International Criminal Court says it has jurisdiction in Palestinian territories

Toby Sterling and Stephanie van den Berg
·3 min read
FILE PHOTO: Malian Islamist militant Al-Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud at his trial in The Hague

By Toby Sterling and Stephanie van den Berg

THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Judges at the International Criminal Court on Friday found the court has jurisdiction over war crimes committed in the Palestinian territories, paving the way for a possible criminal investigation, despite Israeli objections.

The decision prompted swift reactions from both Israel, which is not a member of the court and rejects its jurisdiction, and the Palestinian Authority, which welcomed the ruling. The United States objected to the decision.

ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said her office was studying the decision and would decide what to do next "guided strictly by its independent and impartial mandate" to prosecute grave war crimes and atrocities when countries are unable or unwilling to do so themselves.

The ICC judges said their decision was based on the fact that Palestine has been granted membership to the tribunal's founding treaty, and had referred the situation to the court. The judges said the jurisdiction decision does not imply any attempt to determine Palestinian statehood, which is uncertain, or national borders.

"The Court's territorial jurisdiction in the Situation in Palestine ... extends to the territories occupied by Israel since 1967, namely Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem," they said.

Bensouda had found in December 2019 that "war crimes have been or are being committed in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip."

She named both the Israeli Defense Forces and armed Palestinian groups such as Hamas as possible perpetrators.

She said then that she saw no reason not to open an investigation, but asked judges to first rule on whether the situation fell under the court's jurisdiction.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the decision, saying in a video statement: "When the ICC investigates Israel for fake war crimes, this is pure antisemitism."

He condemned the court for investigating Israel when it "defends itself against terrorists" while refusing to investigate what he said were brutal dictatorships in Iran and Syria that committed horrific atrocities almost daily.

"We will fight this perversion of justice with all our might," Netanyahu said in the video, shaking a fist.

Human Rights Watch called the decision "pivotal" and said it "finally offers victims of serious crimes some real hope for justice after a half century of impunity," said Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director.

"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."

The Palestinian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it was a "historic day for the principle of accountability."

Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas official, described the decision as "an important development that contributes in protecting the Palestinian people."

"We urge the international court to launch an investigation into Israeli war crimes against the Palestinian people," said Abu Zuhri, who is currently outside Gaza.

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price wrote on Twitter: "The United States objects to today's @IntlCrimCourt decision regarding the Palestinian situation."

"We will continue to uphold President Biden's strong commitment to Israel and its security, including opposing actions that seek to target Israel unfairly," Price added.

The Trump administration had vehemently opposed the ICC.

Jamil Dakwar, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Human Rights Program, said U.S. President Joe Biden should do nothing to undermine the ICC's independence.

"It's important to remember that the ICC investigation would also target Palestinian perpetrators of war crimes in the context of hostilities between Israel and Palestinian armed groups, especially in the Gaza Strip," Dakwar said on Twitter.

(Reporting by Toby Sterling, Anthony Deutsch, Stephanie van den Berg, Ari Rabinovitch, Stephen Farrell, Nidal al-Mughrabi, Arshad Mohammed, Humeyra Pamuk and Simon Lewis; Editing by Aurora Ellis and Daniel Wallis)