Palestinian leaders made the move after a U.N. resolution demanding an end to the Israeli occupation by 2017 was bottled up by Washington and Jerusalem.
The State Department sharply criticized Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday after he applied for state membership in the International Criminal Court. Abbas’s move, long-opposed by Washington and Jerusalem, paves the way for the filing of war crimes charges against Israel for its bombing campaign in Gaza last summer.
“Today’s action is entirely counter-productive and does nothing to further the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a sovereign and independent state,” State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said in a statement. “It badly damages the atmosphere with the very people with whom they ultimately need to make peace.”
The strong words from the State Department are likely to pale in comparison to the reaction from Congress, which has long threatened to impose sanctions on the Palestinian Authority if it pursues membership in the court. Lawmakers may also seek to cut off funding for the PA, which receives about $400 million per year from the United States.
“There is no question mark as to what are the consequences, that there will be immediate American and Israeli financial sanctions,” Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, told the New York Times. “Those sanctions will gradually become more and more crippling, and this could indeed be the beginning of the end of the PA They fully realize that.”
Abbas’s move is in line with a strategic shift by the Palestinians to internationalize the conflict with Israel after decades of American-brokered peace talks failed to achieve meaningful results. The most recent attempt, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, collapsed entirely in mid-2014, leaving the prospect of new negotiations looking more remote than ever.
The push to join the ICC comes amid Palestinian disappointment at a successful U.S. and Israeli effort to prevent the passage of a U.N. Security Council Resolution demanding an end to Israel’s occupation by 2017. The measure needed nine votes to pass, but only received eight because of no votes from the U.S. and Australia and abstentions by five countries, including normally pro-Palestinian countries like Nigeria and Rwanda. After the Tuesday night vote, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly thanked the leaders of both nations by name. “They promised me personally that they would not support this decision, and they stood by their words,” he said.
Abbas and other Palestinian leaders, by contrast, made clear Wednesday that they felt betrayed by the vote, which they said left them no choice but to seek justice at the ICC.
“There is aggression practiced against our land and our country, and the Security Council has let us down — where shall we go?” Abbas said in Ramallah Wednesday.
“We want to complain to this organization,” he said, referring to the court. “As long as there is no peace, and the world doesn’t prioritize peace in this region, this region will live in constant conflict.”
Abbas’s remarks came during a PA meeting in Ramallah where he signed 20 documents and treaties, including the Treaty of Rome, which initiates the application process to the ICC. The goal of signing the treaty is to force the ICC to prosecute Israeli officials for the bombing campaign in Gaza this summer, which killed some 2,000 Palestinians, the majority of whom were civilians. Hamas militants fired thousands of rockets into Israel during the conflict. On the Israeli side, seven civilians and 66 soldiers were killed. The court exercises jurisdiction over individuals accused of war crimes, genocide, and various crimes against humanity.
Shortly after the announcement, Netanyahu vowed to take “steps in response” to the signing of the Treaty of Rome and protect Israeli soldiers from potential prosecution. In a written statement, he also warned that the Palestinians may have more to lose by joining the ICC than Israel given the PA’s unity deal with Hamas, which he called “an avowed terrorist organization which, like ISIS, carries out war crimes.”
“We will rebuff this additional attempt to force diktat on us just like we rebuffed the Palestinian appeal to the UN Security Council,” the Israeli leader said in the statement.
For its part, Hamas welcomed Abbas’s decision, calling it a “step in the right direction.” In a statement from the Gaza Strip, the group said the latest move should be followed by other steps, such as cutting off all negotiations with Israel, including on security matters and the lifting of the blockade of the Gaza Strip.