The ICC and Israel: Prosecuting the Punitive Demolition of Palestinian Homes – Part 2

by Elvina Pothelet

[Elvina Pothelet is a Visiting Researcher at the Harvard Law School and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Geneva. This is the second part of a two-part post. Part one can be found here.]

Part 1 of this post argued that Israel’s policy of punitive demolitions of Palestinian homes may amount to a grave breach under Art. 8(2)(a)(iv) of the Rome Statute. Part 2 explores alternative qualifications under the Statute and argues that a case on punitive demolitions before the ICC would likely pass the admissibility tests of complementarity and gravity.

Alternative qualifications

In addition to the grave breach qualification under Art. 8(2)(a)(iv), the punitive demolitions could also amount to the war crime of “[d]estroying or seizing the enemy’s property unless such destruction or seizure be imperatively demanded by the necessities of war”, under Art. 8(2)(b)(xiii). Curiously, none of the legal analyses of Israel’s punitive demolitions that I have encountered discuss this alternative qualification. If the reason is that “the enemy’s property” is understood as covering only the public property owned or controlled by the enemy party (the State of Palestine), such a restrictive reading is unwarranted.

It is true that the ICC Elements of Crimes for Art. 8(2)(b)(xiii) only indicate that the property must be “property of a hostile party”. However, the travaux of the PrepCom (which drafted the Elements of Crimes) suggest that this includes private property. Indeed, the Proceedings of the PrepCom issued at the end of its 3rd session specify: “Such property was private or public property of the hostile party” (see PCNICC/1999/L.5/Rev.1/Add.2). Since this interpretation was not disputed, the clarification was eventually deleted (Dörmann, p. 251). ICC case law relating to the destruction of property in NIAC confirms this (while Art. 8(2)(e)(xii) applicable in NIAC uses the slightly different formula “property of an adversary” instead of “enemy’s property” under Art. 8(2)(b)(xiii), the two are considered synonymous, see Dörmann, p. 485). The Katanga trial judgement confirms that enemy property includes private property (para. 892).

Furthermore, the meaning of “enemy” should be understood lato sensu, as including civilians perceived as being affiliated with the enemy. Katanga was indeed convicted for the war crime of destruction of property based on the finding that “the predominantly Hema population of Bogoro were considered adversaries” by the attackers because of their allegiance to the UPC” (para. 943, emphasis mine). Multiple declarations by Israeli officials could constitute evidence that victims of punitive demolitions are perceived as “the enemy” in the context of the occupation: in fact, they are targeted precisely because of their alleged ties with “terrorists”, a qualifier which cannot be understood in isolation from the situation of occupation.

As to the possible justification of “necessities of war”, the reasoning on military necessity developed in Part 1, applies equally (for an analysis in relation to Art. 8(2)(b)(xiii) specifically see Schabas, pp. 293-294).

Alternatively, the Prosecutor could prosecute punitive demolitions as “inhuman treatment”, a grave breach and war crime under Art. 8(2)(a)(ii) and Art. 8(2)(b)(xxi) respectively, due to its nature as collective punishment (see Al-Haq report, p. 15 and Expert Opinion p. 37). Finally, some have argued that the practice may amount to the crime against humanity of persecution (Al-Haq report, p. 53) – but considering the strong connection with the situation of occupation, the war crime qualification appears more straightforward.

Admissibility concerns

Art. 8(1) of the Rome Statute encourages the Court to focus on war crimes “committed as part of a plan or policy or as part of a large-scale commission of such crimes”. Punitive house demolitions are not only a practice but also a clear policy of the Israeli government, sanctioned by Israeli law. As such, it falls within the scope of this statutory guidance.

Turning to issues of admissibility, a potential case focused on (or including) charges for punitive demolitions would likely pass the tests of complementarity and gravity under Art. 17 of the Rome Statute. It is clear that Israel is not prosecuting any State officials for this conduct (‘the same case’ test in ICC case law), and it is probable Israel would be found “unwilling” to prosecute its officials for designing and implementing what is after all an official State policy of the Israeli government (the same goes for settlements activities, illegal under international law but sanctioned by domestic law). Complementarity should therefore not pose any major issue.

As for gravity, a potential case would seem to meet the criteria the Court has identified in an attempt to “objectivize” this inherently discretionary notion. According to PTC case law and OTP policy papers and practice, the OTP should assess gravity in relation to the crimes as well as in relation to the potential accused. The latter consists of determining if the accused are “those who may bear the greatest responsibility for the alleged crimes committed” (see e.g. Article 53(1) Report related to the Flotilla incident, paras. 133, 135). Given the State policy nature of the crime, those most responsible for the crime would likely be Israeli civilian and/or military leaders (even though the leadership position of the accused should not be a factor of gravity, see here p. 23).

The gravity of crimes is assessed based on quantitative and qualitative considerations, along four non-exhaustive indicative factors: the scale, nature, manner of commission of the crimes and their impact (see a useful review of case law here). Regarding the scale, according to data collected by B’Tselem (and used by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories), 272 people have lost their homes since mid-2014 (the date from which the ICC can exercise jurisdiction). As to the nature of the crime as being one of destruction of property, the al-Mahdi conviction demonstrated that gravity does not necessarily imply crimes against persons. And as highlighted below, the loss of one’s home has very real consequences on one’s life and dignity. The fact that the crime amounts to collective punishment, a violation of IHL, is also relevant. In addition, the destruction of one’s private home is connected to two human rights, namely the right to housing and the right to property, which could also account for the grave nature of the crime. As to the manner of commission, it is relevant that punitive home demolitions are part of a policy (a criterion mentioned in the OTP report on the Flotilla incident, para. 140).

Finally, the impact of the crimes must be assessed from the perspective of the direct victims and also the local communities more generally (see OTP Kenya Request, paras. 56-59). The economic, social and psychological impact for direct victims of punitive demolitions is well documented. Furthermore, punitive demolitions arbitrarily attribute collective responsibility for individual acts, thus perpetuating the stigmatization of Palestinians as “terrorists”. The consequences of such stigmatization on the peace process cannot be overstated.

In conclusion, there are strong arguments in favor of including the punitive demolitions of Palestinian homes in the OTP’s next preliminary examination report. This would send a clear signal that the Israeli state’s leadership must cease its illegal activity if it wishes to avoid ICC proceedings.

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