Ramallah, occupied West Bank – After a document obtained by Al Jazeera revealed the Palestinian Authority (PA) has stalled the launch of a formal investigation into alleged Israeli war crimes in Gaza, Palestinian legal and human rights experts remain dubious that the PA ever truly intended to join the International Criminal Court (ICC).
In a confidential letter obtained exclusively by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit, the ICC’s top prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said she “did not receive a positive confirmation” from PA Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki that the request submitted for an international investigation had the Palestinian government’s approval.
Palestinian officials have, on numerous occasions, threatened to head to the ICC to hold Israel accountable for possible war crimes and crimes against humanity. But their efforts so far, have proved fruitless.
In July, a French lawyer filed a complaint with the court on behalf of the Palestinian minister of justice, accusing Israel of carrying out war crimes in the Gaza Strip. This came after a 2009 call for an ICC investigation into Israel’s three-week military offensive in Gaza that was later dropped when the prosecutor said Palestine was not a court member.
In August, Malki met with ICC officials to discuss the implications of ratifying the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the criminal court. “Everything that has happened…is clear evidence of war crimes committed by Israel, amounting to crimes against humanity,” he told reporters in The Hague, referring to the recent 51-day Israeli military offensive on Gaza, which left more than 2,100 Palestinians dead. Six Israeli civilians were killed, along with 66 Israeli soldiers.
Two years ago, Palestine became recognised as a non-member observer state at the UN General Assembly. This made it eligible to join the ICC; however, to date, Palestinian officials have not signed the Rome Statute, even though almost 80 percent of Palestinians support going to the court.
Senior Fatah official Mohammad Shtayyeh didn’t say when the Palestinians would apply to the ICC, but said it would probably happen in another few months. “The indictment against Israel at the ICC and all the accompanying documents are ready,” Shtayyeh told Al Jazeera.
One of the remaining hurdles, Shtayyeh said, is getting one remaining Palestinian faction – Islamic Jihad – to sign an accession document before the Palestinians can present it. Hamas signed onto the proposal at the behest of the PA in August. “We’re not in a situation of setting a deadline or making an ultimatum,” he said. “We’re following developments in the region and the world, and therefore, we’ll wait for answers from the international community. But I believe that by November-December, the picture should be clearer.”
This issue is our number-one priority. It is still on the table awaiting a few legal and technical procedures. We have not missed our opportunity to head to the court.
In response to Al Jazeera’s claims, the Palestinian Justice Minister Salim al-Saqqa said that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was serious about going to the ICC and was “awaiting national dialogue” to pursue it. “This issue is our number-one priority,” he said. “It is still on the table awaiting a few legal and technical procedures. We have not missed our opportunity to head to the court.”
So far, the Palestinians have struggled to use the court to pursue their claims, with some attributing this to the PA’s use of an ICC investigation as a political bargaining chip.
“The PA can go to the ICC in one day,” said Shawan Jabarin, the director of Ramallah-based human rights group al-Haq. “Abbas, who has been turned this into a political issue, is balking.”
Many factors are working against setting off a war crimes investigation at the ICC, not least the international community’s apparent opposition to the move. “It is the PA’s trump card because the Israelis and the Americans have said it is a red line,” said Diana Buttu, a lawyer and former adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
“When this red line is crossed, then the US said it won’t give money to the PA. That’s what we call blackmail. But at what point will Abu Mazen [Abbas] say this is a trump card but we will use it?”
During US-mediated peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, Washington ensured that the PA would freeze all moves to turn to international organisations until April 2014.
“The Palestinian Authority has been consistently pressured by the USA, Israel, Canada, the UK and other EU Member States not to take steps to grant the ICC jurisdiction,” Amnesty International said. “Such pressure has included threats to withdraw financial assistance on which the Palestinian Authority depends.”
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Israel said this spelled the end of their negotiations with the Palestinians, while the US said that the PA’s moves negatively affected attempts to engage both parties in talks.
“The PA’s hesitancy can be attributed to several factors: The need to preserve it as a trump card, and also a fear of the US and some European countries’ reaction,” Jabarin said. “The problem is the method being used by Abbas; he has subjected the issue to political bargaining and to the whims of negotiations.”
Another reason the PA may be hesitant to set a war crimes investigation in motion is the ramifications it may have on some Palestinian factions. The ICC would likely look into Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s rocket-firing on Israeli towns, and investigate Israeli allegations that the Islamist movement used civilian human shields.
In the past week, Israel said it would open a criminal investigation into several instances of what it is calling “military misconduct” in the Gaza war.
Israel’s swift call for a probe appears to be an attempt to pre-empt any independent investigations into allegations that its military committed war crimes in Gaza. “The PA gave the Israelis enough time to come up with a trick to prevent the court from opening any investigation,” said Saad Djebbar, a London-based lawyer.
Generally, the ICC launches probes in instances where the country involved is unable or unwilling to launch an investigation itself, Djebbar told Al Jazeera. “If the court tries to open an inquiry, the Israelis can claim they have jurisdiction [to do it themselves] because the ICC’s jurisdiction is complementary,” he explained. “The ICC is legally bound to allow an Israeli [probe] to continue.”
Follow Dalia Hatuqa on Twitter: @daliahatuqa