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January 23, 2015 2:00 pm

The Case Against the International Criminal Court Investigating Israel

avatar by Alan Dershowitz

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Hamas has expressed satisfaction with the decision of the ICC to open an investigation of Israel's military action during the recent war in Gaza. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

In 2012 my friend and colleague Luis Moreno Ocampo, who was then the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, ruled correctly that “Palestine could not be recognized as a ‘state.'” He now appears to agree with his successor’s conclusion that “Palestine could now join the Rome statute,” presumably as a state. I respectfully disagree.

How can an entity become a state, for purposes of joining the ICC, without boundaries? The assumption seems to be that the pre-June 1967 armistice lines now constitute the de jure, if not the de facto, boundaries of the Palestinian state, despite the reality that even the Palestinian Authority seems to understand that there will never be a return to those artificial boundaries. If the Palestinian “state,” as accepted by the Rome statute, were to be defined by the pre-1967 truce lines, it would follow that the Western Wall and its plaza – Judaism’s most sacred area – is “occupied territory” and any Israeli who moved into that area would be a war criminal, as would Israeli leaders who allowed Israeli Jews to pray at this holy place. The same would be true of Hebrew University, on Mt. Scopus, because its access road was captured by Jordan during Israel’s War of Independence and was thus not a de facto part of Israel before June of 1967.  Likewise with the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem, in which Jews have lived for thousands of years but which was captured and viciously destroyed by Jordan during the 1948 war. The same is true of Gilo, Ma’ale Adumin and other suburbs of Jerusalem, which Palestinian leaders have long acknowledged would remain part of Israel in any negotiated resolution, despite being beyond the Green Line. Moreover, land swaps, which will be part of any negotiated solution, would make some areas that are now part of pre-1967 Israel, part of a Palestinian State, and some areas that are now outside the Green Line, part of Israel.  These shifting boundaries pose an especially daunting problem in the context of Palestinian claims – which they have vowed to bring to the ICC -that it is a war crime to allow Israelis to live in occupied areas when so many areas of alleged occupation are disputed, fluid and subject to future land swaps. Moreover resolution 242 of the Security Counsel contemplated that Israel would retain some – though how much was never decided – of the land it lawfully captured in the defensive war against Jordan in 1967.

These practical problems simply illustrate the difficulties of recognizing a “state” that has no agreed upon boundaries and whose ultimate borders will be shifting in the future if peace is to be achieved. It is not even clear whether the Palestinian state currently encompasses the Gaza Strip, which has not been contiguous with the West Bank since the UN proposed the division of what remained of British Mandatory Palestine after the creation of Jordan. Gaza is now under the de facto control of Hamas, which is widely regarded as a terrorist group lacking any semblance of legality or any commitment to the Rule of Law. Would leaders of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank be held legally culpable for the terrorist acts of Hamas, even though they have no control over what occurs in Gaza? Would Hamas military commanders be held accountable even if they refuse to recognize the authority of ICC over them?

In addition to the practical problems that would be posed by recognizing a “Palestine” without boundaries as a “state,” there are important technical and legal reasons why the recent symbolic actions of several parliaments and the UN General Assembly do not change the legal status of what was correctly deemed a non-state as recently as 2012.  Several of the “recognitions” adopted by national parliaments were not accepted by their government and were conditional on a negotiated resolution in the future. So too the General Assembly’s recognition. The issue of what constitutes a state involves more than symbolic, contingent, or aspirational votes designed more for domestic political considerations than serious diplomatic and legal consequences.

Beyond these practical and technical reasons for not recognizing Palestine at this time are the moral considerations.  Israel accepted, and the Palestinians rejected, the two-state solution in 1938 and 1948.  It offered land for peace in 1967, only to be greeted with the three “no’s:” no peace, no negotiation and no recognition. It offered generous proposals in 2000-01, 2008, and most recently in 2014, none of which was accepted.  To now reward this intransigence with unilateral recognition is both immoral and not conducive to a negotiated peace.  If the Palestinians believe they can secure unilateral recognition without negotiation and compromise, they will have less of an incentive to accept a negotiated, compromise resolution.

Moreover, regardless of Ocampo’s good faith belief that the Palestinian decision to bring Israeli leaders before the ICC “should not be construed as an assault on Israel,” that is surely how the Palestinian leadership construes it, referring to this “card” as a “weapon.” And it is a weapon, because it seeks to create a false moral equivalence between a vibrant democracy that is governed by the rule of law; and a loose assortment of groups – Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and others – that do not accept the results of elections, that murder dissenters with no semblance of due process, and that allow its official media organs to incite violence against civilians based on their religion. It also seeks to create a false moral equivalence between an army that seeks to defend its civilians from rocket attacks, suicide bombers and terror tunnels; and a terrorist group that murders civilians in their beds, kidnaps and kill children and targets civilians from behind human shields.

It is telling that Hamas has expressed satisfaction with the decision of the ICC to open an investigation of Israel’s military action during the recent war in Gaza. The hypocrisy of a terrorist group that boasts of its multiple war crimes expressing satisfaction that the victims of these war crimes are being investigated for trying to stop rocket and tunnel attacks, should be evident to any reasonable person.

More significant is the response of the US, which issued the following statement: “We strongly disagree with the ICC prosecutor’s action. The place to resolve the differences between the parties is through direct negotiation, not unilateral actions by either side.”

Ocampo acknowledges that the principle of “complementarity” precludes an ICC investigation of Israel unless “there are no genuine national investigations of the crimes committed under its jurisdiction.” I am familiar with the Israeli legal system and its mechanisms for investigating alleged war crimes. There is no country in the world with a legal system that is more responsive to claims made by victims of war crimes. At the apex of the Israeli legal system is its Supreme Court, which is widely admired by lawyers around the world. If it were to be ruled that the Israeli legal system does not provide the required complementarity to deny the ICC institution jurisdiction as “a court of last resort,” then no nation would pass that test. The United States will never, and should never, submit itself to the jurisdiction of an international court that does not regard the Israeli legal system as a satisfactory fulfillment of the principle of complementarity.

On balance, the decision to open an investigation against Israel at this time will harm prospects for a peaceful resolution of the conflict and will harm the credibility of the ICC.  It is a serious mistake and should be rescinded.

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  • Diane

    How does Abbas even have standing to accuse Israel of war crimes against Gaza? A territory he does not control and a war his government was not a party to?

  • Milhouse

    it would follow that the Western Wall and its plaza – Judaism’s most sacred area – is “occupied territory” and any Israeli who moved into that area would be a war criminal, as would Israeli leaders who allowed Israeli Jews to pray at this holy place.

    That is nonsense. It would not follow at all. There is nothing in the Geneva Conventions that would make it a crime for a citizen of an occupying power to move to the area that his country occupies, let alone to visit that area. Does anyone imagine that it was illegal for US citizens to move to occupied Germany, Austria, or Japan?! Okinawa remained occupied until 1972, and Berlin until 1990; was it illegal for Americans to move there?! Of course not. Nobody would ever advance such an absurd idea. So even if Jerusalem (or all of Judea for that matter) were to have the legal status of “occupied territory”, Israelis who visit or live there would be committing no crime, and Israel would be under no obligation to prevent them from doing so.



  • steven L

    The concept of triple standards: one for the western world, one for the rest of the world and finally one for Israel.
    History keeps repeating itself and give good conscience to the UN-Ethical world.

  • Rick K

    Maybe the ICC is the forum to investigate the crimes of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. What is good for one side must also be good for the other.

    However this is a two edged sword and its preferable not to test it.

    It should be interesting to see how the border issues will be dealt with at the ICC. Who has jurisdiction and who is legally responsible for certain areas. The process may actually validate the shifting borders.

  • Jill Maleson

    I’m so sick of the hate for Israel. It’s not about Israel, it’s about hating Jews. This is history repeating itself while Holocaust survivors are still alive.
    They tried to kill us all in Europe. There are no Jews left in the Middle East countries we thrived in for thousands of years. We fought for and won our own country in Israel. Now they want to destroy Israel.

  • The ICC can declare Palestine a country with borders if it is convinced that Israel is deliberately refusing to negotiate in good faith. We all know that the reverse is true but go tell this to the international community. Another point that Dershowitz could have made is that there was no statement from the ICC that it would investigate Hamas for war crimes which we all know it committed thousands of times with each rocket launch, and incident where Hamas fighters used human shields.