analysisIsrael at War

IDF’s Rafah operation unaffected by ICJ, ICC steps

While the courts have shown a disturbing willingness to cooperate with "lawfare" initiatives against Israel, this has had no obvious influence on the IDF's operation in Rafah.

Israeli soldiers operating in eastern Rafah, the Gaza Strip, May 9, 2024. Credit: IDF.
Israeli soldiers operating in eastern Rafah, the Gaza Strip, May 9, 2024. Credit: IDF.
Yaakov Lappin
Yaakov Lappin
Yaakov Lappin is an Israel-based military affairs correspondent and analyst. He is the in-house analyst at the Miryam Institute; a research associate at the Alma Research and Education Center; and a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. He is a frequent guest commentator on international television news networks, including Sky News and i24 News. Lappin is the author of Virtual Caliphate: Exposing the Islamist State on the Internet. Follow him at:

Recent moves by the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court at the Hague are having no tangible effect on the Israel Defense Force’s ongoing Gaza operation, aimed at dismantling Hamas’s remaining battalions in Rafah city.  

While the courts have signaled a disturbing willingness to cooperate to varying degrees with “lawfare” initiatives against Israel, aimed at delegitimizing Israeli military actions to defend the country against a genocidal terrorist group, this has had no obvious influence on how the Israeli military, which in any case closely follows the Laws of Armed Conflict (LOAC), is operating. 

On May 24, the ICJ ruled that Israel must not, through its war against Hamas in Rafah, take actions that could be considered genocide against the Palestinians, while rejecting South Africa’s demand to issue a decree ordering the end of the war in Gaza. 

On May 20, the ICC’s Chief Public Prosecutor, Karin Khan, said he would ask the court to issue arrest warrants against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Galant and Hamas terror chiefs Yahya Sinwar, Muhammad Deif and Ismail Haniyeh. 

The Israel Defense Forces launched its Rafah operation on May 7, sending in its highly experienced 162nd Division, which has since sub-divided Rafah into zones and began moving into them one after another, beginning with eastern Rafah and the Rafah Crossing. 

Meanwhile, the IDF has issued mass evacuation calls for Palestinian civilians in Gaza, which almost a million have complied with. 

When dealing with such complex operations, there are two options: advancing in parallel across multiple sectors, or adopting a “telescopic” approach. The IDF has opted for the latter, for both strategic and tactical reasons.

The decision was shaped by practical military considerations, aimed at effectively targeting Hamas infrastructure while minimizing civilian casualties.

The move to subdivide Rafah into smaller operational areas reflects the IDF’s preferred military approach rather than external pressures. 

Just as IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi had to decide between sending multiple divisions into Rafah simultaneously or adopting a phased plan, so too do company commanders need to decide whether to send in three platoons into a zone at once, or divide the area into subsectors in a phased maneuver. The same tactical decision is made at various command levels, from chief of staff to the the division level to the company level.

A phased approach also has the added benefit of allowing the military to stir up the targeted area and gather intelligence on enemy responses, gaining a better understanding of how many terrorists and weapons are in each sector. 

As such, the IDF chose to methodically secure areas one at a time in Rafah not as a result of external pressure but as a deliberate tactical decision to boost operational success.

This “telescopic” approach is well suited to dense urban environments like Rafah, where Hamas has cynically embedded itself within civilian infrastructure.

However, while the IDF’s operations are primarily driven by military considerations, the presence of American scrutiny and pressure cannot be disregarded as an influencing factor.

So long as the IDF completes its operation in Rafah, the primary goal of dismantling Hamas’s military-terror capabilities in this area will be met.

One of the IDF’s notable achievements in Rafah has been the successful evacuation of most of the civilian population. The evacuation of nearly a million people from Rafah is a clear indication of the IDF’s efforts to avoid endangering the civilian populace.

A crucial element of the IDF’s goal in southern Gaza is gaining and maintaining control over the Philadelphi Corridor, a narrow strip along the Gaza-Egypt border notorious for arms smuggling both above and below ground.

According to Israeli estimates, there are 50 cross-border tunnels linking Rafah to Sinai in Egypt.

 By holding this area, the IDF aims to prevent the flow of weapons into Gaza, thereby weakening Hamas’s ability to rebuild its capabilities. 

The IDF recognizes that control of this corridor is essential to sustaining Israeli strategic objectives and preventing Hamas from reemerging as a threat.

Meanwhile, as the Rafah operation continues, the Israeli War Cabinet and IDF leadership are closely monitoring events in northern Israel, which has remained a no-go zone for months due to Hezbollah’s heavy attacks on the area. 

The potential for an all-out war with Hezbollah, backed by Iran, remains significant. Once the IDF’s operations in Gaza, including establishing control of the Philadelphi Corridor, are complete, Israel will no longer be able to delay the fateful decision facing the War Cabinet regarding the Iranian proxy in Lebanon. Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s bombardment of the north is getting worse.

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