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Palestinians line up for a free meal in Rafah, Gaza Strip, on Feb. 16. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called the situation in Gaza “already a humanitarian nightmare.”Fatima Shbair/The Associated Press

The increasingly dangerous situation in the city of Rafah requires Israel to comply immediately with existing court orders to ensure the “safety and security” of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the International Court of Justice has ruled.

The world court, the highest United Nations judicial body, was responding to South Africa’s request for new urgent action by the court as Israel pushes ahead with plans for an assault on the southern Gaza city of Rafah. Many world leaders, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, have voiced deep concern over Israel’s planned offensive in Rafah.

The court said on Friday that a new emergency order is unnecessary, but it said Israel must swiftly comply with its obligations under last month’s orders.

South Africa, in an application to the world court on Monday, had asked for a new emergency order to restrict Israel’s planned military offensive on Rafah, where an estimated 1.4 million Palestinians have taken shelter after earlier attacks to the north.

South Africa said the planned assault “will result in further large-scale killing, harm and destruction in serious and irreparable breach both of the Genocide Convention and of the court’s order of Jan. 26.”

The Israeli government, in its response on Thursday, said South Africa was misusing the court’s procedures by making a “highly peculiar and improper request” that the court should reject. South Africa’s claims were “unjustifiable,” it said.

In a brief one-page decision that it issued on Friday evening, the International Court of Justice called on Israel to fully implement the court’s orders of last month.

In those orders, the court had instructed Israel to take steps to prevent any genocidal acts in Gaza, and to punish anyone whose statements could incite genocide. It also required Israel to ensure an urgent supply of humanitarian aid to Gaza.

The court, based in The Hague, cited a warning last week by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who said the latest developments in the Palestinian territory “would exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare” in Gaza and in Rafah in particular.

“This perilous situation demands immediate and effective implementation of the provisional measures indicated by the court in its order of Jan. 26, which are applicable throughout the Gaza Strip, including in Rafah,” the court said in its decision on Friday.

“The Court emphasizes that the State of Israel remains bound to fully comply with its obligations under the Genocide Convention and with the said order, including by ensuring the safety and security of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip,” it said.

The South African government welcomed the court’s decision. “The court has affirmed our view that the perilous situation demands immediate and effective implementation of the provisional measures,” said Clayson Monyela, a spokesperson for South Africa’s department of international relations, in a social-media post on Friday night.

Independent analysts said the court’s decision was significant because of its strong tone and language, including its urgent reminder of Israel’s obligations.

Mark Kersten, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of the Fraser Valley who specializes in international justice issues, said the court was “very sternly warning Israel” to comply with its earlier orders. This kind of warning by the court is unusual, he told The Globe and Mail on Friday.

He also noted the court’s statement that Israel must ensure the “safety and security” of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. This statement “seems to instruct Israel more clearly and broadly” than the previous orders, he said.

Both Israel and South Africa are members of the International Court of Justice and the 1948 Genocide Convention. In its ruling last month, the court rejected South Africa’s request for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, but it said South Africa had a plausible argument that Israel may have breached its obligations under the Genocide Convention.

It will now listen to arguments on the full merits of the genocide allegation against Israel – a case that could take years to settle.

The court also required Israel to report back within a month on its compliance with the emergency orders.

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