‘Alarming’: Palestinians accuse ICC prosecutor of bias after Israel visit

While the ICC offers an alternative to Israeli courts, no arrest warrants have been issued against Israeli officials and commanders.

International Criminal Court Prosecutor Karim Khan speaks during an interview with Reuters about the violence in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories in The Hague, Netherlands, October 12
International Criminal Court Prosecutor Karim Khan speaks during an interview with Reuters about the violence in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories in The Hague, Netherlands, on October 12, 2023 [File: Piroschka van de Wouw/Reuters]

Occupied West Bank — On December 2, Eman Nafii was one of dozens of Palestinians invited to meet Prosecutor Karim Khan of the International Criminal Court in the occupied West Bank. As the wife of the longest-serving Palestinian prisoner in Israel, Nafi wanted to speak to Khan about her husband and the Israeli occupation.

But Khan spent most of the meeting talking, before his team gave Nafi and other Palestinian victims just 10 minutes to share their stories.

“People got angry. They told him, ‘You are coming to listen to us for 10 minutes? How are we going to tell you about our stories in 10 minutes,” Nafi told Al Jazeera.

“One of the women (with us) was from Gaza. She lost 30 members of her family in the (ongoing war). She shouted, ‘How can we explain this in 10 minutes.’”

While Khan ended up listening to the victims for about an hour, Palestinians fear that he is applying a double standard by solely focusing his efforts on Hamas and ignoring the grave crimes Israel is accused of having perpetrated over two months of a deadly war.

Many were disappointed that Khan accepted an Israeli invitation to visit Israeli communities and areas that Hamas attacked on October 7, while declining an offer from Palestinians to visit the hundreds of illegal Israeli settlements, checkpoints and refugee camps in the occupied West Bank.

During his three-day visit, Israel also did not allow Khan to enter Gaza, where Israel has killed more than 17,000 people and displaced most of the besieged enclave’s 2.3 million inhabitants from their homes since October 7.

Most of those killed have been women and children, while thousands of young men are now being rounded up, many of them stripped and taken to undisclosed locations. Legal experts have warned that Israel’s atrocities in Gaza may soon amount to genocide.

Despite the mounting evidence and ongoing atrocities, Khan has shown little interest in seriously probing Israel, according to Palestinian officials, victims and legal scholars.

“Khan became enthusiastic to start this investigation [in the occupied territories] after October 7. That’s alarming,” said Omar Awadallah, who oversees UN human rights organisations as part of the Palestinian Authority, the political body governing the West Bank.

“[The Palestinian Authority] gave him retroactive jurisdiction from 2014. [Khan] cannot say that he didn’t see crimes being committed [in the occupied territories] from 2014 until October 7,” Awadallah told Al Jazeera.

A viable alternative? 

On January 2, 2015, the state of Palestine became a signatory to the Rome Statute, giving the ICC jurisdiction to investigate atrocities such as war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

The move was perceived as a victory for Palestinian and Israeli human rights groups, which were fed up with the Israeli judicial system for not punishing Israeli officials, settlers and soldiers who were committing crimes in the occupied territories such as land theft and extrajudicial killings.

According to Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights organisation that opposes illegal settlements in the West Bank, Palestinians harmed by Israeli soldiers have a less than one percent chance of obtaining justice if they file a complaint in Israel.

While the ICC offers an alternative to Israeli courts, no arrest warrants have been issued against Israeli officials or soldiers for committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Gaza and the West Bank, according to a legal expert from Al Mezan, a Palestinian human rights organisation that advocates for justice in Gaza.

“We have submitted plenty of legal analysis and evidence to the office of the prosecutor even before Khan was elected,” the expert, who asked for anonymity due to a fear of reprisal from Israeli authorities, told Al Jazeera. “We believe that [Khan’s] office has enough evidence to issue warrants for Israeli political and military leaders by now.”

After returning from his three-day visit to Israel and the West Bank, Khan released a statement that made little mention of the mounting evidence implicating Israel in committing crimes against humanity such as that of apartheid in the West Bank and war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza.

Khan merely said that his visit was not “investigative in nature” and called on Israel to respect the legal principles of “distinction, precaution and proportionality” in its ongoing bombing campaign and ground offensive in Gaza.

Khan had a different tone when addressing Hamas’s October 7 attacks, calling them “serious international crimes that shock the conscience of humanity”.

Khan’s statement angered the Palestinian victims that he met briefly in Ramallah.

“What made us really unhappy was what he wrote after the visit,” said Nafi. “He is not supposed to draw an equivalence between the victim and their killers. We wanted him to tell the Israelis to stop what they are doing to detainees and to [stop] what they’re doing to Gaza.”

Al Jazeera submitted written questions to Khan’s office which raised Palestinian criticisms of his visit to the West Bank and his statement. His office responded by emailing Al Jazeera several of Khan’s previous statements, without answering any of the questions.

Politically compromised? 

In September 2021, Khan said that he would deprioritise crimes committed by American forces in Afghanistan and focus his probe on the atrocities that the Taliban and the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K) carried out.

Critics believe that Khan was acquiescing to political pressure from the United States – a state that is not a party to the Rome Statute – which sanctioned Khan’s predecessor for daring to open a case against American troops in Afghanistan.

But Khan justified his decision by claiming that the court had limited resources and that the Taliban and Islamic State committed more serious crimes. Palestinians now fear that Khan could cite a similar justification to investigate Hamas, but not Israel.

“We have yet to see that any prosecutor has taken the question of Palestine seriously, which shows that the whole system of international law has been torn into pieces,” said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian legal scholar.

Buttu added that the ICC has effectively become a court that acts in the political interest of powerful Western states, rather than in accordance with strict legal principles.

She cited Khan’s decision to indict Russian President Vladimir Putin on accounts of war crimes committed during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“The ICC has become a very political court that managed to issue indictments against Putin,” she told Al Jazeera. “But eight weeks into what is presumably the worst man-made disaster [in Gaza] and the prosecutor has remained silent and only comes [to visit] at the request of Israel.”

Nafi agreed and added that Khan can’t claim to be ignorant or unaware of Israel’s atrocities against Palestinians.

“How many people does he want to see killed until he speaks up,” she told Al Jazeera. “I want him to be brave enough, to say the truth and to say it in public.”

Additional reporting by Al Jazeera correspondent Zein Basravi.

Source: Al Jazeera