Palestine in ICC is a challenge to Israel, US

Palestine in ICC is a challenge to Israel, US

In 60 days time, Palestine is set to become the first “virtual state” as a party to the International Criminal Court (ICC), the 123rd to accede.  Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signed the court's statute on New Year's Eve, paving the way for prosecutions of both Israelis and Palestinians for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) expects major accusations to be levelled against Israelis while Palestinians facing charges will claim they are resisting illegal Israeli occupation. The move amounts to the abandonment by Abbas and his Fatah movement of 22 years of fruitless, mainly US-brokered, negotiations.

The last straw for the Palestinians was the rejection of a Palestinian drafted resolution before the UN Security Council demanding a 2016 deadline for a settlement with Israel and an end to Israel's occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza by the end of 2017.

The Palestinians were infuriated when the US-engineered defeat of the resolution by depriving it of nine votes out of 15 needed to pass. Eight voted in favour, including China, Russia, and France. Nigeria had pledged support but US Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu personally pressured Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to abstain along with four others. The US and Australia voted against. If the resolution had passed, Washington would have had to exercise its veto, granted to permanent council members, a move the US sought to avoid.

The US did not expect Abbas to retaliate by promptly signing the ICC statute, a move he had threatened since last August following Israel’s devastating assault on Gaza. Once confirmed, Palestine will be able to prosecute Israelis for that offensive which slew 1,500 Palestinian civilians, for imposing apartheid in the Palestinian territories, and for colonising them, violating the Fourth Geneva convention and international law.

While Israeli groups also plan to call for prosecution of Palestinians for attacks that killed Israeli civilians, Israelis’ alleged offences are far greater and more grievous than those of Palestinians. Hamas, charged by Israel with terrorism, has agreed to sign up to the ICC.

Israel and the US could punish the Palestinians for their ICC accession. The US Congress has already threatened to suspend $400 million in annual aid for the PA while Israel could halt the transfer of $50 million a month in taxes collected on behalf of the PA. But neither the US nor Israel wants the PA to collapse. Its US-trained security forces, which absorb about 40 per cent of the PA’s budget, collaborate with the Israeli army and internal intelligence agency to provide security for Israel and Israelis, including colonists living illegally in the West Bank.

Claiming it does not “want to rule over another people,” Israel rejects a return to direct rule of the West Bank and Gaza, which has been administered by the PA since 1994. This could mean Israel rather than the externally funded PA would have to provide for Palestinian health care, education and other services.

The PA is an essential tool for Israeli and US management of the Palestinians. Frustrated Palestinian individuals have already begun mounting attacks on Israelis in East Jerusalem and the West Bank in a “lone wolf intifada” which could morph into a full-scale violent intifada at any time.

No different approach
The US could also use its dominant position on the UN Security Council to press the ICC to reject Palestinian complaints. However, Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda of Gambia has pledged to execute her mandate “without fear or favour, where jurisdiction is established (by signing the statute) and will vigorously pursue those – irrespective of status or affiliation – who commit mass crimes that shock the conscience of humanity. My office’s approach to Palestine will be no different if the court's jurisdiction is ever triggered over the situation.”

It is reported that the Palestinians have already submitted charges against Israel over crimes committed during the Gaza offensive. If Bensouda sticks to her line, Israelis could find themselves facing charges and unable to leave Israel for fear of arrest. If the ICC takes up Palestinian complaints against Israelis, West Asia could widen the court's focus - which has been primarily on Africa – and could give rise to concern among West Asian human rights abusers that they, ultimately, could also find themselves in the dock.

The PA’s shift is both strategic and timely. Abbas has been compelled by failure of the US-guided peace process to go along with the internationalisation of the drive to transform the “virtual state” into a state with control over its own territory. He began by applying in 2012 to the UN General Assembly for an upgrading
of Palestinian UN membership from “observer” to “non-member state.”
This was a major breakthrough that permitted Palestine to join more than 35 international organisations over the past two years, culminating in its application to the ICC, challenging both Israel and the US.