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House backs sanctions on ICC officials who target Israeli leaders

Forty-two Democrats vote for the bill

House Foreign Affairs Chairma Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said on the floor that long-held fears are being realized.
House Foreign Affairs Chairma Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said on the floor that long-held fears are being realized. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House passed legislation on Tuesday that would order sanctions on International Criminal Court officials who bring charges against senior Israeli government officials over wartime conduct in the Gaza Strip.

The measure from Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, was introduced a month ago but skipped the committee markup process as GOP lawmakers rushed a floor vote to send a message of support to Israel after the ICC prosecutor, Karim Khan, two weeks ago requested indictments be issued against Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant as well as senior Hamas officials for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The vote for passage, 247-155, included 42 Democrats in favor.

Since the Oct.7 terrorist attack by the Palestinian militant group on Israel, the House has passed a dozen or more bills and resolutions aimed at demonstrating support for Israel; condemning antisemitism and the widespread public protests in the U.S. against Israel’s conduct in the war in Gaza; as well as seeking to guarantee continued weapons transfers to the Jewish state.

“We’re at a moment in history where our long-held fears are being realized,” House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said in floor remarks in support of the bill. “The International Criminal Court has over-stepped its authority and set a dangerous precedent by seeking arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Israel’s Defense Minister Gallant … I want to be clear the case against Israel is baseless.”

Khan heavily focused his case for indictment on evidence that Israeli government policies have caused widespread starvation and even famine in Gaza. Starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is a war crime that violates the Rome Statute, which established the ICC.

Israel and its U.S. backers say the ICC doesn’t have jurisdiction because Israel, like the U.S., never signed the Rome Statute. But because Palestine, which the U.S. and Israel don’t recognize as a sovereign nation, signed the Rome Statute, the ICC says it has jurisdiction over alleged crimes covered by its mandate in the Gaza Strip.

The Roy legislation would require the president to impose sanctions on any ICC officials involved in bringing indictments against “protected” persons, which the bill defines as current and former members of the U.S. military and the U.S. government as well as citizens of U.S. allies that are not party to the ICC. Sanctions as outlined by the bill could include visa bans, asset freezes, and restrictions on financial transactions that rely on the U.S. dollar.

White House opposes bill but doesn’t threaten veto

The White House in a statement of administration policy on Monday said it “strongly opposes” the bill for its blanket approach to a sanctions mandate that would impact “court staff, judges, witnesses, and U.S. allies and partners who provide even limited, targeted support to the court in a range of aspects of its work,” but didn’t issue an explicit veto threat.

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said Tuesday the Biden administration would be willing to work with lawmakers on a different response.

“We have made clear that while we oppose the decision taken by the prosecutor of the ICC — we don’t think it was appropriate, especially while there are ongoing investigations inside Israel looking at some of these very same questions — and we are willing to work with Congress on what a response might look like, we don’t support sanctions,” he said. 

Humanitarian law experts say months of warnings and evidence about the widespread starvation — and even famine in some parts — caused by Israeli restrictions on moving humanitarian aid into the blockaded Palestinian enclave mean that Israeli officials know the impact of their policies. So even as Israel and its supporters say it doesn’t intentionally use starvation as a weapon of war, knowledge and intent have essentially become one and the same.

“The effects of the use of starvation as a method of warfare, together with other attacks and collective punishment against the civilian population of Gaza are acute, visible and widely known, and have been confirmed by multiple witnesses interviewed by my office, including local and international medical doctors,” Khan said in May. “They include malnutrition, dehydration, profound suffering and an increasing number of deaths among the Palestinian population, including babies, other children, and women.”

He said Israel’s right to defend itself doesn’t absolve it of its obligations to comply with international humanitarian law.

“This bill is a message to the world that we will not sit by and watch a globalist ‘court’ interfere with Israel’s right to defend itself,” Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., a co-sponsor of the bill, said in a statement after the vote. “There are still six Americans held captive by Hamas in Gaza and we must support Israel in its fight to bring them home.”

Republicans were also outraged by the simultaneous request for indictments against Israeli officials and Hamas officials, saying the ICC is creating a false equivalency between the actions of Hamas, which the U.S. and much of the West designate as a terrorist group, and Israel.

But rather than focusing on whether the court is unfairly treating Israel as a party equally at fault as Hamas, the court is demonstrating “equivalency of victims,” said Gissou Nia, a human rights lawyer and director of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Litigation Project, which focuses on atrocity prevention and accountability. Palestinian civilians killed in the war deserve as much justice as Israeli civilians killed in the war, she said.

The court decided that in order for this to be perceived as fair, there was no way that they could not issue indictments against both Hamas and Israeli individuals where the evidence shows that they have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, Nia said in an interview.  “The idea is that all victims are equal.”

An estimated 36,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza and over 500 Palestinians killed in the West Bank since October. Those totals don’t distinguish between Hamas-linked fighters and civilians. The Hamas Oct.7 attack killed roughly 1,200 people in Israel, most of whom were civilians.

Netanyahu has been invited to address a joint session of Congress though no date has yet been agreed to.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., took part in the joint invitation from House and Senate leaders, raising questions over whether he might allow Senate floor action, including potential amendments, on the House bill as a show of support for Israel.

Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish official in the U.S., in March urged Israel to hold new elections to elevate a different leader than Netanyahu, who he blamed as an obstacle to peace.