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ICC membership may hurt Palestinians, Hamas more than Israel (+video)

Mahmoud Abbas’s successful bid for Palestine at the UN takes Palestinians one step closer to joining the International Criminal Court, where some hope to prosecute Israel. But ICC membership may force Palestinians to take responsibility for their own conduct as well.

COMMENTARY: Stephen Walt analyzes the many complex and vitally important issues underlying US-Middle East policy as part of the American Conversation Essentials series.
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Mahmoud Abbas’s successful bid to get Palestine non-member observer status at the United Nations takes Palestinians one step closer to becoming eligible to join the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which is empowered to investigate the worst international crimes. Although critics of Israel have long hoped to see Israeli leaders prosecuted by the Court, Israel has never ratified the ICC treaty, and the Palestinian territories, as a non-state, have thus far been unable to ratify, leaving their conflict off-limits.

The chance that Palestinians’ new UN recognition may change this has revived Israeli fears of one-sided prosecutions at the ICC. In light of those concerns, some western leaders have reportedly asked Palestinian officials to refrain from joining the court. In reality, however, ICC membership may prove more complicated for the Palestinians, forcing them, too, to take responsibility for their conduct. If anything, prosecutions of future Hamas crimes might proceed more easily than similar prosecutions of Israeli crimes.

Palestinian officials have long asked the court to initiate prosecutions for crimes committed by Israeli forces in Gaza during Israel’s 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead; the most recent hostilities in Gaza may renew such calls. Until now, however, the court’s prosecutor has declined to act because only states may ratify the ICC statute. If the ICC does gain jurisdiction over a newly recognized Palestinian state, the court would be able to look at crimes committed on Palestinian territory.

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