The International Criminal Court ruled that it had jurisdiction over the occupied Palestinian territories, setting the stage for a trial into whether Israel and the Islamist group, Hamas, committed war crimes during a bloody 2014 war.
The ruling enraged Israel, which never signed the 1998 Rome Statute that set up the ICC, and thrilled Palestinians, who have long sought to hold the Jewish state responsible for violations of international law over its 53-year-old occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.
“This is pure anti-Semitism,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a late-night address, after the court made its 2-1 ruling. “The court outrageously claims that when Jews live in our homeland, this is a war crime, and that when democratic Israel defends itself against terrorists who murder our children and rocket our cities — we are committing another war crime.”
The court made no such ruling or claims. Instead, the narrow ruling settled a question raised by the Office of the Prosecutor about whether Palestine, which is not a state, could delegate its jurisdiction over allegations of criminal Israeli misconduct to the ICC.
The Palestinian Authority, a semi-autonomous body set up the Oslo Accords in 1993, is an observer state in the United Nations, and signed up to the Rome Statute in 2015, with the support of the Arab states, but over the objections of Israel and the US.
“By becoming a State Party, Palestine has agreed to subject itself to the terms of the Statute and, as such, all the provisions therein shall be applied to it,” the ICC said. “It would indeed be contradictory to allow an entity to accede to the Statute and become a State Party, but to limit the Statute’s inherent effects over it.”
The ruling now frees the prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, to decide whether to continue her six-year probe into the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and whether to charge Israeli officials or soldiers with war crimes. She has said earlier that her investigations have convinced her that such crimes did indeed take place, but Ms Bensouda’s term is set to expire in a few months.
Death tolls have been disputed by both sides; Israel’s preliminary analysis accepts that it killed at least 760 civilians — including 369 children — in more than 6,000 air strikes, but it said that the figure, “while unfortunate, does not imply that (the Israeli military) actions violated the principle of proportionality.”
Hamas killed at least six Israeli civilians and 67 Israeli soldiers, and holds the bodies of two for a possible prisoner exchange with Israel.
The prosecutor’s office is also investigating Hamas’s role in the conflict and allegations that it targeted Israeli civilians.
Hamas has controlled the Gaza Strip since a violent coup against the Palestinian Authority in 2006, and Israel and Egypt have since placed the territory under an unrelenting blockade that has destroyed its economy and largely trapped a population of 2m people within a strip of land about 25 miles long.
The militant group, which has widespread support both in Gaza and the West Bank, regularly fires short-range missiles and highly unreliable projectiles into Israel to add pressure in contentious negotiations over how much electricity it shall receive, the distance Gazan fishermen can venture out to sea and other ways to relieve the blockade.
The hostilities have broken out into three fully fledged wars and several weeks of cross-border barrages, with Israeli civilians forced to take refuge in bomb shelters. Dozens of Israeli civilians have been killed of hurt since the 2014 war.
“This decision opens the door to the pursuit of criminal accountability for the most egregious crimes under the court’s mandate, which have been and continue to be committed against the Palestinian people,” said, Riyad al-Malki, Palestinian foreign minister.
The ruling is a diplomatic blow for Israel and could result in difficulties for Israeli officials travelling abroad, if the prosecutor issues warrants for their arrest.
The US, which has also declined to sign the Rome Statute, said it shared Israel’s concerns.
“We have serious concerns about the ICC’s ability to exercise jurisdiction over Israeli personnel,” said state department spokesman Ned Price. “We have 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.”