Palestine became the 123rd member of the International Criminal Court (ICC) On April 1, 2015. By joining the ICC, Palestinian leaders hope to increase their political leverage by threatening to bring charges against Israeli officials for war crimes committed in the Occupied Territories. The decision to join the ICC has been greeted with delight by many in the region, while Israel predictably demurred, attempting to preclude the move by withholding taxes collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. The Israelis eventually released the funds, but deducted a third for unpaid utility debts, leading the PA to reject the transfer. With even this minor financial provocation leading the PA to threaten to take Israeli officials to the ICC, it is very likely the court will be called to action sooner rather than later. Israeli commentators, for their part, are calling for their government to not back down in the face of such threats.
The Palestinian decision to join the ICC has been greeted with approval in many parts of the world, including some in the European Union, who, according to a Wafa (Palestine) report, have also encouraged the EU’s foreign policy chief to do likewise: “A total of 69 Members of the European Parliament have hailed Palestine's accession to the International Criminal Court (ICC), describing it as a ‘historic moment in the Palestinian people's struggle for justice, freedom and peace.’ Chair of the EP Delegation for relations with the Palestinian Legislative Council MEP Martina Anderson said in a letter received by WAFA, 'I and many other MEPs welcome Palestine's accession to the Rome Statute. I call on [EU foreign policy High Representative Federica] Mogherini to also welcome Palestine's ICC membership.’”
The Saudi Gazette editorial takes an equally encouraging line, although it readily admits that the move carries with it some risks: “This will raise tensions with Israel and the United States, and risks exposing Palestinian officials to war crimes charges themselves. But that is a risk Palestinians are willing to take because after decades of struggle and on-and-off peace talks which have failed to end the conflict, Palestinians must pursue a new strategy and take their cause to a court of law....There is a flip side to Palestine joining the ICC. ICC prosecutors will now have the right to investigate any alleged crimes on the Palestinian side. There is also Washington, which gives the Palestinian Authority $400 million each year, but under U.S. law this support will be cut if Palestine presses claims against Israel at the ICC....Despite Israeli bravado, Palestine’s membership in the ICC poses a major dilemma for Israel. The panic attacks on the part of Israel suggest that Palestinians are not the only ones taking the court seriously.”
The Oman Tribune, on the other hand, is bullish, and suggests in a recent editorial that ICC membership will enable the Palestinians to attain the justice they have been looking for: “Israel, which is not an ICC member, is angry. This anger is the direct result of its deep fear of prosecution and punishment by the court under laws that almost the entire world accepts. There is little doubt that an ICC verdict on Israeli crimes committed in Gaza will favor the Palestinians. Investigations by a number of rights organizations have already revealed monstrous facts....The Palestinians are waiting for justice, which has been denied to them so far. All right-thinking people all over the world are hoping that the Palestinians will get justice soon. A war crimes trial by the ICC is just the first step.”
It has not taken long for the threats to come, as the Palestinians threatened to take action against Israeli officials who withheld tax receipts in the aftermath of the decision to seek membership in the ICC. As this Khaleej Times editorial points out, such efforts were not likely to be successful and sound somewhat bizarre, but they do show the depth of the Palestinian frustration with the current status quo: “The Palestinians are in love with the International Criminal Court. Having joined the world court by virtue of signing the Rome Statue, the beleaguered leadership is making use of every option to internationalize the Palestinian statehood cause. Apparently that is why President Mahmoud Abbas warned Israel of taking it to the arbitration council of the world court on its refusal to pay its due share of finances collected under the joint taxation system of the occupied territories. Though this doesn’t fall in the jurisdiction of the ICC, it is just reflects the bizarreness that has set in their interstate relations.”
The Israeli government has been incensed at any talk of possible ICC action and the Jerusalem Post editorial staff feel that on this issue the facts are on their side: “Israel froze these funds in December after the PA decided to join the International Criminal Court in The Hague and thereby instigate proceedings against Israel for alleged war crimes....But, as on previous occasions, Israeli punitive reactions are short-lived – no matter how justified. This time, too, the government relented following pressure from Washington and handed over to Ramallah NIS 1.37 billion. But Israel held back a symbolic NIS 160,000 to defray a fraction of the PA’s NIS 2b. debt to the Israel Electric Corporation. The PA is also in massive arrears to Mekorot for water piped to it and to Israeli hospitals for unpaid medical bills....the government cannot keep playing nice and avoid damaging our international image at a cost to the Israeli economy. The PA’s unbridled fiscal delinquency cannot be subsidized by Israeli citizens, even if the upshot would be bad press and the usual mud-slinging abroad.”
Furthermore, Israeli defense officials are accusing PA president Mahmoud Abbas for the sharp increase in violence, suggesting that such violence could lead to a greater conflagration: “Last month the IDF arrested more than 200 people suspected of violent terror activity and the anger in the Palestinian Authority over Israel's freezing of tax transfers to the West Bank government have served to add fuel to the fire....The defense establishment fears that even a small event can lead to a violent escalation given that there is a desire in the West Bank to spark a conflict with Israel. The fear the Palestinian Authority could collapse still exists because of the economic hardship and because of the desire in the Palestinian street for Abbas to push forward diplomatic steps against Israel internationally.”
But some, including the Gulf Today staff, don’t believe Israel deserves any sympathy, nor should they be rewarded for their bullying tactics: “Israeli atrocities come in varied ways and the latest is its refusal to fully give hundreds of millions of dollars in tax money owed to the Palestinian Authority. There is no reason why the Palestinians should accept anything but the full amount and, in this aspect, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is right in cautioning Israel that he would take the matter to the International Criminal Court (ICC)....It may be recalled that the Middle East Quartet (United Nations, Russian Federation, United States, European Union) recently underscored the importance of ensuring that the acute fiscal challenges faced by the Palestinians are addressed and of supporting Palestinian institution-building efforts. It is good the international community understands that Palestinians are victimized for no fault of theirs....However, much more needs to be done to make Israel realize that bullying tactics will not work.”
The Daily News’ (Egypt) James Dorsey believes that this most recent episode presages a new era of political and legal wrangles involving not only the two parties in the conflict, but a number of international organizations: “The contours of the coming battles are emerging on the football pitches even before Netanyahu forms his cabinet with a Palestinian campaign to suspend Israeli membership of world football body FIFA and the petitioning by an Israeli law firm of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate Palestine Football Association (PFA) president Major General Jibril Rajoub for war crimes allegedly committed during last year’s Gaza war....By design or default, the complaint not only serves as an early indicator of likely diplomatic and legal battles to come, but also effectively seeks to undermine the credibility of Rajoub at a time that he is believed to be positioning himself as a candidate in a future Palestinian presidential election.”
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