Palestine’s upgraded status at the U.N. to non-member observer state handed it a potent weapon against the longest military occupation in modern history: the ability to join the International Criminal Court. So what has the Palestinian Authority done with this weapon in the months since? Absolutely nothing, and for no discernible reason.
This is a disgrace, given Israel’s daily violations of human rights and international law that affect every aspect of Palestinian life. Those that took place in 2012 are summarised in a Human Rights Watch report, published last week but largely unreported.
In the West Bank, they included: settlement expansion; unlawfully demolishing hundreds of homes and buildings; denying access to natural resources and basic utilities, displacing nearly 900 people; suppressing non-violent protests; using excessive force against demonstrators; arbitrarily banning the travel of human rights defenders; unlawfully limiting farmers’ access to their lands; raiding the offices of civil society groups; prolonged arbitrary detention; coercive interrogations; and unfair trials.
“In the majority of cases, Israeli authorities failed to indict anyone for attacks apparently carried out by Israeli settlers that harmed Palestinians or damaged their property,” said HRW.
Israeli policies “impede Gaza’s economic recovery,” according to the report, which highlights the banning of nearly all exports; threatening civilians with lethal force in areas close to the Israeli perimeter fence and beyond six nautical miles off the coast; and barring Gazans from travelling or moving to the West Bank, “where many have families and other close ties.”
Israel’s actions in the last week alone provide sufficient cause for legal action. It has approved the construction of several hundred homes in three settlements, adding to the several hundred thousand settlers who already live on occupied Palestinian territory in clear contravention of international law. Article 49 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions forbids an occupying power from moving its civilian population onto occupied territory.
This is reiterated by the U.N. Security Council, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Court of Justice, and the High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Conventions. Furthermore, transferring a state’s own people onto occupied territory is explicitly a war crime under the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the ICC. No government other than Israel regards the settlements as legal, not even the U.S.
The latest decisions to expand them came just days after the announcement of a forthcoming visit to Israel by U.S. President Barack Obama, who has publicly clashed with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu over this issue. Despite this, all U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland could muster as a reaction was the typically tame: “We don’t think it’s helpful.”
The construction in the Beit El settlement near Ramallah is a compensatory measure for those evicted last year from the nearby “unauthorized” settlement outpost of Ulpana, after a ruling by Israel’s own Supreme Court that they were living illegally on private Palestinian land. So much for the “painful concessions” that Israel is so keen on convincing the world it is making.
The approval came despite the country being between governments following January’s general elections. “Even though there isn’t yet a new government in place, they’re still allowing settlement procedures to continue instead of putting them on hold, which is a telling sign about this new government,” said Hagit Ofran of Israel’s Peace Now settlement watchdog.
“A legal fight at the ICC would lay bare the annexation and dispossession behind Israel’s settlement strategy - the theft of land from Palestinians, the practice which sees Jewish colonies enjoy unlimited cheap water, while nearby Arab villages are subject to rationing and higher charges, the policy that says a Jewish immigrant from Russia has a greater claim to the land than a Palestinian born on it,” wrote The Guardian’s Washington correspondent Chris McGreal, who was previously posted in Jerusalem.
“And that’s without even getting into the broader scheme to claim as much territory as possible for Israel and leave a rump Palestinian state.”
Israeli troops also clashed last week with Palestinians demonstrating in solidarity with Samer Issawi, who has been on hunger strike for 206 days in protest at his imprisonment and the conditions of his incarceration. He has reportedly lost 35 kilograms (about 77 pounds), has kidney pain, and has lost sensation in parts of the right side of his body. Among dozens of other hunger strikers, three were recently transferred to hospitals due to deteriorating health.
Some 4,800 Palestinian prisoners currently languish in Israeli jails, many of them held without trial. Since Israel’s occupation began in 1967, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been imprisoned. As such, this issue - and the increasing phenomenon of hunger strikes - is an increasingly emotional one for Palestinians.
“They’re always in our memories, so we always say we won’t forget them, and we won’t leave them suffering, what they suffer from, in the Israeli occupation jails,” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said last week. This from a man who has failed to honour his pledge to push for the release of politician and fellow Fatah member Marwan Barghouti - dubbed “the Palestinian Mandela” - who has been in prison for more than a decade.
West Bank barrier
Also last week, Palestinian landowners and Roman Catholic nuns at a convent near Jerusalem made a final legal appeal against the route of the West Bank barrier, which threatens to cut them off from their land.
In addition, demonstrators in Hebron tried to open a road that has been closed by the Israelis for 12 years, and a Palestinian hotel in Abu Dis was confiscated under the pretext that it is absentee property, despite the owners living 300 meters away. “The main purpose,” said hotel lawyer Bassam Sahar, “is to get hold of a building in the path of the Separation Wall. This will deprive a lot of people in the area from connecting with their relatives.”
Negotiations and provocations
Abbas said he would be ready and willing to resume talks immediately after the U.N. vote. Israel’s response was to seize $120 million in Palestinian tax revenue, and announce settlement expansion plans that were strongly condemned by the international community - including the U.N. secretary general - and even by its staunchest allies (the U.S. State Department accused Israel of “a pattern of provocative action”).
Unsurprisingly, there have been no talks since the U.N. upgrade, and none seem likely in the near term, because Israel rejects Abbas’s insistence that it stop settlement expansion prior to negotiations. This was reiterated last week by his aide Nabil Aburdene: “The Palestinian position is clear. There can be no negotiation while settlement continues.” Even if talks took place, they would be doomed given Israel’s belligerence on all the final-status issues.
“Israel is forcing us to go to the ICC,” said Nabil Shaath, another Abbas aide. It is “pushing us to accelerate our recourse” to the Court, added Mohammed Shtayyeh, the P.A.’s special envoy for the U.N. bid. But these statements were made in December. Have the Palestinians not been pushed enough since? Given everything Israel has done and continues to do, one wonders what it would take for the P.A. to end its bizarre inaction.
If it is waiting for a new Israeli government to be formed, in the hope that it will be more amenable to granting Palestinians their inalienable rights, this would display woeful political naivety and historical ignorance. The occupation has become ever-more entrenched, regardless of whether Israeli governments are right-wing, left-leaning or centrist.
Furthermore, whatever coalition is formed will still be headed by Netanyahu, whose previous government was widely viewed as the most hawkish in Israel’s history. There is nothing to suggest a political conversion from the extreme hardliner.
Given this sorry state of affairs, it is time for Palestinians to start a national protest movement against the P.A., to pressure it to apply to the ICC. For if it does not, what was the point of the U.N. upgrade? Opposition to it focused on the threat of ICC action precisely because of how damaging this would be for Israel.
As such, every Israeli provocation should be met with Palestinian anger not just against Israel, but also their own leaders for failing to legally challenge the occupation, as is their right. The P.A. should be made to fear a domestic backlash more than Israeli retribution.
“In the coming year, leaders in the region and beyond should work much harder to end the cycle of impunity and abuse, not least by supporting, instead of trying to block, Palestinian access to the International Criminal Court,” wrote HRW deputy program director Tom Porteous.
Sadly, opposing such access is unnecessary, and supporting it is pointless, as long as the P.A. seems unwilling to apply. Support must give way to pressure. Israel’s injustices are bad enough, but not utilising the means to effectively counter and end them is even worse. If this is not obvious to the P.A., its people should make it so.
(Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Center, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash)