RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israel will pursue its war against Hamas until victory and will not be stopped by anyone, including the world court, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a defiant speech Saturday, as the fighting in Gaza approached the 100-day mark.
Netanyahu spoke after the International Court of Justice at The Hague held two days of hearings on South Africa’s allegations that Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians, a charge Israel has rejected as libelous and hypocritical. South Africa asked the court to order Israel to halt its blistering air and ground offensive in an interim step.
“No one will stop us, not The Hague, not the axis of evil and not anyone else,” Netanyahu said in televised remarks Saturday evening, referring to Iran and its allied militias.
The case before the world court is expected to go on for years, but a ruling on interim steps could come within weeks. Court rulings are binding but difficult to enforce. Netanyahu made clear that Israel would ignore orders to halt the fighting, potentially deepening its isolation.
Israel has been under growing international pressure to end the war, which has killed more than 23,000 Palestinians in Gaza and led to widespread suffering in the besieged enclave, but has so far been shielded by U.S. diplomatic and military support.
Thousands took to the streets of Washington, London, Paris, Rome, Milan and Dublin on Saturday to demand an end to the war. Protesters converging on the White House held aloft signs questioning President Joe Biden’s viability as a presidential candidate because of his staunch support for Israel during the war.
Israel argues that ending the war means victory for Hamas, the Islamic militant group that has ruled Gaza since 2007 and is bent on Israel’s destruction.
The war was triggered by a deadly Oct. 7 attack in which Hamas and other militants killed some 1,200 people in Israel, mostly civilians. About 250 more were taken hostage, and while some have been released or confirmed dead, more than half are believed to still be in captivity. Sunday marks 100 days of fighting.
Fears of a wider conflagration have been palpable since the start of the war. New fronts quickly opened, with Iran-backed groups — Houthi rebels in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria — carrying out a range of attacks. From the start, the U.S. increased its military presence in the region to deter an escalation.
Following a Houthi campaign of drone and missile attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea, the U.S. and Britain launched multiple airstrikes against the rebels Friday, and the U.S. hit another site Saturday.
In more fallout from the war, the world court this week heard arguments on South Africa’s complaint against Israel. South Africa cited the soaring death toll and hardships among Gaza civilians, along with inflammatory comments from Israeli leaders presented, as proof of what it called genocidal intent.
In counter arguments Friday, Israel asked for the case to be dismissed as meritless. Israel’s defense argued that the country has the right to fight back against a ruthless enemy, that South Africa had barely mentioned Hamas, and that it ignored what Israel considers attempts to mitigate civilian harm.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu and his army chief, Herzl Halevi, said they have no immediate plans to allow the return of displaced Palestinians to northern Gaza, the initial focus of Israel’s offensive. Fighting in the northern half has been scaled back, with forces now focusing on the southern city of Khan Younis, though combat continues in parts of the north.
Netanyahu said the issue had been raised by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his visit earlier this week. The Israeli leader said he told Blinken that “we will not return residents (to their homes) when there is fighting.”
At the same time, Netanyahu said Israel would eventually need to close what he said were breaches along Gaza’s border with Egypt. Over the years of an Israeli-Egyptian blockade, smuggling tunnels under Egypt-Gaza border had constituted a major supply line for Gaza.
However, the border area, particularly the city of Rafah in southern Gaza, is packed with hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who had fled northern Gaza, and their presence would complicate any plans to widen Israel’s ground offensive.
“We will not end the war until we close this breach,” Netanyahu said Saturday, adding that the government has not yet decided how to do that.
In Gaza, where Hamas has put up stiff resistance to Israel’s blistering air and ground campaign, the war continued unabated.
The Gaza Health Ministry said Saturday that 135 Palestinians had been killed in the last 24 hours, bringing the overall toll of the war to 23,843. The count does not differentiate between combatants and civilians, but the ministry has said about two-thirds of the dead are women and children. The ministry said the total number of war-wounded surpassed 60,000.
Following an Israeli airstrike before dawn Saturday, video provided by Gaza’s Civil Defense department showed rescue workers searching through the twisted rubble of a building in Gaza City by flashlight.
Footage showed them carrying a young girl wrapped in blankets with injuries to her face, and at least two other children who appeared dead. A boy, covered in dust, winced as he was loaded into an ambulance.
The attack on the home in the Daraj neighborhood killed at least 20 people, according to Civil Defense spokesperson Mahmoud Bassal.
Another strike late Friday near the southern city of Rafah on the Egyptian border killed at least 13 people, including two children. The bodies of those killed, primarily from a family displaced from central Gaza, were taken to the city’s Abu Youssef al-Najjar hospital where they were seen by an Associated Press reporter.
The Palestinian telecommunications company Jawwal said two of its employees were killed Saturday as they tried to repair the network in Khan Younis. They company said the two were hit by shelling. Jawwal said it has lost 13 employees since the start of the war.
Israel has argued that Hamas is responsible for the high civilian casualties, saying its fighters make use of civilian buildings and launch attacks from densely populated urban areas.
The Israeli military released a video Saturday that it said showed the destruction of two ready-to-use rocket launching compounds in Al-Muharraqa in central Gaza. A large grove of palm trees and some homes are seen in the frame. In the video, a rocket is being thrown into the air by the blast. The military said there had been dozens of launchers ready to be used.
Since the start of Israel’s ground operation in late October, 187 Israeli soldiers have been killed and another 1,099 injured in Gaza, according to the military.
More than 85% of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million has been displaced as a result of Israel’s air and ground offensive, and vast swaths of the territory have been leveled.
Fewer than half of the territory’s 36 hospitals are still partially functional, according to OCHA, the United Nations’ humanitarian affairs agency.
Amid already severe shortages of food, clean water and fuel in Gaza, OCHA said in its daily report that Israel’s severe constraints on humanitarian missions and outright denials had increased since the start of the year.
The agency said only 21% of planned deliveries of food, medicine, water and other supplies have been successfully reaching northern Gaza.
American and other international efforts pushing Israel to do more to alleviate the suffering of Palestinian civilians have met with little success.
Magdy reported from Cairo. Mroue reported from Beirut.
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