Why Palestine Should Take Israel to Court in The Hague
LAST week, the Palestinian foreign minister, Riad Malki, declared that if Israel
persisted in its plans to build settlements in the currently vacant
area known as E-1, which lies between Palestinian East Jerusalem and the
Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim, “we will be going to the I.C.C.,”
referring to the International Criminal Court. “We have no choice,” he added.
The Palestinians’ first attempt to join the I.C.C. was thwarted last
April when the court’s chief prosecutor at the time, Luis Moreno-Ocampo,
declined the request on the grounds that Palestine was not a state.
That ambiguity has since diminished with the United Nations’ conferral
of nonmember state status on Palestine in November. Israel’s frantic
opposition to the elevation of Palestine’s status at the United Nations
was motivated precisely by the fear that it would soon lead to I.C.C.
jurisdiction over Palestinian claims of war crimes.
Israeli leaders are unnerved for good reason. The I.C.C. could prosecute
major international crimes committed on Palestinian soil anytime after
the court’s founding on July 1, 2002.
Since the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000, the
Israel Defense Forces, guided by its military lawyers, have attempted to
remake the laws of war by consciously violating them and then creating
new legal concepts to provide juridical cover for their misdeeds. For
example, in 2002, an Israeli F-16 dropped a one-ton bomb on an apartment building in a densely populated Gaza
neighborhood, killing a Hamas military leader, Salah Shehadeh, and 14
others, including his wife and seven children under the age of 15. In
2009, Israeli artillery killed more than 20
members of the Samouni family, who had sought shelter in a structure in
the Zeitoun district of Gaza City at the bidding of Israeli soldiers.
Last year, Israeli missiles killed two Palestinian cameramen working for Al Aksa television. Each of these acts, and many more, could lead to I.C.C. investigations.
The former head of the Israeli military’s international law division, Daniel Reisner, asserted
in 2009: “International law progresses through violations. We invented
the targeted assassination thesis and we had to push it. At first there
were protrusions that made it hard to insert easily into the legal
molds. Eight years later it is in the center of the bounds of
Colonel Reisner is right that customary international law is formed by
the actual practice of states that other states accept as lawful. But
targeted assassinations are not widely accepted as legal. Nor are
Israel’s other attempted legal innovations.
Israel has categorized military clashes with the Palestinians as “armed
conflict short of war,” instead of the police actions of an occupying
state — thus freeing the Israeli military to use F-16 fighter jets and
other powerful weaponry against barely defended Palestinian populations
in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
It has designated individuals who fail to leave a targeted area after a
warning as “voluntary human shields” who are therefore subject to lawful
attack, despite the fact that warnings may not be effective and escape
routes not clear to the victims.
And it has treated civilian employees of Hamas — including police
officers, judges, clerks, journalists and others — as combatants because
they allegedly support a “terrorist infrastructure.” Never mind that
contemporary international law deems civilians “combatants” only when
they actually take up arms.
All of these practices could expose Israeli political and military
officials to prosecutions for war crimes. To be clear, the prosecutions
would be for particular acts, not for general practices, but statements
by Israeli officials explaining their policies could well provide
evidence that the acts were intentional and not mere accidents of war.
No doubt, Israel is most worried about the possibility of criminal
prosecutions for its settlements policy. Israeli bluster
notwithstanding, there is no doubt that Jewish settlements in the West
Bank, including East Jerusalem, are illegal. Israeli officials have
known this since 1967, when Theodor Meron, then legal counsel to the
Israeli Foreign Ministry and later president of the International
Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, wrote to one of Prime
Minister Levi Eshkol’s aides: “My conclusion is that civilian settlement
in the administered territories contravenes the explicit provisions of
the Fourth Geneva Convention.”
Under the founding statute of the I.C.C., grave violations of the Geneva
Conventions, including civilian settlements in occupied territories,
are considered war crimes.
The next step for the Palestinians is to renew a certificate of
accession to the I.C.C. with the United Nations secretary general.
Assuming that I.C.C. jurisdiction is accepted, investigations of alleged
Israeli war crimes would still not begin automatically, because the
I.C.C. must next find that Israel’s own courts are failing to adequately
review those charges. Palestinians, by inviting I.C.C. investigations
in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, also run the risk that their own
possible violations — such as deliberate attacks on Israeli civilians —
could come under I.C.C. scrutiny.
If Palestinians succeed in getting the I.C.C. to examine their
grievances, Israel’s campaign to bend international law to its advantage
would finally be subjected to international judicial review and, one
hopes, curbed. Israel’s dangerous legal innovations, if accepted, would
expand the scope of permissible violence to previously protected persons
and places, and turn international humanitarian law on its head. We do
not want a world in which journalists become fair game because of their
If the choice is between a Palestinian legal intifada, in which
arguments are hashed out in court, and an actual intifada, in which
blood flows in the streets, the global community should encourage the
Indeed, Palestinians would be doing themselves, Israelis and the global
community a favor by invoking I.C.C. jurisdiction. Ending Israel’s
impunity for its clear violations of legal norms would both promote
peace in the Middle East and help uphold the integrity of international