Palestinian president backs membership in International Criminal Court

 December 31 at 2:50 PM    
 A day after a failed bid at the United Nations to push a Middle East peace settlement, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas signed an appeal Wednesday to join the International Criminal Court — a move that could open the way for filing war crimes complaints against Israel.

Abbas’s announcement met opposition from Washington, with the State Department saying that the “action is entirely counter-productive and does nothing to further the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a sovereign and independent state.”

“It badly damages the atmosphere with the very people with whom they ultimately need to make peace,” department spokesman Jeff Rathke said in the statement.

The move could deal a major blow to any hopes of reviving peace talks between Palestinians and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It also could open up the Palestinians themselves to prosecution.

The move reflects the frustration among Palestinian leaders at what they consider Netanyahu’s hard-line policies, including his expansion of West Bank settlements, as well as the sharpening of tensions amid clashes in recent months and this summer’s war in the Gaza Strip between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

The United Nations rejected a resolution demanding Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the establishment of a Palestinian state. (Reuters)

In a specially convened meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Abbas said his government would seek to join about 20 international treaties, including the framework that set up the Hague-based International Criminal Court.

The meeting came a day after the Palestinians fell one vote short of the nine needed to pass a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding that Israel step up peace efforts and withdraw from occupied lands.

“We want to complain. There’s aggression against us, against our land. The Security Council disappointed us,” Abbas said at the Ramallah meeting.

Saeb Erekat, who had been part of the Palestinian team negotiating peace with the Israelis last year, said the step was “in order to ensure the protection and advance the rights of our people.”

“There must be accountability and those who are concerned about courts should stop committing crimes,” he said.

It was not clear, however, what level of participation would be granted to the Palestinian Authority in the various groups it seeks to join, including the court.

Many nations signed the court’s founding document, but it has been seriously hobbled by snubs from countries such as the United States, China, India and most of the Arab world. Israel, too, has not joined.

The Palestinians recently gained observer status at the court and in 2012 gained nonmember observer state status at the U.N. General Assembly.

In a sign of the court’s limitations, prosecutors were forced this month to abandon a case against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who had been charged with orchestrating a 2007 campaign of ethnic violence. Although Kenya is a member of the court, the government refused to cooperate with the prosecution and blocked investigators from gathering sufficient evidence to continue the case.

Shortly after the Palestinian announcement, Netanyahu said it was the Palestinian Authority — not Israel — that had reason to fear the court.

He pointed to the formation in April of a Palestinian unity government that included Hamas, which is designated a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel. Netanyahu said the group “perpetrates war crimes.”

Netanyahu said Israel would also “rebuff this attempt to force diktat on us, just like we rebuffed the Palestinian appeal to the U.N. Security Council.”

Israeli media reported Wednesday that the prime minister had made last-minute calls to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and Rwandan President Paul Kagame asking them not to vote for Tuesday’s resolution. The two countries obliged, leaving the Palestinians with only eight votes instead of the required nine and sparing the United States the need to wield its veto power as one of the council’s five permanent members. .

The resolution was also strongly opposed by the Obama administration, which favors a negotiated agreement rather than a forced pact or unilateral action by the Palestinians.

The resolution had sought to increase pressure on Netanyahu’s government by calling for Israelis and Palestinians to strike a peace deal within a year and for Israel to withdraw within three years from territories it captured in the 1967 war — in which Israel won control of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

It also declared that East Jerusalem would be the capital of a Palestinian state, a more hard-line stance than an earlier version that described Jerusalem as a shared capital. It also demanded an end to Israeli settlement building.

In the days before the vote, Secretary of State John F. Kerry made a flurry of calls to 13 foreign ministers and leaders to express concern that a resolution would only deepen the conflict, U.S. officials said.

Still, the resolution won the backing of several U.S. allies, including France and Jordan, which agreed to introduce the measure at the council after it was endorsed by 22 Arab nations.

Five of the 15 countries on the Security Council abstained from the vote, including Britain. Australia was the only country that joined the United States in voting against the resolution.

Morello reported from Washington.


Ruth Eglash is a reporter for The Washington Post based in Jerusalem. She was formerly a reporter and senior editor at the Jerusalem Post and freelanced for international media

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