RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Palestinian Foreign Ministry presented documents on Thursday to the International Criminal Court in The Hague asserting that Israel should be investigated for war crimes in last summer’s fighting in the Gaza Strip and for continued construction of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
The presentation of files to the ICC, written in broad outline with no specific charges against named individuals, is another step in what the Palestinians describe as their new strategy of “internationalizing” the conflict with Israel by seeking ways to embarrass, isolate and pressure it to withdraw from occupied territories and allow them to form a sovereign state.
The Palestinians stress that they are not “referring” cases for prosecution but “supplying information” to the ICC prosecutor for her to make up her own mind about how to proceed.
If the Palestinians were seen as referring cases against Israel, that could trigger congressional ire — and real consequences. Congress could withhold $400 million that the United States annually provides for aid projects in the West Bank.
Israel has also warned the Palestinians that they will pay a price for taking their case to the ICC. After the Palestinian Authority signed documents to join the court, Israel withheld transfers of customs tax money for three months, forcing the authority to pay reduced salaries to civil employees.
The Palestinian Authority officially joined the court in April, although Israel and the Obama administration argue that “Palestine” is not a state and so cannot accede to the court’s founding document, the Rome Statute. Palestine is a “non-member observer state” in the United Nations.
The ICC’s top prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda of Gambia, launched a preliminary examination into possible crimes committed in last year’s Gaza war and other actions in the West Bank. If she deems the alleged crimes “grave” and decides the court has proper jurisdiction, she can go before judges at a pretrial tribunal and ask the court for permission to begin a full-fledged investigation, a much more serious matter.
The Palestinian documents submitted on Thursday were not made public, although Palestinian diplomat Ammar Hijazi discussed the contents with reporters. Hijazi said the documents seek to describe Israel’s “settlement regime” in the West Bank — how the government, through laws, land seizures, funding and military orders, aids and abets Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and why the Palestinians think this is a violation of international law.
Israel argues that the West Bank is not occupied but disputed territory and that its settlements are legal. The Obama administration describes the settlements as “illegitimate” and not helpful to the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
The other half of the Palestinian submission to the ICC focuses on the war in Gaza and describes how Israeli rules of engagement and intense artillery and tank fire led to civilian deaths.
“It presents a grim picture,” Hijazi said.The Palestinian presentation of documents follows the release this week of a report commissioned by the U.N. Human Rights Council that found evidence that both the Israeli military and armed Palestinian factions such as Hamas, the Islamist militant movement that controls the Gaza Strip, may have committed war crimes in last year’s fighting.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and government ministers have strenuously denied that Israel committed violations of international law in the Gaza war. The prime minister called the U.N. report “flawed and biased” and urged the world to ignore it.
Israel released its own report this month defending its military as cautious and moral. It blamed Hamas for civilian deaths because the group employed “human shields” and cached weapons and fired rockets near hospitals, mosques, schools and churches.
Netanyahu has vowed that he will never allow Israeli soldiers to “be dragged” before the ICC. But the ICC does not concern itself with low-level troops; instead it seeks to indict the highest authority in the chain of command. If Israel were ever prosecuted by the court, the defendant would not a conscript but a top Israeli commander or Netanyahu himself.
Some Palestinians relish this idea. “Our aim is to establish war crimes in order that an investigation by the chief prosecutor’s office is carried out and to remove immunity from Israel and its leaders, achieve justice, apply human rights conventions, protect Palestinians and hold criminals accountable for their crimes,” Mustafa Barghouthi, head of the Palestine National Initiative, told reporters Wednesday in Ramallah.
The ICC has never handled a case as politically explosive and legally complex as the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Those previously indicted by the court have been African warlords and leaders. Nor does the ICC move with speed. Some of its preliminary examinations have dragged on for years.
“We are not going to the ICC seeking revenge,” chief Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat said, but to hold Israel “accountable.”
Responding to Israeli complaints that going to the ICC will not bring the Palestinians any closer to a state, Erekat said, “Those who are wary of courts should stop committing crimes.”Erekat suggested that going to the ICC also served to remind his constituents that the Palestinian leadership is doing something. “It is asking our people, ‘don’t despair, don’t go toward violence.’ ”
The ICC prosecutor in her preliminary examination is not limiting herself to Israeli actions in Gaza and the West Bank but is looking at “all parties,” including Hamas and its militia, as well as other armed factions, and presumably the Palestinian Authority itself, which formed a “united government” with Hamas.The recent U.N. report suggested that Hamas and the other militants may have committed war crimes with their rocket fire aimed at Israeli civilian centers and their curbside extrajudicial killings of alleged “collaborators.”