Israel on Saturday night froze the transfer of some NIS 500 million in tax collections to the Palestinian Authority and may sue its officials abroad for war crimes.
The move came as a protest of the formal application for membership of the International Criminal Court that was filed on Friday on behalf of the “State of Palestine.”
This is “robbery and an act more appropriate to pirates and not governments,” chief PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat said of Israel’s move. The tax money is used to pay public sector salaries and is critical to running the Palestinian Authority.
“A few hours ago, we have been unofficially informed that the government of Israel has decided not to transfer our revenues, which, according to signed agreements, are the revenues they collect on our behalf and are obliged to transfer to us,” Erekat said.
The Prime Minister’s Office had no response and did not make a formal announcement regarding the decision, but Israeli officials confirmed that the funds had been frozen.
Meretz leader Zehava Gal- On said “the Bibi-Bennett government continues to prefer headlines over Israeli interests. Half a billion shekels is exactly the amount that will topple the Palestinian Authority, stop the security cooperation and endanger every citizen of Israel,” she added. “The good news is that in two months this pair will be shouting from the opposition benches.”
In addition to the revenue freeze, an Israeli official said Jerusalem is “weighing the possibilities for large-scale prosecution in the United States and elsewhere” of PA President Mahmoud Abbas and other senior Palestinians.
Israel would probably press these cases via non-governmental groups and pro-Israel legal organizations capable of filing lawsuits abroad, a second Israeli official said, explaining how the mechanism might work.
Israel views the heads of the Palestinian Authority as collaborators with the terrorist organization Hamas, because of a unity deal they forged in April, the officials said.
Netanyahu has previously warned that unilateral moves by the Palestinian Authority at the UN would expose its leaders to prosecution over support for Hamas, which Israel and other governments have named a terrorist group.
Hamas “commits war crimes, shooting at civilians from civilian-populated areas,” one official said, referring to the war in Gaza last summer in which more than 2,100 Palestinians and more than 70 Israelis died.
On Friday, the Palestinian envoy to the United Nations, Riyad Mansour, submitted the Palestinian application to the ICC to the UN’s top legal affairs official, Stephan Mathias, at the UN headquarters in New York.
“This is a very important step,” Mansour told reporters.
“We are seeking justice for all the victims that have been killed by Israel, the occupying power.”
He pointed out that the Palestinians are the 123rd state-party to join the ICC.
Mansour said that a request has been filed with the ICC in The Hague to grant retroactive jurisdiction to the court to cover “war crimes” allegedly committed by the IDF during Operation Protective Edge.
The envoy said the Palestinians will also seek to take legal action over settlements, which he said are a “war crime” under the Rome Statute.
“This is a peaceful option, a civilized option, and an option that anyone who upholds the law should not be afraid of,” Mansour added.
He added that the Palestinians are not afraid of the possibility that Israel would also file war crime charges against Palestinians.
“The Palestinian leadership is not afraid of these allegations,” he said. “We honor laws and are not afraid of facing any charges with responsibility.”
A senior State Department official on Friday warned that the Palestinians’ formal application to the ICC would have repercussions for US aid.
“It should come as no surprise that there will be implications for this step, but we continue to review,” the official told Reuters. “US assistance to the Palestinian Authority has played a valuable role in promoting stability and prosperity, not just for the Palestinians, but also for Israel as well,” the official added.
Erekat told the Hezbollah-affiliated Al-Mayadeen TV network over the weekend that “Palestine” would become an official member of the ICC and other international conventions and treaties by the beginning of March.
No one would be able to prevent Palestine from joining the international conventions and treaties, Erekat said. “We chose to join international bodies that don’t require a vote. That’s why Israel was unable to hinder our move.”
Erekat said that settlements and the recent war in the Gaza Strip would be the first two cases the Palestinians would submit to the ICC. A Palestinian team of experts is currently working on these two files, he added. “If needed, we will also consult with international experts,” he said.
Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni’s camp attacked Netanyahu for his decision to freeze the tax funds. In a joint statement they charged that “Netanyahu does not have any solutions for Israel’s deteriorating situation internationally.”
According to the two, who are running on a joint list, Netanyahu “is weak facing Abbas in the international arena and takes steps that cannot help IDF soldiers at [the International Criminal Court in] The Hague and will not stop the international wave.”
Should they lead the next government, they said, they would ”make diplomatic decisions that will enlist the world to Israel’s side and give IDF soldiers and officers a legal and diplomatic flak jacket to protect them and stop the Palestinians’ steps.
“We all remember how Netanyahu missed an international chance to demilitarize the Gaza Strip, choosing to speak to Hamas instead of enlisting the world to Israel’s side and promote long-term solutions,” Herzog and Livni added.
MK Nachman Shai (Labor) said the decision to suspend transferring funds is meaningless.
“Within a few days, Israel will give in and have to transfer the money to where it belongs.
The magician doesn’t have any more rabbits in his hat.
Netanyahu is once again sacrificing Israel’s international standing for narrow internal interests,” he said.
Nimer Hammad, political adviser to Abbas, said the Palestinians were not surprised by the decision, which was not the first of its kind that the Netanyahu government had taken. He said that the government was mistaken to believe that the move would benefit Israel or serve Netanyahu’s election campaign.
The PA leadership, he added, won’t backtrack on its decision to join the International Criminal Court in spite of the freezing of the funds.
Reuters contributed to this report.