Here’s what you need to know about the International Criminal Court in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
What is the ICC?
The tribunal grew out of a special judicial body that was set up after the 1990s Balkan wars to try those responsible for the gravest violations of international law. Made a permanent tribunal in 2002, the Hague-based court has the authority to try cases of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. So far it has had limited success. Nearly all of its investigations have been in Africa, and potentially sensitive cases have sometimes been sidelined.
What do the Palestinians hope joining the court will achieve?
The Palestinians hope to see Israel brought to account for actions including several crimes during the summer war in the Gaza Strip resulting in Palestinian civilian deaths, and for Jewish colony-building activity in the Occupied West Bank, the heartland of what Palestinians view as their future state.
How has Israel reacted to the Palestinians’ move?
Swiftly and sharply. The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has moved to withhold monthly tax revenue of more than $120 million that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinians, with future revenue similarly threatened. American aid is possibly imperiled as well. President Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority uses this money to pay salaries and expenses and could collapse without it.
Why isn’t the US a party to the ICC?
Successive US administrations have opted out of joining the court, rather than exposing US troops or officials to outside legal judgment, saying the American legal system has the ability to conduct any needed investigations. But the United States has sometimes cooperated with the court in individual cases.
Could the court act against Israeli officials?
Because Israel is not a party, its territory is outside the court’s jurisdiction. But officials indicted or convicted by the court could be arrested if they left the country.
Why did the Palestinians move only now?
They had sought to join the court before but were prevented because they aren’t state. But in November 2012, the Palestinians’ standing at the United Nations was upgraded to “observer state.” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has indicated that will be sufficient for the Palestinian state to accede to the ICC in April.
Does the court automatically investigate all cases referred by members?
No. The ICC has jurisdiction if a member country is unable or unwilling to carry out its own investigation. Also at issue are the gravity and scope of the alleged crimes. A past case that failed to meet that standard, in the court’s judgment, was Israel’s takeover of the Mavi Marmara, a ship that sought to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza in 2010. Nine activists died when Israeli forces stormed the vessel.
Is the Palestinian move part of a larger trend?
Yes. Palestinians are seeking international support for a statehood push, through actions such as a recently rejected UN Security Council resolution setting a negotiations timetable, preparing to join dozens of international treaties and charters and lobbying Western governments to recognize it as a state. The Israeli regime views such measures an attempt to discredit and isolate it internationally.
If the Palestinians do join the court, can the ICC look at actions predating that?
Yes, in principle. The Palestinian bid gave a start date of June 13, 2014, which would encompass the Gaza war and the weeks leading up to it. The Palestinians could also look at Jewish colonist activity during that time frame, as international law prohibits moving civilian populations in or out of occupied territories -- though Israel interprets the law differently.
Once the Palestinians have membership, couldn’t they be prosecuted as well?
Yes, because accepting the court’s jurisdiction also commits the Palestinian Authority to investigations of war crimes carried out by its own people.