Why We Should Care About Palestinian Unilateralism at the ICC
Since assuming office in January, members of the new U.S. administration have repeatedly stressed opposition to unilateral measures by Israelis and Palestinians. Yet, they have failed to act against the Palestinians’ efforts at the International Criminal Court (ICC)—their most significant unilateral move in decades.
In late January, acting U.S. envoy to the United Nations, Richard Mills, stated that the Biden administration “would urge Israel’s government and the Palestinian Authority to avoid unilateral steps that make a two-state solution more difficult.” On February 8, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized U.S. opposition to unilateral moves during a CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer. Three days later, Ned Price, the spokesman for the U.S. Department of State, highlighted the importance of refraining from unilateral action that could exacerbate tensions between Israel and the Palestinians.
The mainstream American media, traditionally, have also echoed claims that Israeli unilateralism undermines the cause of peace.
However, unlike the swift remarks issued by the media and administration regarding potential Israeli settlement expansion in Area C of the West Bank (which is under complete Israeli control), they have been rather reticent about the Palestinians’ unilateral actions at the ICC, which recently determined it had jurisdiction to investigate Israel’s settlement activity, despite Israel not having joined the Court.
Of course, the Biden administration did express concern over the ICC’s ruling when Price declared that:
As we made clear when the Palestinians purported to join the Rome Statute in 2015, we do not believe the Palestinians qualify as a sovereign state, and therefore are not qualified to obtain membership as a state, or participate as a state in international organizations, entities, or conferences, including the ICC.
Price focused his criticism on the ICC—but the ICC would not have even debated the issue had the Palestinians not unilaterally joined the Court years prior. Given the remarks by Price, it should be asked whether such Palestinian unilateralism is undermining future peace negotiations. Surely a unilateral move of such magnitude, whose ramifications are felt as strongly today as they ever were, warrants more attention from journalists than it has so far received.
When it comes to obstacles to peace, there is no legitimate comparison between Israel building homes for its citizens in existing settlements and the Palestinians’ actions at the ICC, both in terms of legality and impact on the conflict. Expanding Israeli settlements in Area C of the West Bank does not violate the dictates of the Oslo Accords—the legal framework which governs relations between Israel and the Palestinians. Ambassador Alan Baker, a former legal adviser at Israel’s foreign ministry who was on the Oslo negotiations team for Israel, explains that “nothing in the Oslo Accords prevents planning, zoning and construction activity by either side in the West Bank areas under their control.”
Conversely, by acceding to the Rome Statute, the Palestinians sought recognition as a sovereign state by the ICC. This directly breaches Article 31 of the Oslo Accords, which states that “Neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations.”
Despite all this, the media has scarcely highlighted the fact that unilateral Palestinian Authority actions violate past agreements and are being rewarded by the international community. Even the United States is currently pushing to jumpstart relations and aid to the Palestinians. This would include renewing aid to the terror-linked United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and reopening the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s diplomatic mission in Washington, which was closed by the Trump administration in 2018.
It is worth noting that reopening the PLO mission would infringe on congressional legislation that mandated the closure of the mission if the Palestinians filed a suit against Israel at the ICC. Furthermore, refunding UNRWA would violate section 301(c) of the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act, which aims to prevent U.S. contributions to UNRWA from being used for terror-related purposes.
If the American media and the U.S. government truly want to combat unbridled unilateralism that undermines peace, then highlighting the Palestinians’ legal warfare against Israel is the first place to start.
Eitan Fischberger is a former Staff Sergeant in the Israeli Air Force currently pursuing his MA at Israel’s Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His writing has appeared in Real Clear Politics, the New York Daily News, and more.