Middle East

ICC wants to open 'war crimes' investigation in West Bank and Gaza

A demonstrator holds a Palestinian flag during clashes in the Gaza Strip in 2018 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The ICC has been examining the case brought by the Palestinians since 2015

The International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor says she wants to open an investigation into alleged war crimes in the Palestinian Territories.

Fatou Bensouda said "war crimes" had been or were being committed in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, and asked for a ruling on the court's territorial jurisdiction.

The ICC has been examining a case brought by the Palestinians since 2015.

Israel said the ICC move was baseless.

In a statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the ICC, of which Israel is not a member, had "no jurisdiction in this case", and that the decision had turned the Hague-based court into a "political tool to delegitimize the State of Israel". Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war.

In her ruling, Ms Bensouda said a preliminary examination had gathered enough information to meet all criteria to open an investigation, and that she was "satisfied that there [was] a reasonable basis to proceed" with an inquiry.

"[T]here are no substantial reasons to believe that an investigation would not serve the interests of justice," she said, adding that she had filed a request with judges to rule on what territory a future inquiry would cover because of the contested legal and factual issues of the territories.

It was not clear when a decision would be made but Ms Bensouda said she had asked the judges to "rule expeditiously" so that her office "can take the appropriate next steps accordingly".

Ms Bensouda said charges could be filed against members of the Israel Defence Forces. She also said there was reason to believe members of Hamas and Palestinian Armed Groups could be charged.

It is understood that she focused her preliminary inquiries, in a case the Palestinians brought under the State of Palestine, on issues like Israel's building of settlements and its military operations in Gaza, our correspondent adds.

The ICC has been examining what they say are war crimes committed by Israel since June 2014, one month before a war between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza. In the fighting, 2,251 Palestinians, including 1,462 civilians, were killed while 67 soldiers and six civilians were killed on the Israeli side.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Fatou Bensouda asked for a ruling on the ICC's territorial jurisdiction

Mr Netanyahu described the announcement as an "outrageous decision", saying: "The ICC only has jurisdiction over petitions submitted by sovereign states. But there has never been a Palestinian state."

Earlier, Israel's attorney general said the ICC had no jurisdiction in the West Bank or Gaza. Israel also considers East Jerusalem, which it regards as its sovereign territory, as outside the court's mandate.

Palestinians claim the territories for a future state, with East Jerusalem as its capital. In a statement, the Palestinian Authority said: "Palestine welcomes this step as a long overdue step to move the process forward towards an investigation, after nearly five long and difficult years of preliminary examination."

Reacting to the ICC decision, B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, said: "Israel's legal acrobatics in an attempt to whitewash its crimes must not be allowed to stop international legal efforts to, at long last, hold it to account."

There are some 140 Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which most of the international community consider illegal under international law. Israel disputes this, and last month the US reversed its position and declared it no longer considered the settlements invalid.

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