On February 5, the International Criminal Court (ICC) ruled that it has jurisdiction over the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967. Seven years after the 2014 Gaza conflict, in which war crimes were committed by both Israel and armed Palestinian groups according to the United Nations, ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda confirmed a formal investigation into the situation in Palestine, which Human Rights Watch (HRW) has been calling for since 2016. On April 27, HRW released a 213-page report detailing Israel’s “crimes of apartheid and persecution.” An ICC investigation is a crucial step toward regional peace, which cannot be achieved without accountability and transitional justice.
However, amidst the process of diplomatic normalization with Arab states, Israel is compromising the prospects of peace by refusing to take responsibility for the injustices committed against Palestinian civilians, including children. To achieve peace in the Middle East, and particularly with the Palestinians, Israel must recognize the ICC’s jurisdiction and be held accountable for any war crimes committed.
The ICC Has Stepped on a Political Minefield in Palestine
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu labeled the ICC ruling as “pure anti-Semitism” and claimed that the court is a “political” body rather than a judicial one. He said that the ICC should be investigating Syria and Iran instead. This is but one example of the pattern of deflection displayed by the Israeli state when confronted with the reality of the war crimes committed during its occupation of Palestinian territories.
Netanyahu’s claims that the ICC decision is politicized or anti-Semitic are an unfounded effort at deflection and denial. First, though Syria and Iran have not been prosecuted by the ICC, these regimes are subject to a wide range of US and UN-sponsored sanctions, as well as political isolation, to which Israel is unlikely to be subjected. In a sense, these countries are already being “punished.” Second, holding Syria and Iran accountable for their own crimes and investigating possible Israeli war crimes are not mutually exclusive processes. Finally, the ICC ruling did not exclusively target Israel or its defense force, the IDF; Palestinian Hamas was also named as a potential perpetrator of war crimes and will be investigated as such.
This deflection strategy is not an unusual response to ICC investigations. It parallels the US attempt to thwart ICC investigations of American military misconduct in Afghanistan, which is similarly delaying the Afghan peace process.
Accountability matters, not only for Palestinians who have been denied their human rights during the conflict but also for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and for cooperation in the region more broadly. The climate of impunity enjoyed by Israel only fuels the frustration of Palestinians and, worse, makes the rhetoric of groups such as Hamas more compelling. Peacebuilding experts have also long argued that accountability is central to a successful peace process. For example, the indictments of Charles Taylor of Liberia and Radovan Karadzic of Bosnia strongly contributed to peaceful outcomes in both countries.
Before Israel can be held accountable, it must first recognize ICC jurisdiction. However, given the Israeli government’s continued push for annexation and the US sanctions against the ICC, this scenario is unlikely. Nonetheless, any form of accountability would be a positive start and an important step toward peace. Accountability can take many forms, ranging from state recognition of injustice to judicial punishment of individual perpetrators.
Any accountability process should also include Palestinians at the table. It is time for the Israeli leadership to spearhead the peace process — not through other Arab states, but through an honest accountability process with Palestinians. The best starting point would be for Israel to recognize ICC jurisdiction.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.