Mar 3, 2021 - World

International Criminal Court opens Israel-Palestine war crimes probe

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has strongly objected to the investigation. Photo: Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images

International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor Fatou Bensouda on Wednesday announced her intention to open an investigation into crimes allegedly committed in the Palestinian territories since 2014.

Why it matters: The investigation is expected to consider possible war crimes by Israel and Hamas during the 2014 war in Gaza, as well as the construction of West Bank settlements by Israel. It could sharply increase tensions between Israel, which fiercely opposes the probe, and Palestinian leaders, who requested it.

  • The investigation will also force the Biden administration to wade into the Israel-Palestine conflict, which had been very low on its foreign policy priorities list.
  • Israel is very concerned that any investigation could lead to international arrest warrants against Israeli officials and military officers and could boost BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) campaigns against Israel.

The latest: The Palestinian foreign ministry welcomed the decision as an opportunity for justice and accountability and called for a swift investigation.

  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the investigation an "attack" on Israel and vowed to "fight for the truth."
  • "The biased International Criminal Court took a hypocritical and anti-Semitic decision," he said. "The court doesn't say anything about the real war crimes Iran and Syria commit."

What's next: Bensouda said the priorities of the investigation will be determined in the coming weeks, taking into consideration coronavirus-related operational challenges, the limited resources of her office and the current heavy workload.

  • Bensouda made this decision in her final months in office, and it's unclear whether she coordinated the move with her successor.

What she's saying: “Any investigation undertaken by the Office will be conducted independently, impartially and objectively, without fear or favor," Bensouda said in a statement.

  • She added that the investigation will take time and be grounded in facts and the law. "My office will take the same principled, non-partisan approach that it has adopted in all situations over which its jurisdiction is seized. We have no agenda other than to meet our statutory duties under the Rome Statute with professional integrity."

Flashback: The Trump administration joined Israel in mounting a vigorous campaign in 2019 to block a potential investigation, including by placing sanctions on Bensouda and other court officials.

  • ICC judges cleared the way for a potential investigation last month when they ruled that the court has jurisdiction in the West Bank and Gaza. (Israel isn't a party to the Rome Statute, which set the court's mandate, but the Palestinian territories are.)

Behind the scenes: Israel had asked dozens of allies to convey a "discreet message" to urge Bensouda not to move forward with the probe, as Axios reported two weeks ago. Netanyahu also asked President Biden to keep U.S. sanctions on the court in place as leverage.

Update: State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the U.S. was "disappointed" by the ICC's decision and had "serious concerns about the court's attempt to exercise its jurisdiction over Israel."

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