Ever since Palestine made moves towards joining the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) in early January, it has faced a major backlash. Israel has withheld millions of dollars in Palestinian tax revenues, worsening the economic crisis in the occupied territories, while America has threatened to make its aid to Palestine dependent on the leaders in Ramallah not actually making a complaint against Israel at the ICC.
However, with peace talks stalled completely and pressure growing from the Palestinian public to see some sort of action, those at the top of the Palestinian Authority (PA) are undeterred. An official told reporters that they would lodge their first complaint against Israel on 1 April, the day that Palestine’s membership of the ICC comes into effect. The complaint will centre on Israel’s war against Gaza last summer, in which around 2,200 Palestinians were killed. UN figures suggest that most of the dead were civilians. The PA is also planning to sue Israel over its policy of settlement building on land that could form a future Palestinian state. Under international law, all Israeli construction on land that was seized during the 1967 Six Day War is illegal. It is also seen as one of the main barriers to peace, as the extent of the settlement network makes a Palestinian state on this land increasingly unviable. On 16 January, the ICC announced a “preliminary investigation” into Israel’s actions in Gaza last June. The court’s jurisdiction will cover crimes committed on or from Palestinian territory since 13 June 2014.
Israel has not responded directly to this news, but foreign ministry spokesman Emmanual Nachshon described the declaration simply as “speculative and hypothetical”. Certainly, Israel will not submit to an investigation by the ICC without a fight. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that his country will challenge the decision to launch the initial inquiry into war crimes, labelling it as “the height of hypocrisy and the opposite of justice”. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israel Radio, “We will demand that our friends in Canada, Australia and Germany simply stop funding it.” Neither Israel nor the US are members of the ICC, but Lieberman’s comments suggest that Israel would pressure member states to stop funding the court. According to Haaretz newspaper, Netanyahu plans to launch a “media campaign” to discredit the ICC and its chief prosecutor.
It has also been reported that Israel offered to return the withheld tax money in return for the complaint being dropped. PA President Mahmoud Abbas responded angrily: “The ICC is the only place where we can raise complaints about the occupation. They [the Israelis] told us that if we do not go to The Hague, they will return us the money. We are against barter in return for us not appealing to the court. How are they allowed to take away our money? Are we dealing with a state or a gangster?”
Of course, the move is not without risks for Palestine. Apart from the threat of £265m of annual US aid being cut, there is also the possibility that Hamas leaders will face charges related to indiscriminate rocket attacks against Israeli civilians. These attacks will be under consideration when the ICC prosecutor considers last summer’s Gaza conflict. According to the BBC, Israel’s government could use third-party NGOs to pursue their own complaints of war crimes committed by the Palestinians at the ICC.
Over the past few years, many western powers – not just the US, but also Britain and France – have spoken out against Palestine seeking access to the ICC. Canada said that Palestinian membership was a “concerning and dangerous development” and a “huge mistake”. Nevertheless, members of the ICC have an obligation to support the court’s purpose, which is to make sure that serious international crimes do not go unpunished. It is difficult to see how opposing Palestine’s right to join the court does anything but go against this duty.
“If anything, the ICC’s involvement could help deter war crimes that today fuel animosity and undermine the trust needed for a peace accord,” said Balkees Jarrah, an international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch. “Countries that rightly advocate for justice for international crimes in Syria, North Korea, and elsewhere should not insist on leaving Palestine an accountability-free zone.”
Since Netanyahu became prime minister again in 2009, Israel has constructed more than 10,400 housing units in illegal settlements across the West Bank. House demolitions in the occupied territory during the same period have left more than 5,333 Palestinians homeless. The peace talks are dead in the water. With numerous international bodies condemning Israel’s actions over the years as illegal but no action being taken, it is easy to see why most Palestinians feel that a culture of impunity has grown up around the occupying power. Joining the ICC is a move towards enforcing the rule of law and justice; countries which claim to uphold such values should see it as a positive step and support Palestine in The Hague.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.