Israel Spurns International Criminal Court


By Sophie Claudet

Agence France Presse
June 12, 2002

Israel will not ratify the treaty creating an International Criminal Court (ICC) for fear of finding itself in the dock for its policies in the Palestinian territories, officials said Wednesday.

The decision, conveyed to parliament on Tuesday, was criticized by human rights activists who said Israel was afraid to be held to account for its military operations and Jewish settlements in the territories. "It's a sad and stupid decision, taken by an extreme-rightist government that is afraid of the world and that believes that everyone is against Israel," said Labor's former justice minister Yossi Beilin.

Eliakim Rubinstein, the government's legal counsel, told parliament that Israel would refuse to ratify the treaty empowering the ICC to prosecute alleged crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes. Israel reluctantly signed the 1998 Treaty of Rome on December 31, 2000, but it has now opted to follow the example of the United States in rejecting the tribunal expected to come on stream in The Hague on July 1.

"We feel that there is too great a risk of the politicization of the tribunal which could consider the settling of Israelis in the territories as a war crime," justice ministry spokesman Jacob Galanti told AFP.

Israeli lawyer and rights activist Yael Stein criticized the decision as "contrary to efforts around the world to enforce humanitarian law rather than let political considerations prevail." She said Israel was knowingly violating the Fourth Geneva Convention, a 1949 treaty signed by Israel on war-time protection of civilians, by establishing settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

Palestinian lawyer Raji Sourani stressed that "although the court will not have retroactive powers, settlement activity is very much ongoing and is thus a continuous war crime." About 200 settlements have been established in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 1967, with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon accused of encouraging a proliferation of small outposts since taking office in February 2001.

Another reason for Israel's refusal to ratify the ICC treaty is the fear that some of its soldiers could be put on trial for military operations in the occupied territories, the rights lawyers said.

Following Israel's military offensive on the West Bank from March 29 to May 10, dubbed Operation Defensive Shidld, rights groups accused Israel of serious violations of humanitarian law, especially in the Jenin refugee camp. The camp on the northern West Bank was the scene of the fiercest fighting in the operation, with more than 50 Palestinians and 23 soldiers killed. Israeli bulldozers razed a large chunk of the camp.

Israel resisted the dispatch of a UN fact-finding committee to investigate the Jenin battle, partly out of concern that its report could be used as evidence in eventual legal proceedings. Although Human Right Watch and other groups dismissed Palestinian charges of a massacre, they did report evidence of unlawful killings, use of civilians as human shields and blocking treatment of the wounded.

Quoted by the Israeli daily Haaretz on Wednesday, Rubinstein said: "I have faith in the purity of arms of IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) soldiers. "In cases where soldiers were found to have violated orders, they have been put on trial." But Stein countered, "If he has so much faith in the army, why did Israel oppose signing the treaty? "Only five soldiers had been indicted since Operation Defensive Shield and only for looting while many other violations remain uninvestigated," she said.

Washington has also balked at the ICC, with US officials unwilling to see their military or diplomatic personnel face prosecution in an outside court. Israeli fears have been heightened by a move in Belgium to try Sharon for war crimes for the 1982 massacres of Palestinians in Lebanon's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

For Beilin, the question is academic since Israelis caught outside their country can still be brought before the ICC. "Membership (in the ICC) doesn't make one guilty, and non-membership doesn't exempt Israel from having some of its citizens prosecuted," he said.

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