Joining the ICC: Is it good for the Palestinians?
Beirut - When in early April, building on its enhanced status at the United Nations since 2012, the Palestinian Authority (PA) joined the International Criminal Court (ICC), Palestinians at large expected it to immediately file a raft of complaints against Israel. As that did not happen, some Palestinians wondered half-jokingly whether the April 1st, ICC admission was not an April Fool’s joke played on them by their leader Mahmoud Abbas.
Palestinians rightly feel Israel has enjoyed a large degree of impunity in dealing with them and they certainly hope that joining the global last resort court – whose mandate is to investigate war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide — will act as a deterrent.
If held accountable, Israeli military and political leaders might think twice before resorting to their usual violent tactics for fear of ending up in front of the International Court of Justice.
Though Israel has not ratified the Rome statute, which is the founding treaty establishing the ICC, Israeli individuals could be prosecuted for crimes committed in Palestinian territories. Last summer’s Gaza war is already under review by ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, the PA having asked the court to retroactively extend its jurisdiction starting from June 13, 2014.
The Palestinian street feels Abbas’ decision to join the court was long overdue. And, indeed, the disproportionate use of force by Israel last summer in Gaza certainly qualifies for legal independent scrutiny with the killing of more than 2,200 Palestinians, a majority of them civilians; the wounding of 11,000, many with life-changing injuries; and the destruction of entire residential neighbourhoods.
It is now up to Bensouda to decide, following the current review, whether a full-scale investigation should be launched.
But the situation in Gaza is not the only issue that should be addressed. On top of the list there is the unrelenting building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the transfer by Israel of 550,000 of its citizens to territories occupied in 1967, which could qualify as a war crime.
So could be the so-called “price tag” policy by Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank against Palestinian civilians resulting in the destruction of property, uprooting of trees, arson and physical attacks.
No wonder many Palestinians ask what Abbas is waiting for before he takes action.
For the time being the Ramallah leadership is treading cautiously. Clearly it has managed to finally score a victory of sorts against Israel. After being unable to muster enough votes last December to submit a UN resolution setting a target date for the end of the Israeli occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state, Abbas is hoping that the mere ICC admission will help placate public opinion.
But that might not be enough and, in any case, Abbas’ room to manoeuvre is not as narrow as one would think. True, joining the ICC may be a double-edged sword but Palestinians are ready to face the prospect of Hamas militants being accused of war crimes for indiscriminately shelling Israeli territory from Gaza. And Abbas had every single Palestinian political group agree in writing to joining the ICC whatever the consequences or backlash might be.
Palestinians say they are not impressed either by the US Congress eventually deciding to cut US aid to the PA — some $400 million a year – or by Israel withholding, as it did, tax revenues it collects — for a 3% fee — on behalf of the PA on goods transiting Israeli ports.
They point that withholding Palestinian monies is also a double-edged sword for Israel fears the collapse of the PA should it not be able to pay its civil servants and security forces. That is why the Israeli military, which does not favour directly ruling the occupied territories, advised Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to unfreeze the Palestinian custom revenues, which he did — partially.
While the Palestinian street is eager to seek accountability for Israel’s brutal policies, and would also like the PA to halt effectively security cooperation with the Jewish state, the Ramallah leadership is seemingly reluctant to submit real cases before the ICC and waste energy in legal procedures and battles that could alienate the United States.
Instead, Abbas is focusing – with the help of the French — on going back to the UN Security Council to obtain a resolution setting a date for the end of Israeli occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state along the June 4, 1967, lines.
In any case, bilateral peace talks with Israel do appear pointless considering Netanyahu’s recent public vow not to allow a Palestinian state on his watch and putting international pressure on Israel is the only peaceful option left for the PA.
In this sense, joining the ICC was certainly a good move for it provides the PA with some much-needed leverage. It might also increase international support for the Palestinians because, as one official said privately: “This could show the world that we are not terrorists and that we resort to legal and peaceful actions to seek justice and end Israeli occupation. This could also boost the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel.”
It may be so. But at some point Abbas, who already compares very unfavourably in Palestinian public opinion with the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, will have to make bold moves if he does not want to become totally irrelevant among his own people.