War crimes for votes

Demonstrators block a bulldozer to prevent home demolitions in Khan al-Ahmar (Oren Ziv - ActiveStills)

Maureen Clare Murphy

The Electronic Intifada  /  March 26, 2021

On the eve of Israel’s elections on Tuesday, several candidates were interviewed during a live broadcast at Khan al-Ahmar, pledging to destroy the Palestinian village.

It wasn’t the first time that an Israeli politician made a campaign promise to raze Khan al-Ahmar and forcibly transfer its residents.

In 2019, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, considered demolishing the village before the elections that year because he thought it “would certainly help” him at the polls.

One year prior, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court warned Israel that its planned eviction of Khan al-Ahmar would constitute a war crime.

The ICC formally opened an investigation into alleged war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip earlier this month. Israel’s settlement enterprise, for which it seeks to destroy Khan al-Ahmar, is a primary focus of the probe.

Courting the settler vote

The specter of an indictment at The Hague did not deter Israeli lawmakers from openly admitting their intent to perpetrate war crimes on Monday. And the Khan al-Ahmar spectacle was just one example of Israeli leaders courting the vote of West Bank settlers.

(Palestinians living in the same territory cannot, of course, vote in the elections of the state which rules over them.)

On Monday, Netanyahu was in Revava, where he attended a cornerstone-laying event inaugurating a new neighbourhood in the West Bank settlement.

The transfer of Israel’s civilian population into occupied territory is a violation of international law and a war crime.

Impunity

Israel has a narrow window of opportunity to seek deferral of an ICC investigation by demonstrating that it is investigating the alleged crimes identified by the court.

There is little to no reason to believe that Israel will engage in good faith with the ICC.

Instead, its highest-ranking members of government and the military are flaunting their endorsement and authorship of the policies that will potentially be investigated. These leaders are seemingly assured that their impunity will remain intact.

“I am responsible for the order to open fire,” Aviv Kohavi, the head of Israel’s military, assured soldiers upon his return from a diplomatic tour of Europe last week.

The use of lethal force against unarmed protesters during Gaza’s Great March of Return is, along with West Bank settlements, a primary focus of the ICC’s investigation.

Kohavi and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin visited Austria, France and Germany to campaign to undermine the court probe and negotiations with Iran.

Also recently returned from Europe is Riyad al-Malki, the Palestinian Authority foreign minister. Al-Malki met with the ICC’s chief prosecutor in The Hague last week.

When crossing back into the West Bank on Sunday, Al-Malki and his aides were interrogated by Israeli occupation forces.

Officers, reportedly from the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic spy agency, confiscated their VIP cards that exempt them from the severe movement restrictions imposed on Palestinians in the West Bank.

Both Luxembourg and The Netherlands expressed concern over the retaliation against Al-Malki.

“The Netherlands is very invested in the fact that the ICC must be able to carry out its work without interference,” a spokesperson for the Dutch foreign ministry stated.

Israel has threatened additional retaliation against the Palestinian Authority for successfully petitioning the ICC.

“The Palestinian leadership has to understand there are consequences for their actions,” Israeli media quoted an unnamed senior Israeli official as saying on Monday.

Among the “consequences” reportedly being considered are “sanctioning Palestinian officials and blocking projects to further cooperation with the PA.”

Palestinian human rights groups working with the ICC are meanwhile “routinely faced with hostile measures of collective punishment from Israel,” Al-Haq, one such organization, stated this week.

These include “smears and death threats – all designed to foil, undermine and deter Palestinian engagement with the ICC,” Al-Haq added.

Uphill battle for justice

A Palestine investigation may have been opened, but it will still be an uphill battle for justice at the ICC – “the most difficult the court has ever attempted,” according to one Hague correspondent.

The court is overworked and under-resourced, with some states limiting the ICC’s budget to curb the prosecutor’s reach.

Two-thirds of US Congress have signed on to a letter authored by the Israel lobby group AIPAC calling on the government to “defend Israel against politically motivated investigations” by the ICC.

President Joe Biden has maintained the economic sanctions imposed by his predecessor Donald Trump on the ICC prosecutor and members of her staff.

Trump’s executive order “punishes anyone, including experts like me, who supports these ICC officials,” Leila Sadat, an advisor to the chief prosecutor, has stated.

The chilling effect also impacts “investigators, lawyers, victims, witnesses, human rights defenders” and those who fund groups working with the court, according to Susan Power, a legal researcher with Al-Haq.

She also warned that despite “EU commitment to the rule of law,” some European member states of the ICC “may refuse to fulfil their Rome Statute obligations of cooperation with the court.”

With such little political will to ensure accountability, it is little wonder that Israeli electoral hopefuls broadcast their intentions to violate international law on live TV for all the world to see.

Maureen Clare Murphy is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada and lives in Chicago