The International Criminal Court’s prosecutor on Friday opened a preliminary probe into possible war crimes committed against Palestinians, a move immediately blasted by Israel as “scandalous”.
Fatou Bensouda said her office would conduct an “analysis in full independence and impartiality” into alleged war crimes, including those committed during last year’s Gaza war.
Her decision comes after Palestine formally joined the ICC earlier this month allowing it to lodge war crimes and crimes against humanity complaints against Israel as of April.
Nearly 2,200 Palestinians and 73 Israelis were killed during last summer’s war in Gaza.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted angrily to the prosecutor’s decision, calling it “scandalous” and “absurd” since “the Palestinian Authority cooperates with Hamas, a terror group that commits war crimes, in contrast to Israel that fights terror while maintaining international law, and has an independent justice system.”
Gambian-born Bensouda had earlier stressed that “a preliminary examination is not an investigation but a process of examining the information available… on whether there is a reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation.”
Bensouda will decide at a later stage whether to launch a full investigation.
– US, Israel condemns move –
Israel began a massive crackdown on the West Bank on June 13 after the kidnapping and subsequent murder of three Israeli teenagers, triggering a series of events that led to the seven-week Gaza war.
Palestine’s move to join the ICC is also seen as part of a shift in strategy to internationalise its campaign for statehood and move away from the stalled US-led peace process.
The Palestinians were upgraded from observer status to UN “observer state” in 2012, opening the doors for them to join the ICC and a host of other international organisations.
Both Israel and the US have condemned the plan, with Washington calling it “counterproductive”.
Israel reacted swiftly on Friday, slamming the announcement.
The sole purpose of the preliminary examination is to “try to harm Israel’s right to defend itself from terror”, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in a statement.
He said the decision was “solely motivated by political anti-Israel considerations”.
Lieberman accused the court of double standards for not examining the mass killings in Syria or other conflict zones, investigating instead “the most moral army in the world”.
The foreign minister also said he would act to “dismantle this court, a body that represents hypocrisy and gives terror a tailwind.”
Israel earlier this month delayed transferring some $127 (106 million euros) in taxes it collects on behalf of the Palestinians in retaliation for the attempts to press war crimes charges against the Jewish state.
Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Malki welcomed the move by the ICC.
“Everything is going according to plan, no state and nobody can now stop this action we requested,” he told AFP. “In the end, a full investigation will follow the preliminary one.”
– ‘Justice for victims’ –
Rights group Amnesty International welcomed the ICC’s announcement saying it “could pave the way for thousands of victims of crimes under international law to gain access to justice.”
But the initial probe could lead to an investigation into crimes “committed by all sides”, Amnesty stressed in a statement.
Friday’s announcement is the second such an initial probe by the ICC’s prosecutor into the situation in Palestine.
The Palestinian Authority in 2009 lodged a complaint against Israel but the ICC prosecutor said in 2012 after “carefully considering legal arguments” it could not investigate because of the Palestinians’ status at the UN.
At the time the Palestinians’ “observer” status blocked them from signing up to the ICC’s founding Rome Statute.
The ICC is the world’s first independent court set up in 2002 to investigate genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
But it can only probe alleged crimes in countries that have ratified the Rome Statute, or accepts the Hague-based court’s jurisdiction for a certain time period, or through a referral by the UN Security Council.
Currently, chief prosecutor Bensouda is also running preliminary investigations in Afghanistan, Colombia, Georgia, Guinea, Honduras, Iraq and Ukraine.
While 123 countries have now ratified the Rome Statute, Israel and the United States have not.