Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked a visiting congressional delegation today to try to stop the Palestinian Authority from joining the International Criminal Court and then filing war crimes charges against Israel.

“He told us that the possibility of an ICC inquiry would shackle Israel’s hands and prevent it from defending itself against terrorists who are embedded in civilian areas,” said Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington).

“He said an ICC proceeding would deny Israel its legitimate right to self defense and undermine its responsibility to its own [people],” said Israel, who is leading a nine-member bipartisan delegation on a one-week tour of Israel.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki met with ICC prosecutors at The Hague yesterday and said there was “clear evidence” that Israel had committed war crimes in its 28-day war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. He told reporters that he had come to give the ICC jurisdiction to investigate alleged crimes by both sides in the conflict — which Hamas claims killed more than 1,800 Palestinians, most of them civilians.

Maliki said also that he had discussed with ICC prosecutors the possibility of joining the court, a requirement before the ICC can begin an investigation. Just last week, the United Nations launched its own probe of the war, looking for possible human rights violations and other crimes.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon told a special General Assembly session on Gaza today that Israeli strikes on U.N. facilities in Gaza during the war are “outrageous, unacceptable and unjustifiable.”

“Yes, there were reports that Hamas rockets were fired near U.N. premises, yet let me be clear: Mere suspicion of militant activity does not justify jeopardizing the lives and safety of many thousands of innocent civilians,” he said. “International humanitarian law clearly requires protection by all parties of civilians and civilian facilities, including U.N. staff and U.N. premises… Those who violate this sacred trust must be subject to accountability and justice.”

After his one-hour meeting with the congressional delegation, Netanyahu held a press conference at which he addressed the secretary general’s charges without naming him. He insisted that it is Hamas that “must be held accountable for the loss of life and be ostracized from the family of nations for its callous use of civilians” to act as human shields.

“The tragedy of Gaza is that it is ruled by Hamas and they want civilian casualties and use them as PR fodder,” he continued. “It’s not that they don’t want them – they want them. They fire rockets from schools, hospitals, mosques and urban neighborhoods – and right next to hotels where journalists are staying.”

Moments earlier, Netanyahu played a video taken by a television news crew of a Hamas rocket being fired from just outside their hotel window. The video was not released until the news crew left the Gaza Strip.

“I expect now that the press are leaving Gaza and no longer subject to their [Hamas] restrictions that we will see more documentation of Hamas hiding behind civilian targets,” he said.

Netanyahu insisted that when Israel saw rockets being fired, it had an obligation to fire back in an effort to destroy the rocket launchers and the terrorists.

“There are those who would allow Hamas to act with impunity,” he said. “It is a moral mistake, an operational mistake because it validates and legitimizes Hamas’s use of human shields and it has a devastating affect on a society fighting terrorism. If this were to happen, more and more civilians would die around the world.”

During their meeting with Netanyahu, Israel promised to do everything possible to keep the PA from joining the ICC. He noted, for instance, that Congress provides money to the PA for the training of its security personnel.

“There are a lot of tools we can use,” he said. “The prime minister just raised this and we will start to investigate.”

Israel noted that he was the originator of a Congressional letter that was sent to the U.N. Human Rights Commission saying that it should focus on Hamas war crimes instead of investigating Israel’s actions.

Regarding the future of Gaza, Israel said he told Netanyahu that he could not support the reconstruction of Gaza if it meant a re-armament of Hamas. He said the prime minister agreed.

“So the challenge is how to get certain materials into Gaza and have controls on it so it does not go to terrorists,” Israel said. “And it is critical that at the end of the day, an alternative to Hamas receive credit for any kind of relief going in.”

Asked if he trusted the Palestinian Authority to oversee that job, Israel said: “That is a judgment for Israel to make based on their own sense of security.”

At his press conference, Netanyahu said the Jewish state has “cooperated with PA on matters” in the past and that “we are cooperating with them and see a role for them. The cease-fire was coordinated with them.”

The Egyptian government has insisted that if the Rafa crossing connecting Egypt with the Gaza Strip is to be reopened, the PA must be put in charge to oversee everything that enters the strip.

stewart@jewishweek.org