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ICC to probe possible war crimes in Palestine

The preliminary inquiry could lead to charges against Palestinian and Israeli officials
International Criminal Court (ICC) Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda at the ICC in The Hague (AFP)

Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court (ICC) have opened a preliminary inquiry into possible war crimes committed against Palestinians, including during last summer’s Gaza war, the first formal step that could lead to charges against officials there and in Israel, the court has said.

Fatou Bensouda said her office would conduct its “analysis in full independence and impartiality”, adding that the probe may lead to a more comprehensive investigation.

The Hague-based prosecutor's decision comes after Palestine formally joined the ICC earlier this month allowing it to lodge war crimes and crimes against humanity complaints against Israel as of April.

At the same time, the Palestinians also recognised the ICC’s jurisdiction retroactively, to cover the period during last summer’s war in Gaza that killed nearly 2,200 Palestinians and 73 Israelis.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman condemned the ICC’s decision as "scandalous".

In a statement, Lieberman said the sole purpose of the preliminary examination was to "try to harm Israel's right to defend itself from terror".

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki told the AFP news agency: "Everything is going according to plan, no state and nobody can now stop this action we requested ... In the end, a full investigation will follow the preliminary one."

The ICC can prosecute individuals accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, committed since 1 July 2002, when the court's founding treaty, the Rome Statute, came into force.

According to a statement by the ICC Prosecutor Bensouda, “A preliminary examination is not an investigation but a process of examining the information available in order to reach a fully informed determination on whether there is a reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation.”

Israel began a massive crackdown on the West Bank on 13 June last year after the kidnapping and subsequent murder of three Israeli teenagers, triggering a series of events that led to the seven-week Gaza war.

Palestine joining ICC

Palestine’s move to join the ICC is also seen as part of a shift in strategy to internationalise its campaign for statehood and move away from the stalled US-led peace process.

Since Israel launched its military assault in early July, both Hamas and Israeli officials have accused the other of committing war crimes. If Palestine were to join the ICC, its various factions would become liable for possible prosecution.

Despite the potential for Hamas to be subject to prosecution should Palestine join the ICC, the group has been pressing Abbas to push the process forward, MEE reported exclusively in August.

Amnesty International, which has been calling for ICC jurisdiction over the crimes committed against Palestinians, said in statement on Friday: “A preliminary examination could eventually lead to an ICC investigation into crimes committed by all sides in Israel and the OPT [Occupied Palestinian Territories] and break the culture of impunity that has perpetuated a cycle of war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Israel condemns ICC probe

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he rejected the ICC decision, which he called "scandalous".

He noted in a statement that since Palestine was not a state, the ICC had no jurisdiction over it, according to the court's own rules.

The probe is "absurd" since "the Palestinian Authority cooperates with Hamas, a terror group that commits war crimes, in contrast to Israel that fights terror while maintaining international law, and has an independent justice system," the premier said.