Abbas praises ICC prosecutor’s ‘courage’ in opening Israel war crimes probe

PA president says court ‘defending truth and freedom’; senior PA official claims Ramallah did not seek to exclude 2014 murder of three Israeli teens from investigation

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a meeting of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank city of Ramallah, September 3, 2020. (Flash90)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a meeting of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank city of Ramallah, September 3, 2020. (Flash90)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday welcomed the International Criminal Court’s decision to open an investigation into war crimes allegedly committed by Israelis and Palestinians.

“The Palestinian Presidency expresses its great appreciation for the [ICC] prosecutor’s decision regarding the opening of a criminal investigation into the situation in Palestine, which includes the Gaza war, settlements, and the issue of prisoners in the Israeli occupation’s jails,” Abbas’s office said in a statement.

Outgoing ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced on Wednesday that she would open an investigation into actions committed by Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem since 2014.

Her announcement was immediately welcomed by the Palestinian Authority and furiously condemned by Israel. Abbas’s office waited almost a whole day to respond to the move, well after many other officials in Fatah and the Palestinian Authority.

The PA president praised what he called “the independence and courage of the prosecutor in defending truth and freedom.”

Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda in the courtroom of the International Criminal Court (ICC) during the closing statements of the trial of Bosco Ntaganda, a Congo militia leader, in The Hague, Netherlands, August 28, 2018. (Bas Czerwinski/Pool via AP)

The announcement of the investigation came less than a month after the court ruled it had the jurisdiction to open a probe. A preliminary investigation to settle the justiciability question took more than five years.

“The investigation will cover crimes within the jurisdiction of the Court that are alleged to have been committed in the situation since 13 June 2014, the date to which reference is made in the referral of the situation to my office,” Bensouda said in a statement on Wednesday.

“Any investigation undertaken by the office will be conducted independently, impartially and objectively, without fear or favor,” she added.

Bensouda indicated in 2019 that a criminal investigation would likely focus on the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, Israeli settlement policy, and the 2018 Great March of Return protests, a series of violent demonstrations along Gaza’s border with Israel that left dozens of Palestinians dead.

Ramallah has been gearing up for the investigation for years, preparing documents and submitting files to the ICC on what it deems to be Israeli war crimes.

“We submitted three main dossiers to the court in our proposal — documentation relating to the 2014 Gaza war, settlements, and various homicides committed by Israeli soldiers against Palestinian civilians,” said senior Palestinian Authority official Ahmad Majdalani.

The PA Foreign Ministry also pledged on Wednesday to provide “any assistance required…to realize justice for the Palestinian people.”

Majdalani said that Israel and the United States had pressured and threatened the Palestinian Authority after its decision to turn to the court. The Palestinians, whose request granted the ICC jurisdiction, could theoretically withdraw their approval at any moment, should they choose to do so.

“If Israel fears the results of the court’s investigations, it ought not to commit crimes against the Palestinian people. Israel should either recognize that it is a regime of occupation…or end the occupation and move toward two states for two peoples,” Majdalani told The Times of Israel Wednesday.

Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, 16, the three Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped on June 12, 2014 and whose bodies were found on June 30. (photo credit: IDF/AP)

Israeli observers noted the significance of the timing of the investigation’s span: On June 12, 2014, Hamas terrorists kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teenagers in the Gush Etzion area of the West Bank. Bensouda’s investigation — based on the request submitted by the so-called State of Palestine — is set to begin from the following day.

The brutal terror attack, which horrified Israelis and drew international condemnation, was a pivotal moment in the lead-up to the fighting in Gaza later that summer. With the investigation set to consider events beginning on June 13, 2014, the crime could be excluded from the court’s investigation.

The International Criminal Court on Sunday, September 24, 2017 (Courtesy ICC)

Pressed on the timing, Majdalani denied that the Palestinians had deliberately sought to exclude the crime from the investigation. The date, Majdalani indicated, had been established for purely technical reasons.

“The timing has nothing to do with the three boys who were kidnapped by Hamas or with anything else. The timing was the result of an accumulated process,” he said in a phone call, listing the stages and preconditions that had to be met before the Palestinians could ask the court to intervene.

The probe will also likely focus on accusations of war crimes by the Hamas terror group against Israeli civilians. But Hamas, despite being directly implicated in the war crimes the tribunal seeks to investigate, also released a statement welcoming the decision.

“We consider this courageous decision an important step to achieve justice and fairness for our people, in addition to punishing the occupation’s leaders for their crimes,” said Hamas spokesperson Hazem Qasim in a tweet.

Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

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