Palestinians threaten to join International Criminal Court over Gaza

If Operation Protective Edge continues, we will head to Hague-based court ‘sooner rather than later,’ PLO official Hanan Ashrawi says

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

If Operation Protective Edge continues, the Palestinian leadership will apply for membership in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court “sooner rather than later,” a senior Palestine Liberation Organization official said.

If accepted to the ICC, the “State of Palestine” would be able to sue Israel for war crimes, but would in turn be exposed to similar lawsuits itself.

“We have a decision to accede to the Rome Statute,” PLO executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi told The Times of Israel. “All we need to do is send the letter… If this assault continues and doesn’t stop, you can see it sooner rather than later.”

Ashrawi refused to say when exactly the Palestinians leadership would submit the application, a move that would greatly anger Jerusalem and probably be met with harsh retaliatory measures.

“Actually, we’re trying to do things in an incremental way at this point. We are working on the legal aspects of cases and lawsuits, and so on,” Ashrawi said. “We gauge things as we go along.” Ramallah is unafraid of Israel countersuing Palestinians, she asserted, refusing to state whether she considers indiscriminate rocket fire on Israeli cities a war crime.

In Jerusalem officials were unimpressed with her threats. “I’m not going to respond to speculation on possible Palestinian propaganda coups in international organizations,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Yigal Palmor said. Israeli legal experts disagree on whether Jerusalem needs to be worried about the “State of Palestine” acceding to the ICC.

On Thursday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas traveled to Cairo and other Arab capitals in an effort to help broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, which have been exchanging fire since July 8. But the Palestinian leadership has been taking several steps in the international arena to respond to Operation Protective Edge, Ashrawi said.

The Palestinians sent a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, asking him officially put the “State of Palestine” under the “UN international protection system and to form a legal committee for immediate follow-up,” Ashrawi said.

Ramallah has also asked for a meeting of the High Contracting Parties of Fourth Geneva Conventions and urged Switzerland — its depository state — to “accelerate consultations” and convene the parties as soon as possible. The Geneva Conventions — to which the Palestinians acceded earlier this year after peace talks with Israel stalled — regulate how civilians need to be protected in times of war.

The Palestinians wants the parties to the convention “to consider measures to uphold their obligations, under common Article 1 and Article 146 regarding penal sanctions for grave breaches, and enforce the Convention in Occupied Palestine, including East Jerusalem,” the PLO ambassador to the UN, Riyad Mansour, told the UN Security Council last week.

Furthermore, the Palestinian leadership has asked for an emergency meeting of the UN Human Rights Council, “to deal with the grave conditions in Gaza and hold Israel to account for its violations of international law and international humanitarian law,” according to Ashrawi.

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination will be asked, during its annual meeting in August, to “add Israel and its policies and measures against Palestine on its agenda and designate Israel as an apartheid state,” she said.

There are other plans to accede to international conventions, she added, refusing, however, to provide any detail.

The International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands (photo credit: Vincent van Zeijst/Wikimedia Commons/File)
The International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands (photo credit: Vincent van Zeijst/Wikimedia Commons/File)

The specter of the “State of Palestine” joining the ICC, where it could sue Israeli leaders for war crimes or crimes against humanity, has some officials in Jerusalem worried. Others argue that it’s an empty threat, since it isn’t clear that membership in the Hague-based court would be in the Palestinians’ best interest. As members, the Palestinians would not only be able to sue Israel, they would also expose themselves to lawsuits. And, Israeli observers point out, Palestinian terrorist groups have much more to be afraid of than Israelis leaders.

Israeli security forces make strenuous efforts to adhere to international law, while Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups are routinely engaged in actions that are defined by many as war crimes, such as shooting rockets at civilians.

Last week, Palestinian envoy to the United Nations Ibrahim Kraishi said the “Palestinian weakness” in terms of international law is the indiscriminate firing of rockets at Israel.

Ashrawi said that the Palestinian leadership has nothing to be afraid of. “International law makes a distinction between self-defense and occupation and aggression,” she said. “We are a people under occupation, and there is a real difference between a people a under occupation and an occupying power. We do have legal counsel, don’t worry.”

Asked about Hamas’s indiscriminate rocket fire on Israeli cities, she replied: “There is a difference between attacking a civilian population under occupation, under siege, with nowhere to go; and the actions of people under occupation.”

Pressed to clarify whether she considers indiscriminate rocket fire at Israeli citizens a war crime or not, she said: “Well, I think, as I said, there is a difference. That’s what I’m saying. I’m not getting into the legal terminology.”

Either way, the entire Palestinian people urges the leadership to proceed with applying to the ICC, Ashrawi said. “And if Israel wants to sue, let it sue… We’ve had enough of Israeli war crimes.”

The PLO is not afraid of possible Israeli retaliation for a possible accession to the ICC, she added. “Israel doesn’t need a pretext” to punish the Palestinians, she charged. “It’s been doing everything possible to us; I don’t know what it wants to do?” she said, listing numerous offenses Israel allegedly committed against the Palestinian people. “So what else can it do? It’s welcome to try.”

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