CHRISTIAN AID, the Quakers in Britain, and CAFOD are among 13 humanitarian agencies that have jointly condemned Boris Johnson’s decision to oppose an International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation into war crimes allegedly committed by Israel in the Palestinian territories.
The ICC said that the investigation would cover crimes within the jurisdiction of the court which are alleged to have been committed since mid-2014, the start of an Israeli military operation against the Gaza Strip. It added that the inquiry would be carried out “independently, impartially, and objectively”.
Mr Johnson, in a letter to the lobby group Conservative Friends of Israel, said: “We do not accept that the ICC has jurisdiction in this instance, given that Israel is not a party to the Statute of Rome and Palestine is not a sovereign state.” The planned investigation, he said, “gives the impression of being a partial and prejudicial attack on Israel”.
In response, the aid agencies accused the Government of failing to stand up for international law and human rights. Instead, it was “undermining international criminal proceedings and standing in the way of justice”. The statement went on to say that the investigation “is bringing victims, survivors and their families one step closer to justice”, and is the “first genuine hope that alleged perpetrators of the most serious crimes will be held to account for their actions”.
The Palestinian Authority also criticised Mr Johnson’s decision as “deeply regrettable” and marking a “low point in UK-Palestinian relations”. A Christian Palestinian commentator, Daoud Kuttab, said that, among the public in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, “there is disgust at the British Prime Minister’s positions and many general references to the dark days of the British Mandate for Palestine that led to the problems we are facing now.”
For its part, Israel flatly ruled out the possibility of an ICC investigation. The office of the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said that Israel “completely rejects the claims that it is carrying out war crimes. . . Israel is committed to the rule of law and is able to carry out its own investigations.” The Israeli Defence Minister, Benny Gantz, described the idea of the investigation as “blind and unjust”.
Among the inhabitants of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the recent developments relating to the ICC are overshadowed by domestic political concerns. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for 22 May, and presidential elections for 31 July. There is no certainty that either will go ahead.
No Palestinian elections have been held since 2006, when Hamas, the dominant group in the Gaza Strip, was the winner — to the consternation of the West Bank-based Fatah movement and the international community. Tension rose as Hamas formed its own security force, and Fatah-affiliated groups in the West Bank refused to obey orders from the Gaza-based Palestinian Authority. Fierce clashes between the two sides occurred in 2007.
Failure to heal this rift has, until now, prevented the holding of fresh elections. The change of heart was prompted by the surprise decision last year by four Arab states to establish relations with Israel. With Arab solidarity for their cause apparently crumbling, the Palestinians put aside their differences.
But the path ahead is by no means smooth. No fewer than 36 groups are contesting the parliamentary seats. These include three headed by Fatah dissidents who are competing independently. One of them is Nasser al-Qudwa, a nephew of the late Yasser Arafat. Crucially, he has the backing of Marwan Barghouti, who enjoys huge popular support, despite serving several life sentences in an Israeli prison. Mr Barghouti’s ultimate aim is to unseat Mahmoud Abbas, or whoever stands for Fatah, in the July presidential vote.
Some supporters of Mr Abbas say that an Israeli decision that Palestinians in East Jerusalem will not be eligible to vote should be cited as a reason for the elections to be postponed. But Mr Kuttab says that he is “fairly certain that the vote will happen on 22 May. Everything is moving towards that. It will be a major disaster if they are not held.”
He is not so confident, however, about the presidential vote. If Mr Barghouti looks like presenting a threat to the traditional Fatah base, the election “might be delayed or cancelled”.