The International Criminal Court cleared the way for its attorney general to open an investigation into possible war crimes in the occupied Palestinian territories after the Hague-based court ruled that it had jurisdiction over the area.
This opens the door to lawsuits against Israelis and Palestinians, including the Israeli army and Hamas militant groups.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately criticized the move, saying: “The court has again proven that it is a political body and not a judicial institution.”
The Palestinian Foreign Ministry called it “an historic day for accountability” and said it was willing to work with the ICC prosecutor in the event of an investigation.
ICC Prosecutor General Fatou Bensouda said in 2019 that there was “a reasonable basis” to open a war crimes investigation into events such as Israeli military actions in Gaza, rocket fire by Palestinian armed groups and Israeli settlement activities in the West Bank.
However, she asked the court to determine whether she had territorial jurisdiction before proceeding with the case. In a majority decision published on Friday evening, the judges said this is the case.
“The Court’s territorial jurisdiction over the situation in Palestine … extends to the territories occupied by Israel since 1967, namely Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem,” they said.
It does not matter that Palestine’s status under international law is still uncertain, the judges said. Their decision is based on the rules of jurisdiction in their founding documents and does not imply any attempt to determine statehood or legal limits.
At the request of the Palestinians, Ms. Bensouda opened a preliminary investigation into alleged violations of international law following the war between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip in 2014.
The current investigation, however, is not limited to investigating Israel’s actions, but will investigate alleged crimes committed by all sides, including Hamas.
Israel, which is not a member of the ICC, has said in the past that the court has no jurisdiction because the Palestinians have no statehood and because the borders of a future state are to be determined in peace talks.
Although Palestine is not generally recognized as a sovereign state, it became a member of the ICC in January 2015, which means it can ask the court to investigate crimes.
Mr. Netanyahu turned down the verdict, accusing the court of “ignoring the real war crimes and instead pursuing Israel, a county with a strong democratic regime that sanctifies the rule of law and is not a member of the tribunal”.
He added that Israel would “protect all of our citizens and soldiers” from prosecution.
“In its decision, the court interferes with the right of democratic countries to defend themselves,” said Netanyahu.
Hussein al-Sheikh, Minister for Civil Affairs of the Palestinian Authority, called it on Twitter a “victory for rights, justice, freedom and moral values in the world”.
Rights groups immediately greeted the news. Human Rights Watch’s Balkees Jarrah said the ruling “finally offers real hope for justice to victims of serious crimes after half a century of impunity.”
“This key decision opens the door to an investigation that may result in those most severely responsible for serious crimes one day responding in a fair trial for their actions,” she said.
“Members of the ICC should stand ready to vigorously protect the independence of the court in the face of ongoing pressure and hostility towards a Palestinian investigation. It is high time Israeli and Palestinian perpetrators of the most serious of abuses – whether war crimes during hostilities or the expansion of illegal settlements – were brought to justice. “
The Israeli rights group B’Tselem also welcomed a so-called “landmark decision of the ICC”. She hoped this would “end impunity” and “curtail Israeli action”.
The country’s foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, said: “Today’s decision by the ICC distorts international law and turns this institution into a political instrument for anti-Israel propaganda. The ICC is not competent to discuss the Palestinian case.
“The State of Israel is a robust democracy with an independent and effective legal system that is deeply respected around the world.
“The judges’ decision rewards Palestinian terrorism and the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to return to direct negotiations with Israel and will further polarize both sides.”