International Criminal Court to investigate war crimes in Palestine

Friday, March 5, 2021

On Wednesday, Chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) Fatou Bensouda announced her office's decision to formally investigate alleged war crimes in Palestine. The investigation is to be led by British lawyer Karim Ahmad Khan, who is scheduled to replace Bensouda as chief prosecutor on June 16.

Armoured vehicles near the Gaza border. (Source: Israel Defense Forces)

Bensouda said "[t]he decision to open an investigation followed a painstaking preliminary examination undertaken by my office that lasted close to five years". Bensouda promised a "principled, non-partisan, approach" for the case and said the case will be handled "independently, impartially and objectively, without fear or favor." The preliminary examination was conducted in December 2019, finding "war crimes have been or are being committed in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip".

The chief prosecutor said the probe will focus on alleged war crime committed since June 13, 2014, a few weeks before the Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip. Bensouda said the priorities of investigation are to be "determined in due time". She named both Israeli Defense Forces as well as Palestinian militant group Hamas as the potential perpetrators.

Palestine is a member of the ICC since 2015 and has long accused Israel for war crimes. Israel is not a member of the ICC and claims the court has no jurisdiction over Palestinian Territories because Palestine is not sovereign.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called ICC's decision "the essence of anti-Semitism and hypocrisy" and said the court was "turning a blind eye to Iran, Syria, and the other dictatorships that are committing real war crimes."

In the statement Netanyahu also said: "Without any jurisdiction, it decided that our brave soldiers, who take every precaution to avoid civilian casualties against the worst terrorists in the world who deliberately target civilians, it's our soldiers who are war criminals". He has promised to "fight for the truth until we annul this scandalous decision". Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi called the ICC's decision "morally bankrupt and legally flawed".

Spokesperson from the U.S. State Department Ned Price said "[w]e will continue to uphold our strong commitment to Israel and its security". Price also said ICC "has no jurisdiction over this matter". Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Gilad Erdan promised to "continue working together" with the US.

The United States, also a non-member of the organisation, has targeted sanctions against the prosecutor's office under former US President Donald Trump. American Israel Public Affairs Committee urged current US President Joe Biden to keep the sanctions in place calling this move by ICC "illegitimate, politically motivated investigation". The United States also opposes the ICC investigation on U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

The Foreign Ministry of the Palestinian National Authority, which exercises authority in the West Bank, called the decision "a long-awaited step that serves Palestine's tireless pursuit of justice and accountability", while also asking nations not to politicise "these independent proceedings".

Spokesperson for Hamas Hazem Qassem, who had asserted rocket attacks fired on Israel in 2014 were legal under international law, said: "we welcomed the ICC decision to investigate Israeli occupation war crimes against our people". Qassem also told the Associated Press it "is a step forward to implement justice, punish the occupation, and do justice to the Palestinian people".

According to the estimates by the United Nations, 2200 Palestinians including 1500 civilians were killed in the 2014 Gaza war, referred to as Operation Protective Edge in Israel. According to Israeli estimates at least 73 Israelis including six civilians were killed in that operation.

The Israeli government has conducted public relations and diplomatic campaigns in an attempt to prevent the investigation, The Associated Press reported.