ICC should initiate investigation into Israeli crimes

October 9, 2013
Sarah Benton

A bomb dropped by an Israeli air force F-16 jet exploding in Beit Hanoun, north-east tip of the Gaza strip, January 3, 2009

Al-Haq and PCHR call on ICC Prosecutor to move forward on 2009 Palestinian Declaration

Media release, Al Haq
October 04, 2013

On Thursday, 3 October 2013, Al-Haq and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) held a meeting with the International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor, Fatou B. Bensouda, to personally present a legal opinion, prepared in cooperation with Dr. Michael Kearney of the University of Sussex. The opinion provides legal justification for the Prosecutor to move forward on a declaration submitted by the Palestinian leadership in 2009, accepting the jurisdiction of the Court under Article 12 (3) of the Rome Statute. The 2009 declaration can be acted upon by the Prosecutor without the need for any renewed action by the Palestinian leadership. The crux of the argument is that the question of Palestinian statehood, presented by the former prosecutor as justification for not extending ICC jurisdiction, has definitively been removed by Palestine’s upgrade to Non-Member State status on 29 November 2012.

Speaking after the meeting, Shawan Jabarin, the General Director of Al-Haq stated: “With this opinion we are putting forward our position that the rights of Palestinian victims are not subject to compromise. Any negotiated agreement that sidelines the pursuit of justice through the ICC, is an agreement that lacks the representative support of Palestinian civil society. Our role as Palestinian human rights organisations is to pursue justice and accountability regardless of negotiations and we condemn any pressure exerted to the contrary. This is especially important in light of the fact that violations of international law continue unabated despite ongoing negotiations. We call on the Prosecutor to move forward on the 2009 Palestinian declaration and simultaneously urge the Palestinian leadership to support such a move, in addition to acceding to other international instruments.”

Unfortunately, due to restrictions on movement in and out of the Gaza Strip, Raji Sourani, the Director of PCHR was prevented from personally attending the meeting. The meeting was however, also attended by the President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Mr. Karim Lahidji, who chose to be present as an indication of support for the position taken by Al-Haq and PCHR.

Paul Hansen’s photo of uncles carrying the bodies of 2-year-old Suhaib Hijazi and her 3-year-old brother Muhammad won Hansen the World Press Photo award, 2012. The children were killed, along with their father, by an Israeli airstrike on their home.

ICC urged to investigate ‘commission of crimes’ in Palestinian territories

Palestinian rights groups submit legal opinion, arguing court has grounds to extend its jurisdiction without ratification by Palestine

By Harriet Sherwood, Guardian
October 04, 2013

Two Palestinian human rights groups are calling on the international criminal court to launch an investigation into the commission of crimes under international law in the occupied territories.

Any such move by the ICC would be fiercely opposed by Israel and the US, and would be likely to scupper the recently revived peace process.

Al-Haq and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights have presented a legal opinion to the ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, at The Hague, arguing that the court can take action without Palestine formally signing up to the body. The two rights groups are calling for the court to begin an investigation based on “the mass of evidence and documentation attesting to the widespread commission of crimes in Palestine, and the environment of total impunity for the perpetrators”.

Israel has not ratified the Rome statute, which established the ICC, and although the Palestinians have raised the prospect of signing the treaty, they have not yet taken concrete steps to do so.

But the legal opinion said the ICC had grounds to extend its jurisdiction without ratification by Palestine. It could do this on the basis of a declaration submitted by the Palestinian leadership in 2009, which accepted the jurisdiction of the court under article 12 (3) of the Rome statute.

“The purpose of the court being to combat impunity by ensuring that ‘the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole must not go unpunished’ and ‘to put an end to impunity for the perpetrators of these crimes and thus to contribute to the prevention of such crimes’, it is now incumbent on the office of the prosecutor to confront the temporal and territorial ‘black hole’ in which the people of the state of Palestine have been locked for the past several decades,” the legal opinion said.

The Palestinian leadership has signalled its intent to sign up to international bodies and treaties, including the ICC, since the UN general assembly voted overwhelmingly to recognise the state of Palestine almost a year ago.

But the US has put intense pressure on the Palestinians to freeze any such moves while renewed peace negotiations are under way. Israel would be expected to walk out of talks at any sign of what it and the US describe as unilateral actions by the Palestinians to advance their state.

Israel is particularly alarmed at the prospect of the Palestinians joining the ICC as such a move could pave the way for possible prosecution of Israel for breaches of international law, including war crimes.

“The rights of Palestinian victims are not subject to compromise,” said Shawan Jabarin, director of Al-Haq. “Our role as Palestinian human rights organisations is to pursue justice and accountability regardless of negotiations and we condemn any pressure exerted to the contrary. This is especially important in light of the fact that violations of international law continue unabated despite ongoing negotiations.”

Jabarin called on the ICC prosecutor to proceed on the basis of the 2009 Palestinian declaration, urging the Palestinian leadership to support such a move without regard to the peace talks. “Any negotiated agreement that sidelines the pursuit of justice through the ICC, is an agreement that lacks the representative support of Palestinian civil society,” he said.

Palestinian negotiators have not formally agreed to forego moves to join international bodies and treaties while peace talks are in progress, one official said. A shortlist of 16 relatively noncontroversial treaties has been drawn up, which Palestine intends to ratify unless clear progress is made in negotiations, the official added.

Palestinian civilians and medics run to safety during an Israeli strike using phosphorus shells at a UN school. Photo by Mohammed Abed/AFP

Why Palestine Should Take Israel to Court in The Hague

By George Bisharat, NY Times
January 29, 2013

LAST week, the Palestinian foreign minister, Riad Malki, declared that if Israel persisted in its plans to build settlements in the currently vacant area known as E-1, which lies between Palestinian East Jerusalem and the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim, “we will be going to the I.C.C.,” referring to the International Criminal Court. “We have no choice,” he added.

The Palestinians’ first attempt to join the I.C.C. was thwarted last April when the court’s chief prosecutor at the time, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, declined the request on the grounds that Palestine was not a state. That ambiguity has since diminished with the United Nations’ conferral of nonmember state status on Palestine in November. Israel’s frantic opposition to the elevation of Palestine’s status at the United Nations was motivated precisely by the fear that it would soon lead to I.C.C. jurisdiction over Palestinian claims of war crimes.

Israeli leaders are unnerved for good reason. The I.C.C. could prosecute major international crimes committed on Palestinian soil anytime after the court’s founding on July 1, 2002.

Since the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000, the Israel Defense Forces, guided by its military lawyers, have attempted to remake the laws of war by consciously violating them and then creating new legal concepts to provide juridical cover for their misdeeds. For example, in 2002, an Israeli F-16 dropped a one-ton bomb on an apartment building in a densely populated Gaza neighborhood, killing a Hamas military leader, Salah Shehadeh, and 14 others, including his wife and seven children under the age of 15. In 2009, Israeli artillery killed more than 20 members of the Samouni family, who had sought shelter in a structure in the Zeitoun district of Gaza City at the bidding of Israeli soldiers. Last year, Israeli missiles killed two Palestinian cameramen working for Al Aksa television. Each of these acts, and many more, could lead to I.C.C. investigations.

The former head of the Israeli military’s international law division, Daniel Reisner, asserted in 2009: “International law progresses through violations. We invented the targeted assassination thesis and we had to push it. At first there were protrusions that made it hard to insert easily into the legal molds. Eight years later it is in the center of the bounds of legitimacy.”

Colonel Reisner is right that customary international law is formed by the actual practice of states that other states accept as lawful. But targeted assassinations are not widely accepted as legal. Nor are Israel’s other attempted legal innovations.

Israel has categorized military clashes with the Palestinians as “armed conflict short of war,” instead of the police actions of an occupying state — thus freeing the Israeli military to use F-16 fighter jets and other powerful weaponry against barely defended Palestinian populations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

It has designated individuals who fail to leave a targeted area after a warning as “voluntary human shields” who are therefore subject to lawful attack, despite the fact that warnings may not be effective and escape routes not clear to the victims.

And it has treated civilian employees of Hamas — including police officers, judges, clerks, journalists and others — as combatants because they allegedly support a “terrorist infrastructure.” Never mind that contemporary international law deems civilians “combatants” only when they actually take up arms.

All of these practices could expose Israeli political and military officials to prosecutions for war crimes. To be clear, the prosecutions would be for particular acts, not for general practices, but statements by Israeli officials explaining their policies could well provide evidence that the acts were intentional and not mere accidents of war.

No doubt, Israel is most worried about the possibility of criminal prosecutions for its settlements policy. Israeli bluster notwithstanding, there is no doubt that Jewish settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, are illegal. Israeli officials have known this since 1967, when Theodor Meron, then legal counsel to the Israeli Foreign Ministry and later president of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, wrote to one of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s aides: “My conclusion is that civilian settlement in the administered territories contravenes the explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention.”

Under the founding statute of the I.C.C., grave violations of the Geneva Conventions, including civilian settlements in occupied territories, are considered war crimes.

The next step for the Palestinians is to renew a certificate of accession to the I.C.C. with the United Nations secretary general. Assuming that I.C.C. jurisdiction is accepted, investigations of alleged Israeli war crimes would still not begin automatically, because the I.C.C. must next find that Israel’s own courts are failing to adequately review those charges. Palestinians, by inviting I.C.C. investigations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, also run the risk that their own possible violations — such as deliberate attacks on Israeli civilians — could come under I.C.C. scrutiny.

If Palestinians succeed in getting the I.C.C. to examine their grievances, Israel’s campaign to bend international law to its advantage would finally be subjected to international judicial review and, one hopes, curbed. Israel’s dangerous legal innovations, if accepted, would expand the scope of permissible violence to previously protected persons and places, and turn international humanitarian law on its head. We do not want a world in which journalists become fair game because of their employers’ ideas.

If the choice is between a Palestinian legal intifada, in which arguments are hashed out in court, and an actual intifada, in which blood flows in the streets, the global community should encourage the former.

Indeed, Palestinians would be doing themselves, Israelis and the global community a favor by invoking I.C.C. jurisdiction. Ending Israel’s impunity for its clear violations of legal norms would both promote peace in the Middle East and help uphold the integrity of international law.

George Bisharat is a professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law.

PNA Declaration accepting jurisdiction of International Criminal Court, 2009

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