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Maneuvering at the UN Could Lead to War Crimes Charges Against Israeli and Palestinian Leaders

Palestine will officially join the International Criminal Court on April 1, paving the way for possible prosecution of both Israeli and Palestinian leaders for war crimes.
Photo by Majdi Mohammed/AP

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced late Tuesday that Palestine will officially join the International Criminal Court on April 1, paving the way for possible prosecution of both Israeli and Palestinian leaders for war crimes.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced the ratification of the ICC's founding text, the Rome Statute, on December 31. The decision came a day after the UN Security Council failed to adopt a resolution that called for Israel's withdrawal from Palestinian territory that has been occupied since the 1967 Six Day War.


On January 2, Palestinian diplomats in New York handed documents on their accession to the Rome Statute to UN officials in New York. As Secretary-General, Ban receives and handles request dealing with international treaties, though he is not a final arbiter.

— State of Palestine (@Palestine_UN)January 7, 2015

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The move has angered Israeli authorities and led Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to order the withholding of some $127 million in taxes collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. Israel opposes Palestine joining the ICC, which tries cases of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

In a letter to the Security Council, Palestinian ambassador to the UN Riyad Mansour called the move to withhold taxes "blatant theft and an act of collective punishment." Local media reports also quoted Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, a rare voice of domestic opposition to Israel's hardline policies, as saying that "freezing the transfer of Palestinian tax funds does not benefit us and does not benefit them."

Israel's principal backer, the US, also opposed Palestine joining the ICC. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday that Palestine was not "eligible to accede to the Rome Statute" because it is not recognized as a "sovereign state" by the US.

'In the next few months, you'll see if the prosecutor will launch a preliminary investigation or examination.'


Last year, several European countries, including Sweden and Spain, voted to recognize the Palestinian state — steps that gave Palestinian authorities added impetus to bring their case to either the UN or ICC.

On Tuesday, Senator Rand Paul, citing existing US law, introduced a bill titled "the Defend Israel by Defunding Palestinian Foreign Aid Act of 2015," which would cut off some $400 million dollars in annual aid to Palestine unless they withdraw their ICC bid entirely. Paul, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, later met with a group of wealthy Jewish Republican donors.

"Certainly groups that threaten Israel cannot be allies of the US," Paul said in a statement. "I will continue to do everything in my power to make sure this President and this Congress stop treating Israel's enemies as American allies."

Palestinian leaders, under increasing domestic pressure to take action to resolve the decades-long conflict, have said financial and political pressures will not lead to a change in course.

ICC prosecutors will decide what crimes — if any — the court will prosecute. Before that can happen, the ICC still needs to recognize Palestine as a state, something the UN General Assembly did in 2012.

In joining the ICC, Palestine gave the court jurisdiction over alleged crimes committed in its territory — both by Israeli and Palestinian individuals — retroactive to June 13 of last year, a month before Israel started military operations in the Gaza Strip and just as Israeli forces began a crackdown in the West Bank.


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Israel's 50-day assault on the Gaza Strip came after the June kidnapping and murder of three teenage settlers in the West Bank. A combined air and ground assault on Gaza left more than 2,100 Palestinians dead, the majority of them civilians, according to the United Nations. Sixty-seven Israeli soldiers and seven Israeli civilians died between July 8 and August 27.

Palestine would like the court to investigate both the Gaza war and Israel's settlement constructions in the West Bank. The latter activity has been internationally condemned as illegal.

"In the next few months, you'll see if the prosecutor will launch a preliminary investigation or examination," Yazen Abed, Middle East and North Africa fellow at the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, told VICE News. "In that past that has been a fairly lengthy process."

On Monday, Shurat HaDin, an Israeli rights organization, petitioned the ICC to prosecute three members of Palestinian Liberation Organization, including Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah. Abed said the request, like hundreds of others the ICC fields each year, will likely not lead to any action. Once Palestine is accepted as a state, however, investigations may include the alleged crimes committed by Hamas or the Palestinian Authority.

"It's important to understand that this isn't necessarily Palestine making a move to go after Israel — they are accepting jurisdiction of the ICC over their country," Abed told VICE News. "You could very well see cases brought against Palestinians."

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford