The National Lawyers Guild (NLG), along with several other prominent legal groups, is urging the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to “initiate her own investigation” into “crimes committed and ongoing during and immediately before Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza.”
In a letter written in August, during the last week of Israel’s 51 days of attacks on the Gaza Strip, NLG president Azadeh Shahshahani states that “Israel’s clearly disproportionate use of force against the 1.8 million residents of Gaza appears to have little to do with any claim of security, but seems to be calculated to exact revenge against Palestinian civilians.”
The letter lists specific examples of numerous violations of the Rome Statute, the ICC’s core treaty which defines international crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression.
The NLG and endorsing organizations also write that the international court’s investigation “should include whether certain US officials have aided and abetted the commission of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity in Gaza.”
Meanwhile, revelations have surfaced indicating that the Ramallah-based leader of the western-backed Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, has blocked efforts to bring Israeli war crimes in Gaza before the ICC.
As The Electronic Intifada reported weeks ago,
French lawyers acting on behalf of the PA’s justice minister and Gaza’s prosecutor general sent a request [on 30 July] to the ICC to launch an investigation into then-ongoing Israeli war crimes in Gaza.
In the letter, obtained by Al Jazeera, [top ICC prosecutor Fatou] Bensouda recounts that during her 5 August meeting with [PA foreign minister Riad] Malki, she “sought to confirm whether or not” that request had been officially “transmitted on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.”
This was a crucial procedural question since, under the rules of the ICC, only the head of the State of Palestine, or its foreign minister, can authorize such a prosecution. In the letter, a reply to the same French law firm, Bensouda is clear: “I did not receive a positive confirmation [from Malki]. Accordingly, there is no legal basis for my Office to consider” taking forward the prosecution.
However, Shahshahani said in an interview with The Electronic Intifada that “the ICC does in fact have jurisdiction,” despite the pressure by Israel, the US and apparently Abbas’ regime, to prosecute Israel. “Palestine in 2009 issued a declaration to the ICC, which provides the jurisdictional basis for the office of the prosecutor to open an investigation,” she added.
The Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah, in a recent interview with The Real News Network, said that Abbas’ failure to seek war crimes prosecution against Israel is because his regime “is in fact closely allied to Israel in a number of ways.”
He added: “Despite his rhetoric criticizing Israel, the fact is at no point has he ever stopped the so-called security coordination between the Israeli occupation army and the Palestinian Authority. So, while families were being slaughtered in Gaza, Mahmoud Abbas’ security forces were continuing their routine cooperation with the Israeli Shin Bet security services and with the Israeli army in the West Bank.”
“Potential for future violations”
Shahshahani said that as legal organizations wait for a response from the ICC prosecutor, “obviously there needs to be a lot more pressure and activism and asks and calls to the ICC to do something.”
She added, “This letter is definitely a great first step, but there needs to be other voices as well joining this call. Otherwise, we’re going to see potentially future acts of systematic violations of this nature happening by Israeli forces with the support of the US government, without anybody being held accountable, which would mean impunity.”
Listen to the interview via the media player, or read the transcript below.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: About a month ago, a coalition of civil rights advocacy organizations sent a letter to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), quote “urging her to initiate an investigation of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity committed by Israeli leaders and aided and abetted by US officials in Gaza.” In your legal opinion, what specific examples during the 51 days of attacks can you cite that could be considered war crimes and crimes against humanity by Israel in Gaza?
Azadeh Shahshahani: We detailed in our letter a number of different types of violations committed by Israeli forces and aided and abetted by the US, including wilful killing. So, as people know, Israeli forces have killed over 2,100 Palestinians, including over 500 children. This has been very well documented by non-governmental organizations including the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.
In addition, wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, so when the letter went out in late August, there were 10,000 Palestinians of Gaza who had been wounded, including 2,200 of them children.
And then in terms of unlawful, extensive destruction and appropriation of property that is not justified by military necessity — so tens of thousands of Palestinians have lost their homes.
And there are a number of other examples in our letter, including wilfully depriving a prisoner of war or civilian the rights of fair and regular trial. So, over one thousand Palestinians were arrested by Israeli forces in June and July of 2014, including members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, dozens of women, journalists, activists, academics and 62 former prisoners previously released in a prisoner exchange. More than 450 of them were held without charge or trial under administrative detention, which is basically a euphemism for indefinite detention.
And there are a number of other examples of potential war crimes during this operation by Israeli forces.
NBF: Can you talk a little about the obstacles facing international civil society organizations, including Palestinian civil society, individual families, and civil rights and human rights advocacy organizations, in terms of being able to pressure the International Criminal Court to take these hearings up, especially in light of the revelations that Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, has been apparently deliberately blocking investigations into Israeli war crimes by the ICC?
AS: Obviously, there are political obstacles. I would imagine that the ICC is under tremendous pressure by the US and potentially other governments in the west to not do anything about this. But as we said in our letter, the ICC does in fact have jurisdiction. So even though neither Israel nor the US is a party to the Rome Statutes for the International Criminal Court, Palestine in 2009 issued a declaration to the ICC, which provides the jurisdictional basis for the office of the prosecutor to open an investigation. So this is the basis that we detailed in our letter, basically asking the prosecutor to open an investigation into these potential war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity against Palestinians on her own initiative.
NBF: Where does this effort stand now, have there been any recent updates in terms of the ICC being receptive to this kind of pressure?
AS: We haven’t heard anything yet. We sent the letter in late August. So we remain hopeful, but obviously there needs to be a lot more pressure and activism and asks and calls to the ICC to do something. This letter is definitely a great first step, but there needs to be other voices as well joining this call.
Otherwise, we’re going to see potentially future acts of systematic violations of this nature happening by Israeli forces with the support of the US government, without anybody being held accountable, which would mean impunity.
NBF: If Israel does face war crimes hearings and even prosecution at an international court level, what kind of message would this send to Israeli leaders, and the US government which as you said has aided and abetted Israel’s crimes in Palestine for nearly seven decades?
AS: That they will be held accountable, that they cannot continue committing crimes, and in the case of the US, really supporting the crimes and providing the weapons and the tools necessary for the committing of war crimes and crimes against humanity without being held accountable for their crimes.
So I think it’s going to send a very powerful message to these governments and other western governments as well, that at various points in time might at least ponder the possibility of lending support to regimes that are in the process of committing war crimes.
NBF: Finally, where can people go for more information and how can people support this letter and pressure their local or national leadership to also pressure the ICC?
AS: People can go to our website, NLG.org, to see a copy of the letter. We’re also on Facebook and Twitter. I would say that people should start by contacting their congressional representatives in regards to the whole issue of US government’s unconditional support for Israel.
We all saw that as people were being murdered in Gaza, our congressional representatives were for the most part unanimously in support of the operation, and that is obviously a badge of shame for this congress.
So they need to hear our voices, loud and clear, that we will not stand for this, and that as Americans we are ashamed that our tax money is being spent for operations that lead to death and destruction in Gaza and for the people of Palestine.