Watch out war criminals, Mahmoud Abbas is coming for you

The PLO chairman told the UN that he won’t allow war criminals to escape punishment. The only problem: He still hasn’t applied to join the International Criminal Court, the one act that could actually lead to such punishment.

By Talal Jabari

There was an image that circulated on social media a few years ago that showed the area most of us consider to be Palestine – meaning the land occupied by Israel in the 1967 war – as an archipelago. It’s really not that far off.

The permanent checkpoints across the West Bank make clear that travel for Palestinians is a privilege and not a right. And no, I’m not talking about the terminals used to enter, or rather prevent entry into Israel. I’m talking about checkpoints like the “Container” checkpoint that is opened or closed seemingly at the whim of the commanding officer, thus transforming it from a checkpoint into a roadblock, and disconnecting the southern islands of the archipelago from the northern ones.

I personally hold this checkpoint dear to my heart. I have driven through it many a time, and have returned to find it blocked on quite a few occasions as well.

Illustrative photo of Israeli soldiers closing an internal West Bank checkpoint, May 15, 2012. (Photo by Ahmad Al-Bazz/
Illustrative photo of Israeli soldiers closing an internal West Bank checkpoint, May 15, 2012. (Photo by Ahmad Al-Bazz/

You can probably imagine, as the only road between the northern islands and the southern ones, this passage sees quite a bit of traffic. There are numerous private cars dotted between dozens of public orange taxi mini-buses. There are buses full of students visiting other islands for their school trips. But what always brings a grin to my face, are the Palestinian “National Security” Land Rovers and police cruisers traveling back and forth on this road. It’s not that I think those vehicles are particularly funny; what is amusing is that they have to cover their blue police lights with canvas, the officers inside need to be out of uniform, and of course they must be unarmed.

In fact, that’s the way they have to be whenever they travel outside of “Palestinian- controlled” territories. Yes, I put those words in quotes to highlight the farce that concept really is.

Here’s how ridiculous it can be: on one occasion a number of Israeli army jeeps drove into Hebron and stopped outside a Palestinian police station. Upon spotting the oncoming jeeps, the uniformed, armed Palestinian police officer standing outside the station quickly ducked behind the perimeter wall of the station. He must have thought the jeeps were going to drive past, after which he would return to his post. I can only imagine that they saw him duck in, because they parked their jeeps outside the station for a good 40 minutes while the officer just stood there hiding behind the wall. This was in “Palestinian-controlled” territory.

There are dozens more serious stories of Palestinian police officers being beaten, arrested, and even killed by the Israeli army. So you’ll understand if I am still scratching my head after Mahmoud Abbas’ speech to the UN on Friday, in which he stated to a rather empty General Assembly hall, other than the over-crowded Palestinian table, “we will not forget, we will not forgive, and we will not allow the war criminals to escape punishment.”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the UNGA during the general debate, September 26, 2014. (UN Photo/Amanda Voisard)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the UNGA during the general debate, September 26, 2014. (UN Photo/Amanda Voisard)

A wise man once said, don’t make a threat unless you’re willing to carry it out. So I can’t help but wonder how on earth Abbas plans to make good on his speech. Is he going to issue warrants for Israeli army officers that will then be carried out by the Palestinian police? I would hate to have that job! Is he going to announce a trade embargo on Israel in the hopes of pressuring them to turn over the accused?

Perhaps he imagines this international intervention force, for which he repeatedly calls, and his latest speech was no different, will resemble the NATO-led Stabilization Force in the former Yugoslavia, and start hunting down war criminals the way they did with Radovan Karadzic.

In that case, however, the International Criminal Court (ICC) was involved. In fact, they are nearing a sentence for Karadzic right now. This is the same court, which Palestine has had the right to join for the past two years now. The same court Palestinians got so excited about joining when Palestine’s status at the United Nations was upgraded, especially in the aftermath of a previous war on Gaza. Joining the ICC would truly be a step towards bringing to justice those war criminals Abbas so boldly threatened.

But there is little cause for alarm.

Chief ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda wrote in a Guardian op-ed last month, “[u]nder the laws of the Hague court, my office can only investigate alleged war crimes in Palestine if it grants us jurisdiction in its territory. It has not done so.” But clearly international pressure not to join far outweighs the “new war of genocide perpetrated against the Palestinian people,” as described to the UN by Abbas. I’m sure I’m not the only person wondering how a president talks about genocide but then doesn’t join the one entity that can at least discourage it from happening again.

So I supposed those war criminals Abbas referred to can sleep well at night. As long as they keep an eye out for police cars with canvas bags covering their lights.

Talal Jabari is a Palestinian award-winning documentary filmmaker and journalist from East Jerusalem. He tweets from @TalalJabari.

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