ICC prosecutor opens investigation into alleged war crimes by Israel and Hamas

The permanent premises of the ICC in The Hague (Rick Bajornas - UN Photo)

Areeb Ullah

Middle East Eye  /  March 3, 2021

Fatou Bensouda formally begins her investigation after the International Criminal Court ruled it had jurisdiction in the Palestinian territories.

The International Criminal Court’s prosecutor said on Wednesday that she would formally open an investigation into alleged war crimes committed in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Fatou Bensouda confirmed that the ICC would begin its inquiry after the court ruled last month – following a five-year preliminary investigation – that it had jurisdiction to pursue a probe into suspected war crimes in Palestine.

Bensouda said her investigation would examine alleged war crimes perpetrated from 13 June 2014 and that the court’s priorities would be “determined in due time”.

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

“We have no agenda other than to meet our statutory duties under the Rome Statute with professional integrity.”

Bensouda added that the court’s primary concern would 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”.

Perpetrators

In December 2019, Bensouda said 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 army and armed Palestinian groups such as Hamas as possible perpetrators.

The next step in the investigation will be to determine whether Israeli or Palestinian authorities have similar war crimes investigations open and, if so, begin by looking into their findings.

Unlike the Palestinian Authority (PA), Israel is not a signatory to the Rome Statute and is not a member of the International Criminal Court. 

The PA welcomed the prosecutor’s investigation and said it was 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”.

Hamas also welcomed the probe and said it was a “step forward on the path of achieving justice” for the Palestinians.  

Israel’s Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi condemned the move and said: “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.” 

Later on Wednesday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price stressed that the United States has long-opposed ICC attempts to investigate Israeli officials on the grounds that Israel is not a member of the court and Palestine is not an internationally recognised state.

“We firmly oppose and are disappointed by the ICC prosecutors’ announcement of an investigation into the Palestinian situation. We will continue to uphold our strong commitment to Israel and its security, including by opposing actions that seek to target Israel unfairly,” Price said during a news briefing.

“We have serious concerns about the ICC’s attempts to exercise its jurisdiction over Israeli personnel. The Palestinians do not qualify as a sovereign state and therefore are not qualified to obtain membership.” 

Price also noted that the Biden administration is reviewing Trump-era sanctions on ICC officials.  

Earlier this year, when the ICC said it had jurisdiction to investigate war crimes in the occupied territories, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described it as “pure antisemitism”. 

Bensouda, a Gambian lawyer and international criminal law prosecutor, is set to be replaced by British prosecutor Karim Khan on 16 June. 

What this will mean for the ICC investigation is unclear.

Areeb Ullah is a journalist for Middle East Eye