The International Criminal Court said Friday that its jurisdiction extends to territories occupied by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, potentially clearing the way for its chief prosecutor to open a war crimes probe into Israeli military actions.
The decision was welcomed by the Palestinians and decried by Israel's prime minister, who vowed to fight ‘this perversion of justice’. The U.S., Israel's closest ally, said it opposed the decision.
The ICC's chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said in 2019 that there was a ‘reasonable basis’ to open a war crimes probe into Israeli military actions in the Gaza Strip as well as Israeli settlement activity in the occupied West Bank. But she asked the court to determine whether she has territorial jurisdiction before proceeding.
In a statement on Twitter, Bensouda's office welcomed the ‘judicial clarity’ of the ruling, but said it needed time before deciding how to proceed.
‘The Office is currently carefully analysing the decision & will then decide its next step guided strictly by its independent & impartial mandate,’ it said.
The Palestinians, who joined the court in 2015, have pushed for an investigation. Israel, which is not a member of the ICC, has said the court has no jurisdiction because the Palestinians do not have statehood and because the borders of any future state are to be decided in peace talks. It also accuses the court of inappropriately wading into political issues.
The Palestinians have asked the court to look into Israeli actions during its 2014 war against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, as well as Israel's construction of settlements in the occupied West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem.
The international community widely considers the settlements to be illegal under international law but has done little to pressure Israel to freeze or reverse their growth.
The international tribunal is meant to serve as a court of last resort when countries' own judicial systems are unable or unwilling to investigate and prosecute war crimes.
Israel's military has mechanisms to investigate alleged wrongdoing by its troops, and despite criticism that the system is insufficient, experts say it has a good chance of fending off ICC investigation into its wartime practices.
When it comes to settlements, however, experts say Israel could have a difficult time defending its actions. International law forbids the transfer of a civilian population into occupied territory.
Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem in the 1967 war, territories the Palestinians want for their future state. Some 700,000 Israelis live in settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The Palestinians and much of the international community view the settlements as illegal and an obstacle to peace.
Israel says east Jerusalem is an indivisible part of its capital and that the West Bank is ‘disputed’ territory whose fate should be resolved in negotiations.
While the court would have a hard time prosecuting Israelis, it could issue arrest warrants that would make it difficult for Israeli officials to travel abroad. A case in the ICC would also be deeply embarrassing to the government. Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, led the 2014 war in Gaza, while Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz was the military chief of staff at the time.
In a videotaped statement released after midnight, Netanyahu accused the court of ‘pure anti-Semitism’ and having a double standard.
‘The ICC refuses to investigate brutal dictatorships like Iran and Syria, who commit horrific atrocities almost daily,’ he said. ‘We will fight this perversion of justice with all our might!’
Nabil Shaath, a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, welcomed the decision and said it proved the 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 could also potentially investigate crimes committed by Palestinians militants. Bensouda has said her probe would look into the actions of Hamas, which fired rockets indiscriminately into Israel during the 2014 war.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said the Biden administration, which has said it intends to restore relations with the Palestinians, opposed the decision and reiterated American opposition to the Palestinians even being party to the Rome Statute that created the court.
‘As we made clear when the Palestinians purported to join the Rome Statute in 2015, we do not believe the Palestinians qualify as a sovereign state, and therefore are not qualified to obtain membership as a state, or participate as a state in international organizations, entities, or conferences, including the ICC,’ Price said in a statement.
‘We have serious concerns about the ICC's attempts to exercise its jurisdiction over Israeli personnel,’ he said. ‘The United States has always taken the position that the court's jurisdiction should be reserved for countries that consent to it, or that are referred by the UN Security Council.’
The decision, detailed in a 60-page legal brief, was released late Friday, after Israel had shut down for the weekly Jewish Sabbath.
Human Rights Watch welcomed the decision, saying it ‘finally offers victims of serious crimes some real hope for justice after a half century of impunity’.
‘It's high time that Israeli and Palestinian perpetrators of the gravest abuses _ whether war crimes committed during hostilities or the expansion of unlawful settlements _ face justice,’ said Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at the New York-based group.
The three-judge pretrial chamber ruled that Palestine is a state party to the Rome Statute establishing the ICC. With one judge dissenting, it ruled that Palestine qualifies as the state on 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 earlier revoking Bensouda's entry visa, in response to the court's attempts to prosecute American troops for actions in Afghanistan.
The U.S., like Israel, does not recognize the court's jurisdiction. At the time, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the steps were meant as retribution for investigations into the United States and its allies, a reference to Israel.
The Biden administration has said it will review those sanctions.