Seventeen respected international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and prominent Palestinian groups Al-Dameer and Al-Haq, this week urged the Palestinian government to promptly join the International Criminal Court and use it to end a lack of accountability for alleged crimes committed by both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In their letter to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the organizations demanded accountability for acts of torture, indiscriminate attacks on civilians and Israeli settlement expansion on occupied lands. “Doing so would send an important message that entrenched impunity for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed on Palestinian territories must end once and for all,” they wrote.
This is a significant moment and opportunity that the Palestinian leadership and supporters around the world should exploit, because using the ICC marks a potentially decisive convergence between heretofore unconnected phenomena. These include a unified Palestinian strategy supported by a national consensus, activating the benefits of the “State of Palestine” as a non-member observer state in the United Nations. It also means applying international rule of law to criminal Israeli behavior in the occupied Palestinian territories and to any parallel illegal actions by Palestinians, providing a widely respected focal point for large-scale international support for the Palestinian cause. And it would clearly demarcate opposition to Israeli brutality and illegal actions in the occupied Palestinian territories while expressing conditional acceptance of Israel within its June 1967 borders.
Moving forward with this sort of convergence among legal and political dynamics would be a wise move for a Palestinian leadership that is now trying to implement the reconciliation and unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas. Using international legality to end Zionism’s Apartheid-like policies is a goal over which all Palestinians and their many international supporters can agree.
The Palestinians’ recent membership applications to 15 United Nations agencies and international treaties and conventions, and plans to join another 48 organizations in due course, includes signing up to the Fourth Geneva Convention. The convention’s definitions of clear humanitarian protections for civilians in war zones applies in many ways to the Israeli state’s subjugation of Palestinians and their lands in the occupied territories. Political negotiations and other means, such as pleading with the U.S. to put pressure on Israel, have failed to achieve any significant breakthroughs in ending Israel’s oppressive behavior.
Not surprisingly, the United States and Israel have tried in vain to block Palestine’s efforts to join international agencies and conventions, claiming that this approach bypasses direct peace talks.
Well, that is correct, but long overdue, because direct negotiations mediated by Washington on the basis of Israeli priorities over the past 20 years have provided Israel with the opportunity to massively expand its colonization of Palestinian lands.
United Nations analyses indicate that about 250 settlements have been established since 1967 in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, either with or without Israeli government authorization. The number of settlers is estimated at over 520,000 (200,000 in East Jerusalem and 320,000 in the rest of the West Bank). Over the past decade the settler population has grown at a much higher rate than the population in Israel itself, with a yearly average growth of 5.3 percent (excluding East Jerusalem), compared to 1.8 per cent in Israel.
Settlements expansion and land expropriations, along with control of water resources and building permits, are among the key tools that Zionism has used for many decades to steadily strangle and ultimately uproot, evict and exile Palestinian communities, so that a more pure Zionist “Jewish state” could flourish. The Palestinians and their Arab supporters have totally failed in their attempts to slow down or stop this process, and even the American president hit a brick wall when he tried to do this twice in the past four years.
Only two methods have worked to stop or reverse Israeli colonization in Palestine and adjacent Arab lands in recent years: peace agreements like those signed with Egypt and Jordan, or armed resistance that contributed to ending Israel’s direct occupation and colonization of Gaza and southern Lebanon. Neither of those options seems likely to succeed now, so it is high time that the Palestinians try other available means, of which joining and activating the mechanisms of the ICC seems to be the best option.
The international human rights organizations in their letter said that acceding to the ICC would encourage both Israelis and Palestinians to respect international law and would end impunity for alleged war crimes, adding that the court’s oversight would help, not harm, peace efforts – because “[t]he commission of war crimes with impunity has regularly undermined the peace process. A credible prosecution threat would help to advance the cause of peace.”
So what is Mahmoud Abbas waiting for?
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.