US Warns PA May Collapse as Israeli Official Dismisses ICC Gaza Probe

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Palestinians walk near the ruins of their house that was destroyed by Israeli shelling during a 50-day war in the summer of 2014, in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahia on February 19, 2015. AFP/Mohammed Abed

Published Friday, February 20, 2015

The United States voiced fears on Thursday that the Palestinian Authority may be teetering on the brink of collapse because of a lack of funding, as Israel withholds taxes and donor aid stalls.

Meanwhile, the Israeli army's top legal officer said Thursday he was unconcerned by Palestinian plans to sue Israel at the International Criminal Court over its conduct in last year's war on Gaza.

Washington has been in urgent talks with regional leaders as well as other stakeholders in the frozen Israeli-Palestinian peace process in a bid to try to release more funds.

"It's true we're very concerned about the continued viability of the Palestinian Authority if they do not receive funds soon," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.

Such funds would include the resumption of monthly Israeli transfers of Palestinian tax revenues, or additional donor assistance, she said.

In January, Israel suspended $127 million in tax revenues which should have been transferred to the PA, as punishment for its move to join the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The Palestinians' membership in the ICC, which takes effect on April 1, sets the scene for potential legal action against Israel for its war crimes, in a move which has infuriated the Zionist state.

The Palestinian economy has also been hit by a slowing of aid funds, as donors have failed to make good on $5.4 billion promised at a Cairo conference in October to help rebuild the impoverished Gaza Strip after last year's seven-week war.

For 51 days this summer, Israel pounded the Gaza Strip by air, land and sea, killing 2,310 Gazans, 70 percent of them civilians, and injuring 10,626.

The Israeli offensive ended on August 26 with an Egypt-brokered ceasefire deal.

The assault left the densely populated enclave in ruins, displacing more than a quarter of Gaza's population of 1.7 million and leaving 100,000 people, mostly children, homeless.

According to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, over 96,000 Palestinian family homes were damaged or destroyed during the aggression, including 7,000 homes that were completely lost. UNRWA has estimated that at least $720 million is needed to address the housing crisis caused by the conflict.

Besides homes, the Israeli strikes targeted 13 public hospitals; 17 private hospitals, including al-Wafa hospital which was completely destroyed; 23 governmental health centers, four of which were completely destroyed; and four private health centers, including the Khalil al-Wazir clinic which was completely destroyed.

Psaki acknowledged that given the situation it "would not seem possible to get further assistance to the Palestinian Authority through Congress in the near future."

"Hundreds of thousands of students could be without teachers, hospitals could cease to function... The cost to both Palestinians and Israelis could be immense in both financial and human terms," she said.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) reported last month that Israel’s offensive on Gaza drove the Palestinian economy of Gaza and the West Bank into its first contraction since 2006.

Psaki warned that if the PA ceased security cooperation with Israel "or even decides to disband, as they have said they may do as early as the first week of March," it could trigger a dire situation.

"We could be faced with a crisis that could gravely impact both the Palestinians and the Israelis, with potentially serious ripple effects...," she said.

US officials have been in talks with counterparts from the EU, UN, Russia and the Arab League to discuss the situation.

Israeli-Palestinian talks have stalled since Kerry's bid for a comprehensive peace treaty collapsed spectacularly in April after Israel announced it had plans for hundreds of new settlements and refused to free a last batch of Palestinian prisoners after earlier releases.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas in turn sought Palestinian membership in 15 UN conventions and the peace attempt eventually broke down.

Israel says its own investigations into war crimes in Gaza “should be enough”

The Israeli army’s top legal officer, Major General Dan Efrony, said the military was running 15 criminal investigations stemming from the summer offensive on Gaza, expressing confidence that they would head off a parallel probe by the Hague-based court.

"It should be enough with our quality and professionalism, and if it meets our professional standards then it should meet that of any others," he told journalists at a military legal conference near Tel Aviv.

The Israeli army has conducted investigations into crimes by some of its own members in the past, which has led to criticisms that its lack of objectivity in the matter would lead it to dismiss allegations of wrongdoing.

Efrony denied the Palestinian move to join the ICC had put pressure on Israel to open its own investigations.

"All my decisions are unconnected to the ICC... There has been no change because we are professionals," he said.

"When we decide to launch a criminal investigation, it's a full and thorough criminal investigation — it's not just to counteract the ICC— never."

The PA sought ICC membership after the UN Security Council rejected on December 31 a resolution calling for the establishment of the state of Palestine within the 1967 borders.

On January 1, Abbas signed onto 20 international conventions, including the ICC, giving the court jurisdiction over crimes committed on Palestinian lands and opening up an unprecedented confrontation with the Zionist state.

On January 16, the ICC announced "a preliminary examination" into Israel's actions over a period including its latest offensive on Gaza.

"Our agenda is not set by the ICC, we examine and investigate what should be investigated. We are a state that is willing and able to investigate and indict anyone that does something wrong," Efrony said.

"When I get up in the morning, I can look in the mirror without any qualms of conscience," he added.

Efrony's office has so far opened 15 criminal investigations into incidents which took place during the assault on Gaza and has heard testimonies from 17 Gazans.

Among the cases are the shelling of a UN school on July 24 that medics said killed at least 15 people, and the July 16 bombing of a beach where four children were killed.

Ten investigations were opened for clear-cut criminal acts, while the rest were the result of a probe by fact-finding assessment (FFA) teams looking into "exceptional incidents.”

So far, no indictments have been filed.

There are also a number of other high-profile cases under investigation for Efrony to rule on whether or not to open a criminal probe.

One relates to an incident on August 1 after the suspected capture of an Israeli soldier by Palestinian militants.

At the time, the military implemented the so-called Hannibal Directive, a controversial procedure which allows for an intensive military response to secure the rescue of a captured soldier.

The resulting bombardment of Rafah and the surrounding area resulted in the deaths of 114 Palestinians in just 24 hours, Palestinian medics said.

Efrony confirmed he was examining the case but refused to be drawn on what he would decide.

"It's on my table and I have to make a decision," he said.

Last month, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon expressed his firm opposition to any criminal probe of what happened on August 1, but Efrony shrugged it off, "I don't feel that I'm under any pressure," he said.

Efrony said that if the FFA findings indicate "reasonable suspicion of committing a crime or a severe breach of the laws of armed conflict, then a criminal investigation will be opened."

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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