The prosecutor of the international criminal court in The Hague has launched an initial examination to consider whether war crimes have been committed in the occupied Palestinian territories and whether any crimes identified meet the criteria for a fully fledged investigation.
Although the first step, announced by prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, is largely a procedural one, it is still highly significant, threatening to plunge the court into one of the most high-profile cases it has taken on – and one that could ultimately lead to Israeli and Palestinian officials facing charges.
The initial examination was announced in a statement by Bensouda, who said she would pursue the issue with “full independence and impartiality”.
In the first instance, the court will have to decide whether potential crimes may have been committed and whether those alleged crimes meet the level of seriousness to come under the court’s jurisdiction.
“A preliminary examination is not an investigation but a process of examining the information available in order to reach a fully informed determination on whether there is a reasonable basis to proceed with a (full) investigation,” Bensouda said.
There is no deadline for the process, which could potentially drag on for several years.
The announcement comes at a politically sensitive time in Israel in the midst of an election campaign that will see the country go to the polls on 17 March.
Although the move had been expected, it sets the stage for a international confrontation between Israel, which has threatened to escalate its retaliation against the Palestinian Authority if it pursue Israelis in the court – and the Palestinians, and also between the Palestinians and the US Congress, which has adopted a law that would block US aid to Palestine in the event of ICC proceedings.
Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, swiftly denounced the announcement as “scandalous” in a statement that described the move as an effort to “try and harm Israel’s right to defend itself against terrorism”.
The statement read: “This same court, which after more than 200,000 deaths didn’t see fit to intervene in what was taking place in Syria or in Libya or in other places, now finds it worthwhile to ‘examine’ the most moral army in the world. This decision entirely stems from anti-Israel political considerations.”
The announcement comes after the Palestinian Authority acceded to the court’s founding treaty and recognised its jurisdiction dating back to the eve of last summer’s Gaza war. That move opened the door to an ICC investigation that could target possible crimes by both Israel, which is not a member of the court, and Palestinians.
“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.”
A preliminary examination is not an investigation, but weighs information about possible crimes and jurisdiction issues to establish whether a full investigation is merited.
The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, signed documents to join the ICC a day after the UN security council rejected a resolution on 30 December that would have set a three-year deadline for the establishment of a Palestinian state on lands occupied by Israel.
Date published: 15th January 2015