A full investigation into alleged war crimes in the Palestinian Territories is to be launched by the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor, prompting a fierce backlash from Israel.
Fatou Bensouda said the probe could result in charges against both Israelis and Palestinians.
“I am satisfied that ... war crimes have been or are being committed in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip,” she said in a statement on Friday.
Bensouda added that because the Palestinian Territories had requested the intervention of the court she did not need to request approval from judges to start an investigation.
However, she has asked the ICC’s pre-trial chamber to rule on what geographical location it can investigate. The probe will be launched pending a decision on geographical jurisdiction.
Furious, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu lashed back, claiming the “court has no jurisdiction”. Israel is not a member of the court.
“This is a dark day for truth and justice. It is a baseless and outrageous decision,” he said.
Israeli’s foreign ministry meanwhile said: “The prosecutor has been influenced by Palestinian manipulation, which aims to weaponise the court.”
It added: “The attempt to turn a political issue into a legal one places a serious obstacle in the way of resolving the conflict.”
The Palestinian leadership welcomed the move, calling it a “positive step forward”.
Earlier that day, fearing an impending investigation, Israel’s attorney-general published a legal opinion that the ICC has no jurisdiction in the West Bank or in Gaza.
The argument stated only sovereign states can refer the situation to the ICC and that Israel has a valid claim over the Palestinian Territories.
However, Palestine, although not universally recognised as a sovereign state, became a recognised member of the ICC in January 2015, meaning they can ask the court to investigate crimes.
The international community has widely discredited Israel’s claims over Palestinian lands.
And at the request of the Palestinians, Bensouda opened a preliminary investigation into alleged violations of international law following the 2014 war between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
The current investigation is not limited to examining Israel’s actions, but will explore alleged crimes committed by all sides including Islamist militant group Hamas.
Bensouda said she has now asked judges in the pre-trial chamber to outline the geographic scope of an investigation.
“Specifically, I have sought confirmation that the ‘territory’ over which the court may exercise its jurisdiction, and which I may subject to investigation, comprises the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza,” she said.
Her submission to the pre-trial chamber includes specific mentions of Israel’s use of deadly force against protesters in Gaza, willful killing, Israeli settlements and intentionally directing attacks on protected persons as well as hospitals and medics during different military operations.
On the Palestinian side, she mentioned the attacks on civilians perpetrated by Hamas and other militant groups, their alleged use of human shields, as well as torture, inhuman treatment and the deprivation of fair trial.
The Palestinian foreign ministry welcomed the move as a “long overdue step to move the process forward towards an investigation, after nearly five long and difficult years”.
Hanan Ashrawi, a leading member of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, added: “[It] is a positive step. Israel must pay for its crimes and the Palestinian people will not accept exclusion from the universality of human rights.”
Rights groups also applauded the move but urged the ICC to swiftly press on with the probe.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said the decision “affirms the urgent need for accountability for serious crimes committed there”.
He added: “Palestinian and Israeli victims have faced a wall of impunity for serious violations committed against them for long enough. The prosecutor should have proceeded directly with a formal probe as was within her power to do.”
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