THE United Nations’ top court has opened two days of hearings into a request from South Africa calling on Israel to halt its military operation in the southern city of Rafah, where more than half of Gaza’s population has sought shelter.

It is the fourth time South Africa has asked the International Court of Justice (ICJ, pictured below) for emergency measures since the nation launched proceedings alleging that Israel’s military action in its war with Hamas amounts to genocide.

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According to the latest request, the previous preliminary orders by The Hague-based court were not sufficient to address “a brutal military attack on the sole remaining refuge for the people of Gaza”.

Israel has portrayed Rafah as the last stronghold of Hamas, brushing off warnings that any major operation there would be catastrophic for civilians.

South Africa has asked the court to order Israel to withdraw from Rafah; to take measures to ensure unimpeded access for UN officials, humanitarian organisations and journalists to the Gaza Strip; and to report back within one week on how it is meeting these demands.

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During hearings earlier this year, Israel strongly denied committing genocide in Gaza and said it does all it can to spare civilians and is only targeting Hamas militants. It says Hamas’s tactic of embedding in civilian areas makes it difficult to avoid civilian casualties.

In January, judges ordered Israel to do all it can to prevent death, destruction and any acts of genocide in Gaza but the panel stopped short of ordering an end to the military offensive that has laid waste to the Palestinian enclave.

In a second order in March, the court said Israel must take measures to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza, including opening more land crossings to allow food, water, fuel and other supplies to enter.

Most of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million people have been displaced since fighting began. The latest escalation in the conflict began with a Hamas attack on southern Israel on October 7 in which Palestinian militants killed around 1200 people and took about 250 hostages.

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Gaza’s Health Ministry says over 35,000 Palestinians have been killed since then, two-thirds of whom are believed to be women and children. South Africa initiated proceedings in December and sees the legal campaign as rooted in issues central to its identity.

Its governing party, the African National Congress, has long compared Israel’s policies in Gaza and the occupied West Bank to its own history under the apartheid regime of white minority rule, which restricted most blacks to “homelands”. Apartheid ended in 1994.

On Sunday, Egypt announced it plans to join the case. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Israeli military actions “constitute a flagrant violation of international law, humanitarian law, and the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 regarding the protection of civilians during wartime”.

Several countries have also indicated they plan to intervene but so far only Libya, Nicaragua and Colombia have filed formal requests to do so.