Threats of blackmail should not stop Palestinians seeking justice

Regardless of the pressure on the Palestinian Authority, Palestinians can no longer wait for Israel to face trial at the International Criminal Court, says Diana Buttu

Pep Montserrat for The National

With the announcement of a month-long ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian resistance movement in Gaza, Palestinians are now turning their sights to repairing the shattered Gaza Strip.

Palestinians will undoubtedly prioritise the reconstruction of thousands of homes, whose destruction has displaced nearly one-quarter of the Gaza Strip’s population. Palestinians will focus on repairing the scores of hospitals damaged by Israel’s bombs, as well as the dilapidated water supply and the bombed-out power plant.

While Palestinians heal, repair and try to reconstruct their lives, they should not be asked to simply ignore Israel’s crimes. Rather, this time the international community must insist that Israel is held accountable for its continued crimes so as to ensure that these types of actions never happen again.

Israel’s weeks-long assault on a defenceless, stateless population could not have happened without the decades of impunity that it has enjoyed.

Israel’s crimes are not simply confined to its latest military assault in the Gaza Strip: whether it is the long-standing policy of constructing and expanding colonies, its policy of extra-judicial assassinations, its apartheid policies or its policy of home demolitions – all of which are violations of international law – Israel has long enjoyed immunity from prosecution or even accountability.

To the contrary, the international community has not only failed to hold Israel accountable but continues to heap rewards on Israel, such as favourable trade relations, increased financial and military support and even membership of the OECD.

The benefits do not stop there: despite a signed agreement with Israel, the European Union continues to allow goods from Israel’s colonies to enter into European markets without so much as a label to indicate where the goods were produced.

But now the time has come to reverse this trend and a number of options are available to Palestinians and to the international community.

Just as South Africa was eventually boycotted and isolated for its continued apartheid and military occupation policies, so too must Israel now be isolated and boycotted for its continued apartheid and military occupation.

Israel must not be allowed to continue to reap the benefits of being a “normal” state when it is a state that continues to deny freedom to millions of Palestinians while forcing millions of others to remain refugees or as second-class citizens within their own ancestral land or outside of it.

Specifically, now is the time for the Palestinian Authority to demand that the international community ostracise Israel; that the world revoke the long-standing benefits bestowed on it, such as increased trade relations or membership in international organisations, and that the world begin to back the imposition of sanctions on Israel.

Most importantly, the Palestinian Authority should now sign onto the International Criminal Court (ICC) so as to begin the process of holding Israel accountable for its continued crimes. To date, while the Palestinian Authority has “threatened” to take this historic step, it has continued to fall short of accepting the court’s jurisdiction, despite the fact that Israel has perpetuated three massacres in Gaza over the past six years and despite Israel’s continued construction of colonies, deemed illegal under international law.

When the Palestinian Authority first launched its statehood project in 2011 by seeking recognition before the United Nations as a “state” the PA justified this move as a measure to hold Israel accountable and challenge Israel’s continued colonisation.

Despite obtaining upgraded status within the UN the following year – thereby allowing it to accept the jurisdiction of the ICC to prosecute war crimes carried out on its territory – the PA has failed to join the ICC and has demonstrated that this new status was merely a political ploy to appease Palestinians frustrated with the empty promises of the peace process.

PA president Mahmoud Abbas has listed a number of excuses for why he will not join the ICC at this moment, and has even demanded that the Palestinian factions support this move unanimously before he pursues it.

But with Hamas now on the record in support of Palestine joining the ICC, so too should Mr Abbas and the Fatah movement.

Yet, to date, they refuse to do so. This reticence stems from the fact that such a move will definitely end the so-called “peace process”.

This failed process allowed Israel to mask its military occupation and continued crimes by exclaiming that it was “seeking peace”. It further deluded the international community into believing that Israel’s crimes would be magically undone with the signing of a “peace agreement” and that holding Israel to account would undo Israel’s “fragile” coalitions.

But the peace process failed long ago: during this period Israel tripled the number of illegal Jewish settlers in the West Bank, confiscated thousands of hectares of Palestinian land and destroyed thousands of Palestinian homes. The world remained silent.

The Palestinian Authority similarly fears that the international community will cut off funds from its now dependent economy.

These fears are not without basis: the United States, Israel’s main enabler of international criminal action, has already stated that it will hold back funds from the Palestinian Authority should it take any action to hold Israel accountable. Undoubtedly, the Europeans will follow suit.

While the threat may be real, the PA should not allow Palestinians to continue to be blackmailed into accepting money on the condition that they remain silent in the face of Israel’s crimes.

Indeed, what message does it send to Palestinians when Israel’s foreign minister is a settler who also calls for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their homeland, or the deputy speaker of the Knesset is a man who advocates that Palestinians be placed in concentration camps – yet both are warmly embraced in foreign capitals around the world?

What message does it send when Israel, following the killing of more than 2,100 Palestinians, including nearly 500 children, its bombing of hospitals, schools, shelters, mosques and its destruction of entire neighbourhoods is allowed to continue to maintain an illegal blockade or is allowed to carry out similar atrocities in the future?

If the Palestinian Authority wants to demonstrate that it represents Palestinians rather than perpetuating a fictitious peace process or being held hostage to foreign demands, it will sign onto the international criminal court without delay.

Similarly, the international community must now demonstrate that it does not value Palestinian lives any less than those of Israelis. Most importantly, now is the time that Israel be sent the message that it is not above the law and that the Palestinians are no longer beneath it.

Diana Buttu is a Palestinian-Canadian lawyer who previously served as a legal adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s negotiations department

On Twitter: @DianaButtu