The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said on Wednesday she launched a formal inquiry into alleged crimes in the occupied Palestinian territories, a move strongly opposed by Israel.
Fatou Bensouda said in a statement the inquiry will be conducted “independently, impartially and objectively, without fear or favour”.
“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, adding it will specifically look at allegations since June 13, 2014.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) 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.
Hamas also praised the ICC’s move and defended its own actions.
“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 for the victims of our people,” Hazem Qassem, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, told Reuters news agency.
“Our resistance is legitimate and it comes to defend our people. All international laws approve legitimate resistance,” said Qassem.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a vocal critic of The Hague-based ICC, declared the Jewish state was “under attack”.
“The ICC reached a decision which is the essence of anti-Semitism,” Netanyahu said in the video posted on Twitter.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from Ramallah, Omar Awadallah, head of the UN human rights department in the Palestinian ministry of foreign affairs, said Israeli officials should be concerned by probe.
“We understand that Netanyahu and his war criminals should be afraid now from this important body and this important stance by the International Criminal Court,” Awadallah said.
Though this has “nothing to do with the issue of statehood”, it still means the “era of impunity” for Israeli officials is coming to an end, he said.
Bensouda said in 2019 there was a “reasonable basis” to open a war crimes probe into Israeli military actions in the besieged Gaza Strip, as well as Israeli settlement activity in the occupied West Bank. She also named armed Palestinian groups such as Hamas as possible perpetrators.
Following that assessment, Bensouda asked judges to rule on the extent of the court’s jurisdiction in the troubled region.
The ICC ruled in February it had jurisdiction over the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories that Israel captured during the 1967 Middle East war.
Judges said their decision was based on jurisdictional rules in The Hague-based court’s founding documents, and it does not imply any attempt to determine statehood or legal borders.
Israel, which is not a member of the court, has rejected its jurisdiction.
Israel on Wednesday condemned the move as a “political decision” and an “act of moral and legal bankruptcy”.
“Israel will take every step necessary to protect its civilians and soldiers from legal persecution,” Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said in a statement.
‘Daunting and complex’
The Palestinians asked the court to investigate Israeli actions during its 2014 war against Palestinian fighters in the Gaza Strip, as well as Israel’s construction of settlements in the occupied West Bank and annexed East Jerusalem.
In the past, Israeli officials have accused the court of overstepping its bounds.
Bensouda said how prosecutors prioritise their work will be “determined in due time” based on constraints including the coronavirus pandemic, limited resources, and their existing heavy workload.
“Such challenges, however, as daunting and complex as they are, cannot divert us from ultimately discharging the responsibilities that the Rome Statute places upon the Office,” she said, referring to the court’s founding treaty.
The next step will be to determine whether Israel or Palestinian authorities have investigations themselves and to assess those.
“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.”