Waiting for Abbas


It’s been two weeks since Hamas signed a proposal put forward by Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to prosecute Israeli leaders for war crimes before the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The next step was supposed to see Abbas undertake the historic signing of the Rome Statute, the ICC’s founding treaty, in order for Palestine to become a member.

But he hasn’t. Instead, on Friday Abbas indirectly blamed Hamas for prolonging the war by rejecting an Egyptian ceasefire proposal made earlier during the Israeli offensive on the blockaded Gaza Strip.

On the surface, the delay in signing the Rome Statute and attacking Hamas aren’t related, but they give some credit to rumours that Abbas will delay the ICC bid in order to win US support for a peace plan proposal he will soon announce.

If Abbas delays signing the Rome Statue and engages in efforts to revive the long-dead peace talks with Israel he will aggravate Palestinian public opinion already enraged at the atrocities committed by Israel in Gaza. In Israel’s 51-day offensive against the Strip, 2,100 Palestinians were killed, over 11,000 injured, and over 15,000 housing units destroyed. It is estimated that 500,000 Palestinians in Gaza were displaced by te war.

Reeling from the Israeli-imposed land, air and sea blockade since 2007 and two subsequent wars, the suffering of Gaza’s 1.8 million people is an accumulated suffering. It continues to be complicated — despite the ceasefire agreement that ended the war last week — because the blockade restricts the entry of building materials. This doesn’t affect housing alone. Some 250 factories are reportedly inoperable, while the Strip’s sewerage treatment facility and power plant, along with 230 schools, were damaged.

Today, the Palestinians’ sole tool to hold Israel accountable for these and previous war crimes is to join the ICC. But as much as Abbas knows this he seems keen on avoiding it at all costs.

“It’s possible Abbas fears US and international reactions,” said Mustafa Al-Barghouti, a prominent Ramallah-based politician, by phone from Gaza. “But that’s not a justification not join the ICC.”

Even before Israel’s July offensive, Palestinians wanted to bring Israeli leaders before the ICC more than they wanted a third Intifada, according to a June poll by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research. The poll showed that 76 per cent of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank wanted to take Israel to The Hague (where the court is based), even if it leads to the collapse of the PA.

A new poll published Tuesday by the same centre shows that Hamas’s post-war popularity in both Gaza and the West Bank has increased significantly for the first time since 2006.

According to the poll, if presidential elections were held today, Hamas’s Gaza-based Ismail Haniyeh would win 61 per cent of the vote, and Abbas only 32 per cent. The vote for Haniyeh stands at 53 per cent in the Gaza Strip and 66 per cent in the West Bank. More importantly, 70 per cent of Palestinians in the West Bank favour the transfer of Hamas’s armed resistance model to their part of the occupied territories.

It’s no surprise, given the dwindling popularity of Abbas before the Israeli offensive, that Hamas is more popular in the West Bank where Abbas and the PA are based.

A majority of 53 per cent believe that armed confrontation is the most effective means to establish a Palestinian state next to the State of Israel, as opposed to only 22 per cent who believe in negotiations.

This means that the vast majority of Palestinians consider the Oslo path of talks between the PA and Israel to be futile.

It’s the same path that Abbas now seeks to revive.

“Abbas’s delay in signing up for the ICC is based on pre-war calculations, but there’s no turning the clock back,” said Al-Barghouti.

Ironically, it was Abbas who resorted to the UN in 2011 in a bid to get recognition for Palestine as a full member of the international body. His efforts failed but a year later, in November 2012, Palestine was recognised by the UN as a “non-member observer state.” This new status offered Palestine the opportunity, for the first time, to sign the Rome Statute.

Although Palestine has signed several international treaties since, it never acceded to the Rome Statute despite its paramount importance to the Palestinians. But when Abbas sought to get the endorsement of all Palestinian factions on a proposal to join the ICC — and got it — many believed the historic step was finally going to happen.

“For Abbas, the ICC, like the UN bid, has always been tactical,” said Khaled Elgindy, a fellow at the Centre for Middle East Policy in the Washington-based Brookings Institution and a former advisor to the PA.

The experience of the 2012 UN bid is highly instructive, Elgindy added. Abbas eventually followed through on his threat to seek UN Palestinian statehood, “but he teased” the process out over almost two years. He is likely to do the same with the ICC, “and use the threat of signing the Rome Statute as leverage with the US — to apply pressure on Israel — and then only when that fails, and he is left with no option, will he join the ICC.”

Amira Howeidy is Deputy Editor-In-Chief in the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Weekly newspaper, where this article originally appeared.