In late December 2019, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) at the Hague, Fatou Bensouda, announced that a “basis” exists to investigate the “situation in Palestine” and whether Israel committed war crimes during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, as well as the Gaza border conflict of 2018-2019. Earlier this month, the court gave the green light for Bensouda to open an investigation of alleged war crimes committed by American servicemen during the United States’ war with Afghanistan.
If it sounds worrisome for Israel and the U.S., that’s because it is. Both Israel and the U.S. are not members of the ICC and did not ratify the court’s founding Rome Treaty, precisely because both countries feared it was a structurally biased institution and would become the politicized body it has. The ICC does not try states, but individuals. That means although the U.S. and Israel are not parties to the Rome Treaty, their citizens, leaders and soldiers are not immune from indictment, prosecution and arrest warrants in countries that are parties to the treaty (and there are 123 member countries of the ICC).
The International Criminal Court was created in 2002 to prosecute individuals for international crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The institution was meant to function as a “court of last resort," which means it should step in when rogue nations do not hold ostensible perpetrators of war crimes accountable. In this sense, the ICC is a powerful resource to maintain law and order around the globe and to serve as a deterrent to tyrants from committing grave crimes. However, as we have witnessed another international body, the United Nations Human Rights Council, stray from their noble cause into a political farce, so too has the International Criminal Court.
The United States and Israel both have vibrant democracies, each with some of the world’s most respected judicial systems that investigate alleged wrongdoings by their militaries. The notion that the ICC would open inquiries into both countries is obscene. The U.S. and Israel currently view the court as a politicized and illegitimate institution. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently called the most recent ruling on Afghanistan a “truly breathtaking action by an unaccountable, political institution masquerading as a legal body,” and Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon referred to the investigation of Operation Protective Edge as “diplomatic terrorism.”
For years, the Palestinian Authority (PA) along with several Palestinian NGOs, backed by thousands of euros from European governments, has threatened to open a probe of war crimes against Israel. In 2015, the PA joined the Rome Treaty and several countries recognized Palestine as an independent state. However, contrary to some wishes, Palestine is still not a sovereign state according to the Vienna Convention, upon which the Rome Statue is based. Therefore, Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has argued that “only sovereign states can delegate criminal jurisdiction to the International Criminal Court. The PA does not meet the criteria.” It’s quite straightforward. The ICC has no jurisdiction to investigate the PA’s request, and it certainly has no jurisdiction over Israel, which is not a party to the institution.
In over two decades, the ICC has only ever convicted three people in trials of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Given the last decade and the atrocities out of Syria or human rights abuses out of Iran, let alone the nearly daily war crimes committed by Hamas, e.g. sending incendiary balloons across the Gaza border to land in school yards, that there has been little interest in prosecuting such crimes speaks volumes about the political agenda and anti-Israel bias of the court.
Israel's short history has been consumed by Palestinian warfare since before the state’s creation, from terrorism to the battlefield, to the media and the BDS and delegitimization campaign and now through lawfare. We cannot underestimate the use of lawfare as a weapon against the Jewish State and dismiss it as mere politics. It may be a political show, but this time Israel cannot dismiss the ICC’s legal positions in the same way it dismisses rulings by the U.N. General Assembly. International law carries with it very real consequences and not just from a P.R. perspective of assigning the label of war criminal to an Israeli leader. If said person refuses to submit to interrogation by the ICC prosecutor and travels to an ICC member state like Germany or England (as well as much of the rest of Europe, South America and Africa), that person could theoretically be arrested as soon as their plane lands on foreign soil. That scenario would lead to an international scandal of epic proportions, causing severe diplomatic rifts—rifts Israel cannot afford.
The ICC Pretrial Chamber is expected to decide sometime after this month whether or not it will recognize a “State of Palestine,” (meaning whether or not it actually has jurisdiction), and determine if they will proceed with a full criminal investigation. For now, we will watch as things unfold, continue to advocate on Israel’s behalf and hope Israel continues to mount a multi-layered defense against this delegitimization.
For years, we have made the case that Israel continues to be subjected to unequal footing and outright systemic bias within the international community. The latest moves by the ICC add it to the growing list of anti-Israel, arguably anti-Semitic, international bodies. The real tragedy here is that victims of actual crimes against humanity may never see justice because a pervasive international obsession with the one Jewish State trumps all else.
Rebecca Rose is Associate Director of Development & Special Projects at B’nai B’rith International. She holds an M.A. in Political Science in Security and Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University.
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