‘Better Late Than Never’: Palestinians Welcome ICC Decision Enabling War Crimes Probe of Israel

An investigation “would not, for sure, bring my kids back to life,” said a survivor of an Israeli airstrike. “However, I am certain that I need to continue to try to find some sort of justice.”

By Jessica Corbett, staff writer for Common Dreams. Published 2-6-2021

Israeli white phosphorus attack on the main compound of the United Nations Relief and Welfare Agency (UNRWA) in central Gaza City on 15 January 2009, during Operation Cast Lead.. Photo: HRW/CC

Palestinian families and human rights groups are welcoming a Friday decision that clears the way for the International Criminal Court to investigate allegations against Israel of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the crime of apartheid in occupied Palestinian territories as a long-overdue step toward justice.

Given that the state of Palestine—as recognized by the United Nations and scores of countries, though not the United States nor Israel—is party to the Rome Statute, the ICC’s pre-trial chamber I decided by majority that the court’s jurisdiction “extends to the territories occupied by Israel since 1967, namely Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.”

The ruling, Reuters reports, “could lead to criminal investigations of Israel and Palestinian militant groups including Hamas. No probe was expected in the near future… ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said she would now examine the decision and pointed to the 2014 Gaza war between Israel and militant groups in Hamas-controlled Gaza, the 2018 Gaza border protests, and Israeli settlements in occupied territory.”

Bensouda had said in 2019 that there was a “reasonable basis” to investigate the Israeli military for war crimes but asked the court to weigh in on the question of jurisdiction. Despite uncertainty over how the prosecutor will now proceed, Palestinians who have lost family members and homes hailed Friday’s ruling.

“Better late than never,” Subhi Bakr told a reporter with the Associated Press on Saturday, while walking on the beach in Gaza where his son Mohammed and three cousins—all under the age of 12—were killed by Israeli missiles in 2014 while playing soccer, sparking international outrage and condemnation.

“The most important thing for the investigation is to start; if it did not, then there is no justice in the world,” Bakr said. Israel, which closed a military investigation into the killings, “can’t be the judge and executioner and I do not trust them,” he added. “We need the international law to do justice for us.”

Tawfiq Abu Jame’—one of three survivors of an Israeli airstrike in Gaza that killed 25 of his relatives in 2014—told Amnesty International that an ICC investigation “would not, for sure, bring my kids back to life. However, I am certain that I need to continue to try to find some sort of justice.”

“It is shocking to me that six years after I lost so many members of my family and my house that impunity reigns supreme for those implicated in the tragic crime committed,” he added. “We can never achieve justice in Israeli courts; the ICC represents our only hope to achieving long-denied accountability and justice.”

Saleh Abu Mohsen—whose 17-year-old daughter Asil Abu Mohsen was also killed in 2014, as Israeli forces bombarded Rafah—similarly told the human rights group that a probe by the Hague-based court “remains essential to my understanding of what justice means.”

“Before knowing about a potential ICC investigation into Israel’s crimes, I had resigned myself to the outlook that there would be no justice in my lifetime for the crime committed against my daughter Asil and against many other Palestinians. I must say that the only justice we will get is through the ICC as no justice will be achieved through Israeli courts,” he said. “Victims like us have becomes faceless numbers, but it’s time for our voices to be heard and for our suffering to be recognized.”

Saleh Higazi, deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, declared that “the perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity have evaded justice for more than half a century” and an ICC investigation “is a chance to end the cycle of impunity that is at the heart of the human rights crisis.”

“In the absence of independent and credible domestic investigations, an ICC investigation is the only way for Palestinians and Israelis to access truth, justice, and reparations,” Higazi said. “We call on all governments to offer their full support to the ICC as it takes the next steps towards accountability, including by standing up to powerful states who try to shield perpetrators from the full scrutiny of the international community.”

The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem also applauded the ICC ruling, saying in a statement: “The decision follows the facts of the matter and brings hope towards an end for impunity.”

“Further, we hope that the ICC decision will have a restraining effect on Israeli actions,” B’Tselem added, “even before the investigation advances—for example in preventing further attempts to forcibly transfer Palestinian communities, such as the ones we witnessed this week in the South Hebron Hills and in the Jordan Valley.”

While Palestinian Foreign Affairs Minister Riyad al-Maliki welcomed Friday’s development, calling it a “historic day,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that the ruling was anti-Semitic and vowed that his government would “fight this perversion of justice with all our might.”

Netanyahu’s claim of anti-Semitism sparked widespread criticism. Juan Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan, on Saturday called it “the ultimate debasement of a term that has otherwise been central to human rights struggles.”

Hagai El-Ad, executive director of B’Tselem, described the anti-Semitic allegation as “a moral outrage” and argued that the prime minister “has no moral standing.”

“Bibi helpfully offers textbook example of conflating Israel with all Jews/Judaism, in order to conflate criticism of Israel/Israeli policies [with] anti-Semitism,” tweeted Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington, D.C.

Ned Price, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State, delivered the Biden administration’s official response to the ICC’s decision in a statement Friday.

“As we made clear when the Palestinians purported to join the Rome Statute in 2015, we do not believe the Palestinians qualify as a sovereign state, and therefore are not qualified to obtain membership as a state, or participate as a state in international organizations, entities, or conferences, including the ICC,” the statement said.

“We have serious concerns about the ICC’s attempts to exercise its jurisdiction over Israeli personnel,” the spokesperson added. “The United States has always taken the position that the court’s jurisdiction should be reserved for countries that consent to it, or that are referred by the U.N. Security Council.”

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