Palestinians Join War Crimes Court to Press Israel Charges

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The Palestinian Authority joined the International Criminal Court on Wednesday, a step that will allow them to pursue war crimes charges against Israel.

Joining the Hague-based ICC is part of a broader diplomatic campaign to win statehood and isolate Israel that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas revived after U.S.-backed peace talks collapsed a year ago. Israel, whose image would be further tarnished by a war crimes investigation, says statehood can only be achieved through direct negotiations.

“This significant occasion serves as a reminder to the international community of its responsibilities under international law, in order to achieve a just and lasting peace, and put an end to the prolonged occupation,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said in an e-mailed statement.

No charges will be immediately filed through the court, pending its review of possible claims, Palestinian officials have said. The Palestinian Authority is simultaneously preparing files against Israel in relation to its actions in last summer’s war in Gaza and its settlement activity in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, said Abbas’s legal adviser Hassan al-Ouri.

Tax Collection

Separately, Abbas said he declined Israel’s offer to release more than $125 million a month in tax receipts collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority because money would be deducted to pay the authority’s debts for electricity and sewage services provided by Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the funds withheld in January after Abbas started the process to join the international court.

“Israel told us it was willing to discuss the issue of money and we actually had some discussions in which they said they would deduct our debts according to their calculations,” Abbas said in an e-mailed statement. “They told us we would have to accept their decisions. We said we do not accept what you are imposing on us and we will seek arbitration.”

The authority has temporarily cut the salaries of its 160,000 employees in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by 40 percent to manage the shortfall from the tax revenue withheld.

‘Crimes and Violations’

Accession to the court “provides a lot of tools and legal means to address the crimes and violations Israel has committed against the Palestinian people,” he said.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry called the Palestinian move “politically motivated, cynical and hypocritical.”

“The Palestinian Authority, having partnered with the murderous terrorist group, Hamas, which carried out war crimes of the type Islamic State commits, is the last to be able to threaten claims at the international court in The Hague,” it said in an e-mailed statement.

The Palestinian Authority began the process of joining the ICC by signing its Rome Statue in January. The court’s chief prosecutor then agreed to open a preliminary investigation into Palestinian accusations of Israeli war crimes from June 2014.

While talk of war crimes charges hurts Israel politically, carrying out the threat of prosecution would be complicated, said Robbie Sabel, professor of international law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

First, the court will have to decide what constitutes the territory of Palestine, a highly charged political question, he said. Second, the crimes the court has dealt with in the past have been mass murders, mass rapes and mutilations. While settlements are “a divisive political issue,” their construction “is not the sort of crime the court was set up to deal with,” he said.

Could Boomerang

What’s more, the Palestinian Authority would be held responsible for the actions of Hamas, which aims its weapons at Israeli civilians and places them near Palestinian civilians, he said. Such practices may expose the Palestinians to war crimes charges of their own. And though “there can be criticism over whether Israel took sufficient steps” to avoid civilian casualties in the latest Gaza fighting, “there’s no claim that Israel deliberately went out to kill civilians,” Sabel added.

“Like many threats, it’s useful as a threat, but if you actually have to use it, it can become a double-edged sword,” he said.

More than 2,100 Palestinians and 70 on the Israeli side were killed during Israel’s war against Gaza militants.

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