JERUSALEM (AP) – The International Criminal Court on Friday said its jurisdiction extends to areas occupied by Israel in the mid-1967 war, potentially opening war crimes investigations by its chief prosecutor for Israeli military operations Clears the way.
The decision was welcomed by the Palestinians and delivered by the Israeli Prime Minister, who vowed to fight “this spread of justice”.
The ICC’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said in 2019 that Israeli military actions in the Gaza Strip, as well as Israeli settlement activity in the occupied West Bank area, were a “reasonable basis” for investigating war crimes. But it asked the court to determine whether it had territorial jurisdiction before proceeding.
In a statement on Twitter, Bensouda’s office welcomed the ruling’s “judicial clarity”, but said it needed time before moving forward.
“The office is currently carefully analyzing the decision and will then decide its next step, strictly guided by its independent and impartial mandate,” he said.
Palestinians who joined the court in 2015 pushed for an investigation. Israel, which is not a member of the ICC, said the court has no jurisdiction because the Palestinians do not have state authority and because the borders of any future state are to be decided in peace negotiations. It also accuses the court of improperly erasing political issues.
Palestinians have asked the court to pay attention to Israel’s actions during the 2014 war against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, as well as building settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and occupying East Jerusalem.
The international community widely considers settlements illegal under international law but has done little to pressure Israel to stabilize or reverse its growth.
The international tribunal is meant to serve as a court of last resort when countries have their own judicial system unable or unwilling to investigate and prosecute war crimes.
The Israeli military has mechanisms to investigate alleged wrongdoings by its troops, and despite criticism that the system is inadequate, experts say there is a good chance of closing ICC investigations into its wartime practices.
When it comes to settlements, however, experts say Israel may have a difficult time defending its actions. International law forbids the transfer of a civilian population into occupied territory.
In the 1967 war, Israel captured West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, Palestinians want their future states. Some 700,000 Israelis live in settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Most people in the Palestinian and international communities view settlements as illegal and an impediment to peace.
Israel maintains that East Jerusalem is an inseparable part of its capital and that the West Bank is a “disputed” territory whose fate must be resolved in negotiations.
Although the court would find it difficult to prosecute Israel, it could issue arrest warrants that would make it difficult for Israeli officials to travel abroad. An ICC case will also be very embarrassing for the government. The Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, led the war in Gaza in 2014, while Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz was the chief of staff at the time.
In a videotape released after midnight, Netanyahu accused him of having “pure anti-Semitism” and double standards.
“The ICC refused to investigate brutal dictatorships like Iran and Syria, which commit horrific atrocities almost daily,” he said. “We will fight this perversion of justice with all our rights!”
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ senior aide Nabil Shaath welcomed the verdict and said it was proved that Palestinians were right to go to the ICC. “This is good news, and the next step is to launch an official investigation into Israel’s crimes against our people,” he said.
The ICC may also investigate possible crimes committed by Palestinian terrorists. Bensouda has said its investigation will look into the actions of Hamas, which indiscriminately fired rockets into Israel during the 2014 war.
In Washington, US State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters that the Biden administration was “closely considering” the decision.
“However, we have serious concerns about the ICC’s efforts to exercise jurisdiction over Israeli personnel,” Price said. “We have always taken the position that the jurisdiction of the court should be reserved for those who consent to it or are referred to by the UN Security Council.”
The ruling, detailed in 60 pages of legal details, was issued late on Friday, when Israel closed the weekly Jewish Sabbath.
Human Rights Watch welcomed the verdict, saying it “offers victims of serious crimes some real hope for justice after half a century of justice.”
“It is high time that Israelis and Palestinians are the perpetrators of the most heinous crimes – whether crimes committed during war crimes or the expansion of illegal settlements – face justice,” said Balkis Jarrah, director of international justice at the New York-based group .
The three-judge pretrial chamber ruled that Palestine is a state party to the Rome statute for the establishment of the ICC. With a judge dissenting, it ruled that Palestine qualifies as a state over the territory in which the “conduct in question” occurred and that the court’s jurisdiction extends to East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.
Last year, the Trump administration imposed sanctions against ICC officials, after first revoking Bansouda’s entry visa, in response to court efforts to prosecute US troops for action in Afghanistan.
The US, like Israel, does not recognize the jurisdiction of the court. At the time, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the steps were meant as retaliation for an investigation by the United States and its allies, a reference to Israel.
The Biden administration has said it will review those restrictions.
Joseph Kruse, author of The Associated Press in Jerusalem and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.