Joining the ICC: Is it good for the Palestinians?

Friday 24/04/2015
The Statute of last resort

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.