AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The International Criminal Court has launched an inquiry into possible war crimes in the Palestinian territories, opening a path to possible charges against Israelis or Palestinians.
In a statement on Friday, prosecutors said they would examine “in full independence and impartiality” crimes that may have occurred since June 13 last year. This allows the court to delve into the war between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza in July-August 2014 during which more than 2,100 Palestinians and 73 Israelis were killed.
The U.S. State Department said it strongly disagreed with the move. The United States has argued that Palestine is not a state and therefore not eligible to join the ICC.
“We strongly disagree with the ICC prosecutor’s action,” spokesman Jeff Rathke said in a statement late on Friday. “The place to resolve the differences between the parties is through direct negotiation, not unilateral actions by either side.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has confirmed the Palestinians - whose peace talks with Israel have collapsed - will formally become an ICC member on April 1 at their request, a move strongly opposed by Israel and the United States.
“The case is now in the hands of the court,” said Nabil Abuznaid, head of the Palestinian delegation in The Hague. “It is a legal matter now and we have faith in the court system.”
Prosecutors will assess evidence of alleged crimes and determine if they are of sufficient gravity and scale to warrant charges against individuals on either side.
The examination was branded as “an outrage” by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Israel completely rejects the ICC prosecutor’s announcement about opening a preliminary examination on the basis of the outrageous request by the Palestinian Authority,” he said in a written statement.
“The Palestinian Authority is not a country and therefore it is not the court’s place, also according to its own rules, to carry out an examination like this.”
The ICC has been criticised for focusing on atrocities in Africa and being unable to successfully prosecute cases linked to the world’s most intractable conflicts.
An initial inquiry could lead to war crimes charges against Israel, whether relating to the recent Gaza war or its 47-year-long occupation of the West Bank. It also occupied Gaza from 1967-2005. Palestinians seek statehood in the two territories.
ICC membership also exposes the Palestinians to prosecution, possibly for rocket attacks on Israel by militant groups operating out of Gaza.
The ICC, the world’s first permanent war crimes tribunal, is the court of last resort for its 122 member states, aiming to hold the powerful accountable for the most heinous crimes when national authorities are unable or unwilling to act.
But the ICC has struggled over its first decade, completing just three cases and securing two convictions. Critics say it has been vulnerable to political pressure and opposition from non-members the United States, China and Russia.
Additional reporting by Toby Sterling in Amsterdam and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem; Editing by Mark Heinrich