The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court responded to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who accused her of “pure anti-Semitism” for seeking to investigate possible war crimes committed in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. “This is a particularly regrettable accusation that is without merit,” Fatou Bensouda told The Times of Israel in a Jan. 13 interview. “I, along with my office, execute our mandate under the Rome Statute with utmost independence, objectivity, fairness and professional integrity. We will continue to meet our responsibilities as required by the Rome Statute without fear or favor.”
Bensouda announced Dec. 20 that she had found a basis for investigating possible war crimes by Israel in the Palestinian territories, but she is first asking the court to confirm that it has jurisdiction there—which Israel insists it does not. The announcement at The Hague came five years after her office opened a preliminary investigation of actions by Israel that Palestinian leaders contended were war crimes—most notably during the 50-day bombardment of the Gaza Strip in 2014. “There is a reasonable basis to believe that war crimes have been or are being committed in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip,” Bensouda’s office said in a court filing.
The filing also said the investigation would examine possible war crimes by Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups in Gaza, over charges that they have been “intentionally directing attacks against civilians,” using civilians as human shields, and engaging in torture and “willful killing.”
Israel is not a member of the International Criminal Court, and the preliminary investigation was opened in January 2015 in response to petitioning by Palestinian authorities. This came weeks after President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority signed the Rome Statute, the treaty that created the court, and formally accepted its jurisdiction. Abbas’ move was bitterly protested by Israel and the United States.
In a lengthy memo published 90 minutes before Bensouda’s announcement, the Israeli attorney general’s office reiterated its contention that the ICC lacks jurisdiction over the Palestinian territories. The memo asserted that only a sovereign state “having criminal jurisdiction over its territory and nationals” can delegate authority to the International Criminal Court. The Palestinian signing of the Rome Statute “did not settle the highly controversial question of Palestinian statehood,” the memo read. (NYT, Dec. 20)
The preliminary investigation was the initial stage to find “reasonable grounds” that war crimes or crimes against humanity were committed in the occupied territories since June 13, 2014, the starting date requested by the Palestinian Authority. The full investigation, if commenced, could lead to indictments and eventual prosecutions of senior Israeli and Palestinian officials and military commanders. (+972, Jan. 13)
Netanyahu responded to Bensouda’s announcement at a Likud Party event marking the first night of Hanukkah. “Pure anti-Semitism, that’s what the ICC has done, and we will not bow our heads,” Netanyahu said. Invoking the Hanukkah story, he added that the court “has set forth decrees that are just as anti-Semitic as the decrees of the Seleucid Greeks.” (Times of Israel, Dec. 22)
UN rights experts have also decired Israel as an “apartheid regime,” citing protocols of the Rome Statute.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons via +972