The International Criminal Court, which began operating in 2002, is charged with focusing on “the most serious crimes of concern to the international community,” listed in particular as “the crime of genocide,” “crimes against humanity,” “war crimes” and “the crime of aggression.”
In its 11 years, the ICC has brought cases related to such crimes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, the Central African Republic, Uganda, Darfur, Kenya, Libya and the Republic of Cote d-Ivoire (Ivory Coast).
So, you might think that the relentless slaughter in Syria, the ongoing brutality in Egypt or some of the more longstanding and heinous human rights violations in China might be good candidates for inquiry.
But, that’s not what the ICC’s mulling for its next investigation. Instead, ICC President Song Sang-Hyun announced this week that he had appointed a three-judge panel to, as the Israeli newspaper Haaretz put it, “consider preliminary procedural hurdles to opening a criminal investigation against Israel” over the May 2010 flotilla incident that left nine Turks dead and seven Israeli soldiers badly wounded.
The request for a probe came from the African nation of Comoros because, it claims, the alleged crimes occurred on a Comoros-flagged ship. The request was filed by a law firm from Turkey – which helped coordinate the flotilla that was designed to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza, and which lambasted its once-close ally in Jerusalem after the incident.
ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said the panel would have to determine that the alleged crimes warranted the attention of the ICC, which to date has only pursued cases with hundreds or thousands of deaths. Nevertheless, an ICC defense attorney said, the court could have rejected the request outright if it considered the issue obviously outside its jurisdiction so, in that sense, the request cleared its first hurdle.
Because the ICC could far better spend its time on what are truly the “most serious crimes” around the world, rather than waste it on an incident in which Israel was more the victim than aggressor. Perhaps we can quickly convince the ICC investigators to drop the matter by offering some important perspective.
For starters, Israel imposed the blockade in 2006 when Hamas won elections in the Palestinian territories and tightened it in 2007 after Hamas toppled the Palestinian Authority in Gaza in a violent coup. (That’s the terrorist group that, the ICC presumably knows, remains dedicated to Israel’s destruction.)
After Hamas then launched, or allowed the launch of, thousands of rockets from Gaza into southern Israel, the Jewish state announced it would search all ships that were headed to Gaza to ensure that none carried weapons or threatening equipment. At the time of the incident, Israel was allowing 15,000 tons of humanitarian aid per week into Gaza via other means, such as by truck.
The “Free Flotilla” was organized by the Free Gaza Movement and the Turkish-based Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), the latter of which reportedly helps fund Hamas, has ties to the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, and helped plan a foiled attack on the Los Angeles airport in 1999.
Across the world, the flotilla was billed as a reasonable effort to break an unwarranted blockade. But, before its six ships set sail from Cyprus, evidence mounted that many of the 600 passengers from more than 20 nations had something more sinister in mind.
Well before they set sail, Israel announced that it wouldn’t let any of the ships reach their destination. It offered instead to let them reach Israel and then to deliver the humanitarian aid by truck, but activists rejected the offer.
A few days before the incident, Al-Jazeera TV reported, activists on board were chanting “Khaybar, Khaybar, oh Jews, the army of Muhammad will return” – a frequent chant at gatherings of extremists that refers to the last Jewish village that Muhammad’s army defeated in 628, marking the end of the Jewish presence in Arabia.
“We are now waiting,” a woman on board said, “for one of two things – either to achieve martyrdom, or to reach Gaza.”
As the flotilla approached Gaza, five of the six ships let Israeli forces aboard to search its goods. But, on the flagship Mavi Marmara, Israel later reported, passengers beat, clubbed, and stabbed its soldiers with switchblade knives, slingshots, and metal balls and bats, forcing the soldiers to defend themselves. YouTube video at the time seemed to support Israel’s contention.
Nor did cooler heads prevail after. A few days later, Imam Ahmad Ibrahimi, who coordinated the flotilla’s Algerian delegation, told Hamas’ Al-Aqsa TV, “Our hatred for these people [Israelis] is so intense that we wished, at those moments, that we could have been bombs, and blown up among those brothers of apes and pigs.”
In what has proved a fruitless effort to restore warm ties with Ankara, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently apologized for the nine deaths to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Whether Israel had anything to apologize for remains a debatable point. What’s not debatable is any correlation between Israeli behavior and the ICC’s charge to focus on the world’s “most serious crimes.”
Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Al Gore, is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council and author of “Sound the Trumpet: The United States and Human Rights Promotion.” Follow him on Twitter @larryhaasonline.