RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Leading international human rights groups urged the Palestinians on Thursday to seek access to the International Criminal Court and end what they say is a lack of accountability for serious crimes by both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This includes accountability for acts of torture, indiscriminate attacks on civilians and Israeli settlement expansion on occupied lands, the groups wrote in a joint letter to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Seventeen groups signed the appeal, including international watchdogs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and 13 Palestinian organizations.
Since the U.N. General Assembly recognized a "state of Palestine" as a non-member observer in 2012, Abbas has had the option of seeking access to the ICC in The Hague.
However, the United States and Israel have strenuously objected to Palestine trying to join international agencies and conventions, saying it is an attempt to bypass peace talks.
Abbas froze such efforts during nearly nine months of U.S.-brokered peace talks with Israel.
The talks ended without progress in April — the latest failed attempt in 20 years to negotiate the terms of a Palestinian state next to Israel. The Palestinians seek a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in a 1967 war.
Joe Stork of the Human Rights Watch said claims that the Palestinians would disrupt peace efforts if they go to the ICC ring hollow "when 20 years of peace talks have brought neither peace nor justice to victims of war crimes."
The Palestinians say they are eligible for membership in 63 international agencies, conventions and institutions, including the ICC. Abbas acceded to 15 conventions in early April, nearly a full month before the talks collapsed, after Israel failed to release a group of Palestinian prisoners as it had promised.
In the West Bank, Abbas told Palestine TV in an interview broadcast Thursday that "all international organizations are open to us," but he did not specifically mention the ICC.
Palestinian officials have suggested in the past that seeking access to the ICC would be a last resort because it would likely trigger a political confrontation with the U.S. and retaliation from Israel.
Abbas is currently busy trying to reconcile with Hamas, the Islamic militant group that seized Gaza from him in 2007, and hopes to set up an interim unity government of technocrats by the end of May. He could lose international funding over his alliance with Hamas, branded a terror group by the U.S. and the EU.
Seeking access to the ICC could further disrupt relations with the U.S.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor dismissed the groups' appeal to Abbas as "unsolicited advice."
The ICC's former chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, said during a stop in Israel this week that the Palestinians should be cautious about pursuing war crimes against Israel. He said doing so could open them up to Israeli counterclaims over rocket attacks and suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. Instead, he urged the sides to find a "common approach" to resolve their differences.
In an apparent reference to Hamas rocket fire from Gaza on Israel, Human Rights Watch said ICC jurisdiction over the Palestinian territories would cover serious crimes under international law, including indiscriminate attacks on civilians and torture.
The New York-based group said the ICC's statute also classifies as a war crime the transfer of civilians by an occupying power into occupied territory, in this case Israel's settlement activity.
In a related development, the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights said it documented nearly 500 complaints of mistreatment and threats against detainees in Palestinian jails in 2013, up by 200 from the previous year.
The commission said the increase is due, in part, to better access for its investigators to lockups in Gaza.
The rights group said it presented the findings to Abbas, noting that one of the 15 conventions he signed last month prohibits torture.
"Now, after joining the international treaties and conventions that prohibit torture, Palestine needs to abide by these treaties and needs to take all the necessity measures to prevent torture in its facilities," said the head of the group, Randa Siniora.
In 2013, the group received 150 complaints in the West Bank and 347 in Gaza, she said. The total for both territories for 2012 was 294, she said.
Mohammed al-Saati from Hamas' government in Gaza, and spokesman Adnan Damiri for Abbas' West Bank government, said all complaints of abuse are being investigated.