Despite warnings from Israel and the US, Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, has signed on to the Rome Statute. This accession to the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) founding document, he hopes, will successfully put pressure on Israel and garner more international support for the Palestinian pursuit for statehood. Additionally, it would allow Palestine to pursue Israel for committing war crimes and circumventing international law with regards to expanding illegal Israeli settlements.
These developments took place directly in the wake of a failed UNSC resolution to end Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. In an initial act of retaliation, Israel has declared that it will withhold $127m in customs revenue, which it collects on behalf of the Palestinians, and has lobbied ICC member states to cut their funding to the court. In addition, the US has stated that its annual aid of $440m to Palestine will be suspended, should Palestine take any “unilateral” action against Israel. While seemingly undeterred by these financial restrictions, the Palestinian Authority (PA) will undoubtedly suffer the toll of paying its nearly 160,000 employees. For an already cash-strapped government, such financial measures could risk the collapse of the PA, and the subsequent ramifications are numerous and potentially devastating.
In case the PA cannot pay its staff (including police presence), the existing security coordination with Israel’s police force will break down, and Israel, as an occupying power, will be obliged to carry the weight of responsibility for Palestinians’ daily needs. Furthermore, in the presence of a power vacuum within Palestinian territory, it is probable that Hamas will become Palestine’s leading political faction. Since Israel considers Hamas a terrorist organization, this shift in the Palestinian power dynamic would inevitably lead to a breakdown in diplomatic affairs, at best.
Due to these possible outcomes and similar instances in the past, it is unlikely that Israel will withhold the tax revenue on a long-term basis. The nature of the relationship between the PA and Israel depends on the status quo, in which Israel needs the PA government to look after the Palestinian population, and the PA reciprocates by maintaining security coordination with Israeli security services. Israeli President, Reuven Rivlin, spoke very clearly on the matter: “Freezing the transfer of Palestinian tax funds does not benefit us and does not benefit them… Israel’s interest is a functioning PA.”
Accession to the ICC is, however, a double edged sword for Palestinians, as it opens the door for Palestinian leaders to face charges in the court as well. For this reason and the PA’s financial dependence on Israel and the US, it would be unsurprising should Abbas decide not to pursue Israel in court. However, moving for accession has surely regained Abbas some momentum that he’d lost amongst his constituents since the latest Israeli military operation in Gaza. It could also spur a favorable impact within Israel by channeling voting patterns to the Left during the upcoming elections in March. Accession is, nevertheless, a last-ditch effort from an increasingly unpopular leader attempting to maintain control.
If Abbas were to follow up on his words with action, Palestinian life will be immensely disturbed, and a swelling frustration of an occupied people will unquestionably lead to further violence. Assuming, however, that Abbas does not pursue legal action and that the PA does not collapse, the situation will be entirely normalized with the exception of added leverage for Palestinians in negotiations. In this case, diplomatic focus must return to repairing the framework of the negotiations through empowering other political factions within Palestine to maximize representation, as well as ending Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territory. This is a fundamental requirement for the continuation of truly promising peace talks, as any other move will lead to stagnant negotiations, insufferable living conditions and, in all likelihood, further loss of life.