International Criminal Court Opens Probe of Israel-Palestine War Crimes

The announcement follows a five-year preliminary look at possible war crimes committed by both sides during the 2014 Gaza War.

The International Criminal Court, or ICC, is seen in The Hague, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced Wednesday that she will open an investigation into alleged war crimes committed in Palestinian territories.

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

The announcement comes a month after a panel of ICC judges ruled that the court has jurisdiction over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, territories Israel occupied following the Six-Day War of 1967. 

In 2015, Palestine signed onto the Rome Statute, the treaty which created the court in 2002, and asked the prosecutor to open an investigation into Israeli military action during the 2014 Gaza War and into settlement construction in both the West Bank and annexed East Jerusalem. 

“This long-awaited step serves Palestine’s vigorous effort to achieve justice and accountability as indispensable bases for peace,” the Palestinian Foreign Ministry said in a statement Wednesday.

Israel, which is not a member of The Hague-based court, deeply opposes the investigation.

“When the ICC investigates Israel for fake war crimes, this is pure anti-Semitism,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in February following the ruling on jurisdiction. 

But the ICC prosecutor’s office defended a potential investigation in a 2019 summary of its preliminary examination.

“There is a reasonable basis to believe that, in the context of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, members of the Israeli authorities have committed war crimes,” the summary states.  

The preliminary investigation also found that members of the Islamic group Hamas, which currently governs the Gaza Strip, and other armed groups also may have committed war crimes by indiscriminately shooting rockets into Israel. 

Bensouda has faced immense pressure from the United States, which is also not a party to the ICC, to not open an investigation into Israel-Palestine war crimes. She and another senior prosecution official, Phakiso Mochochoko, are currently under economic sanctions imposed by the Trump administration for opening an investigation into war crimes allegedly committed by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. 

President Joe Biden has so far declined to remove the sanctions and court watchers speculated that decision was, in part, an effort to keep the court from investigating Israel.

When asked about the sanctions earlier this week, a spokesperson for the State Department told reporters: “The administration is thoroughly reviewing sanctions pursuant to Executive Order 13928 as we determine our next steps. We have nothing further to report at this time.”

In 2019, Bensouda declined to bring charges in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla case, in which Israeli commandos killed 10 humanitarian aid workers attempting to bring food and medical supplies to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, finding the tragedy did not have “sufficient gravity” to be pursued by the court. 

Wednesday’s decision will be the first test for the incoming prosecutor, British lawyer Karim Khan, who was elected last month to a nine-year term. Bensouda’s term ends in June. 

Bensouda’s office will now examine whether domestic remedies in both Palestine and Israel are available. 

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