ICC prosecutor to probe war crimes in Palestinian Territories, angering Israel

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THE HAGUE, March 3 (Reuters) – The International Criminal Court prosecutor said on Wednesday her office will formally investigate war crimes in the Palestinian Territories, a move welcomed by the Palestinian Authority and denounced by Israel.

The decision comes after the court ruled on Feb. 5 that it has jurisdiction in the case, prompting swift rejection from Washington and Jerusalem.

“The decision to open an investigation followed a painstaking preliminary examination undertaken by my office that lasted close to five years,” outgoing Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said in a statement.

“In the end, our central concern must be for the victims of crimes, both Palestinian and Israeli, arising from the long cycle of violence and insecurity that has caused deep suffering and despair on all sides,” Bensouda said.

“My office will take the same principled, non-partisan, approach that it has adopted in all situations over which its jurisdiction is seized.”

Bensouda, who will be replaced by British prosecutor Karim Khan on June 16, said in December 2019 that “war crimes have been or are being committed in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip”. She named both the Israeli Defense Forces and armed Palestinian groups such as Hamas as possible perpetrators.

The next step will be to determine whether Israel or Palestinian authorities have investigations themselves and to assess those efforts.

“LONG-AWAITED STEP”

Israel’s government on Wednesday called the court “morally and legally bankrupt”.

“The decision to open an investigation against Israel is an exception to the mandate of the tribunal, and a waste of the international community’s resources by a biased institution that has lost all legitimacy,” Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said in a statement.

There was no immediate comment from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. When the court ruled on jurisdiction, he said: “When the ICC investigates Israel for fake war crimes, this is pure antisemitism.”

The Palestinian Authority welcomed the prosecutor’s investigation.

It is “a long-awaited step that serves Palestine’s tireless pursuit of justice and accountability, which are indispensable pillars of the peace the Palestinian people seek and deserve”, the PA foreign ministry said in a statement.

The Islamist militant group Hamas defended its own actions in the conflict.

“We welcome the ICC decision to investigate Israeli occupation war crimes against our people. It is a step forward on the path of achieving justice,” Hazem Qassem, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, told Reuters.

Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch, said “ICC member countries should stand ready to fiercely protect the court’s work from any political pressure”.

The ICC is a court of last resort established to prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide when a country is unable or unwilling to do so.

The prosecutor’s office was targeted by sanctions under former U.S. President Donald Trump in response to its investigation in Afghanistan, which is examining the role of U.S. forces.

(Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg; Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in the West Bank and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Writing by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Toby Chopra and Nick Macfie)

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