Palestinian leaders poised to join ICC in order to pursue Israel for war crimes
Diplomats expect plan to join international criminal court and call for investigation to be used as bargaining chip in Cairo talks
The Guardian, Tuesday 5 August 2014 14.19 EDT
Palestinian political leaders are poised to join the International Criminal Court (ICC) with the aim of putting Israel in the dock on war crimes charges, officials said today.
"Israel has left us with no other option," Riad Malki, the Palestinian foreign minister, told reporters after meeting ICC officials in The Hague to discuss the implications of signing the Rome Statute. It would make the Palestinian state a member of the court with the authority to call for an investigation into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The Palestinian Authority has asked Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) to sign the accession document before it is formally presented, and officials say they now expect both organisations to agree.
The development came as Palestinian negotiators were due to meet the head of Egyptian military intelligence in Cairo to discuss a permanent ceasefire with Israel, after all sides observed a 72-hour truce that came in to force at 8am local time (0600 BST) on Tuesday.
Hamas launched a salvo of rockets minutes before the truce began, calling it revenge for Israel's "massacres". Israel's anti-missile system shot down one rocket over Jerusalem, police said. Another hit a house in a town near Bethlehem in the West Bank. There were no casualties.
Israeli armour and infantry left Gaza ahead of the truce, and a military spokesman said their main goal of destroying cross-border tunnels had been completed. "Mission accomplished," the military tweeted.
The talks in Cairo follow a month of fighting during which 1,900 Palestinians, mostly civilians, 64 Israeli soldiers, two Israeli civilians and a Thai migrant worker were killed. Officials from Hamas and Islamic Jihad reportedly left Gaza once the truce came into effect via the Rafah border crossing, after receiving assurances from Israel that they would not be targeted. Israeli security officials were expected in the Egyptian capital later on Tuesday or on Wednesday.
Israeli officials warned, however, that Hamas had exaggerated expectations of what it could achieve in the talks. Israel Radio reported that a Palestinian demand for the construction a port and airport in Gaza was not on Egypt's agenda.
The main Palestinian demand is for an end to the seven-year blockade of Gaza, which includes lifting restrictions on the movement of people and goods by opening the border crossings. Others are for the release of prisoners, starting reconstruction and ensuring fishing rights up to 12 nautical miles off Gaza's coast. Israel is insisting on an end to rocket fire and wider "demilitarisation".
Diplomats say they expect the Palestinian plan to join the ICC and set a war crimes investigation in motion to be one of the bargaining chips on the table in Cairo. Palestinian officials claim that, for the first time, they have achieved unity on the issue among the political and armed factions, paving the way for ICC membership.
"I think it is going to happen," Saeb Erekat, a veteran Palestinian diplomat, said. Erekat said he had shown the documentation to Hamas's political leader, Khaled Meshal, a few days ago in Doha. "He asked to study it for a couple of days. There are still some legal aspects and procedures that have to be agreed."
The ICC prosecutor issued a statement on Tuesday stating that the court did not have jurisdiction on Palestinian territory without a formal Palestinian request. Palestinian Authority negotiators have taken a copy of the accession document to ceasefire talks in Cairo in the hope that the Hamas and PIJ representatives will sign it there.
If they do, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, would add his own signature, confirming membership of the ICC. He would then issue a declaration calling for an investigation.
ICC investigators would consequently assess war crimes allegations against all parties to the conflict, including Hamas and PIJ. Jawan Jabarin, a Palestinian human rights activist who has been pushing for ICC membership, said that both groups were prepared to sign because they believed Israel would be the primary target of any investigation.
"I saw the draft letter which they took to Cairo. They are waiting for signature from Hamas and Islamic Jihad and they will get it. We got confirmation. They said they will do it," Jabarin, the director general of Al-Haq, said. He predicted it would happen in "weeks or even quicker".
"They [Hamas and PIJ] believe the size of the crime that the Israelis committed is huge. They feel like they didn't commit crimes, but they say: 'Even if some of our leaders go to court, we will do that. It is part of our responsibility to the victims.' So it is a matter of time, but we are very, very close."
The Israeli foreign ministry declined to comment. Israeli officials believe that any ICC investigation would backfire on the Palestinians, implicating Hamas rather than Israel, and they have predicted that Abbas would not sign the Rome Statute for that reason. The Palestinians became eligible to join the ICC in November 2012, when the UN granted Palestine status as a non-member observer state.
If Abbas proceeds with accession to the ICC, it would represent an act of defiance of western capitals, which have put pressure on him not to join, arguing it would be an impediment to peace negotiations. The UK's foreign office minister, Sayeeda Warsi, resigned on Tuesday because of the government's policy on Gaza, specifically citing her disagreement with British pressure on the Palestinians not to pursue justice through the ICC.
Amnesty International's secretary general, Salil Shetty, has urged the Palestinian leadership to shrug off western pressure.
"They must make good on their words and seize this chance to move towards accountability for countless victims of human rights violations by submitting a declaration accepting the jurisdiction of the ICC without further delay," Shetty said.
The Qassam brigades, the military wing of Hamas, warned in a statement that its camapign would not end until its demands were met. "Our finger is on the trigger," it said. "The enemy's moves will determine the aftermath of the battle."
Ismail Haniyeh, the former Hamas prime minister, issued a statement on Hamas TV saying: "Military victory will lead to the lifting of the siege on the Gaza Strip."
In the lastest in a bitter propaganda war that has accompanied the fighting of the past month, Israel TV Channel 2 reported the military as saying it had killed 900 Palestinian fighters in Gaza, nearly half the 1,867 dead reported by Palestinian officials.Israel Radio said the defence establishment had a list of 600 names of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other fighters killed during Operation Protective Edge.