Israel has branded the ICC as “anti-Semitic” after the court announced that it believes it has the basis to probe its crimes.
For decades, the Palestinian people and human rights groups have pleaded, protested and cajoled the international community into investigating Israeli war crimes in the Palestinian territories, only to find frustration and obstruction in the veto power of the United States in the United Nations Security Council.
Light at the end of the proverbial tunnel has emerged, however, with the International Criminal Court (ICC) announcing in December its “basis” for such a probe – a development one UN human rights expert described as a “momentous step forward”.
It has the potential to be a game changer for the Israeli state’s five decades-long occupation and blockade of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza because, while the UN has adopted hundreds of resolutions condemning Israel’s international law and human rights violations, the ICC’s move holds the possibility that “accountability is finally on the horizon”, according to Michael Lynk, the Special Rapporteur for the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967.
Israel has responded by labelling the forthcoming investigation as “scandalous” and smearing the ICC as “anti-Semitic”. Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has defiantly boasted that the probe will do nothing to halt his country’s actions in the Palestinian territories and has vowed to expand settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. It’s as though the self-proclaimed Jewish state is daring the ICC and international community to act.
Netanyahu’s rhetorical defiance is matched by realities on the ground. Israeli crimes and human rights violations in the Palestinian territories are peaking, with settler violence, home demolitions, settlement construction and ethnic cleansing strategies hitting their highest levels in years.
There is much data to corroborate this, including the fact that both 2018 and 2019 registered five times as many acts of settler violence against Palestinians than 2017, according to a report published by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. A quarter of these incidences were perpetrated by settlers from the illegal settlements of Yitzhar in the West Bank, which has been described as the “heart of the extremist right-wing”.
Settler violence has long been a staple of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation, but has become worse during the presidency of Donald Trump, whose administration has effectively given Netanyahu a green light to indulge his worst impulses, which often include his tacit – and sometimes implicit – support for settler violence.
These attacks on both people and property include violent assaults, throwing projectiles at cars and homes, destroying crops and olive groves and establishing roadblocks. They are often carried out with support of the Israeli military, whose soldiers are reported to act with impunity. It goes almost without saying that Palestinian victims are denied avenues to legal recourse.
“Investigations, if even opened, are usually closed with no action taken against perpetrators as part of an undeclared policy of leniency,” observes B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organisation. “The long-term effect of this violence is the dispossession of Palestinians from increasing parts of the West Bank, making it easier for Israel to take over land and resources.”
In occupied East Jerusalem, Israel demolished a record number of homes in 2019, while also setting a record for homes demolished by their own owners on Israel’s orders. Israeli-forced Palestinian home demolitions in the occupied West Bank also spiked last year. These demolitions have rendered 328 Palestinians homeless, roughly half of whom are children under the age of 18.
“Palestinians in East Jerusalem are effectively left with no choice but to build without permits as a direct result of Israeli policy which makes it practically impossible for them to obtain building permits,” says B’Tselem. “Israel uses this policy to further its goal of perpetuating a Jewish majority in Jerusalem. One of the ways in which it pursues this goal is by making life in the city unbearable for Palestinian residents, in a bid to push them to leave their homes, ostensibly of their own free will.”
Last month, the Israeli Government announced that it had approved 2,000 new settlement units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, while declaring its intention to annex the West Bank in what constitutes a war crime built on top of a 53-year-old war crime, as international law prohibits the annexation of territory even in the result of war.
Moreover, a recently published UN report revealed that Israel built or approved the construction of 10,000 new settlement units in the occupied territories during the previous year – a number that equates to almost double that of the preceding two years. Israel’s Defence Minister Naftali Bennett has declared his intention to bulldoze the historic and once bustling Shuhada Street market in the Palestinian city of Hebron, which has been closed off to Palestinians, to build a new Jewish settler neighbourhood atop its rubble in what arguably constitutes a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.
The ICC would be guilty of complicity if it was to ignore what Human Rights Watch has documented as five categories that characterise Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories including; unlawful killings, forced displacement, abusive detention, the closure of the Gaza Strip and other unjustified restrictions of movement, and the development of settlements, along with the accompanying discriminatory policies that disadvantage Palestinians.
Until now, Israel has not been held accountable for its occupation of the Palestinian territories. The ICC has the potential to change that.