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Will ICC Investigate Abuses of Israeli Occupation?

February 2015

Is it possible to hold Israel accountable for its violations of Palestinians’ human rights, and thus take steps to end at least some of the worst aspects of the Israeli occupation, through the arena of international law?  That’s a question that could be answered in the coming years.

On January 16, 2015, the International Criminal Court launched a preliminary investigation into possible war crimes in the occupied Palestinian territories.  This is an initial inquiry, after which point the ICC could decide whether or not to take up a full investigation.

What has led to this turn of events?  For years, Palestinian civil society groups, including Grassroots International partner the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), have been engaged in a campaign to push the Palestinian Authority to join the International Criminal Court.  PCHR and others have seen this as a critical step toward holding Israel accountable for violations of the human rights of Palestinians.  The International Criminal Court, located in The Hague, Netherlands, is an international tribunal which has jurisdiction to take up cases involving crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide.  States join the ICC by signing onto and ratifying the Rome Statute, an international treaty that established the ICC in 2002.  The Palestinian Authority first submitted an application to join the ICC in 2009, but the ICC denied this application in April 2012, based on the fact that Palestine was not yet recognized as a state by the UN.

In late 2012, the UN General Assembly voted to upgrade Palestine’s status, to become a “non-member observer state,” the same status as the Vatican.  While Palestine does not currently have voting rights at the UN, its status as a non-member observer state allows it to participate in most UN meetings and side meetings. In the eyes of Grassroots International’s partners, the main advantage of non-member observer state status is that it allows Palestine to sign onto the Rome Statute and thus join the International Criminal Court (ICC). 

On December 31, 2014, after years of Palestinian people’s efforts pushing for the Palestinian Authority (PA) to join the ICC, the PA took this step.  Mahmoud Abbas submitted the PA’s application to join the International Criminal Court, through a declaration accepting the jurisdiction of the ICC to investigate crimes against humanity within the occupied Palestinian territories since June 13, 2014 (just before the start of Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge”). 

Palestine will officially become a member of the ICC on April 1, 2015, after which it will have a clear mechanism to bring charges against Israel at the International Criminal Court.  This would potentially be an important place to hold Israel accountable for its violations of the human rights of Palestinians, as this court has some enforcement power.  By the same token, by accepting the jurisdiction of the ICC, the PA and Hamas could also be held accountable through the ICC for any responsibility they may have in human rights violations as well.  

There are reasons to be skeptical of whether Palestine’s joining the ICC will have the kind of impact that would be needed to address violations of Palestinians’ human rights.  First, the ICC has taken on a limited number of cases, and infrequently ruled against war crimes. And secondly, the slow pace at which it conducts investigations could lead to a protracted process.

Nonetheless, many see the ICC as an important body that has the power to address a number of critical issues, including not only last summer’s military attacks on the people of Gaza, but also Israel’s support for the expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank, ongoing construction of the Wall in the West Bank (ruled illegal in 2004 by the International Court of Justice), and the ongoing blockade/siege of Gaza.  Raji Sourani, Executive Director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, put it this way: “If Palestine’s membership of the ICC means nothing, and Israel isn’t worried, what is this hysteria and the threats against the entire Palestinian leadership?” 

In a clear expression of its opposition to the PA’s move to join the ICC, Israel has frozen $125 million in Palestinian tax dollars that it collects monthly and transfers to the PA.  Amounting to 2/3 of the PA’s monthly budget, this move will undoubtedly create serious challenges for the PA’s ability to function, pay staff, and run government programs.  Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat referred to this Israeli move to withhold Palestinian funds as “further illegal collective punishment.”

Palestinians – after having suffered unimaginable losses in human life, massive destruction of farmlands, homes and water infrastructure, while trying to rebuild with such limited resources, and continuing to face severe military repression and criminalization – have decided to pursue a path of seeking justice through international human rights law.  Israel is responding by cutting off funding which it owes to Palestinians – tax dollars that it collects from Palestinians, in fact, and which it started collecting as a result of negotiated peace treaties in the 1990s.  As Samih Mohsin of PCHR shared, “The Palestinian people have decided to go along with a political, diplomatic solution, while Israeli government and society get more militarized and more extreme.”

What’s more, the US is following Israel’s lead, castigating the PA for having sought to join the ICC and threatening to withhold $440 million in US funding to the PA.  How does it serve the interests of peace to discourage the PA from seeking justice through international courts, especially when Israel continues to violate international law, with devastating consequences on the Palestinian people?

Grassroots International congratulates PCHR and other Palestinian civil society groups whose efforts over the years have made it possible for Palestine to join the ICC.  We continue to stand with PCHR in all its efforts to document violations of human rights and bring cases to justice for the Palestinian people.

For more information, please see this article by PCHR about what is next after the PA’s bid to join the ICC, and this statement by Human Rights Watch about the ICC Prosecutor’s Initial Inquiry into the situation in Palestine.

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