Ramallah, occupied West Bank - A human rights group in Ramallah has dubbed Israel's seizure of nearly $400m of funds belonging to Palestinians - for acceding to the International Criminal Court - a "war crime" prosecutable by the Geneva-based tribunal.

A new report by al-Haq, the West Bank affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists in Geneva, outlined the devastating effects of Israel's withholding of taxes it collects on behalf of the Palestinians, calling the seizure "unlawful" and a form of "collective punishment".

Between January and March, Israel seized millions of dollars of Palestinian taxes in response to Palestine's accession to the ICC's Rome Statute in late December 2014.

Released on the day Palestine officially becomes an ICC member, the report, titled "The Unlawful Seizure of Palestinian Taxes: Israel's Collective Punishment of a People", said the taxes paid by Palestinian individuals and businesses over three consecutive months amount to nearly three-quarters of the Palestinian Authority's revenue for that period.

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Last week, Israeli authorities announced that the government would release those funds. But Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) sources said deadlock persisted because Israel wanted to keep a proportion of the funds to pay for electricity and water bills it says the Palestinians owe.

Governments seeking to penalise Palestine for joining the ICC should immediately end their pressure. What's objectionable is the attempts to undermine international justice, not Palestine's decision to join a treaty to which over 100 countries around the world are members.

Balkees Jarrah, al-Haq's international justice counsel

Al-Haq said that "much of this 'debt' is entirely illegitimate, being based - for example - on the sale of Palestinian resources such as water that have been unlawfully seized and sold back to the Palestinian people".

The cash Israel continues to hold is raised from VAT, import duties and income tax paid by Palestinians employed in illegal Israeli settlements or inside Israel. The seizure of these taxes has led to massive cuts in public sector salaries, which has hit hard many Palestinian families across the occupied territory, the report said.

"Millions of ordinary Palestinians have been unlawfully punished for the peaceful and legitimate actions of their representatives simply seeking to ensure the international legal protections due to all people," said Shawan Jabarin, the head of al-Haq.

Hospitals and schools have been unable to function properly due to the cuts that have affected staff mobility as well. Shortages of food among families dependent on public salary incomes have also been reported, al-Haq said.

The seizure of funds has also hampered efforts to reconstruct Gaza after last summer's war, it added. Even the private sector - which relies heavily on public stimulus - has also been hard hit, "with knock-on effects up the entire supply chain, further forcing the Palestinian people into a downward spiral of economic hardship".

"People already living under the dire economic consequences of the occupation are often extremely vulnerable," Jabarin added. "The withholding of public funds for three consecutive months has caused massive damage in a very short space of time."

The rights group said that the UN and EU countries have failed to act against Israel's seizure of the funds. "States have an obligation to do all they can to ensure that Israel complies with international law," Jabarin said. "Governments must also investigate and charge the responsible officials."

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Al-Haq's report comes on the heels of another report, released by Human Rights Watch, which called for support for the Palestinians' decision to  join the ICC, despite strong opposition from the likes of Canada, Israel and the US.

"Governments seeking to penalise Palestine for joining the ICC should immediately end their pressure," said Balkees Jarrah, al-Haq's international justice counsel. "What's objectionable is the attempts to undermine international justice, not Palestine's decision to join a treaty to which over 100 countries around the world are members."

HRW noted that Israel's withholding of Palestinian tax monies has affected 160,000 Palestinian public employees, who have been paid only 60 percent of their salaries for three months.

ICC opens initial inquiry into possible war crimes in

Today, the ICC treaty officially goes into effect for Palestine, granting the tribunal a mandate dating back to June 13, 2014, over war crimes and crimes against humanity committed on or from occupied Palestinian territory. This makes Palestine the 123rd member of the court and the third state from the Middle East and North Africa region to join.

On January 16, the ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda opened a preliminary examination during which she will determine whether a formal investigation is merited. HRW said Palestinians cannot lodge complaints against Israel at the ICC. Only information can be submitted for analysis, and Bensouda or, in some cases, the court's judges have the right to decide what cases can be filed.

"The ICC prosecutor examines allegations of serious crimes no matter the perpetrator, and makes her own determinations about how to proceed based on the evidence," Jarrah said. "Any decision whether to pursue an investigation and against whom is not in the hands of the Palestinians or the Israelis."

Media reports had been circulating recently quoting Palestinian officials as saying that "the appeal to the ICC would be withdrawn if Israel were to freeze settlement construction". PLO officials said the reports were unfounded and that politicians had no power to reverse the move - unless Palestine withdraws its accession. 

Source: Al Jazeera