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ICC opens Israeli war crimes probe

An Israeli soldier walks towards parked Merkava Mark IV battle tanks near Moshav Alonei HaBashan in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights during heavy fog. – AFP

THE HAGUE: The International Criminal Court opened a war crimes probe yesterday into the situation in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, a move that risks further inflaming one of the world’s most bitter conflicts. The controversial investigation launched by the Hague-based court’s chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda is to cover alleged crimes by both sides, mainly during the 2014 Gaza war.

Israel, which is not an ICC member, swiftly denounced the decision as an “act of moral and legal bankruptcy”. The Palestinians, who have been a state party to the court since 2015, hailed the start of the “urgent and necessary” probe. “Today, I confirm the initiation by the office of the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court of an investigation respecting the situation in Palestine,” Bensouda said in a statement.

She said the formal investigation followed a “painstaking” five-year preliminary probe, and vowed it would be conducted “independently, impartially and objectively, without fear or favor. “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,” the prosecutor said.

In the summer of 2014, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge with the stated aim of stopping rocket fire into the country by militants of Islamist movement Hamas. Around 2,250 Palestinians were killed in the 2014 fighting, mostly civilians, and 74 Israelis, mostly soldiers. ICC judges paved the way for a war crimes investigation when they ruled a month ago that the court has jurisdiction over the situation due to the Palestinian’s membership.

Israel yesterday called the investigation’s launch a “political decision”. “Israel will take every step necessary to protect its civilians and soldiers from legal persecution,” Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said in a statement. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month condemned the judges’ decision paving the way for a probe as “pure anti-Semitism”.

The US State Department said at the time it had “serious concerns” about the ICC ruling, adding that Israel should not be bound by the court as it was not a member. The Palestinian Authority hailed yesterday’s decision. “The crimes committed by the leaders of the Israeli occupation against the Palestinian people – which are ongoing, systematic and widespread – make this investigation necessary and urgent,” Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki said in a statement.

In 2019, Bensouda said in her initial application for the probe that there is a “reasonable basis” to believe crimes were committed by members of the Israeli Defense Forces, Israeli authorities, Hamas and Palestinian armed groups. These include the IDF allegedly “intentionally launching disproportionate attacks” during the 2014 conflict and “willful killing and willfully causing serious injury”, she said.

Hamas and Palestinian armed groups were accused of “intentionally directing attacks against civilians” and “using protected persons as shields” during the Gaza conflict. The ICC prosecutor also said there is scope to investigate the deaths of Palestinian demonstrators from 2018 onwards. Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the Six-Day War of 1967, and later annexed mostly Arab east Jerusalem. Today they are home to at least five million Palestinians defined by the United Nations as living under Israeli occupation.

The Gaza Strip is blockaded by Israel and ruled by the Islamist Hamas group. The Israel-Palestinians probe will prove the first major test for incoming ICC prosecutor Karim Khan, the British lawyer who was elected in February to replace Bensouda when her mandate ends in June. Bensouda is under US sanctions for her decision to investigate alleged US war crimes in Afghanistan, but Washington has also strongly criticized the Palestinian probe. – AFP

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