By Ramzy Baroud
Fatou Bensouda, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), has at long last come to the long-anticipated conclusion that “all the statutory criteria under the Rome Statute for the opening of an investigation (into alleged war crimes by Israel in the Occupied Territories) have been met.”
Bensouda’s verdict has been in the making for a long time and should, frankly, have come much sooner. The ICC’s preliminary investigations into Israeli war crimes began back in 2015. Since then, many more crimes have been committed, while the international community has persisted with its moral inertia.
The ICC statement, issued on Dec. 20, asserted that the court saw “no substantial reasons to believe that an investigation would not serve the interests of justice.” But can the “interests of justice” be served while the US government continues to wield a massive stick, using its diplomatic, political and financial clout to ensure Israel emerges unscathed from its latest legal scuffle?
There is little doubt that Michael Lynk, the UN special rapporteur for the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories, was absolutely right when he said that a formal ICC investigation into war crimes in Palestine was a “momentous step forward in the quest for accountability.” He was also correct in his assessment — published on the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights website — that “accountability has, until now, been largely missing in action throughout the 52-year-old occupation.”
I would go even further and expand the timeline of the missing accountability to include the two decades prior to the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Otherwise, how is one to account for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1947-48, the numerous massacres and other wanton killings that accompanied and followed those defining years, or the fact that Israel was never held accountable for its violations of international and humanitarian laws between 1948 and 1967?
That issue notwithstanding, the Palestinian Authority and all political parties in Palestine should exploit this unprecedented opportunity to hold Israel accountable.
As soon as the ICC issued its statement, reports conveyed a sense of “panic” among Israel’s leaders. The Times of Israel reported that an Israeli government meeting to discuss the ICC decision was held shortly after the announcement with the aim of considering a proper response, including the possibility of preventing ICC investigators from reaching Israel. This is eerily familiar. Israel has denied entry to — or refused to cooperate with — international investigators and observers on many occasions in the past.
Following a planned UN investigation into alleged Israeli war crimes in the Palestinian refugee camp of Jenin in 2002, the Israeli government moved quickly and, sadly, succeeded in blocking the investigation altogether. It has done this time and again, often demonizing the individuals entrusted with examining the illegality of its behavior in the context of international law. Well-respected judges and international law experts, such as Richard Goldstone, Richard Falk and John Dugard, were vehemently attacked by Israeli officials and media and, by extension, the US government and media too.
Israel has managed to survive dozens of UN resolutions and countless legal reports and indictments by the UN and its affiliated organizations, largely because of blind and unequivocal American support, which has shielded Israeli war criminals from ever answering for their horrific actions in Palestine.
“Remember, it was (then-Secretary of State) Hillary Clinton who took pride in the fact that she personally killed the Goldstone report,” said US author Norman Finkelstein in a recent interview with the news website Mondoweiss. The Goldstone report was commissioned in the wake of the Israeli war on Gaza in 2008-09. A campaign of intimidation and pressure on Goldstone personally forced the once-respected judge to retract his accusations of Israeli war crimes and the deliberate targeting of civilians.
While Clinton played a part in torpedoing the Goldstone report, former US President Barack Obama also went to great lengths to “neutralize international law against settlements and other Israeli crimes in the Occupied Territories,” according to Finkelstein. Worse still, in 2016 Obama handed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — himself accused of carrying out numerous war crimes against Palestinians — the largest US aid package to a foreign country in modern history, a whopping $38 billion over 10 years.
This is not a new phenomenon, whereby the US enables Israeli crimes and simultaneously shields Tel Aviv from any accountability before the international community. All US administrations, whether Republican or Democrat, have honored the same sinister policy, thus ensuring that Israel quite literally gets away with murder.
A particular case in point was in 2001, when 28 Palestinian and Lebanese survivors of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre attempted to try, in a Belgian court, late Israeli leader and accused war criminal Ariel Sharon. Intense American pressure and a brazen intimidation campaign against the Belgian government and its judicial system resulted in the dismissal of the case in 2003. To deny Israel’s victims any further opportunities to seek justice in the country, Belgium subsequently revised its laws to the satisfaction of Israel and the US.
However, the high level of the current ICC investigation moves the legal push against Israel to a whole new level. This is uncharted territory for Israel, the US, Palestine, the ICC and the international community as a whole. There is little doubt that joint Israeli-American efforts are already underway to develop strategies aimed at countering, if not altogether dismissing, the ICC investigation.
It is clear that justice for Palestinians in the face of Israeli aggression — itself fueled by unconditional American support — is not possible if it is not accompanied by regional and international agreement that a clear and decisive decision by all parties concerned that Israel must, once and for all, pay for its military occupation, racist apartheid laws, protracted siege on Gaza and the many massacres in between.
Without this kind of international will, the ICC investigation could become another sad case of justice denied — an unacceptable option for any justice-seeking individual, organization or government anywhere in the world.