United Nations’ highest court, the UN human rights chief said on Thursday.

On January 26, the International Court of Justice in The Hague — while stopping short of ordering an immediate halt to the war in Gaza — said Israel must “prevent the commission of all acts within the scope” of the Genocide Convention.

“I fail to see how such an operation could be consistent with the binding provisional measures issued by the International Court of Justice,” Volker Turk told the UN Human Rights Council.

The ICJ said Israel must facilitate “urgently needed” humanitarian aid to the Palestinian territory, under relentless bombardment and siege since an attack in Israel by Hamas militants on October 7.

“The prospect of an Israeli ground assault on Rafah would take the nightmare being inflicted on people in Gaza into a new dimension,” said Turk.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the army will launch a ground invasion of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip — where an estimated 1.4 million Palestinian civilians have sought refuge.

The war began after the October 7 attack by Hamas, which killed about 1,160 people in Israel, according to an AFP tally of Israeli figures.

The Palestinian militants also took hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza.

Israel’s retaliatory bombardment and ground offensive in Gaza have killed more than 30,000 people in under five months, most of them women and children, according to the territory’s Hamas-run health ministry.

Turk repeated that the Hamas attacks on Israel in October were “shocking, profoundly traumatising and totally unjustifiable”.

“The killing of civilians, reports of torture and sexual violence inflicted by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups, and the holding of hostages since that time, are appalling and entirely wrong,” he said.

“And so is the brutality of the Israeli response,” he added, calling it “carnage”.

“There appear to be no bounds to — no words to capture — the horrors that are unfolding before our eyes in Gaza,” said Turk.

‘We must go after Hamas’

Meirav Eilon Shahar, Israel’s ambassador in Geneva, told the Human Rights Council it was an “echo chamber where the human rights of Israelis and Jews mean nothing”. 

She was accompanied by Aviva Siegel and Raz Ben Ami — two Israeli hostages who were freed by Hamas in November. Their husbands are still being held in Gaza.

“These halls should have been a symbol of hope for Aviva and Raz and all the hostages; that the world would act for their human rights and for their release. Yet unfortunately, they have become a mere footnote in the discourse of this council,” said Eilon Shahar. 

“You think if Israel stops this war today, Hamas will return all our hostages tomorrow?” she said, addressing Turk. 

“We must go after Hamas, or they will continue to come after us.”

The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said 104 people were killed and more than 750 injured after Israeli soldiers opened fire on civilians at an aid distribution point earlier Thursday.

Palestinian ambassador Ibrahim Khraishi interjected to ask Eilon Shahar what she thought of the incident.

“Are these human shields? Are these Hamas combatants?”, asked Khraishi, who received sustained applause. –AFP