Palestine's accession to the Rome Statute and its impending membership in the International Criminal Court (ICC) on April 1 raises profound legal and political questions. Will the threat of ICC jurisdiction prompt Israel to halt its illegal colonization of occupied Palestinian land? Will the potential indictment of Israeli military and political leaders deter future attacks against the besieged Palestinian Gaza Strip? Could justice and accountability at the ICC serve to advance the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace?
Committee members lined up to condemn Palestinians for seeking redress at the ICC. Subcommittee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) insisted that Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas "must be held accountable for his actions" and called on the Obama administration to immediately cut off all economic aid to the PA. Ranking Member Ted Deutsch (D-Fla.) paternalistically denounced Abbas for going to the ICC "in a move that will only set back his cause," deeming it "unacceptable" and an "egregious breach of U.S. trust." Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) characterized Palestinian membership in the ICC as part of a campaign to "isolate and stigmatize Israel" and warned against the ICC being "corrupted, and used and abused ... to bash Israel." And Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) asserted that Palestinian action at the ICC "contravenes international law."
Only Rep. Curt Clawson (R-Fla.) struck a slightly discordant note by lamenting that "there's just too much dying" taking place, but he failed to endorse the ICC as a venue for preventing future killing.
Following opening statements by committee members, a cavalcade of four pro-Israel witnesses proceeded to lambast Palestinian membership in the ICC and called on Congress to adopt a raft of sanctions against Palestinians for seeking justice there.
Jonathan Schanzer, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, advocated for Congress to "shut down the PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organization] embassy in Washington, and to take steps to weaken the organization worldwide." Eugene Kontorovich, professor of law at Northwestern University, judged Palestinian membership in the ICC to be an "extremely dangerous precedent for the United States," risibly asserting that it could open the door to "Boko Haram or ISIS [the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria] petitioning the General Assembly and, on a good day, getting a majority vote to exercise jurisdiction over U.S. troops." And David Makovsky, back on the staff of the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy after a stint on the U.S. "peace process" team, pooh-poohed Israel's killing of more than 2,000 Palestinians this summer, falsely claiming that half of the fatalities "are believed to be terrorists." (The United Nations has documented that more than 70 percent of Palestinians killed by Israel were civilians.)
The self-contained narrative in this echo chamber was punctured, however, by dozens of activists who held aloft placards — bearing the hashtag #ICC4Israel and showing scenes of Israel's devastation of the Gaza Strip — before the hearing started. The testimony of the witnesses elicited boos, guffaws and gasps from the crowd. After Makovsky testified that Palestinian membership in the ICC is designed "to give a boost to the boycott, divest and sanctions (BDS) movement," the crowd erupted in cheers, prompting an exasperated Ros-Lehtinen to order the Capitol police to remove individual disrupters. Police then selectively cleared from the room only attendees who had placards or who wore kuffiyehs — Palestinian scarves — regardless of whether those particular individuals were disrupting the hearing or not.
Danielle Pletka, of the American Enterprise Institute, chided activists "who want to come and protest about Israel and yet when I drive by the Syrian Embassy everyday ... nobody seems to be standing outside." This statement angered Syrian-American activist Ramah Kudaimi, one of those ejected from the hearing by police. "It is shameful that she would use the Syrian people's struggle against their own oppression to whitewash Israeli war crimes," she stated.
In a post-hearing interview, Ros-Lehtinen denied that there was any political slant to the hearing, arguing that despite the witness list being comprised exclusively of people opposed to Palestinian membership in the ICC, the hearing was "not biased." Her office subsequently declined to comment on why the committee did not invite a greater diversity of opinion to testify.
The Palestinian turn toward the ICC is indeed a momentous event in relations between Israel and the Palestinian people, signifying a fundamental break with the status quo of Palestinian acquiescence to a U.S.-led "peace process" which has repeatedly failed to halt Israel's illegal colonization of Palestinian land and establish a sovereign state. Such a transformative affair is certainly worthy of congressional examination. Unfortunately, Congress and the American people were ill-served by this unbalanced hearing. The House Foreign Affairs Committee should remedy this situation by calling a second hearing with witnesses who believe that justice for Palestinians and accountability for Israel at the ICC should be pursued.
Ruebner is the author of Shattered Hopes: Obama's Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace and policy director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.