In withholding $127 million in Palestinian Authority (PA) customs revenues from the authority, as retaliation for its application to join the International Criminal Court (ICC), the Israeli government has once again dangerously escalated tensions. Israel, which collects the duties for the PA, has withheld them six times before as punishment, but previously restored within weeks the funding, which represents close to three-quarters of the PA's operating budget. A prolonged retention could lead to the PA's collapse and force Israel to take responsibility for administration of services such as security, education and health in the West Bank.
The PA move to join the ICC arose from frustration at the deadlock in talks with Israel. The only way forward, they believe, is to internationalise their dispute. With the vision of a two-state solution receding, as the French UN envoy put it in the recent security council debate on setting a timetable for Israeli withdrawal, “the peace process must evolve. If parties can’t take decisions alone, the international community has to share the burden.”
Exasperated EU states have come to share the perspective, as evidenced in their willingness to endorse statehood. And it is a viewpoint which even the US understands. UN ambassador Samantha Power acknowledged as much in opposing the same motion. The vote against the deadline, she argued “should not be interpreted as a victory for an unsustainable status quo” but “as a wake-up call to catalyse all interested parties to take constructive, responsible steps to achieve a two-state solution”.
Israel supported the establishment of the ICC in 2002 – with its mandate to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes – but has refused to ratify it, insisting that it and most UN institutions are inherently hostile. It will never get a fair hearing, Israel argues, and an adjudication on its role in the West Bank and Gaza represents a dangerous internationalisation of the conflict, prejudging issues to be resolved in the course of negotiations.
Not least among those difficult “negotiation” issues for the court – if asked to consider either the proportionality of the killings of more than 1,500 civilians in Israel’s attack on Gaza last summer, or the illegal expansion of West Bank and Jerusalem settlements – will be the undefined borders of the Palestinian state. The Palestinians may also have difficulty in making the case that, however reprehensible, the Gaza killings rise to the ICC prosecution threshold for genocide or war crimes, of “unimaginable atrocities that deeply shock the conscience of humanity”. Are they a deliberate strategy or the byproducts of a misguided but “legitimate” war? These are legitimate questions and Israel should prepare to answer them instead of taking revenge on those who ask them.